Originally Published 2004-12-08 07:09:37 Published on Dec 08, 2004
It would be folly to treat the threat issued to the Indian cricket team by a terrorist organisation based in Bangladesh as posing danger only to the players. The threat issued by Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) poses a direct and serious danger to India because, despite denials by the Bangladesh Government, it is clearly an indication that terrorist groups affiliated to the Al Qaeda have made Bangladesh an operational base. The
Red flag goes up on Dhaka
It would be folly to treat the threat issued to the Indian cricket team by a terrorist organisation based in Bangladesh as posing danger only to the players. The threat issued by Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) poses a direct and serious danger to India because, despite denials by the Bangladesh Government, it is clearly an indication that terrorist groups affiliated to the Al Qaeda have made Bangladesh an operational base. The latest threat should be read with the Bangladesh Government's feeble denials in the past about the growing presence and influence of terrorist groups in the country.

This is what the Bangladesh Government should do. It should launch a country-wide manhunt to track down HuJI activists and destroy their bases, mostly located in the hills of Chittagong. Extraordinary preventive measures and precaution should then be initiated at the airport, hotel and stadium besides the thoroughfares leading to and from these sites. Preventive crackdowns on madarsas and religious organisations suspected to be involved with terrorist groups would go a long way towards effectively countering the threat. It should not be difficult for the Bangladeshi intelligence and security forces to trace the origins of the threatening letter received by the Indian embassy in Dhaka. Dhaka should then unequivocally assure Delhi that it would be the responsibility of Bangladesh to ensure the safety of the Indian players.

This is what the Indian Government should do. It should not cancel the cricket matches. Let the decision rest with the cricket administration. The Government should let it be known to the Bangladesh Government that it would be the responsibility of the latter to ensure the safety of the players. Any harm to the Indian players would be treated as a threat to India and would be dealt with accordingly. The Government should extend all help, both in terms of intelligence and material support, in tracking down the terrorist groups that have gained considerable ground since September 11.

There is a reason why the current threat calls for a strong response. Terrorist groups like HuJI are not localised groups of insurgents with rudimentary weapons. HuJI is today Al Qaeda's affiliate group in South and Southeast Asia with presence in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. These groups were first engaged in the Afghan war and then in supporting and sustaining the Taliban and Al Qaeda as a fountainhead of global terrorism. With the US launching a global war on terror and the subsequent decimation of the Taliban and countless cells and affiliate groups of the Al Qaeda, it was becoming difficult for the groups to operate in familiar grounds like Pakistan and Afghanistan. With Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf joining hands with the Bush Administration to clear his backyard of terrorism, the Al Qaeda has been on the move since September 11, searching for new areas to establish more secure bases.

Bangladesh is one country which fits neatly into the Al Qaeda's preferred options. It is an impoverished nation; politically enfeebled, economically backward and with ports which have been active hubs for transnational crime, including weapons running. But more significant is the traditional presence of extremist religious groups jostling for political space, often left vacant by frequent bouts of political instability and military interventions.

These religious groups, particularly the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), which emerged as Bangladesh's third largest party during the October 2001 elections, have gained strength in recent years. As a natural corollary, Bangladesh has witnessed growing presence of terrorist groups parasitic on young students graduating from madarsas funded largely by Saudi Arabian charity institutions. One of the more prominent of these Islamic militant groups is Harkat ul Jihad al Islami (HuJI), Al Qaeda's operating arm in south and south-east Asia. Closely linked to the religious organisation, Jamiat-e-Ulema e-Islam (Fazlur Rehman faction), Harkat until recently was led by Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who was an advisor to Taliban chief Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden, and was one of the few who escaped from Kandahar when US jets pounded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.

The HuJI or Harkat, which ran training camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, effectively became a meeting place for jihadis with connections stretching from Chechnya to Manila. Qari Saifullah's group was called the Punjabi Taliban. HuJI's main operational base in Pakistan has traditionally been Karachi where it operates from 48 seminaries including the Binori madarsa. An illustration of its multi-national character is evident in the diversity of its cadre. For instance, one of HuJI's major recruiting grounds is the Korangi area in Karachi populated by Rohingyas, migrant Muslims from the Arakan region of Burma.

Besides Pakistan, HuJI has been consolidating its position in Bangladesh where it boasts a membership of more than 15,000 activists, of whom at least 2000 are hardcore. Led by Shawkat Osman (alias Sheikh Farid) in Chittagong, the group has at least six training camps in Bangladesh. According to one report, about 3,500 Bangladeshis had gone to Pakistan and Afghanistan to partake in jihad. Barring 34 who died, a large number of them returned home; of these about 500 constitute the backbone of HuJI. While in Afghanistan, some of them met Osama bin Laden at Khost on February 11, 1989, a few months before their leader Abdur Rehman Farooqui died while clearing mines near the city. Farooqui is believed to be the founder of HuJI in Bangladesh. More evidence of the group's alignment with the Taliban and Al Qaeda is revealed by a fatwa issued by the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh led by JuI chief Fazlur Rehman on February 23, 1998. The directive was signed by Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawhiri, Rifa'i Ahmad Taha aka Abu-Yasir (Egyptian Islamic Group) and Sheikh Mir Hamzah (secretary of the JuP).

The most troubling aspect of HuJI's rise in Bangladesh is its connections with religious groups. The group has camps in the inaccessible, hilly terrains of Cox Bazar and Banderban and along the No Man's Land adjacent to the Bangladesh-Burma border. The group enjoys the support and patronage of about 30 madarsas in Chittagong. These camps are used for recruitment and weapons training. In a series of investigative articles, Pratham Alo, a prominent Bangladeshi newspaper, disclosed the involvement of several madarsas in the border areas of Naikhangchhari and Ukhia in imparting weapons training and ideological guidance. These madarsas are funded by Islamic NGOs based in West Asia including the Saudi Arabian Al Yamama Trust and Al Harmain al Khairia, UAE-based al Fujairia and Darul Ansar al Khairia of Dubai. Although none of these organisations have any offices in the areas where terrorist groups are active, they operate through a network of preachers who not only distribute money but also motivate and mislead the youth into joining jihad.

If the Al Qaeda is allowed to entrench itself in Bangladesh, it would have successfully established a semi-arc of terrorist networks stretching from Dhaka to Jakarta, with a sizeable presence along some of the most important stretches of international water, including the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Landlocked from three sides and with a delta opening out to the waters of Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh offers Al Qaeda a perfect sanctuary and an extremely difficult theatre of operation should the international community extend the war on terrorism to South East Asia, a possibility that cannot be entirely ruled out given the developments in the region. This is the reason why the threat to the Indian cricket team should be treated as the red flag going up on Bangladesh as a terrorist base.

Courtesy: Pioneer, New Delhi, December 8, 2004.

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