Bangladesh Assessment 2006
The road to elections to the Bangladesh Jatiya Sangsad (National Assembly) in January 2007 is expected be chaotic, considering the intensity and spread of violence that rocked the country for consecutive days starting October 27, 2006. Political opponents fought prolonged pitched battles not only in the capital Dhaka but also in Districts like Kushtia, Meherpur, Magura, Kurigram, Narsingdi, Narayanganj and Bagerhat. Clashes were also reported from Rajshahi, Tangail, Sirajganj, Satkhira, Bogra, Netrakona, Dinajpur, Patuakhali, Khagrachhari, Noakhali, Faridpur, Mymensingh, Jhenidah, Kishoreganj, Pabna, Gaibandha, Barisal, Gazipur, Sylhet and Rangpur Districts. By November 5, 2006, 30 persons had been killed, and scores injured.
Amidst political wrangling over the choice of the Advisor to the Caretaker Government that takes charge three months before Elections are held, Iajuddin Ahmed, who held the country's mostly ceremonial role of President, named himself leader of the interim Government on October 29. While the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) nomination of former Chief Justice K.M. Hassan was not acceptable to the Awami League (AL)-led 14 party alliance, the BNP rejected the candidature of both Justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury and Justice Hamidul Haque, as proposed by the AL. The provision for a Caretaker Government was enacted in the Constitution on March 26, 1996, by incorporating Articles 58 (B), (C), (D) and (E), with the objective of introducing a system that would ensure the holding of free and fair elections.
The countdown to elections has also set off the inevitable chain of political match-making, with each combination containing significant potential for violence. Protesting against the 'record corruption' and 'dynasty' in the BNP over the last five years, 102 of the party’s leaders, including 13 incumbent lawmakers (counting a minister and a deputy minister), under the leadership of former President Prof. Badruddoza Chowdhury and freedom fighter Col. (Retd.) Oli Ahmad, on October 26, 2006, announced the formation of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It is the largest splintering in the BNP’s history. Although former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has asked her party leaders to 'manage' the defectors, leading to a series of attacks on LDP leaders’ houses in various Districts, the split could affect the electoral prospects of the BNP. The LDP has already started courting the AL-led alliance.
Earlier in the year, mounting international pressure and the threat of disruption of international aid forced the Government to act against the Islamist extremists. On May 4, 2006, State Minister for Home Affairs, Lutfozzaman Babar, said the Government had achieved ‘satisfactory success’ in combating militancy in the country. He claimed that law enforcers had seized 'almost all the explosives' in the possession of the banned militant groups, and also that the Government had succeeded in blocking the militants' sources of funding. The Government’s achievements in curbing the rise of militancy, which had threatened to spiral out of control towards the latter part of 2005, appear creditable. In addition to over 500 ordinary foot soldiers of the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), security force (SF) operations have managed to arrest all seven members of the outfit’s Majlis-e-Shura (the apex policy council). SFs, especially the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), appeared to be conducting themselves with a far greater degree of autonomy than ever before, as they combed through large stretches of the country in search of the militants. The Government had also arrested Asadullah Galib, Ameer (Chief) of the AHAB and Mufti Hannan, Ameer of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-BD) in 2005 and resisted enormous pressures from significant quarters to release them.
However, given that the JMB could organize nearly 500 explosions targeting 63 of the country’s 64 Districts on August 17, 2005, and had also managed to execute four suicide attacks targeting the judiciary thereafter, the sudden demise or significant neutralization of the JMB-JMJB combine is certainly mysterious. Much had been written about their extensive network of cadres, sympathizers and a group of ‘2000 suicide bombers’, as well as a nexus with international terror networks such as the al Qaeda. The collapse of the groups within eight months of the August 15 blasts (the last of the Shura member, Khaled Saifullah was arrested on April 26, 2006) suggests an efficiency of intelligence and operation that militates against the groups’ free operation over the two preceding years.
The collapse of the JMB and the JMJB, at least, may have much to do with their basic character and their failure to construct grass-root and institutional support structures within a wide population base. At least in the case of the JMB, the group was dominated by a single, with three out of seven Shura members drawn from one family. Absent the support of formations within the ruling alliance – which appears to have evaporated after the August attacks and ensuing suicide bombings – JMB-JMJB simply disintegrated.
The Additional District and Sessions Judge of Jhalakathi, Reza Tarik Ahmed, on May 29, 2006, sentenced seven JMB militants including the outfit’s ‘chief’ Abdur Rahman, his second-in-command Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, who is also the ‘commander’ of the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), to death for their involvement in the November 14, 2005, suicide attack that killed two judges in Jhalakathi. The others are the group’s Majlis-e-Shura (the highest policy-making body) members Ataur Rahman Sunny, Abdul Awal and Khaled Saifullah, suicide bomber Iftekhar Hasan Al Mamun (who was critically injured in the attack, but survived) and Asad-ur-Rahman Arif, a second suicide cadre who escaped from the scene, and remains at large.
Earlier, on March 2, 2006, the 50-year old JMB ‘supreme commander’, Abdur Rahman, surrendered after a 34-hour siege on his East Shaplabagh hideout in Sylhet City, 200 kilometres northeast of capital Dhaka. Arrested along with Rahman were his wife, sons, daughters, grandson, domestic helps and some associates. Four days later, on March 6, the JMB number two, Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, hiding in a tin-shed in the remote Rampur Village under the Muktagachha Sub-district of Mymensingh, 120 kilometres north of Dhaka, was wounded and captured, after skirmishes with the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). On April 25, Salahuddin, Majlish-e-Shura member of the JMB and ‘commander’ of the Sylhet-Mymensingh region, was arrested along with six of his associates from Halisahar in Chittagong. On the following day, on April 26, another Shura member Khaled Saifullah, who was the outfit’s ‘commander’ of the Rangpur-Dinajpur region, was arrested along with his wife, three children and brother from a rented house at 8, Ideal Road, Paradagair under Demra police station in Dhaka city. Prior to these high-profile arrests, three other Majlis-e-Shura members of the JMB had been arrested. They included Ataur Rahman Sunny (arrested on December 14, 2005), Abdul Awal (arrested on November 18, 2005) and Rakib Hasan Russel alias Hafez Mohammad (arrested on February 28, 2006).
“Bangladesh is a terrorism-free nation”, declared an ecstatic Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, in a televised address to the nation, after the March 2 arrest of the JMB chief. Speaking again on March 7, after Bangla Bhai’s arrest, she added, albeit with greater moderation, that the Government would ‘succeed in destroying the terrorist networks and arresting the remaining terrorists’.
The arrests and the subsequent conviction, not withstanding, the claims of the Government regarding eliminating terrorism appeared rather curious for a regime which till about a year ago had chosen to ignore the obvious indications that Islamist forces in the country are getting stronger and refused to acknowledge the country's steady decline into a trough of religious orthodoxy, militancy and crime. Along with the growth of the Islamists, there was a visible consolidation of a wider regime of intimidation, violence and terror targeting the opposition parties, religious minorities and the left-wing extremists. On September 26, 2005, State Minister for Home, Lutfozzaman Babar, emphatically denied the existence of the JMJB and said "We don't know officially about the existence of the JMJB. Only some so-called newspapers are publishing reports on it. We don't have their constitution in our record."
However, amidst growing pressures from Western donor agencies and diplomatic circles, on February 24, 2005, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia instructed the Home Ministry and the intelligence agencies to 'root out' Islamist militants, their hideouts and subversive activities. The Government proscribed the JMJB and JMB, accusing them of a large number of bomb attacks and killings in recent times. A press note to the effect read: "The Government notices with concern that two organisations called Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Jama'atul Mujahideen have been carrying out a series of murders, robberies, bomb attacks, threats and various kinds of terrorist acts causing deaths to peace-loving people and destruction of property. Under the circumstances, the government announces enforcement of ban on all activities of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Jama'atul Mujahideen."
This sudden 'sense of responsibility' appeared to have been induced by mounting external pressures and perceptions, including the hard stand taken by the European Union on the regime's 'apathy in tackling the situation' and the belief that Bangladesh's slide towards a fundamentalist regime continues unabated. Although the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank appeared to have taken a softer stand, lauding Bangladesh for its 'impressive performance' in many social sectors, the overall impression is that the situation in the country has been deteriorating fast and the Government has failed to improve governance. Bangladesh's development partners rounded off a meeting at the Watergate Hotel in Washington on February 25, 2005, with an expression of concern regarding deteriorating governance, and deciding to keep a close watch on how the Government tackles the rise of fundamentalist militancy and improves the overall scenario of governance.
Prior to the proscription order, the Government conducted several raids on the JMJB and JMB establishments across the country and arrested key leaders and activists. Among them was Dr. Muhammad Asadullah al-Ghalib, a Professor of Arabic at Rajshahi University and chief of the Islamist group Ahle Hadith Andolon Bangladesh (AHAB), who was arrested along with three of his close associates on February 23.
The Islamist parties in the ruling coalition Government, known to be the force behind the rise of the militant outfits, were found to be opposing the anti-militancy operations launched by the Government. For instance, on February 24, 2005, Fazlul Haque Amini, Chairman of a faction of the Islami Oikyo Jote (IOJ), warned at a public meeting in Mymensingh, "We'll sharply react if any Islamic leader falls victim to the ongoing operation." He also said that there was a conspiracy to prevent Islamic revolution in the name of taming the Islamist militants, "But the conspirators will not succeed." On the same day, Maulana Abdur Rob Yousufi, Secretary General of another faction of the IOJ, opposed the ban on the JMJB and JMB, declaring, "There's no Islamic militant organisation in the country."
Tolerance of the militant activities and lack of will to act against such forces resulted in the country-wide blasts of August 17, 2005. 459 coordinated bomb blasts occurred within a single hour, across 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Explosives were also recovered from the district of Munshiganj, which did not witness any blasts. While the sheer number of explosions was startling, the bombs were all of low intensity and of crude manufacture, clearly intended to communicate a message, rather than to inflict hard damage to life and property. Despite the scale of the operation, only two persons were killed, and the total number injured was estimated at 100. Most of the targets were Government establishments, primarily offices of the local district administration and courts. The districts that witnessed the largest number of explosions included Dhaka (28 explosions, including the high-security Bangladesh Secretariat, Supreme Court complex, the Prime Minister's Office, Dhaka Judges Court, Dhaka University, Dhaka Sheraton Hotel, and Zia International Airport); Barisal (18); Chittagong (16); Khulna (15); Sylhet (15); and Rajshahi (12).
Several leaders of the ruling coalition – including some from Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have sought to shift the blame to the Awami League. Despite interrogation reports confirming involvement of the JMB, the Deputy Minister for Land, Ruhul Quddus Talukder, a BNP Member of Parliament, declared, "I don’t think they (the JMB) have such a strong network. Awami League must have done this, using fake leaflets, to destroy Bangladesh’s image internationally." Mufti Fazlul Haq Amini, Chairman of the Amini faction of the IOJ, a constituent member of the ruling four-party alliance, addressing a rally in front of the Baitul Mukarram Mosque in Dhaka on August 19, declaimed: "Swearing upon Allah, I know the 14-party alliance of Awami League and left parties launched the bomb attacks in a planned way to uproot the Islamic forces, but Islamic forces can never be eliminated."
Unsurprisingly, the Awami League President and former Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, has claimed that the explosions were carried out under protection of the BNP-Jamaat-led alliance Government and direct supervision of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Hasina asserted, further, that the "Jamaat has been supervising activities of various terrorist groups in the country for a long time." Claims of the AL were not completely unsubstantiated.
With only 17 seats out of the 300 in the Jatiya Sangsad (National Assembly) and two ministers in the Union Cabinet, the Jamaat has engineered a slow but steady rise in national politics. Speaking on April 30, 2005, the JeI Chief, Matiur Rahman Nizami, said that his party had achieved its ‘short-term goal’ of coming into mainstream politics and asked his party colleagues to now work to achieve the ‘long-term programme’ to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic State. The Islami Chhatra Shibir (student wing of the JeI) has wrested control of the students’ union of the Rajshahi University, the second largest university in the country, replacing the BNP’s student wing. Soon after the election in April, Shahdat-al-Hiqma, the militant group that was proscribed in February 2002, pasted 5,000 posters on the walls of the University’s buildings, asking students to "take up arms to eradicate injustice." Considerable Islamist mobilisation has also been reported from the Khulna University in November 2005. The Jamaat is making inroads into the bureaucracy as well. Among others, Sarfaraj Hossain, the Home Secretary, is reported to have Jamaat connections. Many of the arrested cadres of the JMB told their interrogators that their activities went unnoticed because they enjoyed the blessings of local officers who, in turn, were influenced by Jamaat leaders.
The official ambivalence on Islamist terrorism resulted in further consolidation of the outfits which reached another landmark in the form of multiple suicide attacks. On November 14, two Assistant Judges of the Jhalakathi District, Jagannath Pandey and Sohel Ahmed, on the way to their Courts, were bombed to death by a katel (killer) squad member of the JMB. The assassin, Mamun Ali, was caught by the locals and handed over to the police. Subsequently, on November 29, nine people, including two lawyers and a police constable, were killed and 78 persons injured in two suicide bomb attacks by the JMB cadres in the Chittagong and Gazipur court premises. Again, on December 1, one Government employee is killed and 30 people sustain injuries in a suicide bomb attack by the JMB in front of the office of the Deputy Commissioner in the Gazipur district. These incidents dramatically undermined the BNP-led coalition’s efforts to inveigle the world into believing that, by proscribing a few terrorist groups and the arrest of a few hundred alleged ‘militants’, the country has established a firm grip over its slide into chaos.
Curiously, the data on terrorism related fatalities is a dead giveaway. A country that is riddled with Islamist extremist activity sees its principal threat – and the primary target of security forces’ activity – in a minuscule Left Wing extremist (LWE) movement concentrated in small pockets of the western Districts of Bangladesh. 177 deaths were reported in 2005 in LWE-related violence, compared to just 35 killed in connection with Islamist militancy. The data assumes an even more sinister dimension on closer scrutiny. As many as 163 of the 177 LWE fatalities (92 per cent) were categorized as ‘outlaws’. 11 civilians and three security force personnel were killed in the LWE-related violence in 2005. By comparison, just nine Islamist terrorists were killed through 2005. Islamist terrorists were responsible for the death of 26 civilians in 2005, 24 of these during and after the August 17 explosions.
Fatalities in Terrorist Violence – 2006
Fatalities in Terrorist Violence – 2006
LWE in Bangladesh, consisting of the different factions of the PBCP, Gono Mukti Fouz (GMF), New Biplobi Communist Party (NBCP), remains in a high state of disarray and their activities have been confined to the limits of the western districts of the country such as Satkhira, Khulna, Jessore, Jhenaidah, Magura, Chuadanga, Meherpur, Kushtia, Pabna and Rajshahi. Once-influential, outfits such as the PBCP, over the years have split into several factions such as Janajuddha, Marxist-Leninist, Lal Pataka and Communist War, each posing little or negligible threat to the state and its populace. Some of these factions are also involved in bitter fratricidal clashes, periodically eliminating their rival cadres. And when not engaged in infighting, the extremists, popularly referred to as Sarbaharas, are reportedly engaged in isolated acts of extortion and abduction. Most civilian fatalities inflicted by these groups are more in the nature of routine criminal activities, rather than anything that could fall into the category of ‘terrorism’.
The left-wing extremist have been systematically targeted both by the state and the Islamist militants, and indeed the rise of the JMJB and Bangla Bhai can be traced directly to a police-supported campaign to target and eliminate left-wing extremists. The Rapid Action Battalion, created in 2004 as a special para-military force under the Home Ministry, has overwhelmingly targeted and neutralised left-wing extremists and other criminals (mostly referred to as terrorists) in various encounters, referred to as ‘cross fires’ over the years. A report by the BBC (December 13, 2005) suggested that 190 people had been killed by the RAB in such ‘cross fires’ in the last two years. Occasional voices have been raised by the human rights activists over such periodic extra-judicial killings, but these have secured no Government response.
A parallel campaign against the extremists was launched by Islamist groups like the JMJB and was propped up with adequate state sanction. As Islamist militants, through 2003, 2004 and the early part of 2005, went on a rampage in the countryside, killing the extremists and their supporters, security forces stood by as a mute spectator and in some cases facilitated such atrocities. In a series of campaigns that occurred in 2003 and 2004, mutilated bodies of suspected left-wing extremists were hung from trees and electric poles by cadres of the JMJB.
Security forces also conducted operations targeting the Myanmarese rebels operating in the southern part of the country. During their 'anti-crime' campaign which began on May 21, 2005, the Army and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) reportedly neutralised several camps of the rebel groups in the border district of Bandarban in July. On June 12, Army and BDR personnel arrested Tai Jo Khoy, the 'president' of Myanmar's anti-government guerrilla group, the National United Party of Arakan (NUPA), and three of his associates from a border village in the Narkelbunia area of Naikkhangchhari sub-district in Bandarban district. On July 24, a statement claimed that 26 fugitive rebels from Myanmar were arrested and 31 AK-47 rifles with 16,000 rounds of ammunition were recovered during the raids. On July 27, the BDR personnel arrested two Myanmar citizens after a gunfight at Alekhang in the Bandarban district. An American-made M-16 rifle, a European-made G-3 rifle, 51 round bullets of M-16 and G-3 rifles, a mobile phone set, different military equipment and uniforms were recovered from the arrested persons.
However, these operations have remained little more than cosmetic and are undertaken only to appease a certain constituency inside as well as outside the country. Districts like Bandarban, Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar have turned into bases of several anti-Myanmarese-junta outfits, including NUPA, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) and the RSO (Rohingya Solidarity Organisation) and other Rohingya groups. These three southern districts, spread over 11,734 square kilometres, have, over the years, turned into meeting points for the Islamist extremists in Bangladesh and the Rohingya groups from Myanmar. Apart from the lucrative small arms trade, which feeds the collaboration, the 'remoteness' of these areas has been exploited to carry out terrorist mobilisation, training and planning for eventual deployment and operations. The willingness of the regime to tolerate such growth has not only led to the establishment of an effective and well-oiled machinery for producing Jihadis within the constituency of the 100,000 Rohingyas living outside the UNHCR camps, as well as the larger native Bangladeshi population, but has provided a safe haven for Jihadis seeking passage or temporary refuge from various theatres of conflict around the globe.
Military operations against Myanmarese fugitives have focused only on the weakest and least problematic of the rebel groups based in the country, while the most radical continue to be given a free run, along with their home-grown Islamist extremist associates. For example, no SF operation has targeted the RSO, which has a history of association with Jihadi elements in Bangladesh. In association with radical Islamist groups, the RSO is known to have set up several Madrassas (seminaries), allegedly with foreign assistance, in the Bandarban area. Most of these seminaries allegedly provide training to militants in the name of religious studies. Several of the mosques in the Naikkhongchari area also provide physical training to students, drawn from various parts of the country as well as from the Rohingya community in Myanmar, who subsequently find their way to the Rohingya rebel camps for arms training. In the Cox's Bazaar district alone, the number of such Madrassas is estimated to be over 2,000. Five 'training centres', along with several mobile centres, have come up in Naikkhongchari, one in Ukhia and one in Ramu. In the Chittagong district, the nerve centre of these Rohingya groups is located in the Chandgaon and Khatunganj areas.
While Bangladesh can claim to have achieved visible success against militancy at home, its attitude towards the terrorists operating in the Indian northeast, as well as Islamist terrorists joining operations in different parts of the larger Indian mainland, continues to remain ambivalent. Here, again, however, there are early signs of a thaw in this direction as well. On May 24, 2006 in the first instance of its type, Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) personnel handed over nine militants belonging to the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT)-Nayanbashi faction, to the authorities in Tripura. These militants had been lodged in a Bangladesh jail for two and a half years after their arrest in December 2003 from the Gourgopal area in Srimangal. Such incidents, however, are still the very rare exception, and been entirely overshadowed by repeated Bangladeshi denials of Indian claims and evidence of the presence of militants operating in India’s Northeast from Bangladeshi soil. Covert and overt alliances between such militant groupings and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) – Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) combine continue to flourish. Bangladesh has refused to deport the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) general secretary Anup Chetia to India after he ended his jail term there, and India gave a list of 172 insurgent camps to Bangladesh in 2005 only to have its claims dismissed by Bangladeshi authorities. There remain, consequently, grounds to suspect that Bangladesh continues to distinguish between categories of terrorists, and is not unwilling to continue its support to certain groups, even as it hunts down and neutralizes others.