August 19, 2005

Terror Comes Home to Bangladesh

Asia Times, 20.08.2005

Terror returned to Bangladesh with 459 coordinated bomb blasts within a space of 30 minutes that rocked 63 of the country's 64 districts at midday on August 17. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia described it as a "heinous, cowardly, conspirational and well-planned act of terrorism", and the government launched a "massive manhunt" for the perpetrators. So far 90 people have been arrested for questioning in relation to the attacks that left two people dead and nearly 125 injured. Yet the attack should not come as a surprise for the administration.

Immediately after the blasts, Bangladesh's most powerful neighbor – India – expressed "grave concern". Delhi had long insisted that Dhaka take action against the seething Islamic fundamentalism that was brewing there, and had long been ignored. Now the people in one of the world's poorest countries are paying for such negligence on the part of their leaders.

According to many analysts, the attacks bore the hallmark of an al-Qaeda operation. That has not been established yet, but leaflets in the bombed areas were found, issuing a call for jihad until an Islamic state with Sharia law is established in Bangladesh. The banned organization Jamaet-ul-Mujahideen was blamed for the acts of terror; it promptly denied having anything to do with them.

Perhaps tellingly, just a day before the attacks rocked Bangladesh, Ananda Bazaar Patrika, a Bengali newspaper published from Kolkata in India, reported on a leaflet written in Urdu that was being distributed in Muslim-inhabited blocks of the city asking civilians to raise money for a company titled "Al-Qaeda International Limited". The police have arrested two Bangladeshi nationals in the city in connection with this. The headquarters of this supposed company was Dhaka.

India has long accused Bangladesh of negligence in stopping Islamic terrorist organizations from going into its border regions. It suspects that a lot of Indian separatist organizations receive funding and ammunition from Bangladesh-based outfits. The Jamaet-ul-Mujahideen and another group – Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh – were banned in February. The ban on the former came nearly two years after the Dinajpur blasts in northern Bangladesh in 2003, in which it was also suspected to be involved.

The recent attacks have proven that the earlier ones were merely the tip of an iceberg. In any case, simply banning a group is easy, implementing the ban in far-flung rural districts is difficult, especially for Bangladesh, the world's most corrupt country, according to the latest Transparency International report.

Moreover, many observers accuse Jamait-e-Islami, a mainstream political party that is a member of the ruling coalition government, of actively supporting such groups. Investors, especially foreign, already think twice before putting their money in the country, and such direct political involvement in mass acts of terror would surely scare them away. Aftabul Islam, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh, said, "So far we have been saying there are no … Islamist extremists [in Bangladesh], but now we cannot hide the reality."

Bangladesh has been unstable for a while. As Chinese leader Mao Zedong remarked once, "It only takes a spark to start a prairie fire." Worse yet, this instability has spillover effects across the border in India. As a Ministry for External Affairs spokesman in Delhi said, "A stable, prosperous, secular and democratic Bangladesh is … in the … interest of … India."

First, reservations about security conditions in Bangladesh have dogged the proposed $4 billion gas pipeline between India and Myanmar. According to latest estimates, nearly 30% of Bangladesh's youth are unemployed. At least some would get employment in construction projects for this pipeline, not to mention the benefits to the economy of the transit fees India would pay to Dhaka for shipping nearly $40 billion worth of gas from Myanmar.

Second, a massive narcotic contraband nexus has reportedly been formed to finance many of the terrorist activities in eastern and northeastern India, not to mention within Bangladesh itself. Many security analysts argue that vested interests within the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) – the border guards – have also developed to profit out of this network. Lobbying from these groups might go a long distance to explain Dhaka's vocal opposition towards India's move to fence the border between the two countries. It also explains the often-violent skirmishes between India's Border Security Force and the BDR, which leads to diplomatic spats with Delhi.

Third, India has maintained that ever since 1971, the birth of Bangladesh, a continuous tide of illegal migrants has flocked to India from Bangladesh, and lately it has accused border officials of facilitating this people-trafficking. However, the right-wing backlash to the Bangladeshi influx is equally worrying. Recently, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidharthi Parishad (All India Students' Union), an organization affiliated to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, was involved in an anti-migrants campaign in Assam where it alleged that illegal aliens were determining the outcome of elections in 46 out of 126 constituencies in the state. It has been lobbying the central government in Delhi to repeal the Illegal Migrants Act, which will put the onus on the alleged immigrants to prove their nationality, and ease the deportation process.

Bangladesh is officially secular. However, over 90% of its population is Muslim. In such a scenario, a newly invigorated Islamist movement can pose a threat of the highest degree to the prevalent social order. To counter this dangerous trend, the first step is self-reflection. Dhaka must accept that the country is awash with jihadis, and must take India up on its offer of "any kind of assistance". Ironically, when the bombers struck, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was signing a six-point treaty with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Beijing that would facilitate cooperation in business and provide Chinese help in building civilian nuclear plants in Bangladesh. That is pure bad press for a nation that has seen over three decades of infighting, uncertainty and disruption.

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