Terrorism in Bangladesh

How long the denial?

Ekram Kabir

If previous bomb blasts had not wakened Bangladesh officials from their deep slumber, the August 17 serial blasts and subsequent militant attacks certainly have. No matter what the government in its make-believe effort says about human security, recent bomb attacks and a series of deaths across Bangladesh have contributed to the already-deteriorating security of Bangladeshis. Bomb blast and the rise of religious militants have again proved that human security in Bangladesh is at stake.

Bangladesh faces a multi-faceted problem as far as terrorism is concerned. Elements of terrorism were slowly spreading their roots in the country for a long time. Apart from the criminal underworld, there are a few more areas from where terrorism might start to take extreme turn. Situation in Chittagong Hill Tracts may get out of hand if it is not wisely tackled. What the so-called leftists do in the southwestern Bangladesh is nothing less than terrorism. If the state of human security of Bangladeshis were assessed, it would certainly present a ghastly scenario.

The underworld
The Sangbad on July 2, 2001 in a report said that prior to national elections, Dhaka city saw the formation of four terrorist outfits. They were: Black Panther, Tiger, Python and Cobra. Criminals like Kala Jahangir, Subarta Bain, Leather Liton, Pichchi Hannan, Bihari Munna etc., headed these gangs. Bihari Munna of Dhaka's Mohammadpur area rose from the Geneva refugee camp at Mohammadpur, becoming one of the most notorious terrorists of Dhaka.

Dhaka's underworld had turned restive after the killing of two ward commissioners. Commissioner of Ward No. 8 in Mirpur, Saidur Rahman Newton, was killed by one of his own hoodlums. Rival gangsters killed commissioner of Ward No. 72 Binoy Krishna Sarker Bina. Both of these commissioners had risen through crime. Members of the Kala Jahangir group, the very group to which he had previously patronised, gunned down Newton on May 10, 2002 in front of a market in Dhanmondi. Bina was killed as a result of a power struggle to establish authority over land of a temple in Old Dhaka as well as over the gold business there. About four years ago, allegations arose about the direct involvement of the police in these underworld killings. On August 29, 2000 the bodies of Asif, terrorist of Gopibagh, along with that of his bodyguard Giasuddin Tipu and assistant Ripon, were recovered from a house at 446/C Khilgaon. The John group in a power tussle killed them over the Agargaon slums. On May 18, 2000 terrorist Humayun Kabir Milon, a.k.a. Murgi Milon, was killed in the court premises of Old Dhaka. The 'godfathers' of the underworld were shaken at the killing of Murgi Milon, ringleader of the gold smuggling network. Kala Jahangir's group in movie style gunned him down in the premises of the court.

These denizens of the underworld were at one time all in the same group. Some were the gurus, some the 'disciples'. They broke up over responsibilities, sharing the booty and power tussles. They got involved in murder. Tokai Sagar had gained strength in the airport area through Murgi Milon, yet it was Tokai Sagar who killed Murgi Milon. John was Asif's elder brother's friend. Asif had been a member of John's group. Later Asif himself had become a formidable force, but John couldn't accept that. His people eventually killed Asif. These killings are risk-free. Only if the murder attempts fail is there a risk of being killed oneself. The police have a hand in the killing of terrorists by terrorists. There were allegations of such involvement of the police towards the end of last Awami League's rule. If a terrorist kills a terrorist, the police don't have to go into much trouble themselves. They don't even bother to investigate the cases.

There's no denying of the fact that the threat of terrorism perpetrated by various underground political parties still loom large in various southern districts of Bangladesh. People in certain districts are virtually held hostage by these so-called leftist cadres. These parties are seen to be running a dual administration and carrying on with their activities with apparent impunity. [The Independent, February 19, 2003] The police often look helpless and have often been ineffective against their onslaught. In the name of class struggle these people have established a reign of terror. Inspired by the Naxalites from across the border these underground organisations came into being with the aim of establishing a class-less society through armed uprising. Initially these parties used to attract youngsters fired by the ideology of establishing the rights of the poor and downtrodden. However, soon they were disillusioned and got entrapped in the quagmire of murderous violence. Clashes between various splinter groups took a heavy toll of the old guards. Anti-social elements have for long entrenched themselves in these parties and they are mostly involved in extortion, dacoity, and murder. Some politicians are also believed to have used them as musclemen. People join these parties simply to settle old scores. There is no popular support for these organisations. Indeed on many occasions villagers organised themselves to resist their cadres. What has been lacking is a strong action by the government. Armed with modern weapons the underground activists are not deterred by the police possessing inferior arms.

Maoism is no longer flagging its little red book in Bangladesh as it did in the late 1960s and mid-1970s. But a militant grassroots vigilante movement, sometimes moonlighting as freelance heavies for hire in the rural areas, still makes regular news. However, the various parts are often lumped together and called the sharbahara (the proletariat) groups. They are symptoms more of peasant rage than politics. What started out as class war on behalf of the proletariat has degenerated into gang war in support of landlords and petty politicians.

For many, there is little difference between sharbaharas and bandits. In fact, they are not even willing to call them Maoists. While the sharbaharas survive as renegades, the Maoist phase in Bangladesh politics is over. Splintered and surviving in isolated pockets, those who call themselves Maoists in Bangladesh today are more of a law and order problem than a political challenge to mainstream politics.

The strategic location of Bangladesh with its vast southern expanse of the Bay of Bengal and its ill manned, lax-security seaports and unscrupulous members of border security, makes it an ideal entry point for illegal arms traffickers. According a Daily Janakantha report, there are 30 entry points for arms trafficking routes to Bangladesh, which include land, sea and air routes. The most frequently used land borders by the underworld network of smugglers are the country's south-west borders of Shatkhira, Bhadiali, Madra, Keragachi, Hijoldi, Borali; Jessor's Shikarpur, Mashila, Jenidah, Mahehpur; Chuadanga (Jibonnagar) Meherpur (Gangni) Kushtia (Daulutpur).

Extremist outfits in southwestern Bangladesh were reportedly going through many upheavals. Seven such active outfits in Khulna are: Purbo Banglar Communist Party (ML-Janajudhho), Purbo Banglar Communist Party (ML), Purbo Banglar Maoist Communist Party, New Biplobi Communist Party, Biplobi Communist Party, Dakhhin Banglar Chhinnomul Communist Party and Jihadi Party. Police said that activists of these outfits do not hesitate to kill even their patron, not to speak of politicians, journalists, police and even their own colleagues. According to police, because of internal feuds, these parties break up into many similar parties.

Chittagong Hill Tracts
Signing of the accord in 1997 brought an end to decades old armed hostilities between army and Parbattya Chaattagram Janasanghati Samity (PCJSS), the mother organisation of the Shanti Bahini. The accord facilitated return of thousands of tribal refugees who crossed the border from the Indian state of Tripura. New law has been enacted preserving separate entity of tribal people paving the way for setting up of autonomous Chittagong Hill Tract Regional Council. The supreme leader of PCJSS, Santu Larma, has become chairman of the newly created council in line of the new law. But the peace and stability the principal objective of the accord - has not been restored till date. Many of the basic issues like establishment of tribal rights on their land have not been settled. Fresh restlessness started gripping the hills. The rivalry between the pro and anti-accord elements, believers of full autonomy of the Hill Tracts, the United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF), is gaining strength. Also there is no end to Tribal-Bengali settler rivalry. Rather certain quarters are trying to provoke it anew, it was alleged. The historic peace accord was signed on December 2, 1997.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh have once again plunged into unrest in seven years' time of the landmark peace accord signed between government and tribal rebels, Shanti Bahini. Growing incidents of human right violations and armed hostilities have now gripped the region, said both tribal and non-tribal population of the hills which suffered from a prolonged war. The fifth anniversary of signing the Chittagong Hill Tracts Treaty (CHTT) was observed on December 2, 2002. But it bore all the marks of impending trouble in this region if the right steps are not taken by Bangladesh. All major parties of the region held separate rallies to advance their conflicting programmes. If this happens this region might once again plunge into crisis.

Islamic militancy
In the northern areas of the country, Islamic militant organisations are believed to be preparing for big missions. Leaders and members of these outfits had gone underground for the last few months, but they are again back in the open, running their activities. Most of their members, who have been arrested earlier, have started to come out of jails on bail. They are re-organising. In a few places, they have changed the names of their outfits to “Laden Bahini” and running their activities. Presently, more than six outfits are running their activities in these areas. Militants are trying to attract students of the area to join them. They are also forcefully collecting tolls from farmers harvesting in the fields. And they are using that money to buy weapons. Their targets are pro-liberation forces and cultural activists. Due to this, the cultural activists of these areas have become silent. Islamic militancy began in the northern Bangladesh in 2000. They launched various activities after organising themselves. Last year [2003], they ran a number of operations including 13 February [2003] explosion at a hall of residence in Dinajpur district and 14 August ambush on the police force in Joypurhat district.

The activists of Bangla Bhai, under the banner of Jagrata Muslim Janata, started killing people in the Rajshahi in the name of eliminating members of extremist parties. They killed at least 10 persons. Later when police and other security agencies began their drive there, they went underground. Investigations say Islamic extremists started to re-organise after they went into hideouts. They ran their trainings in the char areas, at the halls of residences educational institutions including madrasas and remote countryside areas. They are teaching students various types of trainings on how to handle explosives, firearms and war tactics. A stock of arms and ammunitions is also being created. A militant source said that they have their network all over the northern region.

Trainings are under way in the districts of Gaibandha, Naogaon, Bogra, and Dinajpur. Barkona of Saghata in Gaibandha district is a militant stronghold where they recruit and train militants. The Bait-ul-Mamur Mosque in Ramchandrapur upazilla of Gaibandha had become a secret meeting place for these outfits. There are a number of mosques that have become so. Members of these outfits, especially the Jagrata Muslim Janata, were collecting tolls from the farmers who are in the process of harvesting. Apart from this, they have also collected fitra and zakat during the month of Ramadan and Eid. A number of Islamic outfits such as Jagrata Muslim Janata, Mujahideen Bahini, Al-Hiqma, Harqat-ul Jehad, Jamyatul Mujahideen, and Laden Bahini have started their activities openly. Bangla Bhai, who is the chief of Jagrata Muslim Janata, has come to the open after holding a meeting 17 November. [“Islamic Militant outfits active again in the northern areas” published in Ajker Kagoj in Bengali on 29 November 2004. pp. 1-2.]

In Barisal, activists of the Islamic militant organization, Hizbut Touhid, had met over resuming their activities in Barisal's Gournadi area. Tension looms following their meeting in Shakokathi village. The Hizbut activists have announced that they would wage jihad till they die to avenge the death of their fellow activist, Saiful Islam, who was lynched to death last year by the members of the public. The local police are saying the opposite even after different security agencies have confirmed that Hizbut has resumed its activities. Hizbut activists had resumed their operations from Shakokathi village in Gournadi. They were running operations in three districts Barisal, Madaripur and Gopalganj from the resident of their regional commander Sohrab Khan in this village. [Mohammad Ahsanullah. “Hijbut Touhid resumes activities in Gournadi: pledges jihad till death” published by Ajker Kagoj on December 1 2004. pp. 12, 11.]

Reports from Cox's Bazar and Bandarban said that Islamic militants were being trained at madrasas in the unpopulated hills of southeastern districts of Cox's Bazaar and Bandarban in greater Chittagong area. Local people and the students and teachers of these madrasas said that these foreign-funded madrasas actually provide trainings to militants in the name of religious studies. Similarly, different types of physical training were provided in some mosques in the hilly areas of Naikhyangchari of Bandarban district. Students are from across the country, including Chittagong and Cox's Bazar, were brought to these madrasas, mainly from three madrasas in Chittagong, Patia and Hathazari. The students are then sent to Rohyinga rebel camps for armed training. Spot visits have confirmed that, in eight thanas located in the hilly and unpopulated areas, these madrasas do not have any educational infrastructure such as desks, windows, doors etc. However, teachers of these madrasas claim that they have at least 200 students in these madrasas, which use the word "jamaya" [university]. The local administrations do not seem to be much concerned about the existence of these madrasas, but the police always eyed them with suspicion. Investigations said most of the students and teachers in these madrassas have infiltrated into Bangladesh from Myanmar and all had papers that showed they were Bangladeshi nationals. Funded by NGOs from other Muslim countries, these madrassas have been set up on forest department lands without any sort of permission from the government. The officer in charge of Naikhyangchari thana, Golam Faruk, said, "I haven't received any instruction to keep an eye on these madrassas." However, Faruk thinks these madrasas are all funded by foreign Islamic NGOs. The director of Al-Markazul Darus Sunnah Madrasa in Naikhyangchari, Moulana Kalimullah, explained to a newspaper: "Yes, the existence of too many mosques and madrasas surely evokes suspicion. There are two reasons behind these madrasas: one, they have been set up to grab forest department land, and, two, pilfering money from foreign Islamic NGOs." Kalimullah added: "Leaders of Rohyinga Solidarity Organisation, who are quite well-established in the society, were building these mosques and madrassas. The imams got their salary from foreign organisations. Earlier, aid from these organisations was even greater. However, these days, the amount of money has been reduced because of the global campaign against militant activities." According to Moulana Harun of Jamaya Islamia Darul Ulm Madrssa in Cox's Bazar's Chakmarkul area, there are more than 2,000 madrassas in Cox's Bazar district, which are administered from Patia and Hathazari. [Saiful Alam Chowdhury and Abdul Kuddus Rana. "Islamic militants being trained in Cox's Bazar and Bandarban", published by Prothom Alo on August14]

The outlawed Islamic militants suddenly burst into prominence on 16 August 2003 and for the next fortnight they featured prominently in all the national news media. At midnight on 14th the home of a political leader in Uttar Maheshpur of Khetal PS turned into a battlefield in which six policemen were injured, some guns and bullets were looted and the gangsters made good their escape. It is learnt that the officers in charge of two thanas who led the raid proved unequal to the task. As a joint Police BDR hunt was launched militants from many districts such as Dinajpur, Naogaon, Panchagarh, Thakurgaon, Bogra, Chapai Nawabganj, Gaibandha and Joypurhat were caught in connection with this case. They indicated that they were waging a jihad for Islamic rule. It was discovered that some of the militants had been trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan and some of their munitions came from Pakistan. It was also learnt that the illegal organisation has active units all over the northern districts of the country. The hunt for the criminals and looted arms and ammunitions also hauled successive caches of arms and ammunition from the area on 22nd and 23rd August. The arrested criminals have not been charged with sedition despite clear indication of their waging an armed rebellion.

Over the past decades, violence and corruption have become the most enduring patterns of Bangladesh political activity. The magnitude and pervasiveness of violent politics are serious concerns because there is a rough correlation between the number of persons injured or killed for political motives and the stability of a regime. If distrust and fear become a pervasive phenomenon and scramble for scarce resources grows acute, they lead to widespread violence, coup and military rule in developing states.

The causes of violence in Bangladesh range from economic factors to structural, intellectual and political variables. They seem to be deeply political and social in character and require complex political solutions. But the key factor in the dynamics of violence is relative deprivation and inequity. The magnitude of violence in Bangladesh is often induced by relative deprivation where frustrations and discontents of the societal groups and younger generation can be easily politicised.

The geo-strategic location has made Bangladesh prone to Maoists activities. Press report in August 2005 said Maoists from India and Nepal were trying to develop an entente with the so-called Maoists in Bangladesh.

The August 17 serial blasts and the subsequent militant attacks have confirmed the existence of Islamic militancy. If Bangladesh fails to address the issue, it might lead the country to a disaster. Also, there is a strong possibility that, strategists say, the Islamic militants may tie up with the so-called leftists in Bangladesh. The government must not let it happen.

The author is a journalist, and researcher on security affairs.

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