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Militant Islam’s Burgeoning Borders By: Jonathan Schanzer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, August 20, 2002


Once a primarily Middle East phenomenon, militant Islam has become a world epidemic. As allied troops fight to rid Afghanistan, Yemen, Georgia and the Philippines of its radical Islamic elements, new movements gain strength elsewhere around the globe. Today, its roots are growing in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nigeria, proving that hard work lies ahead, if militant Islam’s burgeoning borders are ever to be contained.

Nigeria:

With a teeming population of 126 million, Nigeria is struggling to stabilize both politically and economically. Recently, instability has been made worse by religious tensions between Christians (40%) and Muslims (50%). An estimated 13,000 Nigerians have been killed in internecine violence since 1980. Most were hacked by swords and knives.

The problem stems from militant Muslims that have attempted to impose Shari’a in several states in recent years. Since 1999, 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states have adopted or plan to adopt some version of Shari’a. These developments prompted Freedom House, a watchdog group, to note that Nigeria is exhibiting symptoms of “Talibanization.”

It began on August 25, 1999, when Zamfara state announced its adoption of Shari’a after a successful campaign by fundamentalist Muslims.Indeed, Islamism was a popular alternative among those opposed to the largely corrupt national government.

Other states have since followed suit, enforcing restrictions that include a moratorium on new churches, performing music, wearing pants, drinking alcohol and riding in co-ed taxis. Forced conversions have been reported, as well as forced divorces in Muslim-Christian intermarriages. Punishments for varying crimes include stoning, flogging, and chopping off hands.

Meanwhile, President Obasanjo won’t take steps to halt these “injustices lest he further upset Muslim officers” in the military that could pose a threat to his authority. To put it another way, he has forfeited his authority to violent vigilante groups patrolling these newly Islamized states, illegally enforcing Shari’a. These groups burn churches, loot government offices, and destroy cars and homes.

More worrisome, perhaps, is that Nigeria has become a staging ground for the forces of militant Islam in their efforts to expand worldwide. Some states, for example, have received solidarity visits from Sudanese, Pakistani, Saudi, Palestinian and Syrian Islamists. Further, Usama bin Laden has become a hero among many Nigerian Muslims who have taken to the streets with anti-American sentiment on numerous occasions.

“The entire Moslem Ummah in Nigeria has come or is coming about the Shari’a bandwagon,” writes one concerned Nigerian newspaper publisher. “How this is handled by Moslems and Christians will now determine the future of Nigeria.”

Indonesia:

Indonesia is the most populated Muslim country in the world. With a population of 228 million, 88% (more than 190 million) are said to be Muslim, while only 12% are Protestant, Catholic, Hindu or Buddhist.

After the country experienced major economic troubles in 1997, and then political upheaval in 1999, Indonesia became fertile ground for the spread of militant Islam. Mainstream Islamist groups have since emerged with increased popularity, including the traditional Nahdlatul Ulama, with perhaps 40 million members, and the modernist Muhammadiyah, with 28 million. In the 1999 elections, Islamists took 86 of a possible 462 seats, and will likely take more in 2004. 

But what is not accomplished through legal channels is sought through violence. In their campaign to institute Shari’a, Islamists have systematically targeted Christians, forcing them to convert, forcibly circumcising children, and burning churches. Other violence includes raids on gambling halls and shops selling alcohol. At one estimate, vigilante attacks have taken the lives of more than 10,000 Christians since January 1999, leaving more than 300,000 displaced.

In the first three months of 1999, more than 1,000 people in the Maluku Islands there were killed in internecine violence. In April of this year, radical groups threatened to deploy 10,000 volunteers to “liberate” that area of Christians, and create a pure Islamic region. Muslim-Christian tensions have since led to a full-blown religious war. In the last two years, 9,000 deaths have been reported in the Malukus alone.

Meanwhile, on the Sulawesi islands, armed with rocket launchers and automatic weapons, radicals set up roadblocks, plastered the walls with bin Laden posters, and have isolated the Christian community, numbering 60,000 or more. Last December, the government brokered a pact, but violence flared again in August 2002,with five Christians killed, and hundreds of Christian homes burned to the ground. Indonesian intelligence now believes that the radicals there are likely funded by al-Qa’ida.

Perhaps the highest profile area of conflict, however, is Aceh, which has seen decades of conflict between Islamist separatists and government forces. In the last decade, more than 6,000 people have been killed in fighting between the Free Aceh Movement and government forces. In January 2001, Indonesia finally granted Aceh autonomy to enforce Shari’a law, a move seen as placating the separatists. Since then, Aceh’s government has destroyed churches and forbade the practice of Christianity.

Asian intelligence sources have since asserted that the Free Aceh Movement works with al-Qa’ida, and that al-Qa’ida even considered moving to Aceh after the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom. Bin Laden's lieutenant, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, reportedly visited Aceh in June 2000. 

Another group with links to al-Qa’ida and Usama bin Laden is the 10,000-strong Lashkar Jihad (Jihad Army) founded in April 2000, and led by Jaffar Umar Thalib, who recently ordered every “jihad soldier” in Indonesia to “write out their wills” and “welcome their fate as martyrs.” In a separate interview after September 11, Thalib said, “Allah be praised, the Muslims continue their jihad against America, and it is our obligation to support them as best we can.”

According to one analyst, the goal of Thalib and other Islamists in Indonesia is “to turn the world’s most populous Muslim country into an extremist Islamic state by 2003.” While next year is an exaggerated projection, there is no question that militant Islam is rapidly gaining ground.

Bangladesh:

Bangladesh is roughly the size of Illinois, but has an estimated 131 million citizens – or half the population of the U.S. Plagued by political and economic instability, Bangladesh is also prime turf for the spread of militant Islam.

According to one report, the major problem stems from radical Islamists’ “dissatisfaction with the ‘pseudo-Islamization’ of the country and want it to be renamed the “Islamic Republic of Bangladesh” ruled by Shari’a.”

The result has been violence, prompted by Islamist groups like Jama’at-a Islami, against Christians for about a decade. Examples are many. In 1995, a Catholic school was burned down by Islamists. In 1998, Muslims took to the streets, attacking churches and other Christian property. In one like case, a 13-year old Christian girl was raped and had to face up to her “crime” or produce four Muslim witnesses for her defense.

Buddhists and Hindus have also been “subject to a systematic policy of rape, torture and killing, and the destruction of their cultural and religious identity at the hands of Muslims,” according to one report. Hindu women have reportedly been forced to dress like Muslims; their traditional garb has been forbidden.

One writer notes that Buddhists and Christians are “terrorized collectively… hundreds of temples desecrated and statues destroyed; thousands of homes and businesses looted or burned… One man’s fingers had been cut off, another’s hand was amputated, still more were blinded and others had iron rods nailed through their legs or abdomen…women and children who had been gang-raped, often in front of their fathers or husbands.”

Not surprisingly, al-Qa’ida has “tentacles” in Bangladesh.” The largest satellite (15,000 cadres) is Harakat ul-Jehad-i Islami, Bangladesh (HUJI-BD), which was established with direct aid from Usama bin Laden in 1992. Trained in the camps of Afghanistan, HUJI-BD calls itself the “Bangladeshi Taliban.” The group made headlines when its leader Fazlur Rahman signed al-Qa’ida’s declaration of jihad against the U.S. in 1998. HUJI-BD plotted to kill Bangladeshi poet Shamsur Rahman in January 1999, and then-Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in August 2000.

Since September 11, anti-American and pro-al-Qa’ida sentiment has soared. More than 10,000 Islamists took to the streets of Dhaka after Friday prayers in September, protesting the allied actions in Afghanistan. In other demonstrations, Islamists touted posters saying “Bush: Enemy of Mankind” and “Usama is our Hero,” burning effigies of U.S. President George W. Bush. They chanted, “We are with Laden, we will fight the U.S.” One prominent Islamist stated, “America and Bush must be destroyed. The Americans will be washed away if Bangladesh’s 120 million Muslims spit on them.”

On January 22, 2002, the Bangladeshi faction of Harakat-ul-Jehad-i Islami attacked the U.S. cultural center in Calcutta, India, killing five guards and wounding 20. Six people were detained from the attack, including three madrasa teachers.

The head of Jamaat-i-Islami, notes that the goal is to “pursue a slow but steady policy towards Islamization of the country.” This goal may be attainable, given there are an estimated 64,000 madrasas in Bangladesh (most of which teach radicalism), that one civil servant calls “a ticking time bomb.”

This dangerous combination of factors, notes one analyst, is that “economic collapse and political crisis can galvanize support for extremists very quickly… Bangladesh could deteriorate and become a new nest for terror.”

What to Do?

According to Dr. Ajai Sahni, director of India’s Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), Bangladesh is an area of “potential” rather than “imminent” threat. The same can be said for Nigeria and Indonesia.

It is clear, then, that militant Islam continues to proliferate around the globe. And while the solution to this growing world epidemic is not clear, steps should be taken.

First, the U.S. government must acknowledge that militant Islam (not simply “terror”) is a problem of global, and epidemic proportions. Indeed, this dangerous ideology has already spread from the Middle East to southeast and central Asia, as well as West Africa. To properly combat the problem, the Pentagon, State Department and executive branch must resolve to stop its growth. Reluctance to identify militant Islam, as such, will only postpone policies designed to directly tackle the problem.

Second, rather than waiting for the “potential” threat to become “imminent,” the United States should act quickly to neutralize the dangers posed. The right steps must be taken now. This includes closer cooperation with these governments, anti-terror assistance, increased financial aid, and closer surveillance as a means to identify and offset these dangerous developments before military intervention becomes a necessity.

Government mouthpieces harp on the importance of top-secret intelligence intercepts as the key to preventing future militant Islamic attacks. Top U.S. military brass, meanwhile, focuses on dismantling the militant Islamic infrastructure already in place. More emphasis, however, must be placed on the prevention of future radicalism around the globe, as a means to preempt future attacks. Such a strategy might even prevent future battle theaters in America’s war on terror.


Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury intelligence analyst, is Director of Policy for the Jewish Policy Center and author of Al-Qaeda's Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.


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