Bangladesh’s Unfinished Task
by Prakash Nanda on 11 Aug 2008 0 Comment

It was 23 January 2008 and Bangladesh Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed was speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  He minced no words in elaborating his Interim Administration’s achievements. Promising to hold the much-awaited Parliamentary elections in December 2008, Ahmed boasted the tenure of his administration had been peaceful and comforting for each Bangladeshi.  “Not a single bullet was fired, not a single bomb went off during this Government,” he said. His point was that the rising Islamic fundamentalism and terror-associated with had taken a back seat after he assumed office.


Ironically, next day, police arrested four members of the banned Harkat-ul-Jihad outfit at a hotel in Jessore.  Listed below are some other developments over the last six months that attracted headlines in Bangladeshi press.  These are: 


r     On 28 February Daily Star, a leading daily, reported that the dormitories of Dhaka Polytechnic Institute in the capital’s Tejgaon area have turned into a safe haven for fugitive criminals and militants. They are being provided shelter by the “Islamic Chhatra Shibir”, a militant student wing. Several teachers with Jamaat background and with alleged links with the HuJI-B are also involved in the incident.


r     On 5 March, the US State Department labelled HuJI-B as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO); it was previously put on the list of ‘Other Terrorist Organisations’ in 2003. The State Department said: “The leader of HuJI-B signed the February 1998 fatwa sponsored by Osama bin Ladin [sic] that declared American civilians to be legitimate targets for attack. Since then, HuJI-B has been implicated in a number of terrorist attacks in Bangladesh and abroad.” Signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Executive Order 13224 criminalises providing material support to HuJI-B by US citizens or people living under US jurisdictions, and freezes all HuJI-B property and interests in the US and in areas under US jurisdiction. The designation enabled the US to deny visas to HuJI-B representatives; it requires US financial institutions to freeze assets held by HuJI-B.


r     On 9 April, UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said there was a terrorist link between Bangladesh and the United Kingdom. She told reporters at the residence of the British High Commissioner in Dhaka, “There is a potential linkage between terrorists in Britain and terrorists in Bangladesh and we have shared interest and endeavour to tackle it through both short- and long-term measures.”


r     The same day, a five-day India-Bangladesh Border Coordination Conference began at the BSF headquarters in Delhi, where the Indian side handed over a revised list of 117 militant hideouts in Bangladesh. A list of 141 hideouts of members of Indian insurgent groups living in Bangladeshi territory was given to Bangladesh during previous talks in October 2007.


r     On 16 April, the Indian Government confirmed that the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) leaders were carrying out business activities in Bangladesh.  Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Radhika V Selvi, informed the Rajya Sabha that inputs suggest that ULFA has been using Bangladeshi territory to procure and smuggle arms and explosives into India. She was replying to a question whether ULFA commanders have a network of seven hotels and six nursing homes, and if they procure weapons through Cox Bazaar in Bangladesh.


r     On 11 June, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) released its “2007-2008 Trends in Militancy in Bangladesh” report. It said right-wing militants have regrouped across the country over the past year, putting together networks and strengthening training and indoctrination operations despite a lull in terrorist attacks in the same period. The report said that reports of bomb explosions and bomb-making cells indicate that militant groups are once again organising for terrorist attacks; JMB militants have regrouped and are reportedly holding public meetings, raising funds and running recruitment drives in various parts of the country.


r     The same day, Daily Star reported that the President promulgated the Anti-Terrorism Ordinance 2008, which provides death penalty for offences like terror financing and staging murder to create panic and jeopardise the country's sovereignty. The Ordinance, immediately notified, provides for constitution of Special Tribunals to deal with such offences which are non-bailable. The Ordinance also empowers Bangladesh Bank to freeze accounts of suspected terrorists and give directions to banks concerned to take preventive measures against monetary transactions for financing terrorist acts. The timeframe for resolving anti-terrorist cases is six months after framing of charges.

It is obvious that elements promoting militancy and terrorism in Bangladesh may be down, but not out. To the Interim Administration’s credit, it has confronted the elements of Islamist militancy that grew under active political patronage of preceding regimes, particularly Begum Khalida Zia’s. Ahmed’s regime has successfully targeted the vast network of the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and its affiliate, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), a task that appeared to have been deliberately left unfinished by the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led regime. 


The execution of the top JMB-JMJB leadership on 30 April 2007 was the high point of the Government’s measures against Islamist radicalism. The outfit’s chief Abdur Rahman and second-in-command Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, Majlish-e-Shura (highest decision-making body) members Abdul Awal, Khaled Saifullah and Ataur Rahman Sunny, and suicide squad member Iftekhar Hasan Al-Mamun, were hanged in different prisons. They had catapulted a small gang of Islamists to a level where it had dared execute simultaneous nation-wide bombings in 63 out of Districts, and openly flaunt its nexus with al Qaeda.

Since the execution of the JMB leaders, over a hundred of JMB cadres have been arrested all over the country. While international pressure and the shock of the August 2005 serial bombings forced the erstwhile BNP regime to initiate action against the JMB-JMJB combine, the Harkat-ul Jihad-i Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) remained outside the scope of official action. Except for the 1 October 2005 arrest of its ‘operations commander’ Mufti Abdul Hannan, none of HuJI-B’s functionaries was apprehended by law-enforcement agencies.  HuJI-B has been involved in several recent terrorist incidents in India and has deep linkages with terrorist organizations based in Pakistan, including al Qaeda. Towards the end of 2007, however, the Interim Government appeared to have initiated some action against this group as well.

HuJI-B, which unveiled itself in Dhaka in a public appearance in 1992, enjoyed the patronage of the BNP regime in which the pro-Pakistani Jamaat Party (JEI) was a coalition partner. It systematically targetted political opponents of the regime (members of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League) and those perceived to be advocating closer ties with India. The HuJI-B not only had strong links with its mother body in Pakistan and the ISI, but also allegedly with the Bangladesh Directorate General of Forces. With such support, it graduated to political activity demanding imposition of Shariat law, Islamic government, Arabic as the main official language, abolition of current law courts, among other things.

All these years, extremists in Bangladesh were drawing strength not only from Pakistan and al-Qaeda, but also from charitable organisations in Western countries. Seven charitable organizations - International Islamic Relief Organization, Wafa Humanitarian Organization, Rabita Trusts, Qatar Charitable Society, Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLFRD) and Al-Aqsa Educational Fund have had links with terrorist organizations in different countries.


All except HLFRD and Al-Aqsa have links with al Qaeda, which is accused of supporting HuJI-B. Reports reveal a connection between “Muslim Aid Bangladesh” (a registered NGO) and terrorist funding in Bangladesh. Essentially, Muslim Aid Bangladesh is a branch of “Muslim Aid”, a prominent aid agency in Britain.  Muslim Aid's goal is to collect Zakat, a religious obligation on Muslims to give part of their earnings for charity. Muslim Aid has been accused of spending this money to fuel extremism and terrorism in different parts of the world.

It is this fear that the British Home Secretary conveyed to Dhaka early this year. The new anti-terrorist ordinance promulgated by the Interim Administration is supposed to confront this fear; it remains to be seen what exactly the results are going to be.

Finally, there is the Indian factor. Bangladesh cannot remain free from terrorism and other extremist activities as long as it ignores India’s concerns and allows anti-India activities from its soil. Despite assertions by India's Border Security Force (BSF), backed by concrete evidence, Dhaka is not willing to concede that it is hosting militants inimical to India. A TV channel recently showed rebels of the secessionist National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) training in Bangladesh. A Guwahati-based website quoted NDFB commander Ranjan Daimary welcoming and exhorting trained cadets in Bangladesh, saying that their real task would begin with the end of their training.


Bangladesh has a lot to do to assuage India’s concerns.

The author is a senior journalist

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