Acting tough

Print edition : April 07, 2006

At long last the Bangladesh government takes some action against Islamist militancy by arresting two of its top leaders.

HAROON HABIB in Dhaka

Siddiqul Islam alias`Bangla Bhai'.-JAHANGIR KABIR JEWEL/AP

ISLAMIST militancy in Bangladesh apparently suffered a setback in the first week of March with the arrest of two of the movement's most important leaders. On March 2, the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested Shaikh Abdur Rahman, the founder of the Jamaat'ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) who is considered the spiritual guide of Islamist militants in the country. The organisation is allegedly responsible for several bomb attacks that have occurred in Bangladesh over the past few years, especially the countrywide bombings of August 17, 2005. The RAB also arrested Siddiqul Islam, known as `Bangla Bhai', the `operations commander' of the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), a sister outfit of the JMB.

The Shaikh's arrest from a house in north-eastern Sylhet followed a 31-hour-long operation that involved peaceful negotiations. `Bangla Bhai', on the other hand, suffered injuries in the operation to capture him from a remote village in northern Mymensingh. Both were arrested along with their wives and children and a few associates. Huge quantities of arms and ammunition were recovered from them. Although Shaikh and `Bangla Bhai' demanded interaction with mediapersons and a few government leaders including Ministers, the authorities did not allow it.

On March 13, the RAB raided another hideout of the militants in Comilla, some 160 km from Dhaka, and killed Shakil, said to be a bomb-maker. The wife and two children of Shakil, also known as `Mollah Omar', died in the operation. During the operation, the RAB caught Shaikh's son Nabil Rahman and some others.

Both Shaikh and `Bangla Bhai' fought in the war against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s, were closely associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the main coalition partner of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh National Party-led ruling alliance, and were sentenced to 40 years in prison in absentia in February 2006. `Bangla Bhai', nearly 40, is also one of the seven members of the JMB's highest decision-making body, Majlis-e-Shura. The JMB and the JMJB have been working underground for the past six years to establish a Taliban-like government in Bangladesh. The JMJB's operational base was the northern region of Rajshahi and the organisation allegedly enjoyed the protection of a section of the ruling alliance and the local administration.

During interrogation, Shaikh confessed to the RAB that the bombing of cinema halls and attacks on the country's leading intellectuals were carried out by his men. "He has taken all responsibility for the August 17 attacks and for the attacks on the professors," Gulzar Uddin Ahmed, RAB Intelligence Director, told mediapersons. "We have been questioning him about the motive behind the attacks and initially he was saying that it was to establish Islamic law."

The JMB chief admitted links to various jehadi leaders and organisations, and his organisation's plans to establish Islamic rule both in and outside Bangladesh. He said that he had received huge amounts of money from them and invested it to increase his organisation's strength, but refused to disclose their names. "I travelled all over the world, mainly Islamic countries, to establish relations with some Islamic leaders, who encouraged me to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh, by providing mental and financial support," a leading Bangladesh daily quoted Shaikh.

The capture of Shaikh and Bangla Bhai may have weakened the JMB and the JMJB, but the jehadi networks have not yet been dismantled. News reports indicate that thousands of JMB activists, especially members of its suicide squad, remain beyond the reach of the police and are planning to carry out more attacks.

Within hours of Shaikh's arrest, Khaleda Zia addressed the nation and claimed that "Bangladesh [had] proved before the world that it could successfully combat terrorism in the name of Islam". She said that her government, by arresting the militants, had achieved what powerful nations had failed to do. However, a close look at the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in Bangladesh, reveals that her claims do not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, it reveals a connection between a section of government leaders and the militant leadership.

Even at the height of militant violence in the country, the Khaleda Zia government refused to blame the JMB or the JMJB. Instead it interpreted the violence as part of an "anti-Bangladesh campaign" and suggested that foreign nations were behind it. For instance, the government appointed a one-man Justice Zoinul Abedin Commission to probe the attack on the Awami League headquarters on August 21, 2004 in which former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina narrowly escaped death but over two dozen of her party workers died. The commission's conclusion was that local hoodlums in collaboration with a foreign country's intelligence agency was behind the attack.

Moreover, there is ample evidence for the Jamaat-e-Islami's link with the JMB and the JMJB, though the party, which opposed Bangladesh's war of liberation from Pakistan, has refuted the charge. At the height of the militancy, a senior Minister in the Cabinet and the ameer (leader) of Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami, claimed that there was no one by the name of `Bangla Bhai' and that he was a creation of the media.

Shaikh Abdur Rahman after his arrest.-SHAMIM NOOR/REUTERS

The confessional statements and the backgrounds of captured JMB activists, including Shaikh and `Bangla Bhai', have pointed to a close link with the Jamaat. Works of Maulana Sayedi, a Jamaat theoretician, and a few books written by Golam Azam, the founder of the Bangladesh chapter of the Jamaat were recovered from the captured militants. Jehadi books written by Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami were also recovered from the JMB's Comilla hideout. But it is alleged that the government agencies did not include the Jamaat literature in the list of items seized from the militants.

The covert links between the Jamaat and a section of the government were first made public by a BNP leader. Abu Hena, a Member of Parliament elected from Bagmara, Rajshahi, said he had informed the Prime Minister and the State Minister for Home about the dangers posed by `Bangla Bhai' but nothing was done. "It is unlikely that `Bangla Bhai' has risen to the top without any knowledge of the administration," Hena said.

Why did the Khaleda Zia government crack down on the JMB leadership now? Some analysts say that since the general elections are approaching and the ruling alliance knows there is a perception that the government was behind the emergence of Islamist militants, it had to act. The Opposition parties and a large section of society consider the arrests of Shaikh and `Bangla Bhai' "a drama". They believe the Khaleda Zia government arrested them when it realised that they were no longer safe. Some political observers allege that the government timed the arrests to coincide with George W. Bush's visit to South Asia in order to persuade him to include Bangladesh in his itinerary. The Bush administration had been putting pressure on the government to crackdown on militancy.

Another reason could be the government's need to improve its image. An abnormal hike in the prices of essential commodities, acute shortage of power and the politicisation of administration had alienated the people from the government.

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