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Bangladesh

Celebrations and Bombs

by Bertil Lintner, Senior Writer, Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER)

More than 3 million Muslim devotees from 52 countries gathered along the banks of the Turag river, 30 kilometers north of Dhaka in Bangladesh at Tongi, Gazipur, for the three-day annual Biswa Ijtema (World Congregation) between December 14 and 16. The significance of the event was underlined by the profile of political leaders who attended: present at the concluding prayers were Bangladesh President Iajuddin Ahmed; the Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia; the leader of the opposition in parliament, Sheikh Hasina, and other political, civil and military leaders. The Ijtema is organized annually by the Tablighi Jamaat.

The Biswa Ijtema, the second largest congregation of Muslims in the world after the Hajj, ended peacefully despite rumors that some international terrorist groups may have planned to disrupt the event. But the fact that millions of Muslim devotees from across the world gathered in Bangladesh emphasizes the role that the country has come to play in the context of international Islamic brotherhood. Although the government in Dhaka has reacted fiercely to any suggestion that the country is becoming a haven for Islamic extremists, reports from Asian and Western intelligence services suggest otherwise.

Shortly after the fall of Kandahar in late 2001, several hundred Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters escaped by ship from Karachi to Chittagong. They were then trucked down to hidden camps in the Ukhia area, south of Cox's Bazaar. Local people report seeing heavily armed men, with a few Bangladeshis among them, in those camps. They were told that they would be killed if anyone told "outsiders" about this regrouping of ex-Afghanistan fighters in this remote corner of southeastern Bangladesh.

According to other reports from Asian security services, militants from the Jemaah Islamiah - which is connected to al-Qaeda and wants to set up a gigantic Islamic state encompassing Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and southern Philippines - are also hiding out in these camps, which were set up in the early 1990s to train rebels from the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar's Rakhine State. In more recent years, these camps have in effect been run by Bangladesh's most extreme Islamic outfit, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami (HuJI), which was set up in 1992, reportedly with financial support from Osama bin Laden.

The Jemaah Islamiah is suspected of being behind a number of planned - but foiled - attacks against Western targets in Singapore, as well as the devastating bomb blast on the Indonesian island of Bali on October 12, in which nearly 200 people were killed, most of them Western tourists.

The Jemaah Islamiah militants in hiding in southeastern Bangladesh are believed to be mostly Malaysian and Singaporean citizens. It is, however, uncertain to what extent the Bangladeshi security services have been involved in their relocation. But well-placed local sources say that it would have been impossible without at least some tacit agreement with the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), Bangladesh's chief intelligence agency, which is closely connected with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Security concerns heightened over the holding of the Biswa Ijtema in Tongi only a week after at least 18 persons were killed and 300 injured in bomb blasts in four cinema halls in the central Bangladeshi town of Mymensingh on December 7. Without being specific, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia described these as a "planned terrorist attack", while opposition leader Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League claimed that an "identified fanatic terrorist group within [the ruling] alliance is behind these heinous bomb blasts". The international news agency Reuters first reported that Home Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury had said that bin Laden's al-Qaeda network was behind the blast, but later had to retract the report after denials from the minister.

Subsequently, the police raided the local office of Reuters in Dhaka. Dozens of opposition activists were also arrested, but no link to them could be established. The raid on Reuters and the arrest of opposition politicians came only days after a British TV team and their local helpers had been arrested for trying to document the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh and its possible consequences on the country's non-Muslim minorities.

Many foreign observers may contend that the Bangladeshi authorities are simply overreacting to international press coverage, but it could also be that the DGFI has too much to hide, and therefore wants to silence any reports suggesting that their country has become a hot-bed of Islamic fundamentalism.

The four-party alliance that won the Bangladeshi elections in October 2001 includes the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, which has two ministers in the present government. Its youth organization, the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), was behind Bangladesh's most devastating bomb blast before the cinemas in Mymensingh were hit - an explosion on June 15, 2001, at the Awami League office in Narayanganj, in which 21 persons were killed and over 100 others injured. The same government-connected outfit is also suspected of being behind several other bomb blasts as well as attacks on secular Bangladeshi politicians, journalists and writers.

The ICS is closely connected with the most militant of the Rohingya organizations along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), which also has links to the al-Qaeda. Video footage released by the American cable television network CNN in August this year and obtained from al-Qaeda shows Rohingyas as well as Bangladeshis training in camps near the country's southeastern border, but well inside Bangladesh.

Al-Qaeda's involvement in Bangladesh was confirmed in September this year when the police in Dhaka arrested seven "aid workers" working for the Saudi-based Al Haramain Islamic Institute. The men, who came from Libya, Algeria, Sudan and Yemen, belonged to an organization that had first come to Bangladesh to help Rohingya refugees, but later became involved in running Islamic centers all over the country. The so-called institute has been named by several sources as a front for al-Qaeda. Perhaps not surprisingly, nothing came out of the arrests and the whole affair was quickly hushed up by the Bangladeshi authorities, suggesting that the "arrests" were a mistake by some local police officer.

The United States has so far accepted the Bangladeshi government's assurances that the country is not playing host to international terrorist movements, and that it is a reliable partner in the global war on terror. But this ostrich-like mentality may change as more evidence to the contrary comes to light. The arrests of foreign journalists and the raid on Reuters in Dhaka are worrying signs of increasing intolerance in Bangladesh. And the hosting of the Biswa Ijtema is bound to attract the attention of "friendly" Islamic organizations, which see the country as a perfect place to hide out when international attention is focused on events in more high-profile countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia.

This article first appeared in the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal, September 16, 2002

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