Friday, December 30, 2005

The Bombs of Bangladesh

At just under 57,000 square miles and over 144 million people, Bangladesh is a country with about half the population of the United States living in a land area about the size of Wisconsin. When one adds to that the fact that up to a third of the country floods annually during the monsoon season, it’s little wonder that the average American’s first thought turns to natural disasters when Bangladesh is mentioned. However, there’s another ongoing disaster in Bangladesh that is less well known to the average American and it’s one entirely of human making—the scourge of militant Islamism. While it’s difficult to say with certainty the exact number of militant Islamist groups—reports vary widely depending on who is doing the counting—some of the same names do turn up with quite a bit of frequency.

Well before East Pakistan seceded from Pakistan to become Bangladesh, before the partition of Pakistan from India, even before India was free from British rule, Islamism found a home in South Asia. Founded in 1941, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) advocates the creation of an Islamic state ruled by a strict interpretation of Sharia. During Bangladesh’s war for independence in 1971, JI fought on the side of Pakistan. Drawn from the ranks of JI and the Muslim League, Razakars (‘Volunteers’) committed widespread atrocities against the civilian population that has been compared to the Khmer Rouge in terms of brutality. After the war, JI created a Bangladesh chapter to further its Islamist agenda.

Also founded in 1941 was Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh’s student wing. Following the example of the Taliban, they wish to change the system of education to stress only strict Islamic values and teachings, thus creating a new generation of Islamists. A large organization with chapters all across Bangladesh, ICS has been implicated in many attacks on campuses and off—including the bombing in Narayanganj of a meeting of the secular political party the Awami League on June 16, 2001 which killed 21 and injured over 100. Police believe it was probably a suicide bombing carried out by three women found at the site of the bombing.

Said to have been started with financial support from Osama bin Laden, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami-Bangladesh (HuJI-B) is another one of the client groups of JMB and has ties to terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir. Their stated goal is to establish a strict fundamentalist regime by waging holy war. When the Awami League formed a government in June of 1996, HuJI-B intensified efforts to destabilize the government, twice trying to assassinate the then Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina in 2000. They’re also thought to be responsible for a string of bombings in 2001 that killed at least 26 people, as well as the ongoing murder and intimidation of journalists.

Islamic Shashantantra Andolon (ISA) is an umbrella group of several smaller groups who are pushing for the adoption of Sharia in the country. While they are ostensibly a political group, they have shown themselves to be perfectly willing to resort to violence, the worst example of which occurred on September 28, 2002 with the near simultaneous bombings in Satkhira of a cinema and a fair, resulting in the death of 3 and the injuring of 125 others. They have also been implicated in numerous assaults, and have agitated to have certain minority Muslim sects declared un-Islamic.

In April of 2004, an ongoing spree of extortion, intimidation, arson, assaults, bombings, and murder began. The origin of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB)—the group said to be responsible for these incidents—is somewhat murky, with some reports claiming that it is a branch of a larger group, Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (‘Party of the Holy Warriors of Bangladesh’), while other reports claim it is a branch of the militant group Harqut-ul-Jihad. Adding to the murkiness is the fact that at times in the past it has gone by other names: Mujahideen Alliance Council, Islami Jalsha and Muslim Raksha Mujahideen Oikya Parishad. What is clear is that JMJB is committed to ending the influence of leftist extremism in northwestern Bangladesh in the short term, with the long term goal of ushering in strict Sharia law.

One minor yet noteworthy group was Hikmatul Jihad (‘Wisdom of Jihad’). On August 21, 2004, an unknown number of men staged a well-coordinated grenade and automatic weapon attack on a rally by the Awami League in Dhaka. Although the target of the attack—League leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed—survived the attack, 19 others were killed and at least 200 were injured. The previously unheard of group claimed the attack three days later in an email to the newspaper The Daily Prothom Alo, and threatened further attempts on Sheikh Hasina’s life. The arrest of a young minority Hindu man at an internet shop where the claim of responsibility originated resulted ultimately in no charges, and the investigation went nowhere. It is possible this group was formed from members of another organization for the purpose of this particular attack—and although no further attacks by Hikmatul Jihad were forthcoming, this singular attack is worth noting for its level of sophistication and lethality.

The outlawed umbrella group Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) is perhaps one of the more dangerous militant groups in Bangladesh. Over the course of an hour on August 17, 2005, over 300 small bombs went off in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Leaflets at the sites of the bombings claimed responsibility. The bombs were small and fairly crude, killing 3 and injuring at least 50. The origin of the group isn’t completely clear, but the leader of the group, Fazlur Rahman, was one of the people who signed Osama bin Laden’s fatwa declaring holy war against the United States. While this was neither their first nor their deadliest foray into the realm of terrorism, the August attack is particularly impressive for its scale and level of coordination.

It becomes clear from reading the reports of these and other attacks that the anti-secular Islamist groups in Bangladesh bear a special level of ill-will towards the Awami League. This is no doubt due not merely to their more secular orientation, but also because they were the primary advocates for independence from Pakistan, which runs directly counter to the militants’ pan-Islamic agenda.

Based on media reports it seems clear that there is a rising tide of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh—and an attendant rise in the scale and sophistication of the attacks. While the attentions of the militants are turned inwards today, they have regional ambitions. When one considers the price America paid for ignoring the Taliban, we can ill afford to sit idly by as Bangladesh becomes a haven for those who espouse the very same ideology.

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