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Report and reality

Print edition : Nov 22, 2002 T+T-

The Bangladesh government denies a report that it sheltered fleeing Al Qaeda fighters, but the episode points to the growing fundamentalist tendencies in the country.

IS Bangladesh turning into a `hotbed' of religious extremism? It would appear so, going by a report in the October 21 issue of Time magazine. The report, titled `Deadly cargo', drew vehement protests from the four-party alliance government in Dhaka. The protest was essentially against the allegation that in December 2001, even as U.S. Air Force planes were pounding the Taliban stronghold of southern Afghanistan, especially in the Tora Bora mountains, a ship, m.v. Mecca, dropped by at the outer port of Chittagong carrying some 150 Al Qaeda fighters, from Pakistan.

A government spokesman described as a "figment of the imagination" a report that quoted Time as reporting that the country's intelligence agents "have been maintaining contact with their counterparts in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)" and that Bangladesh was a "hotbed of anti-India terrorists". The Foreign Ministry said the report was aimed at harming the "friendly and smooth relations between India and Bangladesh". The government "vehemently and categorically denies the contents of the report", said the spokesman, adding that "it is perhaps contrived and motivated with a view to serving the interest of certain vested quarters".

Subsequently, the magazine's South Asia correspondent Alex Perry, issued a statement saying he had not described Bangladesh as a "hotbed of anti-India terrorists".

Refuting the charge of the presence of men belonging to the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI) or Al Qaeda, the government, for the second time in two days, termed the Time report "fictitious, baseless and imaginative" and described it as "a part of an anti-Bangladesh campaign". "This is an orchestrated campaign to malign the country's international image," said Foreign Secretary Shamser Mobin Chowdhury. He denied the allegation that Al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan had landed in Chittagong and said Perry had not named his "sources", quoted often. "It is a fiction and figment of wild imagination... . It's irresponsible journalism," Chowdhury told journalists.

According to the Time report, many local people, including dock workers at the Chittagong port, saw bearded Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers carrying AK-47 assault rifles, rocket launchers and boxes of ammunition alighting from motor launches. The report also suggested that an Army officer was at hand to receive these people. While the government denied the existence of any such `Major', Time insisted that the `Major' was once on a diplomatic assignment in Kolkata.

Many analysts would not like to give credence to the report, mainly because the government has been a "strong supporter" of the U.S.-led "war against terror". Ever since it assumed office in October 2001, the Khaleda Zia government has made it known that it is solidly behind the Bush administration in fighting global terrorism. In fact, at a recent round of congressional hearings, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca lauded Bangladesh's role and described the country as a "moderate Muslim nation". President George W. Bush, in a recent letter to the new Bangladesh President, Prof. Iajuddin Ahmed, also lauded the country's commitment to combating terrorism.

But the Time report seemed to hint the opposite. The magazine, while dwelling on the post-September 11 situation, quoted members of the U.S. intelligence community as saying that Bangladesh is "not a real hot account. But Bangladesh also has its fundamentalists. And its southern coastal hills and northern borders with India are lawless and bristling with Islamic militants armed by gun-runners en route from Cambodia and southern Thailand to Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Central Asia and the Middle East."

The report suggested that some fleeing Taliban soldiers or Al Qaeda fighters, including the Number Two man of the organisation, Al-Zawahiri, took refuge in Bangladesh. But the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, Marry Ann Peters, came out strongly in defence of the government. She said the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka followed terrorism issues closely and had no evidence to support allegations made in the article in Time that Bangladesh is "a haven for hundreds of Jihadis on the land".

"Nor is the Embassy aware of any basis for the story that a ship called the m.v. Mecca dropped off a large Al Qaeda group in Chittagong last year," Peters said in a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in response to the Time report. In fact, the Ambassador said, the article appeared to contain "numerous unsubstantiated allegations". The Bangladesh government, she said, was a staunch member of the international coalition against terrorism, and added that while international terrorists can be found anywhere as they have been in the U.S. itself and in dozens of countries from Spain to Singapore Bangladesh is certainly not "a hotbed of radical Islam".

The Time report also claimed that the Jamaat-e-Islami patronised the "Islamic Jihadis" in the country. A few days after the government's reactions came, the Jamaat, which had stood against Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan and is now a part of the government, blasted the report. Its secretary-general and the Social Welfare Minister, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, at a press conference described the report as a "fictitious thriller" . The party said the Time correspondent reflected his "complete ignorance and vengeance" against the Islamic madrasa education system and the Islamic political parties in the country.

The Time report said : "Jamaat is also the main force behind the phenomenal growth of unlicensed madrasas, known as qaumi madrasas, in the past decade. There are now an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 in Bangladesh, of which 30 to 40, run by Mujahideen veterans, are known to shelter militants and recruit fresh fighters." The magazine also wrote: "So controversial were the BNP's partners in government and so infuriating did they find reports of rising fundamentalism that earlier this year (Khaleda) Zia twice denied that there were any `Taliban' in her government, or even in Bangladesh."

The denial by the government was rather strong. To the government's intellectual backers the Time report was nothing but "another terror-fiction". Defending its report, the magazine said: "But a Bangladeshi government official tells Time that while (Khaleda) Zia's administration is aware of the fundamentalist threat inside the country, tackling it head-on might trigger a violent backlash." The magazine also quoted Foreign Minister Morshed Khan as saying that "it was better to have such groups inside the government, looking out".

Alex Perry told the BBC in an interview that he had not said that the government was involved in militant activities. He denied being involved in any anti-Bangladesh campaign, remarking that Americans have "no interest" to do that. Said Perry: "Today, southern Bangladesh has become a haven for hundreds of Jihadis... . They find natural allies in Muslim guerillas from India hiding across the border, and in Muslim Rohingyas, tens of thousands of whom fled the ethnic and religious suppression of the Burmese military junta in the late 1970s and 1980s. Many Rohingyas are long-term refugees, but some are trained to cause trouble back home in camps tolerated by a succession of Bangladeshi governments. The original facilities date back to 1975, making them Asia's oldest Jihadi training camps."

The Time report questioned the real identities of the seven Arabs arrested in September from some houses in Dhaka's posh Uttara residential area. The Bangladesh media gave extraordinary coverage to the dramatic arrests of these Arabs four Yemenis and one each from Libya, Sudan and Algeria who were said to be involved in a voluntary organisation, Al Hermann, funded from Saudi Arabia. After interrogation they were released by the court. But their present whereabouts are reportedly not known.

THE government has two powerful Ministers, Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, who belong to the Jamaat-e-Islami. The party came into the limelight when it assumed power as part of a coalition government for the first time since Independence 32 years ago. And as part of the ruling coalition the Jamaat and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ) seem to have brought some restraint in their activities. Many people think that the BNP's "patronisation" of these radicals may not benefit it in the long run.

Nonetheless, Time said that "Al Qaeda's links to the leadership of Jamaat or Islamic Oikya Jote may be largely rhetorical". But it alleged that the country's intelligence "agents maintain contact with their counterparts in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and have a long history of supporting rebels fighting Indian rule across the border, including providing safe houses in Dhaka for the leaders of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA)." Foreign Secretary Shamser Mobin Chowdhury refuted such allegations as being part of an "orchestrated smear campaign" and said "every Bangladeshi ought to be alerted against the entity operating from many locations".

Even if the report of the landing of Al Qaeda fighters is a piece of fiction as claimed by the government, the issue of religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh cannot be ruled out simply because organised sections are now in the government, remarked a senior editor. The series of bombing incidents during the previous Sheikh Hasina government, including the bomb attack on the traditional Bengali New Year's celebrations in Dhaka, the recent blasts in a cinema hall and circus show in Satkhira, a district bordering West Bengal, raised reasonable doubts. But the government argues that the bombing incidents that occurred during the previous regime were not acts by fanatics, but by the Awami League, its arch rival.

The portrayal of Bangladesh as a country where fundamentalism is thriving must come as a surprise to its overwhelming Muslim population. While its people are at large staunch believers and non-communal, the nation itself was born at the end of a bloody war against fundamentalism. However, it is a fact that fundamentalists have succeeded in spreading their network in the country.

Despite the official rejection, a significant section of the population believes that Bangladesh cannot isolate itself from the fundamentalists' agenda . Many of them believe that there should be greater caution about the impending dangers. But the government has denied any such possibility, and no less a person than the U.S. Ambassador strongly backs the official stand.

The irony is that while the protagonists of the "spirit of 1971", who are now in the Opposition, believe strongly that the religious fundamentalists have got a real boost by becoming partners in the government, the political combine of the "spirit of 1947" rejects any such allegation. In the midst of the clash a "third force" may well emerge, as in Pakistan, where for the first time pro-Taliban sections control two provinces, if not the centre.