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     Volume 4 63 | September 16, 2005 |

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Cover Story

Catch Me If You Can

Shamim Ahsan

(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.

Exactly three weeks into the near-simultaneous bomb blasts across the country, Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) and police discovered a treasury of weapons that leaves no doubt about the intention to create more terror in the future. The list of terrorist goodies is long: 20 time bombs, firearms, three kgs of explosives, a good amount of bomb making materials like 470 detonators, switches, an electric bowler, wire, batteries, capacitors, gun powder as well as sixty compact disks (CDs) containing militant training manuals, four audio cassettes on jihad, 17 masks made of black cloth, one computer, two printers, 10 floppy disks, nine books of district maps, one motor cycle, were seized from two houses in Goran and Bashabo on September 8. Eight people including a woman arrested from the two houses, have admitted their association with the Jama'atul Mujahidden, Bangladesh (JMB) and said they were making the bombs at the directive of Ataur Rahman, brother of JMB chief Abdur Rahman, and commander-in-chief of JMB's military wing.

Such huge amount of bombs and bomb making materials that resemble the ones used in 17/8 have grave implications. It shows that preparations to launch another attack or attacks are on and perhaps, there are more houses in or outside Dhaka fellow Jihadis are busy doing the same. Secondly, and more frighteningly, the biggest ever police operation in the country's history and arrests of several hundred JMB cadres all over the country, it seems, have not caused any serious damage to the militant outfit's strong organisational capability; they still have the logistics, manpower and a well functioning network to carry out future attacks. That the JMB operatives are preparing for another round of attacks is sure proof of that. The country is therefore still vulnerable to terrorist attacks by the same group or groups and this time they may choose to inflict greater destruction than the ones did on 17/8.

A huge cache of bomb-making materials were seized by police from two houses in the city's Goran and Basabo area on September 8, only three weeks into the countrywide bomb blasts.

Even the State Minister for Home, Lutfozzaman Babar, has not written off the idea and has actually admitted that the government is anticipating more such subversive terrorist attacks. Though he assured that his ministry is taking full care to prevent such attacks, not many people are depending on such promises. He had similar information before 17/8, but could not prevent the bomb blasts.

Only three weeks into a most daring operation, when one would expect them to be on the run, the JMB is still making its presence felt in different parts of the country. It is issuing threats of dire consequences to various people who they claim are standing in their way of establishing Islamic rule in the country. In Jamalpur the extremist group has threatened the district's commissioner, in Khulna red alert has been circulated in police stations across the country, all of which indicate that despite men-tionable success that the police have so far achieved, the militant group is far from being demolished and the possibility of terrorist acts is still very strong.

A DB team seized tools for making bomb-heads, dies and a sack of green raw materials used in making bombs.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the near-simultaneous bomb blasts across the country is going on fairly well. The list of arrestees is growing almost every day; intense -- at times coercive -- interrogation is yielding more and more 'significant leads' and using them, various agencies are raiding different places, recovering arms, ammunition, bombs and rounding up more sus-pected

militants almost on a daily basis. They have also had a prized catch in Abdur Rahman's brother, Moulana Obaidur Rahman Ibne Fazle recently, and a DB team discovered a lathe-machine factory in Old Dhaka where tools for making bomb-heads, dies and a sack of green raw materials were found.

But, the fact remains that the masterminds of these organised attacks have still managed to elude arrest and the progress so far made will be tantamount to zero if the real culprits and their heinous intentions remain undiscovered. And there is every reason to believe that it's not going to be easy.

Two suspected JMB cadres arrested from a house in East Basabo, from where Ataur Rahman, chief of JMB's military wing, coordinated the near-simultaneous bomb attacks on 17/8.

Though the police have rounded up around 300 suspected militants in connection with the serial bomb explosions all over the country over the last three weeks, and many have actually confessed their involvement in the August 17 bomb blasts, the police are still groping for a lead that would reach them to the chief criminals.

Most of the arrested JMB or JMJB cadres who have confessed their participation in the 17/8 bomb blasts have said they did so at the call of Abdur Rahman, their leader, while some others have named Bangla Bhai, another top notch leader of the JMB. Another name that has come up time and again from the confessors is Ataur Rahman, who is also known to his fellow militants as Hasan and Sunny.

"But that's all they seem to know, the name of their top leaders Abdur Rahman, Bangla Bhai and his brother Ataur Rahman. The arrested are giving information about activists of their ranks and level, but they do not appear to have any knowledge about the activities and whereabouts of JMB leaders of the higher echelons. The link between the top leadership and field level activists is missing, making it hard for the investigators to trace the masterminds," observes officers in the Joint Interrogation Cell where arrestees from all over the country are being quizzed.

Even in the face of a massive manhunt by police, JMB cadres were making bombs in a rented house in the city, presumably to launch another round of bomb attacks.

Statements of those arrested from Goran and Bashabo on August 8, explain why they did not have any clue about leaders of the higher ranks. They said they never tried to figure out the identity or whereabouts of the people in the higher echelon of JMB, as such attempts are considered a punishable offence.

Brig General Shakhawat Hussain, a security expert and columnist, sheds more light on the matter: "Those who have so far been arrested are the foot soldiers, the field level operatives, who only know their top leader, that too perhaps only by name. It is very likely that those who have named Abdur Rahman as their leader have never actually seen him, perhaps saw only his photographs."

The real challenge for the investigators is to find the missing links and tie the loose ends. Again, catching Bangla Bhai or Abdur Rahman may not mean the investigation is over, as many experts and analysts are of the opinion that a stronger power, national or probably international, is plotting these attacks and using the JMB just as their pawn.

It took Prime Minister Khaleda Zia three weeks to speak on the countrywide bomb blasts.

Hossain also does not rule out the existence of international association. The monetary support, he says, is most likely to be coming from outside. "And as you already know, the militant group has professional hands who were most probably trained outside," he observes.

About the bomb blasts, Hussain believes, as many others do, it was actually a demonstrative operation. But what message are they trying to get across? "Well, through the bomb blasts they are announcing their presence and we now know it's a mighty presence. They have done it for two main reasons to get more recruits and -- to show their performance and capability to their financiers or mentors," he explains. Hussain however emphasises that all his observations are assumptions made on the basis of available facts in the media. "To know their purpose for certain we have no option but to pursue the case to the finish and trace out the real masterminds behind the bomb explosion," he concludes.

A large number of books on Jihad, manuals on military training and leaflets making calls to establish Islamic rule were found by the police on September 8 in the city.

As far as getting to the bottom of things is concerned, it would require an orchestrated, consistent, transparent and honest persuasion by the investigative agencies. "So far the investigation is going well, but the same zeal and concentration will have to be maintained till the last shred of mystery is resolved," He remarks. The investigating agencies must be given a free reign so that they can work professionally without any sort of political interference. And here the role of the government is most crucial -- even the slightest lack in their determination and momentary slip from their resolution to see the case to the finish is bound to destroy all chances to unmask the real culprits and their unholy objectives.

Momtaz Alam, centre, an employee of JMB leader Abdus Samad's Satata Machineries on Nawabpur Road in the city, shows police metal dies for making bombs.

Unfortunately, signs of such irresponsible behaviour are not hardly rarities. Lutfozzaman Babar, state minister for home, a few days ago made some strange comments. He came up with an astounding, if not bizarre, piece of information as to who are behind the deadly bountry-wide bomb blasts on August 17. Emerging out of a meeting of the law and order committee on September 4, Babar stunned the attending journalists and through them the entire country, saying that JMB and Janajuddha, an underground splinter group of the Purba Banglar Communist Party, joined hands to carry out the 17/08 country-wide bomb explosions. He, of course, did not explain on what basis he made such conclusion.

Interestingly, intelligence agents, who have been interrogating suspected militants sent from all over of the country at the Joint Interrogation Cell (JIC) in Dhaka, have rejected the notion outright. "All the militants who have confessed of their involvement in the bomb blasts have identified themselves as JMB or JMJB members. We have not learnt anything about Janajuddha's connection with the 17/8 incident," reported an interrogator at the JIC.

Lutfozzaman Babar, state minister for home.

Babar's theory sounds so strange because the enmity between Bangla Bhai and the Sarbahara is too well established to be questioned. In fact Bangla Bhai was raised by a section of BNP leaders to confront the Sarbaharas, which he did with great zeal, by ruthlessly killing several dozen of the outlawed extremist group's members.

Though more than 300 people were rounded up by police, the masterminds of the August 17 bomb blasts still elude the police.

The Prime Minister has also made irresponsible comments to the public. While it is fairly common practice for the PM or the President to address the nation during or following any national crisis, for reasons never explained, it took the PM three weeks to speak on the 17th August country-wide bomb blasts. "Those who want to brand Bangladesh a religiously extremist country" and "those who cannot stand Bangladesh's economic progress have perpetrated the heinous bomb blasts on 17/8" was all she said. She didn't name who she meant by 'those', but everybody understood she was pointing to the main opposition Bangladesh Awami League. Her careful avoidance of not uttering the name of the JMB or any other fundamentalist outfits was also disturbing given the overwhelming evidence that JMB was behind this bomb blasts. There wasn't any clear-cut, concrete directive as is expected of the head of the government regarding where we stand today and where we should go from here at the backdrop of the seemingly never ending bomb attacks. Nor did she reveal the present status of the investigation except for some very obscure, cliché-ridden assurance of bringing the culprits to justice.

Moulana Fariduddin, former director of Bangladesh Islamic has been arrested in connection with the 17/8 bomb explosions.

It's not just the PM's belated speech, there are other signs that call the government's sincerity and seriousness into serious question. The present government, as did the past ones, has been always saying that parliament should be the centre of all activities where every national issues should be discussed and debated. But the issue of the serial bomb blasts that threatened national security was not even considered for raising in the parliament. This implies that the government does not consider the issue to be important enough to discuss in the parliament or they do not really believe that parliament should be the place where issues of national importance should be discussed and through the parliament they should be shared with the countrymen.

The prized catch, Moulana Obaidur Rahman, brother of JMB chief Abdur Rahman, may give information which could provide answers to many difficult questions.

Admittedly the government is under difficult circumstances. BNP, the coalition leader is apparently facing tremendous pressure from its two coalition partners -- Jamat Islami and Islami Okkiyajote. Just four days ago, two Jamat MPs, Delwar Hossain Saydee and Riasat Ali Biswas, raised the issue in the parliament. They claimed that attacking the JMB for the 17/8 bomb blasts is an Indian conspiracy and hatched by some anti-Islam political parties of the country. Saydee even accused the government of cracking down on the madrasas and harassing innocent madrasa students and teachers. What compounds BNP's problems is the fact that the more conservative right-leaning group in the party is opposing the government's going hard on the JMB arguing that BNP might pay a price for it in the coming elections. Besides, a section of high-profile BNP leaders -- allegedly Alamgir Kabir, state minister for housing and public works, Nadim Mostafa, an MP, Ruhul Kuddus Talukdar Dulu, state minister for land -- were the people who helped, patronised and sheltered Bangla Bhai carrying on beastly murders in some northern districts last year. They also used their influence to engage the local administration in bangla Bhai's service. One just needs to recall the huge motor-cycle processions with JMJB cadres armed with bamboo sticks on them marching down the main streets of Rajshahi to meet the district commissioner last year. It can be inferred that the same group is now active once again to save Bangla Bhai and his party. But BNP will have to withstand all this pressure and stick to what PM Khaleda Zia vowed in the parliament that the bomb perpetrators will be brought to justice.

We have seen too often how terrorist acts of massive proportions get politicised in our country and how investigations into those heinous acts are influenced to reap political gain. Amid some dozen deadliest bomb or grenade attacks over the last 6 years or so, the 17/8 incident is perhaps the only exception where there is at least a possibility of a conclusive investigation. It will require the efforts of every quarter, especially top leaders of BNP and AL must not speak or act in a way that might influence or deviate the course of the investigation. It is not a matter of scoring political points. It concerns the security of this nation as well as the hard-earned democracy and secular beliefs. If the fundamentalist forces are nourished and encouraged for petty and short-term political gain, as has been happening in recent years, we are risking far too much; basically our very lives.

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