Bangladesh Assessment 2010

Posted on August 9, 2010


Bangladesh has experienced an abrupt political stabilization in 2009, even as subversive activities by Islamist extremist groups have been substantially curbed by the Government. No terrorist attack has so far been recorded in 2009 by the Islamist militants, though radical groups continue to maintain a varying presence across the country. Bangladeshi authorities, however, continue to vigorously target alleged Left Wing Extremists, though there is little corresponding evidence of a proportionately violent Left Wing movement in the country.

Fatalities – Islamist Terrorism, 2007-09

Year Civilians SFs Terrorists Total
2007 1 0 7 8
2008 1 0 0 1
2009* 0 0 0 0

*Data till November 20, 2009
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal

Fatalities- Left-wing Extremism, 2007-09

Month Civilians SFs Terrorists Total
2007 8 0 72 80
2008 3 1 54 58
2009* 3 0 69 72

Data till November 20, 2009
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal

While Islamist extremists, who were nurtured under previous regimes, have not engaged in any act of overt violence in 2009, groups like the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) continue to maintain an active presence across the country, despite their proscription and the arrest of a number of their cadres. Police sources suggested in June 2009 that JMB militants had started regrouping in the remote villages of four Sub-Districts in Chapainawabganj. JMB cadres had fled their localities during the crackdown after the August 17 serial bomb blasts in 2005, had returned to their areas in Shibganj, Bholahat, Gomostapur and Sadar Sub-Districts, and were trying to recruit new cadres. According to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), at least 5,000 JMB cadres remained active across the country. The JMB is also reported to be seeking to ideologically mobilize new recruits, or to entice these with offers of money. The dawati (proselytisation) unit of the outfit first selects youths from poor families in rural areas or by visiting mosques, and these are then exposed to radical ideas and militant cadres, in preparation for jihad. A senior RAB official explains the process: “If the targets respond positively the JMB operatives start giving them some religious books, particularly those on jihad. They also give them a certain monthly amount to gain their confidence and slowly make them dependent on the outfit… At one stage the targets become infatuated with the JMB.” He added that some of the recently detained militants disclosed that the outfit was providing a monthly amount of Tk 500 per ‘target’. The JMB has also sought to strengthen its links in Pakistan. On June 21, 2009, an unidentified senior RAB official told Daily Star that some key JMB members, wanted by the enforcement agencies, had shifted to Pakistan for military training or had joined militant groups in that country.

In its effort to combat terrorism, the Bangladesh Government on October 22, 2009, banned the Hizb-ut-Tahrir ‘in the interest of public security’. “The organisation has been banned as it has been carrying out anti-State, anti-Government, anti-people and anti-democratic activities for long in the country,” Home Minister Sahara Khatun said. The Hizb-ut-Tahrir is an international Islamist political party founded in Jerusalem in 1953. The party started its activities in Bangladesh in 2000 and, according to the group’s Website (, Mohiuddin Ahmed is the chief coordinator and spokesman of the party in the country, with its central office located at Dhaka. Hizb-ut-Tahrir adheres to a pan-Islamist ideology, whose goal is to establish a global Islamic caliphate. The organization has been banned in a number of countries, mainly in Central Asia and the Middle East. The group’s Bangladesh coordinator and spokesman, Mohiuddin Ahmed, however, asserts that the allegations against his organisation were “completely baseless”: “We are law-abiding citizens of the country. We are not involved in any militancy activities. The Government banned us because we have been raising voices against its fascist character.”

On October 25, 2009, the authorities raided the Hizb-ut-Tahrir office in Dhaka and seized some documents and equipment. Mahid Uddin, Deputy Police Commissioner of Motijheel zone in Dhaka, said the “papers seized from the office shows that they were very well organised.” Police said the Hizb had at least 24 publications and innumerable leaflets and posters, and that they collected books and documents about jihad. On the same day, the Bangladesh Bank issued an order to all banks across the country to freeze all accounts of the banned outfit. With the latest proscription, five Islamist militant outfits are now banned in the country: the JMB, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami-Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Shahadat-e-al-Hikma, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Despite the Government’s counter-terrorism efforts there is evidence that Islamist organizations are regrouping. Reports in April 2009 suggested that four Islamist militant outfits were regrouping their cadres in 12 Districts in the south-western region of the country. 40 top ranking militant leaders were reportedly overseeing the activities of nearly 10,000 cadres in these Districts. This information was provided by 31 cadres of the Hizb-ut-Towhid who were arrested from Kushtia District in early April 2009. The outfits active in these Districts have been identified as the Allahr Dal, JMB, HuJI-B and Hizb-ut Towhid. Their activities have been reported from ten Districts of Khulna division — Kushtia, Meherpur, Jhenidah, Magura, Chuadanga, Jessore, Khulna, Narail, Bagerhat and Satkhira and in two Districts of Dhaka division – Rajbari and Faridpur.

The Left Wing Extremist (LWE) movement in Bangladesh, often described by the generic term Sarbaharas, in its history of over three decades, is “a highly dispersed, low-scale and criminalised movement, consisting of a multiplicity of minor groups, no combination of which constitutes any significant threat to the country’s security.” Nevertheless, the insurgency continued to be the principal focus of ‘counter-terrorist’ responses, especially of operations by the elite RAB personnel. As compared to 58 LWE fatalities in 2008, 2009 registered 72 LWE-related deaths (till November 20). Reports of some LWE activities continue to filter through from the country’s south-western region constituting Kushtia, Meherpur, Chuadanga, Jhenidah, Jessore, Khulna and Bagerhat Districts. The network of different active outlawed Left outfits survives in 10 southwestern Districts, particularly including Kushtia, Jhenidah, Chuadanga and Meherpur. Police sources suggest their involvement in murder, drugs trafficking, robbery, extortion, abduction and controlling tenders. According to the RAB, 13 factions of armed Communist groups, and as many gangs named after the ringleaders concerned, operate in 23 Districts of the Khulna, Rajshahi, Dhaka and Barisal Divisions. The RAB says these outlawed groups possess a ‘huge’ number of firearms including sophisticated M16 and AK47 rifles. According to a November 7, 2009, report 13 LWE groups are active in the country: Purba Banglar Communist Party, PBCP (Janajuddha), PBCP (M-L Red Flag), PBCP (M-L Communist War), Biplabi Communist Party, New Biplabi Communist Party, Gono Bahini, Gono Mukti Fouz, Banglar Communist Party, Socialist Party, Biplabi Anuragi, Chhinnamul Communist Party and Sarbahara People’s March.

Bangladesh also continues to be a transit, haven and launching point for Pakistan-based terrorist groups which target India. Groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) retain a significant presence within Bangladesh, and have used its territory to launch terrorist attacks against India. The arrest of three LeT militants, Mufti Obaidullah (arrested on July 16), Moulana Mohammad Mansur Ali alias Moulana Habibullah (July 20) and Muhaddis Obaidullah (July 22), who were active in the country for at least 14 years in the guise of madrassa (seminary) teachers, highlighted the continuing presence of Pakistan-backed terrorist groups. These three militants were earlier affiliated to the now dormant Indian militant group, the Asif Reza Commando Force (ARCF) and, after absconding from India, were in charge of the LeT’s Bangladesh chapter .Their interrogation provided important information on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan and local political support for the LeT in Bangladesh. During interrogation, they disclosed that militants fighting in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir had regularly used Bangladesh as a transit point to travel to Pakistan and had built safe havens in Bangladesh to shelter and train militants for terrorist operations in India. “As it was tough to cross back to Pakistan through the India-Pakistan border, the mujahideen would cross to Bangladesh and then left for their destinations using fake passports and visas,” Mufti Obaidullah’s interrogation record stated.

Investigators have also confirmed that the HuJI-B has, for long, been backing operations by the LeT in Bangladesh. The HuJI-B is reported to have sheltered LeT cadres in Bangladesh and also helped them get jobs at different seminaries. The LeT also reportedly funded HuJI-B operations in Bangladesh. Besides the local chapter of HuJI-B, some political leaders were discovered to have been helping the LeT to operate in Bangladesh. This revelation came from two arrested LeT operatives, Mufti Obaidullah and Moulana Mohammad Mansur Ali. A former investigator of RAB said that they had come to know about the existence of the LeT and at least seven of its political patrons in Bangladesh in the last Bangladesh National Party-Jamaat-e-Islami Government headed by Begum Khaleda Zia. However, they could not carry the investigation to its logical conclusion as they had ‘limitations’, with the four-party alliance in power. Sources close to the Detective Branch said that some of the suspects are local level leaders of a political party and some are quite prominent at the national level.

Some of the militant groups which are active in India’s Northeast are still holed up in Bangladesh. However, certain measures by the Government to neutralize the presence of such groups were noticed in 2009, as the new Government took several steps to restore a healthy relationship with neighbours, especially India. On February 19, 2009, the Bangladesh Government stated that it had mutually agreed with India to hand over the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) ‘general secretary’ and one of the group’s founders, Anup Chetia a.k.a. Golap Baruah, who had been lodged in a Bangladeshi jail since his arrest on December 21, 1997. A mutual agreement between the two countries also reportedly includes the handover of Bangladeshi criminals who have fled to India. However, Anup Chetia is yet to be deported to India, though two ULFA leaders, ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury and ‘finance secretary’ Chitraban Hazairka, were reportedly arrested from Dhaka in the midnight of November 1, 2009, and handed over to India’s Border Security Force (BSF) in the Northeastern State of Tripura on November 6. The duo were subsequently flown in a chartered aircraft to Kamrup in Assam and immediately taken away to headquarters of the Special Branch of the Assam Police at Kahilipara. While the BSF officials insisted that the ULFA leaders surrendered to them after fleeing Dhaka following an “internal clash” among the cadres, Sashadhar Choudhury stated they had not surrendered and that the Bangladesh Police commandos had arrested them. The development came a month ahead of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s proposed visit to India and four months after Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni assured India that tough action would be taken against militant groups, if any, operating from that country. Meanwhile, the current whereabouts of the ULFA ‘chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa, ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Barua, and his deputy Raju Barua, who were known to have long been in Bangladesh, remain unclear, though intelligence sources suggest that they may have moved to South China. In a deputy director general-level meeting with Bangladesh Rifles in Sylhet (Bangladesh) on November 6, 2009, the BSF had given a list of 104 camps of Indian militant groups operating in Bangladesh. The camps are basically ‘permanent in nature’ and belong to different outfits, including the ULFA, National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA), an official in the Tripura sector of BSF disclosed.

In a significant departure from the past regimes, the present Government has reportedly directed its SFs to maintain vigilance to prevent any kind of subversive activities by the ULFA and other Northeast Indian groups in Bangladesh. On October 19, 2009, the SFs launched an operation to arrest cadres of the ULFA and the KLO, including the ‘chief’ of the latter, D.K. Roy. Leaders of other militant groups like the NDFB, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) are also known to be safely ensconced in Bangladesh. The absence of an extradition treaty between India and Bangladesh has also obstructed the handing over of wanted criminals between the two sides. Reports indicate that “a mutual legal assistance treaty on criminal matters, a legal framework for seeking deportation on a case-by-case basis, and an agreement on transfer of convicts are among the proposals that found favour with the two countries during Foreign Minister Dipu Moni’s visit to New Delhi…”

On February 25, 2009, a few months after being sworn in as the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed faced a 33-hour long mutiny staged by troops from the country’s para-military border force, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). The mutiny, which posed a very serious threat to democracy and to the Government, resulted in the killing of 74 persons, including 52 Army officers, at the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana in Dhaka. Investigators revealed that telephone records of some of the suspects indicated that the mutiny had been planned at least two months earlier. However, the investigation into the BDR mutiny has been rather controversial, with different Government agencies providing different explanations for the rebellion. The Commerce Minister, Lt Col (retired) Faruk Khan, who has been coordinating the investigations, linked the killings to the banned JMB. He said some of the BDR personnel arrested for their involvement in the mutiny had links with the JMB. However, “the national probe committee on mutiny did not find any militant, political or foreign links to the mutiny.” An unnamed member of the Government probe body disclosed, on May 21, 2009, that “BDR jawans committed the murders on their own. Our investigation did not find any involvement of outsiders – political leaders, militants or foreign forces.” In its 309-page inquiry report submitted to Home Minister Sahara Khatunon, it also said the mutiny was a continuation of the revolts in 1973 and 1991 over leadership in the BDR. Whatever its cause, the mutiny was an early setback to the new Awami League Government.

Sheikh Hasina Wajed, in her first question-answer session in the ninth Parliament on January 28, had stated that her Government would not hesitate to take stringent measures to curb militancy in the country. Terming militancy a major problem, the Prime Minster said she has already asked the concerned authorities to take necessary steps to form a ‘South Asian Anti-terrorism Taskforce’, in line with the Awami League’s election manifesto, to curb cross-border terrorism. In a major development to combat militancy, on April 20, the Government formed a 17-member ‘National Committee on Militancy Resistance and Prevention’ to tackle militancy in the country and mobilise public opinion against extremist activities. The committee, led by State Minister for Home Tanjim Ahmed Sohel Taj, comprises top officials of seven Ministries and law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Home Ministry sources said that the committee would evaluate the procedure for investigation into all major subversive acts carried out in the country. The 17-member National Committee on May 12 announced zero tolerance against militancy, terrorism and any attempt to disrupt law and order. Sohel Taj announced a three-phase programme for the short, medium and long terms, to deal with the twin problems posed by militancy and terrorism.

The south-west remains the worse affected region in terms of militancy, both in terms of Islamist militancy and LWE. On September 10, security agencies prepared a fresh list of top militants, their kingpins and political mentors in the country’s south-western region. Names of 280 armed operatives of different terrorist and criminal groups, 80 lynchpins and as many as 150 political mentors have reportedly been included in the list. The list also includes the most wanted criminals from terrorist and criminal gangs, their armed cadres and their ringleaders, including some holding leadership posts in major political parties.

There are strong reasons for qualified optimism in Bangladesh, given the current regime’s initial steps against disruptive and radical forces in the country. Nevertheless, the residual capacities of these forces, their deep linkages in the political establishment, and the complex dynamic that had thrown Bangladesh into the destructive spiral of the past years, continue to exist. It will take years of sustained commitment to restore the rule of law and the essence of a democratic polity in the country, before the risks of regression can be safely ruled out.

Posted in: Bangladesh