Thursday, July 29, 2004

Terror in the Name of God

For the Bangladeshi-born British envoy, Anwar Chowdhury, the forenoon of May 21 started without any clue of what was in the offing. It was 1:35 and a huge crowd of people greeted Anwar, as he was about to leave the Shrine of Shahjalal after saying Friday prayers. But as the envoy, only 18 days into his new job, reached the exit door of the 700-year-old tomb, a bearded man in his early forties halted the High Commissioner's way. "The man was telling Anwar to give him some money," recalls Advocate Abdul Hai Khan, Anwar Chowdhury's grandfather and a witness to the mayhem that would follow.

Khan was helping the envoy out of the melee and he smelled a rat when the man did not get out of their way after repeated requests. "I grew suspicious. I looked up at him; the man was well built and was wearing a fashionable Comillar fatua," he says. This man cannot be a beggar, Khan thought; so when the High Commissioner told Khan to give the "beggar" 100 Taka, he said, "Just look at him Anwar, this person is not at all a beggar." Don't be so rude nana, Anwar replied. Khan, in turn, obliged his grandson; the Sylhet-based lawyer reached down for his purse and handed the beggar a hundred-Taka note.

But within seconds, a grenade was thrown at the British High Commissioner; the bomb hit the parameter wall of the shrine as he threw it up after it bumped on his lower abdomen. "Anwar told me, 'Nana, save me; they have thrown a bomb at us'," Khan recalls. "Within a few seconds," he continues, "there was a huge bang; we both fell on the pavement; and I saw blood rolling on the ground from the High Commissioner's body."

Though no one has claimed responsibility for the attack; Advocate Abdul Hai Khan believes it was not at all unexpected. Only months ago, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) MP Delwar Hossain Saiedi urged a gathering at the nearby Alyah Madrasah field to resist what he called bedat (heretical activities) in the shrine. Four days later, on January 12, a bomb was exploded at the shrine. The police arrested 24 people in connection to the blast; a probe body was formed headed by the superintendent of the police. But that committee's report has not yet seen the light of the day despite repeated extensions of time. No progress has also been made on nine other blasts that rocked the north-eastern city since 1997 and have claimed 14 lives.

In the last five years 140 have been killed and around 1,000 injured in several bomb blasts that ripped through different public places across the country. Whoever the perpetrators are, says security expert Brig-gen Shahedul Anam Khan, the intention was to create panic and reap political dividend of these blasts. Khan believes the subsequent governments' failure to nab the culprits means, "either we are not capable of doing it or the major political parties do not want to see the culprits on the dock."

The first such blast, in fact, took place in Jessore on March 6, 1999; the Awami League (AL), then at the helm, blamed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-backed religious zealots for the incident. Within two years, terror struck at the heart of the capital on March 6, 1999; seven Communist Party members died in simultaneous blasts at the Paltan Maidan in Dhaka. Two more incidents of blasts jolted the AL rule that ended in 2001. Though during its five-year-term the AL government had failed to nab anyone for the blasts, it could not resist guessing who the culprits were.

The BNP, on the other hand, after coming to power, has been religiously following the path of its predecessor; only the other way around. The party has been denying the presence of religious extremists from the very first blast by describing it as a ploy to damage the country's image abroad. "Sometimes it sounds as if the BNP has made a policy decision to deny the link of the zealots to the blasts," says Brig-Gen. Anam.

In fact, the BNP-led government banned copies of Time magazine and Far Eastern Economic Review for portraying Bangladesh as a hotbed of religious extremism. The most publicised case in this saga happened in 2002 when two British journalists from Channel Four came to the country to make a documentary on the presence of religious extremist outfits in the country. Zaiba Naz Malik and Bruno Sorrentino were later released after both of them, according to their lawyer Ajmal Hossain, "Submitted statements expressing regret for the situation arising since their arrival in Bangladesh." The government, however, did not release Selim Samad and Priscila Raj, who had been assisting them as translators.

 
Panic-stricken men, women and children run for cover (top) after the huge explosion at the Ramna Batamul during Bangla New Year celebrations that left nine killed and at least 20 others injured. After the gory incident, while law enforcement and intelligence agencies collected remainder of the bomb and other clues to the explosion (left), an army team had to diffuse another bomb near the Baishakhi gate.

That unwavering stand got a jolt within months when several powerful bombs went off in four movie theatres in Mymensingh. Within hours of the blasts, the prime minister, alluding to the AL chief Sheikh Hasina, blamed those "Who are making anti-Bangladesh campaign at home and abroad." The PM's comment was followed by the arrest of three Bangladesh Chatra League members; but the police was yet to arrest anyone for the blasts.

"The whole situation is really chaotic," says Brig-Gen Shahedul Anam. "BNP denies the presence of religious extremists on our soil because it needs the help of JI and other religious parties to win elections. The AL, on the other hand, are using the blasts as a pretext to label the government as an adobe of religious bigotry," he continues. The situation can turn from sad to tragic within months, he warns; "There is not any place for religious bigotry and intolerance in the country; but our failure to curb extremism may give birth to a looming disaster," the retired army-man warns.

Bangladesh's contribution to religious extremism dates back to the era of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. During the mid and late eighties, hundreds of Bangladeshis went to the country to fight for the Mujahidins against what they considered the communist invasion of an Islamic country'.

Maulana Abdur Rauf, leader of Jamiatul Islamia, who was arrested in Faridpur on September 19 last year with 17 accomplices, told the police that, like him, about 500 Bangladeshis went to Afghanistan to fight for the Jihadis, of them 33 died. Many have returned and with them have brought extremism to a country, which has always prided itself on its Sufi past.

In fact, Jane's Intelligence Review (JIR) in its May 2002 issue says, "Osama bin Laden's February 23, 1998, fatwa urging jihad against the US was co-signed by two Egyptian clerics, an unidentified Pakistani and one named Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh (JMB)." The JMB is not believed to be a separate organisation, the JIR report continues, but a common name for several groups in Bangladesh, of which Harkat ul Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HJIB) is considered the biggest and most important.

HJIB came under spotlight when the group was charged with planting two bombs at a meeting that was to be attended by the then prime minister Sheikh Hasina. "The mission of HJIB is to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh," a US State Department report says. The group has an estimated cadre strength of more than several thousand members, and it operates and trains in at least six camps (in Bangladesh), says the State Department, which has already listed the HJIB as a terrorist organisation.

 
Maulana Abdur Rauf who was arrested on September 19 last year along with 17 accomplices told the police that about 500 Bangladeshis went to Afghanistan, of them 33 died.
Little has been known about the group and its commander Shauqat Osman, who is also known as Sheikh Farid. "Originally the HJIB consisted of Bangladeshis who had fought as volunteers in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan," the JIR report says.

The government remains conspicuously inactive when different self-styled vigilante groups have been butchering innocent people in the name of Islam across the country. The police have yet to nab any of the members of the so-called Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), which have unleashed a reign of terror in the southern districts.

Though the prime minister has ordered the arrest of Bangla Bhai, the so-called operations commander of the militant outfit, newspaper reports suggest otherwise. "Two police officers tipped off Bangla bhai who holed up in an outlying village in Raninagar (in Naogaon district) where he set up a vigilante camp to launch 'anti-outlaw drives'," a Daily Star report says.
The government is yet to ban the group even after local dailies have run stories linking the JMJB with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda. This indifference, coupled with sheer arrogance and political myopia, leading the country to an impending disaster.