Dhaka’s war within

Despite a government crackdown, Islamic extremists are still entrenched in Bangladesh

Anshuman Behera New Delhi 

Over the past few years, Bangladesh has been witnessing an unexpected calm as far as extremists’ activities are concerned. The Awami League regime of Sheikh Hasina Wajed has taken serious measures to crack down on the extremist elements, be it the Islamists, the leftists or Indian insurgents hiding in Bangladesh. Her government’s commitment to bringing the extremists to justice is unquestionable. Speaking at the Regional Workshop on the implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in South Asia recently, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh reaffirmed: “Bangladesh will continue to promote democracy, secularism, free media, as well as interfaith and intercultural tolerance that all present the progressive aspirations of mankind and humanity, to fight the menace of terrorism.”

Some crucial measures the government has taken to curb extremists in Bangladesh are: trial of war criminals, reconstitution of the security forces, arrest of a number of extremist elements from outfits like the Jam’mat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), Harkat-ul Jihadi Islami-Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Jammat-e-Islami (JeI) and the left-wing extremist groups.

Yet, the extremist elements have not been wiped out. Rather, in the past few years, there have been some unique developments such as two radical organisations—the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) and Hizb-ut Towhid (HT)—having made inroads into Bangladeshi society by propagating radical Islamic ideologies.

The HuT has been very active in propagating radical Islam among the youth. Its main target has been educational institutions. A pan-Islamic radical political outfit, it was founded in 1953 in Jerusalem by Taqiuddin al-Nabhani. The Bangladesh chapter of the HuT was established in 2000 under the leadership of Sayed Golam Mola along with Nasiml Gani and Kawsar Shahnewaz at Dhanmondi in Dhaka. It is suspected to have played an important role in the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) Mutiny in 2008. It has reportedly been working in tandem with the HuJI-B and the JMB. The HuJI-United Kingdom chief, Golam Mostafa, has gone on record as saying that he had links with the HuT for funding the outfit. It is also suspected that the HuT has been operating as a front organisation for the JMB. The HuT, through its writings, is trying to destabilise the government and instigate the people against it. It accuses the government of being pro-India and pro-US.

Unlike the HuT, the HT is a home-grown radical outfit. It was formed under the leadership of Bayejid Khan Pani in 1992 at Korotian village in Tabgain district. It started propagating radical Islam from 2002. Pani is the younger brother of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Humayun Khan Pani and is suspected to have close links with the JeI. The HT is involved in distributing jihadi literature in the form of CDs and cassettes which rant against the West, India and secular Muslims in Bangladesh.

In his first book, This Islam is not at all Islam, Pani alleged that the moderate and secular Muslims in Bangladesh are not true Muslims as they are puppets in the hands of the US and India. Banned since 2011, its main aim is to establish Sharia in Bangladesh. Apart from distributing jihadi literature, it is also involved in violence. It has spread into many districts such as Barisal, Feni, Kushtia, Madaripur, Tangail, Gazipur, Meherpur, Jhenidah, Noakhali, Khulna, Chittagong and Narshingdi.

Apart from these radical outfits, the JeI continues to be the fountainhead of extremist activities. Through its students’ wing, the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), it has been constantly involved in violent or radical activities. On February 9, 2010, the ICS killed one of the leaders of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) at Rajshahi University. Such a violent incident not only upset academic activities on the campus, but triggered violence on other university campuses. The aim was to create problems for the government.

In his first book, This Islam is not at all Islam, Pani alleged that the moderate and secular Muslims in Bangladesh are not true Muslims as they are puppets in the hands of the US and India. Banned since 2011, its main aim is to establish Sharia in Bangladesh

Similarly, the JeI has been trying to foil the government’s measures to bring war criminals to justice. The law enforcement agency has been successful in arresting the top leadership of the JeI. It and the ICS recently clashed with the security forces, demanding release of the leaders. On November 5-6, the JeI-ICS cadres carried out attacks and destructive activities against the security forces in the districts of Rajshahi, Noakhali, Chittagong, Sylhet, Bogra, Pabna, Sirajganj, Thakurgaon, Natore, Narail, Chapainawabganj and Kushtia. Though the police have arrested a number of JeI-ICS cadre members, clashes are continuing.

Investigations have revealed that there have been close links between the militant groups like the HuJI-B, JMB and the JeI. Saidur Rahman, the ex-Ameer of the JMB, confessed to the law enforcement agencies that the JeI and the JMB had been working closely for many years. Though the JMB’s militant activities have reduced drastically, with the JeI’s help there is every possibility that they may rebound.

The radical elements’ infiltration of the security forces and agencies have been a major cause of concern for the government. On January 19 this year, the government revealed that the Army had foiled an attempt by some  serving and retired Army officers to topple it. It is suspected that extremist elements were involved in instigating the officers. About four years ago, there was a mutiny by the BDR, the Pilkhana Mutiny, when an attempt was made to kill the newly-elected Sheikh Hasina. The role of the Islamic extremists in instigating the Pilkhana Mutiny was not ruled out. All this indicates that the
extremist elements have not been contained.

Failed coups, regular political violence by the JeI, radicalisation and propagation of radical Islam by the HuT and the HT are also indicative of the fact that the extremist elements in Bangladesh have a solid base. Unless they are completely uprooted, they will continue to engineer radicalisation in society. With the general election approaching, it is going to be a real test not only for the Awami League government but also for the people of Bangladesh to decide who will rule the country.  


Dr Anshuman Behera is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012