The menace of militancy

Print edition : October 24, 2003

The Khaleda Zia-led regime in Bangladesh turns a blind eye to the increasing threat posed by Islamic extremists to the country's security, social stability and secular credentials.

in Dhaka

ON September 27, most national dailies in Bangladesh carried reports of a significant incident: Activists of the Islamic extremist organisation Hijbut Tawhid killed one person and injured nine in Paglabazar in Narayangonj when local people prevented them from distributing leaflets titled `Call for real Islam'. The militants spread terror in the Paglabazar masjid market area at 11 a.m. on Friday by indiscriminately attacking people with `haturis' (hammers). One of the victims, Abdul Malek, 30, died in the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. The chief of the organisation, Bayjid Khan Panni, was arrested from a house in sector 7 of Dhaka's posh Uttara residential area.

In Dhaka, on September 27, a dharna by Awami League activists against the increasing crime rate and rising prices and corruption.-FARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP

Just a week ago 18 extremists were arrested from the residence of a ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) leader at Boalmari in western Faridpur. Subscription receipts, audio cassettes, mobile phone sets, literature promoting militancy and flags of an unknown organisation were also recovered. Acting on a tip-off, the local police raided the rented residence of an upazila vice-president, Kamruzzaman Mia alias Esken of the BNP, and arrested the extremists. According to the police, the arrested persons confessed that they came to Faridpur from the Jamia Islamia Nurul Ulum Kawmi Madrassa of Bhaluka in Mymensingh district to raise funds for an "armed revolution" against the "enemies of Islam". A senior police official said the seized audio cassettes were named `Action', `Jago Mujahid', `Bir Mujahid' and `Hoonker'. The flag had a red-and-green star and the literature was in Arabic. Maulana Abdur Rashid, the leader of the group, confessed that he had received arms training in Pakistan and fought for four years in Afghanistan against the Soviet forces. Educated in India's Deuband madrassa, Rashid returned to Bangladesh to organise Islamic militants before he joined as a teacher in the madrassa that the police later raided. Highly trained and motivated, Rashid was first arrested in Cox's Bazaar a few years ago.

SUCH incidents have alarmed the people of Bangladesh, who are by and large supporters of the country's Liberation from Pakistan in 1971. Sporadic incidents of militancy first came to light when the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League was in power from 1996 to 2001. Police and intelligence agencies suspected the involvement of these elements in a series of bomb blasts at cultural functions and political meetings that killed about 100 people. The fanatics also made an attempt on the life of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Although some `hideouts' were unearthed and militants with suspected `foreign connections' were arrested, their `bosses' remained at large.

However, with the change of government in 2001 most of the arrested, including those charge-sheeted, were released on bail and eventually the charges against them were dropped. The genuine national concern about extremist activities was ignored by the Khaleda Zia-led government, consisting of four parties, including fundamentalist organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote. The threat posed by the "growing Islamic militancy" to Bangladeshi society became international news. The alliance government, instead of tackling the threat, dubbed reports of militancy as "mere propaganda" and said that Bangladesh was a "moderate Islamic country" and religious extremism was "non-existent". Such concerns, it said, were aimed at "maligning Bangladesh's international image".

Ironically, within a span of a year even mainstream newspapers have started reporting frequent arrests of `Islamic militants' and their armed encounters with the law-enforcing agencies. A few months ago, police recovered a huge cache of cartridges and explosives being transported by trucks to unknown destinations. This was in northern Bogra district, a stronghold of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami. On August 14, police and jehadis exchanged fire in northern Joypurhat, near Bogra. The latter were trying to loot arms from the police who were on a search operation. After the encounter, the police arrested 21 members of the extremist Jamaatul Mujahideen and recovered arms and ammunition from them.

Prime Minister and BNP leader Khaleda Zia.-SHAWKAT KHAN/AFP

Testimonies of some arrested militants suggest that they are well-equipped and well-funded to carry out an `Islamic revolution' in Bangladesh. Staunch admirers of the Taliban, many of whom reportedly fought in Afghanistan and also in Jammu and Kashmir, the militants have started organising Bangladeshi youth for a jehad. On June 23, a leading Dhaka daily, Prothom Alo, reported that associates of Al Qaeda were active in Bangladesh. It said that Anam Arnet, convicted by a Chicago court for his close links with Osama bin Laden, had bank accounts in Dhaka. Press reports also suggested that a section of the Jamaati-e-Islami, the Islamic Oikya Jote and the Islami Shasantantra Andolon led by Mufti Fazlul Haq Amini may be in league with some of the extremist groups. Except the Al-Hikma, which is active in Rajshahi district, the government did not ban any of the militant groups working in the country.

After the Joypurhat incident, Bangladesh Observer said in an editorial: "The happenings in Joypurhat strongly suggest that some fundamentalist militant outfits are not only present in the country but are also working secretly to push forward their agenda. They are organised and seem to have been indoctrinated by their leaders for launching a particular type of campaign, which the members of the group claim to be a `holy war'. "

There are reasons to believe that the Bangladeshi extremist groups have foreign mentors and their activities have a regional and global dimension. Bangladesh, an over-populated country with high levels of illiteracy and unemployment, is a fertile ground for such adventurism. The Bengali daily Janakantha said on September 28: "The activities of the so-called Islamists have already posed a threat to the country's liberal democratic polity... and their links with certain external quarters are also well exposed. Funded from abroad, more than a lakh militants are now active." Ajker Kagoj, another leading daily, demanded "immediate action against these extremists".

In mid-August, several national dailies reported the "resistance" of the people of Islampur, a village in eastern Jamalpur district, against Jamaatul Mujahideen militants who had reportedly recruited thousands of followers to fight a "holy war to destroy un-Islamic installations". There were also allegations that such elements are active in Chittagong, southwestern Jessore and Khulna and in some parts of greater Sylhet. Reports also alleged that some partners of the ruling alliance were secretly trying to establish a "Gano Bahini" (people's militia). Matiur Rahman Nizami, Industries Minister and chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, addressed the media twice within two weeks to deny the charge.

The Joypurhat incident and some other cases have given an indication of the militants' fire-power and their organising ability. Intelligence agencies have reportedly identified 48 extremist `training centres' in the country. Most trainees at these `centres' are from the Kawmi madrassas, which have proliferated. These madrassas, initially funded by Saudi Arabian sources, are now run exclusively on charity, with unaccounted funds coming from Gulf states and Pakistan. Although many extremists were arrested in the recent past, the government did not disclose what had finally happened to them.

Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina.-FARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP

Justice Sultan Hossain Khan, who led a commission inquiring into the December 2002 serial bomb blasts in four cinema halls in Mymensigh, observed in his report: "These explosions were well planned and conducted by trained, politically motivated people and they might have procured these explosives from outside the country. Various investigations in the last few years reveal that the bombs used by Islamic extremists so far are highly sophisticated and they used Water Gel, T&T, RDX, PETN, C-4 etc."

Whatever the Khaleda Zia government's stand, such developments are considered as constituting a threat to the nation's security and social stability. An estimated 13 militant organisations are active in the country: Shahadat-e-Al-Hikma, Jamaatul Mujahedul Bangladesh, Jaamat-e-Yahia Al Trust, Hizbut Tawhid, Al Hayakat Al-Islamia, Al Markajul Al Islam Al-Islami, Jamaatul Falaiya, Tawhidi Janata, World Islamic Front, Jumaatul Al-Sadat, Shahadat-E-Nabuat, Harkatul Jehad and Al Khidmat. Police believe that such fundamentalist groups were behind the deadly bomb attacks on a village fair in Shakhipur in Tangail. Investigations by mainstream dailies reveal that these groups are now operating in the rural areas, with close political networks and access to and training in arms.

But the government's overriding concern appears to be to protect the "image of the nation". Many concerned people have warned that it is time the government shed its "ostrich-like attitude" and took serious note of such militant groups who do not believe in the sovereignty of the people in running the affairs of the state. Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, Home Minister and Air Vice-Marshal (retd.), has said that the extremist groups would cause no threat because they do not have major weapons. Chowdhury's assertion is contrary to what police have been saying about the weapons possessed by and the advanced training given to extremists.

These extremists hold the existing democracy responsible for `anti-Islamisation'. They have their philosophical roots in Pakistan and their source of inspiration is the now dismantled Taliban regime of Afghanistan. In an editorial, the weekly Holiday has warned the Khaleda Zia government to take note of the threat. "If the state becomes arbitrary and insensitive, which it is, the power-contenders in Opposition will become arbitrary and insensitive too, which they are. Dismissing the Joypurhat bigots as trifles, the kidnappings, murders and ransoms as business-as-usual, and rent-seeking in a project- and contract-driven economy as the divine right, will no longer do. The world is watching."

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