Originally Published 2005-03-02 09:00:03 Published on Mar 02, 2005
The so-called crack-down on religious extremist elements ordered by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh has been selective.
Bangladesh: A Seeming Crack-Down
The so-called crack-down on religious extremist elements ordered by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh has been selective. 

It concentrates on action against leaders and cadres of the Jagrata Muslim Janata, Bangladesh (JMJB), which also operates under the name the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh(JMB), but spares those of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) with confirmed links to Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden and his International Islamic Front (IIF). While the JMJB and the JMB were banned by the Government on February 23, 2005, the ban order did not extend to the HUJI. With this ban, the number of banned jihadi terrorist organisations in Bangladesh now stands at three. On February 9, 2002, the Government had banned the Shahdat al Hiqma operating in the Rajshahi region. 

Intriguingly, the HUJI of Pakistan and its branch in Bangladesh, both of which are reported to be close to sections of the local armed forces and military intelligence, do not suffer from any ban so far. Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the Amir of the HUJI of Pakistan, was arrested by the Dubai authorities and handed over to the Pakistani security agencies in August last year, but he has not so far been prosecuted for any offence despite the HUJI's suspected involvement in many post-9/11 terrorist strikes in Pakistan, including the two attempts to kill President General Pervez Musharraf in December,2003.

The seeming crack-down, apparently ordered in panic, coincided with reports that Western donor-countries had held an informal meeting at the World Bank headquarters at Washington DC, from which Bangladesh was excluded, to discuss the deteriorating security situation in the country and that the member-countries of the European Union (EU) were contemplating the curtailment of aid to Bangladesh because of the failure of the Government to act against religious extremist elements, which had stepped up attacks not only against the leaders of the opposition Awami League headed by Sheikh Hassina, but also against the Ahmadiyas and moderate Muslims advocating secularism and religious tolerance and against Bangladeshis working for foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The Bangladesh media reported that at the Washington meeting, which was held on the same day on which the ban order was issued, the EU officials called for action against the Bangladesh Government because of its failure to act against Islamic militants, the deteriorating law and order situation marked by frequent grenade attacks against persons considered anti-Islam by these organisations and violations of human rights. The media said that the EU officials described the situation in Bangladesh as very precarious and alleged that governance had failed due to the Government's reluctance to act against the religious extremists due to electoral considerations. The EU demand was reportedly opposed by officials of the World Bank (WB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), who pointed out that despite the bad law and order situation, Bangladesh had performed impressively in many social sectors and any aid curtailment as demanded by the EU would cause a major setback and it was the poor people, who would suffer. Consequently, while the EU demand was not accepted, it was agreed by the participants that they should once again mount pressure on Dhaka to act against the extremists and improve governance and law and order. 

The Bangladesh media quoted unnamed secular-minded Government officials as saying that they believed the post-February 23 crack-down on Islamist militants was probably an 'eyewash' to satisfy the donor community. The media quoted an unnamed Minister of the Khaleda Zia Government, who was apparently unhappy over the inaction till now by Begum Khaleda Zia in order not to antagonise the religious extremists and their supporters in her own party, as saying as follows: "The Government has been facing a serious image crisis abroad for the last several months over the Islamist militant issue. Major donor countries and agencies have been raising the issue in every meeting with the Government.Some donors even threatened to stop aid and co-operation.But the strong influence of the rightwing BNP (Bangladesh National Party) leaders kept the ruling coalition high command from paying much attention to the issue.The Government could have avoided many violent incidents if this decision to crack down on militants had been taken a year ago, when the religious extremists started to operate openly." 

Skeptic local analysts have pointed out that a similar crack-down, but without a formal ban order, had been ordered by Khaleda Zia after a bomb explosion at Dinajpur on February 13, 2003, and after a gunfight on August 14,2003, between the police and JMB activists in Joypurhat, but after the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition, the crack-down petered out due to her fears that a continuing crack-down at a time of mounting Islamic anger against the US could act like a red rag to the bull. All those arrested between February and August,2003, were ordered to be released and not many were prosecuted in courts. They have pointed out that unless she acted simultaneously to remove from her Cabinet Ministers known for their links with the banned organisations, the crack-down would not carry conviction with the public and the international community.

The Government has accused these organisations, whose very existence it denied till the Washington meeting of the donor-countries, and those arrested during the current crack-down of indulging in acts of terrorism and trying to create anarchy and social unrest by misleading a group of youths exploiting their religious sentiments.On February 24,2005, the "Daily Star" reported an unnamed Government official as saying as follows: "There are already some cases of murder, bomb attack and robbery filed against them with different police stations and they will now be tried on those charges." 

The four arrested AHAB leaders referred to by the newspaper are its Amir Dr Muhammad Asadullah Al Galib, Deputy Amir Shaikh Abdus Samad Salafi, General Secretary Moulana Nurul Islam and Organising Secretary ASM Azizullah . Salafi is also the principal of the Salafi Dakhil Madrasa run by an AHAB-sponsored organisation called Al Markajul Islami. Nurul Islam is a lecturer of Islamic Studies at the Gangni Degree College in Meherpur district and Azizullah a librarian at the Atrai Degree College of Mohonpur in Rajshahi.

The JMJB is led by a triumvirate consisting of Moulana Abdur Rahman, a former activist of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), which is a member of Khaleda Zia's ruling coalition, Siddiqur Rahman also known as Bangla Bhai (Bangla brother) and Asadullah Al Galib, who is an Arabic language Lecturer at the Rajshahi University.Of these, while Moulana Rahman is projected as the Amir or the spiritual leader of the organisation, Siddiqur Rahman alias Bangla Bhai is reportedly its operational chief. While Galib has been arrested, the other two have evaded arrest so far.

Moulana Abdur Rahman has been in charge of a madrasa at Jamalpur in Northern Bangladesh from where he was co-ordinating the Taliban-like activities of his organisation, with the tacit support of large sections of the Police and security agencies of the Government. In an interview to the "Daily Star" last year, the Moulana claimed that the JMJB had its headquarters in Dhaka and regional offices at nine places including Khulna, Barisal, Sylhet and Chittagong. According to him, it had 10,000 well-trained full-time cadres known as Ehsar, one hundred thousand part-time cadres known as Gayeri Ehsar and a large number of sympathisers.

Born in the Charshi village in the Sadar sub-division of the Jamalpur district, Rahman runs the Al-Madina Islamic Cadet Madrasa and a mosque in Jamalpur, both reportedly funded by a Saudi non-governmental organisation called the Rabita-e-Islam and a local NGO named Islami Oitijjho Sangstha, which has allegedly been in receipt of large funds from Saudi Arabia as well as Pakistan. 

Rahman's father, the late Moulana Abdullah Ibne Fazal, was an activist of the AHAB.He was accused of collaborating with the Pakistani Armed Forces during the Liberation War of 1971. As a student, Rahman joined the Islami Chhatra Shibir, the students' wing of the JEI, and later the JEI itself. In the early 1980s, he studied at the Madina Islami University in Saudi Arabia and worked at the Saudi Embassy in Dhaka as a clerk from 1985 to 1990.He was a frequent traveller to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Southern Thailand and was reportedly acquainted with Osama bin Laden, his No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri and leaders of the Jemaah Islamiya (JI) of South-East Asia. . 

His organisation, which used to train recruits from Bangladesh, the Arakan area of Myanmar, southern Thailand, Malaysia,Indonesia and Southern Philippines, was initially known as the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). It was renamed as the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) (Awake the Muslim People of Bangladesh) after a clash between its cadres and the police at a secret training camp of the JMB at Joypurhat in August 2003. After the clash, the police arrested his brother Ataur Rahman Ibne Abdullah and 18 others, but they were mysteriously released a few days later and no further action was taken against them. 

Police sources have been quoted in the local media as saying that they are now investigating the suspected involvement of Galib and his AHAB in the murder of Professor Muhammad Yunus, the former Rajshahi University Bangabandhu Parishad (Association) President, last year.In 1997, as the then University Registrar, Prof.Yunus had initiated departmental proceedings against Galib for clandestinely visiting India for 11 days under the cover of a businessman without taking the prior permission of the University. 

The Police accuse him of having secret links with a web of pro-Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda terrorist elements in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and South-East Asia through the AHAB's network of madrasas and NGOs. Amongst absconding Indian jihadi terrorists, who have allegedly been given shelter by him in his madrasas is Abdur Razzak Salafi, who had reportedly been trained in a militant training camp in Pakistan. The AHAB's madrasas, which are allegedly funded by a Saudi organisation called the Hayatul Igachha and a Kuwaiti organisation called Jomiyatul Eh-ya-e turaj (the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society), provide military training with the help of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ex-servicemen under the pretext of training people in self-defence. Many of the teachers in the AHAB's madrasas had been trained in Saudi Arabia. The AHAB's youth organisation called the Ahle Hadith Jubo Shangha is reported to have more than 50,000 activists across the country, all of them active in the JMB since 1994.

Sections of the Police officers claim that the local intelligence agencies had been keeping Begum Khaleda Zia as well as her predecessor Sheikh Hassina informed of the pro-Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda activities of the AHAB and the JMB, but neither of them showed any inclination to act on the intelligence. According to them, though Sheikh Hassina has now mounted a national and international campaign agaist Khaleda Zia for closing her eyes to the growing activities of the pro-Al Qaeda and pro-International Islamic Front terrorists from Bangladesh territory, she was equally guilty of closing her eyes to their activities when she was the Prime Minister. They allege that these two women political leaders have had no qualms about befriending the most undesirable and anti-national of the religious extremist elements for partisan political purposes when in power.

If these police officers are to be believed, both the ladies have an equal share of responsibility for the emergence of Bangladesh as a new hub of jihadi terrorism posing a threat to the internal security of Bangladesh, India and the South-East Asian countries.

These police officers project Galib, the Amir of the AHAB, as the father of the jihadi terrorist movement in Bangladesh. According to their account of his life and jihadi career, as a student of the Dhaka University, he joined an organisation called the Jomiyat-e-Ahle Hadith from which he split in 1978 and formed the Ahle Hadith Jubo Shangha (AHJS), which became the youth wing of the AHAB. The AHJS and the AHAB campaigned for an Islamic rule according to the Sharia and projected secularism and liberal democracy of the Western model as anti-Islam. They called upon the youth to organise themselves for a jihad against extrenched anti-Islamic forces in Bangladedsh.

The police allege that Saudi and Kuwaiti non-governmental and charity organisations funded the activities of the AHAB through an Indian Muslim leader named Moulana Abdul Matin Salafi who had taken shelter in Bangladesh in the 1980s.Disturbed by his activities, the Ershad Government expelled him from Bangladesh in 1988. It was reported that before leaving Bangladesh, Abdul Matin Salafi transferred all the bank accounts in which he used to receive funds from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the name of Galib.

Galib, who was working as an Arab language lecturer in the Dhaka university in the late 1970s, resigned his job and joined the Rajshahi university in the same capacity in 1980. Thereafter, Rajshahi became the headquarters of the AHJS. The AHAB came into existence in 1994. It also set up a women's wing, a social welfare organisation named the Tawhid Trust and a publication company called the Hadith Foundation Bangladesh.

Around the same time, the JMB was started by Abdur Rahman in Dhaka and the JMB and the AHAB started working in tandem, each helping the other financially and in their drive for recruitment and training. The Revival of Islamic Heritage Society got funds from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for starting 700 madrasas all over nothern Bangladesh and these became the recruiting and training centres of the JMB and the AHAB. After the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, the Government of Pakistan ordered the freezing of the accounts of the Society in Pakistan because of its suspected links with the Al Qaeda and the IIF, but the Bangladesh Government did not take any such action.Galib has been a frequent traveller to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand, Malaysia , Indonesia and the Philippines.

Galib and Rahman are close personal friends. Rahman got a scholarship for higher religious studies in Saudi Arabia on Galib's recommendation. Rahman made his first public appearance as the Amir of the JMJB at Bagmara in April last year.

While talking to pressmen as he was being taken to a court after his arrest, Galib reportedly said: "Whether we are hanged or jailed, our movement for Islam will continue".Contending that the allegations against him were made and guided by a vested quarter "either to harm our positive movement or to hide the real culprits", he claimed that he and his associates were not involved in any of the charges the police had brought against them. He added: "Allegations of militancy began in 2001, when we expelled two persons from our organisation --- Rezaul Karim, a professor at the Bogra Azizul Haque College and Rajshahi University Assistant Registrar Shafiqul Islam." He accused them of carrying on a false campaign of involvement in jihadi terrorism against him and his organisation since then.

Since the Afghan jihad of the 1980s against the Soviet troops, Bangladesh has seen a mushrooming of not only madrasas of various sects and persuasions, but also international Islamic universities funded by generous contributions from NGOs and so-called charity organisations in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Pakistan. The more active of these universities, which have been attracting an increasing number of students from South-East Asia, are the Darul Ihsan University (DIU), founded in 1989, which has about 2,500 students and 150 graduates of the Al Azhar University of Egypt on its faculty, the International Islamic University at Chittagong,founded in 1995, which reportedly has about 3,500 students, and the Jalalabad International Islamic University at Sylhet. These universities and the madrasas funded by Saudi money are contributing to a growing Wahabisation of the Muslim community of Bangladesh and South-East Asia.

The JEI and the Islami Oikya Jote (the Islamic Unity Front), the coalition partners of Begum Khaleda Zia, have predictably projected the pressure on the Government to ban these organisations as an international conspiracy to drive a wedge between her party and its religious partners. (2-3-05)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: [email protected]

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