Recent developments in Bangladesh have been of increasing concern to India -- and for good reason. The meteoric rise of militant Islamism in Bangladesh has been gradually biting into the secular identity of the world’s second largest Muslim democracy and has been spilling into neighbouring countries. It is understandable, therefore, why India is looking closely into Bangladeshi connections to the recent bombings in Varanasi.
The rise in militancy and the decline of law and order in Bangladesh have been mainly attributed to the Islamist parties which form part of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s coalition government. Khaleda Zia is the chairperson of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which is the largest party in the coalition. During the general elections in 2001, BNP was unable to get a parliamentary majority; this led to a pact with the main Islamist party Jamaat-i-Islami, which belongs to a radical movement with parties operating in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Jamaat is widely known for its violent and subversive past. Jamaat was firmly against the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971 and wanted Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) to remain part of Pakistan.
During the War of Independence in 1971, Jamaat set up the notorious al-Badr, a paramilitary group that has been implicated in war crimes. The al-Badr cadre worked closely with Pakistani forces to fight the Mukti Bahini (liberation fighters) and helped round up and murder leading intelligentsia. These actions helped to ostracise the Jamaat from Bangladesh politics. Many of its leaders had to go into exile, but over the years it has slowly managed to claw its way back into positions of power.
BNP members are becoming increasingly unhappy with thei arrangement with the Islamist parties; some MP’s are even revolting against the alliance. Abu Hena, a former Bangladesh National Party MP, was expelled from the BNP because he could no longer tolerate the subversion and tactics of his own ruling party. He believed that his colleagues had made a Faustian bargain with the patrons of the militants, saying, “The leaders who worked to have me expelled from the party are in favour of the militants…Militancy started to spread through the country soon after Jamaat-i-Islami had come to power, riding on the BNP." The courageous MP also went on to say, “Jamaat leaders know it well that the militants are forwarding their agenda. So they do not object to the militant activities.”
Abu Hena was not the only BNP MP to speak out. Ashraf Hossain, a BNP whip, and Oli Ahmed, BNP's standing committee member and former minister, made public statements naming Jamaat-i-Islami as being involved in the militancy in Bangladesh. Syed Najibul Bashar Maizbhandari, BNP International Affairs Secretary, resigned from the BNP in protest of the government's failure to act against Jamaat for its involvement with terrorists. In October, Alamgir Kabir, State Minister for Housing and Public Works told BNP members, "I have no link with militancy, but Post and Telecommunications Minister Aminul Haque has maintained relationship with the militants." These stories of dissent by leading BNP figures show how corrosive Bangladeshi politics have become.
The sad factor is that the diplomatic community has turned a blind eye to these facts and still maintains that Jamaat-i-Islami is a reformist democratic party. Students and academics need to learn the truth about Islamist groups if future leaders are to be able to make well-informed policy decisions. They must be taught about their subversive nature and their ties to militancy.
Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism units backed up by intelligence agencies have recently arrested two of the countries leading Islamist terrorists in their hideouts. Sheikh Abdur Rahman, the chief of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and the notorious Bangla Bhai, the chief of the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), were captured in spectacular fashion. These two militant leaders have been blamed for causing the August 17th bombings, in which 500 bombs were exploded almost simultaneously throughout the country, causing widespread panic and fear. They are also blamed for a series of suicide bombings in November. The horrific bomb attacks on journalists, opposition leaders, universities, law courts and other civic institutions will hopefully cease as a result of the arrests.
The infiltration of terrorists into India from groups based in Bangladesh will also hopefully cease as a result of these key arrests. Indian intelligence and police authorities have been arresting militants from Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, two terror groups that have been entering India from Bangladesh. They also believe that elements of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) are behind these activities. US government analysts have recently said that Bangladesh has no links to international terrorists; however, they’re categorically wrong in their assessments. The fact that Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HUJI), a member of Bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF), has a Bangladesh branch is also alarming as it shows that western intelligence agencies have shown relatively no interest in developments within Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has made a step which has dumbfounded many external analysts as the recent efficiency of the Bangladeshi government in dealing with Islamist terrorists has raised certain questions and probably helped answer a few. Why have two militant leaders, which the government always stressed were ‘made-up’ products of the media and the opposition, been arrested within days of each other? The recent South Asia tour of President Bush to India and Pakistan has probably spurred the BNP government into action. The increasing number of links between militants and the Jamaat has also played a part. The question is can the government stop and arrest the foreign backers of these terror groups and will it act against high-profile leaders?
The Islamist parties in Bangladesh are driven by a radical ideology which is inspired by the late Maulana Al-Mawdudi, a leader of contemporary Islamism. Mawdudi has called for a world Islamic revolution by the use of Jihad and his Jamaat-i-Islami “Islamic Party” is to be the vanguard of this movement. It should not come as a surprise to political and counter-terrorism analysts that Islamist parties that want to abolish democracy, through the sword if needs be, are being linked to militancy and subversion throughout South Asia.
The Jamaat has research institutes in the United Kingdom and the United States. Details of some of these organizations can be found in my article Bangladesh: The New Al-Qaeda Haven, which documents the major institutions involved in the spread of radical Islamism in Bangladesh.
It must be noted that Al-Qaeda leaders such as Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, Yasir al-Jazeeri, Ahsan Aziz, and Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi were all captured in the homes of Jamaat leaders in Pakistan. Dr Alexis Debat, a former advisor to the French Ministry of Defence and senior terrorism consultant for ABC News, has stated that he was taken to a safe house in Peshawar, Pakistan which was used by Osama Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and was operated by the Jamaat.
The literature of Jamaat calls for the subversion of democracies with the intent of their eventual overthrow. The Jamaat’s use of the democratic process is seen to be a means to an end. They use it to gain legitimacy and control over important civic institutions. During the recent raid which captured Sheikh Abdur Rahman, the chief of JMB, books and literature containing the works of Golam Azam, the former leader of Jamaat in Bangladesh, and Mawdudi where found in his possession. The raid also unearthed blank checkbooks of Saidur Rahman, a former Jamaat-i-Islami leader. The checkbooks were issued by the Islami Bank Bangladesh (IBBL), which is affiliated with the Jamaat and is believed to be involved in financing the militants. Delwar Hossain Saidee, a prominent Jamaat MP, is on the Shariah board of the bank; he is also believed to have been in regular phone contact with Dr. Asadullah Galib, the leader of the militant group Ahle Hadith Andolan, Bangladesh (AHAB)
This is not the first time Jamaat has been linked to intimidation and murder. In August 2003, JMB militants were seized in the home of Montezar Rahman, a Jamaat leader in Joypurhat. This was the first indication that Jamaat was once again becoming involved in militancy and subversion in Bangladesh. Their historical distain of Bangladeshi culture and customs has shown that they are unfit to be part of the political process.
The Jamaat’s student wing Islami Chatra Shibir (ICS) is currently involved in the militancy, with many of its cadre being linked to the JMB and bomb attacks. It has also been implicated in the murders of faculty members within Bangladeshi universities. Rajshahi University (RU) is currently under intense pressure from ICS. Jamaat’s student wing is trying to stop the arrest of their President Mahbubul Alam Salehi, who is believed to have helped plan the murder of Prof. Taher Ahmed. Selim Uddin, a former ICS president, made note of the political importance of any revelation of ICS involvement in intimidation and the murder: “The implication of Salehi will undermine Jamaat-Shibir and the ruling alliance. He is part of the alliance and this issue may accelerate the fall of the ruling coalition.” Last month, the feared Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested Shohag Khan, the ICS President of Patharghata Upazila unit, and Marfat Ullah, his general secretary, for their links to the JMB terrorist organisation.
The Jamaat have also been intimidating journalists who try to report on Jamaat’s activities. Shumi Khan, Shamaresh Boiddya and Jubayer Siddiqui have all received death threats for their brave reporting on the Jamaat.
The Jamaat’s links to militancy and subversion are numerous and it is up to the Bangladesh government to show that it is sincerely committed to routing out and arresting the financiers and planners behind the militancy. The BNP Government and Bangladeshi authorities must now show that they are willing to confront the radical anti-democratic ideology of Mawdudi that drives the militancy. They must confront it even if it means they will probably have to forfeit power in the next elections in 2007, because how could the BNP form an alliance with a party which seeks to undermine democracy, the rule of law and the spirit of liberation?
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