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     Volume 4 Issue 60 |August 26, 2005 |

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Cover Story

The Blasting Wake-up Call
Is everybody listening?

Shamim Ahsan

On 17th August our worst fears came true. By midday, on that otherwise calm Wednesday, when news of bomb explosions at some 500 spots across 63 districts within a span of 30 minutes began to unfold, a dreadful revelation sank in -- we are hostage to an organised extremist group who have the skill, training and manpower to carry out orchestrated bomb attacks, literally all over the country. Yes, there have been bomb attacks, and very deadly for that matter, like the ones on August 21 on an AL rally at Bangabandhu avenue that killed 22 and injured scores. Or the one that killed former finance minister and a sitting MP of AL SAMS Kibria. Or, the ones in Hazrat Shahjalal's shrine in Sylhet that killed four and injured Anwar Chowdhury, the British High Commission to Bangladesh. Or, the ones in an AL office in Narayanganj at the fag end of the AL regime that killed 17. Or, the ones in Paltan maidan, or the ones in Ramna Batamul, or in Udichi conference in Jessore, or in a cinema hall in Mymensingh, or the ones in a church in Shariatpur and many more not very major ones, the list is quite big.

The locally manufactured bombs with rather small destructive power were planted at some 500 spots across the country, evading the eyes of at least half-a-dozen secret service agencies

But, there is a distinct difference from the ones in August 17 and the other ones that preceded them for about 5 years. In all those attacks, some individual or some gatherings of some particular groups were targeted, and those were carried out targeting a certain place a field or a meeting place or a cinema hall. This is the first incident when the spate of bombings were launched all over the country, at 500 different spots that covered 63 (out of existing 64) districts. Which means one does not have to be a regular mazar goer, or a frequenter to AL meetings, or a cine buff or be obsessive about attending Channayanat's musical soiree at Batamul on the first day of Baishakh to get into within their target; on August 17 we learnt that the net of their target has now expanded literally all over the country and each one of us, without really being a hard core supporter of any party or belief or creed, may be targeted by these insane terrorists.

Around a week into the country's biggest bomb blasts -- another example of such co-ordinated serial bomb blasts at 500-odd spots covering nearly 55,000 sq miles is yet to be found -- the picture as to who perpetrated such an attack is getting clear. Going by hard evidence like the leaflets that were found at almost all the spots where the bombs were blasted and confessional statements of around three dozen arrestees, it is the Jamaatul Mujahidden Bangladesh (JMB), an underground Islamist extremist party, banned by the government early this year, orchestrated this act on August 17. Newspaper reports reveal that 26 militants who have been quizzed at Joint Interrogation cell (JIC) have admitted their involvement as well as their being members of JMB. The arrestees have also named Abdur Rahman as their leader and claimed that Abdur Rahman's brother Ataur Rahman, who is the head of JMB's military chapter, has led the co-ordinated serial attacks.

What was their purpose? Certainly, the bombers didn't want to inflict the greatest casualties, which they showed they are capable of. But that does not reduce the threat of far more vicious attacks. If the leaflets written in Bangla and Arabic are anything to go by, the outlawed Islamic militant group called JMB wants "to establish Islamic rule in the country, followed by a threat that "they will go for counteroffensive against the authorities". They went on, " We are the soldiers of Allah. We have taken up arms for implementing Allah's law and the way Prophet, Shahabis and heroic Mujahidden have done for centuries." The leaflet denounced democracy, calling it "a system created by Kafirs (heretics)". It also decried the country's constitution and instead called for setting up Sura (highest Islamic Consultative Committee) comprising Alema, Ulema, Masaek and Islamic scholars.

(Left) Bangla Bhai, the operation commander of JMB which later changed its name to JMJB; (Centre) Abdur Rahman, the leader of JMB; (Right) Dr Asadullah Al Galib, a RU prof, who is in jail now, is believed to be the spiritual leader of the Ahle Hadith Andolon

Whether they have got the strength to translate what they are threatening to do into reality is a big question. But the bigger question is how could they have amassed so much power and capability to launch such a co-ordinated attack all over the country?

Of course the JMB or Ahle Hadith Andolon or Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) or many other such groups have not grown and become so powerful overnight. Especially, the last several years, since BNP-led four party government came to power, have seen the so-called Islamist fundamentalist parties or groups, both under ground and over-ground, a gaining from strength to strength. Over the last four years, these groups that had been operating rather covertly in some particular pockets across a few districts till even the late nineties, have grown and prospered greatly and now have expanded into a vast area covering a good number of northern and southern districts of the country. Along with their growth and prosperity their activities have also intensified and many of them have been reported in the media from time to time. But the government instead of taking action, accused the media of "information terrorism" (BNP has the patent to coin this phrase), plotting "to tarnish the country's image". They are more willing now than ever before to show off their muscle power. Their steady and sure rise was noticeable to all but the dumb and deaf, as the ruling government chose to be.

RAB officers examining the bombs (left); an unexploded bomb is being deactivated (right)

The government that includes two religious parties namely Jamaat and Islami Oikkyjote, have not only continued to refuse to recognise this phenomenon of the rise of the Islamist militants they, or at least a section of the government, have actually patronised these groups for their party or petty political interest. Just recall the rise of Bangla Bhai in and around Rajshahi just one and a half years back. This self-styled zealot under the banner of JMJB brutally beat some 50 people to death. Harrowing tales of his militant cronies were flashing the newspapers, the government even denied his existence, let alone act. A number of local BNP MPs and a state minister allegedly gave him shelter and protection to use Bangla Bhai for their personal or political gain. And when pressure both inside and from outside mounted the PM ordered his arrest, but he escaped, rather was allowed to escape untroubled.

(Left) An unexploded bomb with JMB's leaflets lying beside it.(Right) A police officer collecting components of the exploded bombs

The government's support for Bangla Bhai in fact goes back even before that. On August 17, 2002, Bangla Bhai was actually arrested by policemen of Mollarhat police station in Bagerhat district, after he along with some accomplices attacked an AL leader Tarapad Poddar's home in Gaola union and hacked Tarapad, his son and his daughter. After four months he came out on bail, released. The local police did not oppose it, terming Siddiqur Rahman alias Bangla Bhai as a "buzurga (holy person) belonging to Ahle Hadith".

All throughout, the government chose to turn a blind eye to the steady rise of Islamist fundamentalism, in spite of the persistent media outcry. Numerous reports in the print media about their activities also failed to make the government act. Instead, the government has always looked sympathetic and supportive to these so-called fundamentalist forces.

One of the more than hundred passers-by injured in the bomb blasts on August 17.

Besides, the grenade attacks on the AL rally on August 21, Kibria's killing in Sylhet, the grenade attack on British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Anwar Chowdhury in Hazrat Shahazalal shrine and the poisoning of the fishes in the shrine, the Brahmanbaria bomb attacks, the arm cache in Bogra, the Akhaura bomb blasts, and a number of attacks on NGOs and Grameen banks, Many of which are believed to be the works of Islamist extremists have gone virtually un-probed and unearthed. Though none of these bomb attacks have been properly investigated and pursued to the finish, an examination of the victims' list makes the idea that Islamist militant groups are behind it, quite plausible. It is quite possible that JMB or JMJB was behind these attacks as well, as their expressed aspersion of shrine culture or NGO activities is well known. The government's inaction and often politically motivated and misleading probe have certainly encouraged the real culprits, who have gone on to pursue their agenda with renewed enthusiasm.

As far as the government's failure is concerned the AL government also has its share of responsibility. The fact that the large-scale bomb blasts started during its rule and its subsequent failure to catch the culprits also raises question about AL's honesty to identify the bomb perpetrators.

Many have raised questions about the performance of the country's intelligence agencies. No doubt, that the August 17 bomb blasts across the country, not to mention the earlier similarly dreadful bomb or grenade explosions, speak of inefficiency of massive proportions on the part of our intelligence agencies. But, instead of asking for their heads, as many are doing, we must consider if they were really allowed to work independently and professionally. The answer is often 'no' and in that case the blame once again goes onto the government's shoulders. But if the security agencies are not really capable of doing the job they are tasked to do, then why didn't the government reconstruct by providing them with the necessary equipment, logistic support, modern technology and manpower? It once shows the governments', both that of the BNP and AL, careless attitude about something no less important than national security and the lives of millions of people.

Some of the arrestees held on suspicion of their involvement in the August 17 bomb blasts.

Meanwhile the political field is gathering heat over the bomb explosions. Following our tradition that demands politicisation of everything, be it history writing or constructing bridge, naming of public toilets or winning test status, the 17 August bomb explosions also met the same fate of creating another excuse for our major political parties to get locked in a bitter blame game.

While, Sheikh Hasina put the blame squarely on the BNP-Jamaat coalition government, both BNP and Jamat have accused the AL to mastermind the bomb blasts. Of course they have their own explanations to back up the suspicion: How is it possible to explode bombs simultaneously across 63 districts at around 500 spots if the government had not been actively involved? Hasina further argued that with more than half a dozen security agencies at the government's disposal it is impossible for the government not to know about it.

But why would the government do something that would put itself in such an embarrassing situation?

One need not worry; the AL has a good answer for it, at least that's what they believe. They think that the government wants to divert people's attention from the 14-party combine sponsored movement for reform in the caretaker government system and election commission.

BNP, the coalition leader, though fell short of actually uttering the name of AL, by blaming "a particular party involved in anti-state activities" and the party which "wants to portray Bangla-desh as a fundamentalist country to tarnish the country's image" it left little confusion regarding who they were pointing their fingers at.

Jamaat didn't veil its belief and directly accused the AL for the blasts. They also saw a sure hand of RAW, India's secret agency and Nizami matter-of-factly described the incident as a work of Israeli secret service Mossad.

After the August 17 bomb blasts, check-posts were set up in the important parts of the capital as well as around the country.

This blame game between the AL and BNP has become too predictable and too petty to take seriously. The history of this ridiculous "you are the culprit" game is as old as the history of bomb blast incidents in the country. Take the major bomb/grenade explosion incidents -- at least a dozen happened since 1999 -- and from the first one to the latest one on August 17, we haven't seen a single exception to this practice of blaming each other.

Background of JMB
Abdur Rahman's name came up in the media on quite a few occasions. He is believed to have been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he took military training. JMB, when established in 1998 in Jamalpur, had a different name. Its name was Kitaal. The name was, however, changed and the new name Al-Jamaatul Jihad remained intact until 2000. Towards the end of 2000 it took the name of Jamaatul Mujahidden. By 2001, JMB spread its network across a vast area under Joypur, Dinajpur, Bogura, Gaibandha, Natore, Thakurgaon, Rangpur and Jamalpur districts. Its militant activities were operated very clandestinely but still common people of these areas got to know about this organisation.
Abdur Rahman is the son of Abdullah Ibne Fazal of Charshi village under Jamalpur Sadar Upazila. Fazal was a renowned leader of Ahle Hadith and until his death he was against his son's creating a militant organisation. Dr. Asadullah Al Galib, a professor at RU, who is in jail now, is also believed to be the spiritual leader of Ahle Hadith.
Bangla Bhai alias Siddiqur Rahman is the operation commander of Ahle Hadith's North Bengal chapter. In fact in April, Bangla Bhai launched his operations in Rajshahi's Bagmara and Naoga's Raninagar and Aatrai where more than 50 people were brutally beaten to death under the name of Jamaatul Mujahidden. But after around a week the name was changed to Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB). Both JMB and JMJB were banned on February 23 this year.

The August 17 serial bomb blasts have more ramifications than meets the eye -- the national security concerns and a general sense of fear among the common people aside, the economic price the country will have to pay is also going to be very high. The country's garment sector, which has been struggling hard to keep its head above water in the post-mfa regime, is set to suffer a huge blow due to the latest attacks. Many foreign buyers have been frightened at the recent developments and have started to ask all sorts of questions, revealed a worried vice president of BGMEA, MA Salam. The finance and planning minister Saifur Rahman has also admitted that the bomb blast incidents will shake foreign investors' confidence and ultimately the country's overall business environment will be hurt.

Though it is apparent that it is the JMB that is behind these synchronised bomb blasts all over the country at this stage of investigation, it is premature to conclude that they were not aided by some mightier groups, national or international. One thing however, is certain; their capability to carry out widespread, organised attacks. That is where lies the real threat lies. If the government as well as all of us fail to recognise this threat this time, it will be tantamount to allowing the culprits yet another opportunity to attack, perhaps with deadlier consequences.

Apparently this time, the government is serious about hunting down the bombers. Though it started with accusing the AL, overwhelming evidence implies the involvement of JMB forcing the government to reverse its previous stance; orders have been given to nab JMB leader Abdur Rahman, who now appears to be the mastermind behind 17/8 blasts. This time the government, especially the BNP, does not have any option but to see through the case to the finish. But, if for some reasons, may be for party or petty personal interest, it chooses to even slightly deviate from this course, it will be at the cost of risking its own destruction. More importantly, it will bring at risk many other thingsthe country's independence, its democracy, our secular values, our culture and tradition and everything good we as a nation stand for. We must not let it happen.

Photographs: Star File Photo, AFP.

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