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Bangladesh : Another Hotbed of Islamist Terrorism in Asia

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Bangladesh : Another Hotbed of Islamist Terrorism and rise of Mujahideen Army

Bangladeshi soil is increasingly being used for terrorist and for subversive activities by religious extremists, pan-Islamist terrorist groups, and insurgents operating in India's Northeast, substantially through the active collusion of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and Bangladesh's Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI).

There were grave concerns about the possibility of Islamist extremists in the country acquiring radioactive materials and the technical know-how to build a ‘dirty bomb', when on May 30, 2003, Bangladeshi police arrested four suspected members of a Islamist group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, at a house in the northern village of Puiya. Officers also seized a football-size package with markings indicating it contained a crude form of uranium manufactured in Kazakhstan. Subsequent tests at the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission in Dhaka confirmed that the 225-gram ball was uranium oxide—enough to make a weapon capable of dispersing radiation across a wide area if strapped to conventional explosives.

Reportage during the first quarter of 2003 indicates the existence of Al Qaeda operatives in Bangladesh, coordinating their activities with local Islamist groups, validating perceptions that the country is emerging as a major safe haven for Islamist terrorist formations.

The broad trends during the year 2002 remained largely unchanged in the first quarter of 2003. Pakistan's external intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), further tightened its hold over Bangladesh by harnessing past linkages with Islamist fundamentalists and certain sections of the military and political establishment. Internally, various Islamist groups remained active and enlarged their subversive agenda.

Since the elections of October 2001, and the installation of a new regime headed by Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and backed by the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), communal tension and Islamist extremist mobilization has risen dramatically. The JeI, which has two Ministers in the new government, and 17 members in Parliament, allegedly receives support from the ISI, including funding and arms flows, as well as technical and training support.

A number of transnational Islamist terrorist groups, including the Al Qaeda, have established a presence in Bangladesh in alliance with various militant fundamentalist organizations there. Prominent among these is the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-e-Islami, Bangladesh (HuJI-BD), which was established with direct aid from Osama bin Laden in 1992. The HuJI-BD has very close links with the ISI, and received financial assistance from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan (under the Taliban) through Muslim Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Bangladesh, including the Adarsa Kutir, Al Faruk Islamic Foundation and Hataddin.

Various terrorist groups operating in India's Northeast continue to find safe haven and operating bases on Bangladesh territory. Groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) have been emboldened by the new BNP Government in Bangladesh, which in its previous term was seen as supportive of insurgent formations acting against India. Many leaders of Bangladesh's ruling party have direct business linkages, including partnerships in corporations and financial operations that are run by, or co-owned with, leaders of such terrorist organisations. During its previous regime between 1991 and 1996, the BNP provided these groups with liberal facilities, including training camps, bank accounts, facilitation for arms purchases, and freedom of operation from Bangladeshi soil. As a result these terrorist groups, on the run in India's Northeast under persistent pressure from Army operations, found a much-needed breathing space to regroup and re-launch their offensive against India.

Although the Government has reacted fiercely to suggestions that Bangladesh has become a new theatre of the activities of Islamist fundamentalist groups, including the Al Qaeda, reports suggest otherwise:

  • Shortly after the fall of Kandahar in late 2001, several hundred Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters escaped by ship from Karachi in Pakistan to Chittagong. They were then trucked down – allegedly by the DGFI – to hidden camps in the Ukhia area, south of Cox's Bazaar.

  • Asian security services indicated that militants from the Jemaah Islamiah – which is connected to the Al Qaeda and seeks to set up a gigantic Islamic state encompassing Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and southern Philippines – were also hiding out in these camps, which were set up in the early 1990s to train rebels from the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar's Rakhine State. The Jemaah Islamiah militants in hiding in southeastern Bangladesh are believed to be mostly citizens of Malaysia and Singapore.

  • On May 10-11, 2002, representatives of nine Islamist fundamentalist groups, including the HuJI, reportedly met at a camp near Ukhia town and formed the Bangladesh Islamic Manch (Platform). A transnational organization, it includes a group representing the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, and the Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam, a small group operating in India's northeast. By June 2002, Bangladeshi veterans of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s were reportedly training members of the new alliance in at least two camps in southern Bangladesh.

Evidently, the new right-wing regime, which came to power after the general elections of October 2001, has created a more favourable atmosphere for the operation of various extremist forces in the country. While the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami – which is the major alliance partner of the ruling BNP – may not be directly responsible for subversive or terrorist activities, its inclusion in the coalition government has meant that other radical groups feel they now enjoy protection from the authorities and can act with impunity. The HuJI, for example, is reported to have 15,000 members of whom 2,000 are described as ‘hard core'.

Islamist extremists in Bangladesh have for long maintained operational linkages with a number of foreign Islamist groups. Investigations into the January 22, 2002, terrorist attack on the American Centre in Kolkata, capital of the Indian State of West Bengal, brought these linkages to the fore.

  • The Asif Reza Commando Force (ARCF), which claimed responsibility for the attack, is essentially a criminal group allied to the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-e-Islami, Bangladesh (HuJI-BD), which has very close links with the ISI.

  • The arrest of Aftab Ansari alias Farhan Malik, prime accused in the American Centre attack, led to further disclosures regarding the international linkages between the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the HuJI based in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

  • Aftab Ansari played a key role in the July 25, 2001 abduction of Kolkata-based businessman Partha Pratim Roy Barman, who was subsequently released on July 30, 2001 after reportedly paying a ransom amount of Rupees 37.5 million in Dubai through the Hawala network.

  • It was out of this money that Omar Sheikh – convicted by a Pakistan court in the Daniel Pearl murder case – is said to have wired $100,000 to Mohammed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the hijackers in the 9/11 multiple terrorist attacks.


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