Warning blasts

Print edition : September 23, 2005

The Opposition alleges that the explosions that rocked Bangladesh on August 17 were planned by fundamentalists associated with two Islamist parties in the alliance led by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

HAROON HABIB in Dhaka

In Dhaka, a protest against the bombings of August 17.-FARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP

AUGUST 17, 2005, will go down in the annals of Bangladesh history. In an unprecedented act of terror, nearly 500 bombs went off simultaneously in 63 of Bangladesh's 64 districts killing two people and injuring at least 200. The targets were government and semi-government establishments, especially the offices of local bodies and court buildings. In Dhaka, the bombs exploded in over 30 places between 11 a.m. and 11-30 a.m. The precision with which the bombs were detonated in a span of only 30 minutes underscored the extremists' superior technical know-how and disciplined and synchronised network.

Leaflets, in Arabic and Bengali, found at the bombing sites said: "We are the soldiers of Allah. We have taken up arms for the implementation of Allah's law the way the Prophet, Sahabis and heroic mujahideen have implemented for centuries... If the government does not establish Islamic law in the country after this [third] warning and, rather, it goes to arrest any Muslim on charge of seeking Allah's laws or it resorts to repression on Alem-Ulema, the Jamaatul Mujahideen [JMB] will go for counteraction, Insha Allah." The JMB, which claimed responsibility for the bombings, termed the democratic system of government a creation of "kafirs" (infidels). The leaflet said: "Those who want to give institutional shape to democracy are the enemies of Islam... Democracy is the product of evil power."

The JMB is headed by Dr. Asadullah Ghalib, now in jail on the charge of bombing the offices of some non-governmental organisations (NGOs). JMB was once led by "Bangla Bhai", the infamous militant leader trained in Pakistan, who spread terror in the northern districts of the country before disappearing early this year. It is widely believed that Bangla Bhai (alias Siddiqul Islam), who leads the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), is patronised by a powerful lobby inside the Khaleda Zia government. Both the JMB and the JMJB work in close coordination.

The August 17 carnage is the latest in the series of extremist attacks that have rocked Bangladesh in the past several years. The national and international media have reported over the past four years that Bangladesh has become "a hub of Islamic terrorists". But the four-party alliance government led by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, which came to power in October 2001, denied the existence of terrorist groups in the country. Importantly, former United States Ambassador to Bangladesh Mary Ann Peters too subscribes to this view. The government dismissed the reports as "false and fabricated" and blamed the country's principal Opposition party, the Awami League, for the "evil propaganda" aimed at "tarnishing the image" of Bangladesh. This time too the government blamed the A.L. However, despite the persistent denial, the Khaleda Zia government banned the JMJB and the JMB in February this year, mainly owing to pressure from international donors.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.-PAVEL RAHMAN/AP

When the alliance came to power, many people doubted that the leader of the coalition, Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), would have to subscribe to the fundamentalist agenda of its two main partners, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ). The government's actions during the past four years have proved that this fear has come true. Even when media reports criticised the rise of religious fundamentalism in the country and the role of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the IOJ in it, Khaleda Zia came to their defence. She termed the reports as "nothing but the Opposition's propaganda" aimed at causing a rift in her alliance.

But the arrests and police investigations following the latest explosion tell a different story. Confessional statements of suspected extremists reveal "direct and indirect links" between extremist groups and the two constituents of the ruling alliance. They are alleged to have created dozens of militant outfits across the country to prepare for an "Islamic revolution". Moreover, reports suggest that the two parties maintain strong links with Pakistan and had their men trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Maulana Fariduddin Masud, a former director of the Islamic Foundation, accused Industries Minister and Jamaat-e-Islami Ameer (leader) Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami of involvement in the bombings. "Vital clues to the blasts will come out if Nizami is grilled," the Maulana, arrested while trying to flee the country, said in a court in Dhaka. He is suspected to have links with Islamist networks. Another mastermind of the bombing, Shaikh Abdur Rahman, believed to be associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami, is on the run.

This time, too, some quarters sought to blame India for the bombings. While the BNP's senior policy-makers chose to describe the bombings as the result of a "conspiracy", Nizami blamed India directly. He alleged that two intelligence agencies - the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Israeli Mossad - "played an important role" in the attacks. The Jamaat-e-Islami, had opposed Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan and Nizami himself led the infamous Al-Badr group, which murdered dozens of Bengali intellectuals during the 1971 liberation war.

Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina.-GUANG NIU/AFP

Many civil society and Opposition leaders have demanded a clarification from the government on the Minister's statement. They demanded the arrest of Nizami alleging Jamaat-e-Islami's "direct involvement" in the bombings. But the government has preferred to keep silent. Only eight days after the blasts did the Home Ministry admit that the JMB was behind them.

India reacted strongly to Nizami's allegation. The Indian High Commission in Dhaka said in a press release: "Statements of this kind undermine efforts to promote friendly and good neighbourly relations." It termed the statement as "unfounded and irresponsible". The Indian government condemned the bomb blasts as "terrorism directed against the friendly people of Bangladesh" and offered its cooperation in investigating the tragedy.

Several other countries, including the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, China and Japan, condemned the attacks. The random nature of the blasts indicated the savagery of terrorism and its global dimensions, the countries said. "Now it is obvious that a terrorist network is active and able here... They are able to inflict any amount of damage they like," French Charge D'Affaires Jean Romnicinau told mediapersons in Dhaka.

ALTHOUGH all fingers are pointed at the Islamic militants, the message the bombers wanted to convey remains unclear. While some Western analysts said domestic rather than international issues motivated the bombings, local observers said they were a dress rehearsal by the Islamists. Jennifer Harbison, research director of information services at the Control Risks Group, a London-based security consultancy, said "[the] attack was definitely out of the ordinary and indicates a much more developed and coordinated effort than previously thought to be possible". She said the bombings were carried out "to send a message, not to create carnage".

"This was merely a loud statement - of how wide their network spreads, of how coordinated their handiwork is, of how close-knit and tight-lipped their members are, and of how strong their will is to defy and destruct all that we hold dear in the form of laws and values in the land that is Bangladesh," wrote one Bangladeshi commentator. "Understandably, this was not the real attack," said another.

Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, who survived several attempts on her life by Islamic fundamentalists, saw the hand of the government in the bombings. She asked: "Without the government's involvement who can carry out such a series of bomb blasts in 63 districts at a time?" A significant point is that the bombings represent a major intelligence failure. Sheikh Hasina's allegation stems from the view that the government urgently needs to divert attention from the Opposition's strong demand for reform of the electoral system ahead of the scheduled parliamentary elections in 2006.

The first in the series of extremist attacks came in 1999 when Sheikh Hasina was in power. But the "bomb culture" consolidated only after the four-party alliance assumed office. The country witnessed nearly 30 major bomb blasts from 2001, which killed approximately 150 people and injured thousands. The British High Commissioner in Dhaka, Anwar Chowdhury, narrowly escaped a grenade attack at the Hazrat Shahjalal shrine in Sylhet in May 2004. Sheikh Hasina escaped a major assassination attempt on August 21, 2004. Twenty-two Awami League activists were killed and more than 200 injured in the incident. Former Finance Minister Shah A.M.S. Kibria, a prominent leader of the Opposition, was assassinated in January 2005.

The political ideology that binds together the constituents of the ruling alliance is not only helpful for the growth of political Islam, but also in sharp contradiction with the philosophy on the basis of which the former "East Pakistan" separated from Pakistan. The alliance religiously pursues "Islamic nationalism", though the concept suffered a severe blow through the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. But the "spirit of 1947" started revisiting, thanks to the military and pseudo-democratic rulers who took over the reins of the country after the assassination of Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. Political analysts point out that Khaleda Zia will not abandon her fundamentalist allies because the BNP needs the Islamists to win the coming parliamentary elections.

Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami.-RAFIQUR RAHMAN/REUTERS

The ruling alliance's Islamic nationalism has a nefarious agenda: distort Bangladesh's history; rejuvenate communal politics; portray all secular parties, including the Awami League, which led the nation's liberation war against Pakistan, as "foreign agents"; and destroy the traditional Bengali culture and heritage which are secular.

That militant Islam has taken root in Bangladesh is beyond doubt. A rough estimate suggests that there are over 50 well-coordinated, strongly motivated and well-funded terrorist groups in the country. They take advantage of the poor economic conditions and deep religious feelings of the rural masses to find safe havens. They have hideouts and training camps in the forests of Chittagong Hill Tracts and in the remote northern and southwestern regions. It is widely believed that the extremist outfits recruit their "cadre" mainly from madrassas, thousands of which have come up over the past few decades. Bangladesh Economic Review statistics show that while government funding for general education increased by 9.74 per cent in 2001-05, that for madrassas increased by 22.22 per cent in the same period.

While funding for the militant groups initially came from abroad, the fundamentalists have now become self-reliant. Prof. Abul Barkat, an economist and the general secretary of the Bangladesh Economic Association, said that besides the regular inflow of funds from abroad, they now earn an annual net income of Taka 1,200 crores. Barkat said 27 per cent of the income came from banking, insurance, leasing and various other financial companies, 20.08 per cent from NGOs, 10.08 per cent from wholesalers, retailers and department stores, 10.04 per cent from the health sector, including pharmaceutical companies and diagnostic centres, 9.02 per cent from educational institutions, and 8.03 per cent from the real estate business.

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