Islamist Terrorism: New Challenges
In an attempt to derail Sheikh Hasina Wajed's Awami League (AL)-led Government's efforts to suppress Islamist extremism and terrorism within the country, Islamist militant formations have started reorganizing themselves, presenting a rising challenge to the regime and its enforcement apparatus.
On September 3, 2013, Mukhlesur Rahman, Director General of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), disclosed, "We have information that the militants are trying to reorganize their groups under different banners. All the 13 anti-militant wings of RAB have been asked to remain vigilant across the country to collect advance information of their regrouping."
Following this, intelligence operations were stepped up across the country, especially in remote areas, to collect advance information of regrouping of Islamist militants to frustrate their activities.
Significantly, on August 25, 2013, the Detective Branch (DB) of the Police stated that a new extremist formation, the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) has now emerged and was following in the footsteps of Islamist terrorists in other Muslim countries. The ABT plans to gain control of a part of the country (Bangladesh) and conduct armed jihad(Islamic uprising) from there to make Bangladesh a Sharia-based Islamic State. Mufti Jasimuddin Rahmani, the head of ABT, was arrested along with 30 of his followers, on August 12, 2013, while they were allegedly holding a secret meeting to plan to attack Police Stations and other state establishments in order to create disorder, destabilize Bangladesh, and overthrow the Government through jihad. Again, Police arrested nine ABT extremists from different parts of Dhaka city on August 25, 2013, along with an instruction manual on how to explode grenades and use rocket launchers, as well as some books on jihad. Dhaka Metropolitan Police Joint Commissioner Monirul Islam commented, "They were planning to overthrow the Government through jihad." Senior Assistant Commissioner of the Detective Branch, Mohammad Touhidul Islam, added, "They [ABT] are closely following al Qaeda in running their organization."
ABT started their extremist activities under the banner of a Non Government Organisation (NGO), Research Centre for Unity and Development, way back in 2004. The group follows the ideals, policy and strategy of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Pakistan-based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Another growing concern in Bangladesh is the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT, 'Party of Liberation'). Colonel T.M. Jobaer, Director of National Security Intelligence, described HuT as "currently the biggest threat of all the Islamic outfits... the organization is strong because it has a strong international agenda - it wants to establish a Khilafat(Islamic State) in many countries."
Meanwhile, other terrorist formations that had been forced into dormancy over the past years, have also been trying to regain lost ground. According to a September 9, 2013, report, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), which had been paralyzed since the arrest of its 'operations commander' Mufti Abdul Hannan in Dhaka city on October 1, 2005, has, over the past five years, recruited around 10,000 cadres and supporters through cyber services such as the social network website Facebook. On August 14, 2013, Police arrested nine cadres of HuJI-B at Kademul Islam Qaumi Madrassah mosque in the Jhalakati District, while they were allegedly participating in a 'training session'.
Disturbingly, the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which was responsible for the countrywide serial bombings in 2005, and had been crippled when virtually its entire top leadership was executed in 2007, is presently trying to reorganize, albeit on a "very small scale". On August 16, 2013, RAB Legal and Media Wing Director A.T.M. Habibur Rahman observed, "With its whole network dismantled, the banned militant outfit has almost no strength left to carry out any subversive activity. Some JMB members were recently caught printing leaflets and posters, suggesting that they were active..." On June 20, 2013, a Dhaka court sentenced 10 JMB terrorists to death over a suicide bomb attack at the Gazipur Bar Association office on November 29, 2005, in which eight people were killed, including four lawyers, and another 80 were injured.
Other groups, including the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Hizb-ut-Tawhid (HT), among others, continue to propagate appeals for jihad. In a recent incident, on August 22, 2013, Police arrested two female cadres of HT from the Kanaikhali area of Natore District while they were distributing books on jihad.
Further, Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI, 'Protectorate of Islam'), which came to prominence after it raised its 13-point demands on March 9, 2013, has expanded the space for all Islamist extremist formations to extend their subversion in the name of political activism.
Home Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, for instance, claimed that cadres of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) had joined the violent May 5, 2013, rally under the aegis of HeI. Alamgir stated, on May 5, 2013, "We have talked to the leaders of the HeI and they have confirmed that the people who attacked Police are not their activists." On September 5, 2013, Police identified seven political parties - JeI, Islami Oikya Jote, Muslim League, Nezam-e-Islam (Latif), Nezam-e-Islami (Izharul Islam), Khelafat-e-Islam, and Khelafat-e-Mazlish - that participated in the rally and engaged in widespread violence, intimidation and disruption. At least 35 people were killed in their campaigns between May 5 and 14, 2013.
On August 26, 2013, at a 'views-exchange meeting' organized by the Islami Dalsamuha (an alliance of some 15 Islamic Parties), at the head office of one of the alliance partners, Bangladesh Khelafat Andolon (BKA, 'Bangladesh Caliphate Movement'), in Dhaka city's Lalbagh area, ended with a declaration that the alliance would act against the ruling Awami League (AL), which they considered an "anti-Islamic element". Zafrullah Khan, 'secretary general' of BKA and a member secretary of Islami Dalsamuha declared, "Our first target is to oust the ruling AL government and take steps so that the party cannot come to power in the next general election." BKA, an Islamist political party founded by Moulana Mohammadullah alias Hafezzi Huzur, on July 30, 2008, had demanded that women be made ineligible for the posts of head of Government or State.
Further, reviewing the role of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI, Pakistan's external intelligence agency) in Bangladesh, State Minister for Law, Advocate Quamrul Islam, on May 8, 2013, claimed that the mayhem on May 5, 2013, in Dhaka city was backed by the ISI. Moreover, the clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in the Rakhine State in Myanmar, which resulted in some 200 deaths and the displacement of over 22,000 people in 2012, have provided a new opportunity to ISI-backed Islamist formations to consolidate their hold in Bangladesh, and to make the Bangladesh-Myanmar Border their operational base.
Meanwhile, violence perpetrated by JeI-ICS cadres with the tacit support of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) continued unabated. According to partial data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the country has witnessed 206 Islamist related fatalities in total, including 116 civilians, 77 militants and 13 Security Forces (SFs) through 2013 (all data till September 15). By contrast, only three Islamist extremism-linked fatalities had been recorded in 2012, including one civilian and two terrorists; no fatalities were reported in 2011; and in 2010, six fatalities were recorded, including three civilians and three militants.
These worrying developments have the potential to undermine the Hasina Government's work over the past years. Indeed, since it came to power on January 6, 2009, on the promise of taking drastic measures to tackle terrorism in its election manifesto, the regime has been able to rein in Islamist extremist groups in substantial measure. Despite tremendous and sustained opposition, the Government has pushed on with the War Crimes Trials, where a total of 13 persons, including 11 JeI and two BNP leaders, have been indicted thus far. 12 of these persons had been indicted till August 1, 2013, while the thirteenth, JeI central executive committee member Mir Quasem Ali, was indicted on September 5, 2013. Quasem Ali faces 14 charges, including murder, torture, abduction and confinement of people and complicity in crimes against humanity during the Liberation War of 1971. Out of 13 persons indicted, four have already been awarded death sentence, while another two have been given life imprisonment. Trials of the remaining seven are under process.
The SFs have arrested at least 2,861 extremists belonging to various Islamist groups in 2013, as against 1,832 such arrests in 2012; 578 in 2011; and 958 in 2010.
The achievements of the Sheikh Hasina Government in its counter-terrorism and de-radicalization programmes have been extraordinary, and they have established a measure of stability in a State that, just a few years ago, appeared to be going the Pakistan way. Nevertheless, these gains remain fragile. The hold of subversive and extremist Islamist formations remains significant and is spread across the country, and the possibility of a dangerous and disruptive revival has not been eliminated.
(The writer S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)
(Posted on 17-09-2013)