By Sanchita Bhattacharya
The July 13, 2011 Mumbai blasts (13/7) which killed 26 people has once again brought the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) into the radar of a frantic international security search. Indian agencies believe that the suspected mastermind of the blasts, Abdullah Khan of the Indian Mujahideen (IM), was hiding in Bangladesh, under protection of HuJI-B. Khan’s movements had been tracked over the past months by the National Investigation Agency, and he was known to have been operating the IM module which was assigned to maintain liaison with the HuJI-B. His module was known to have recruited some new jihadists in what may have been a joint venture with the HuJI-B. Another key link between the HuJI-B and IM was identified as Jalaluddin Mullah alias Babu Bhai, a resident of South-24 Parganas District of the Indian State of West Bengal, currently lodged in a prison in Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh (India), who has also been questioned by 13/7 investigators.
A July 12, 2011, media report had noted that a dossier prepared by the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) indicated an increase in HuJI activities in the recent past, after a significant decline since 2008. There had been a spurt in recruitment, with at least 150 youths from West Bengal going ‘missing’. Investigations suggest that these youths were picked up by HuJI-B cadres and recruiters and were presently being trained to launch operations against India. These recruits are meant to set up sleeper cells, with each of the recruits offered INR 10,000 per month. This intelligence was developed principally on communications intercepts by the IB, and which also indicated that these sleeper cells would first be set up in North India, and later would expand into the South.
Against this backdrop, Indian Minister of External Affairs, S. M. Krishna’s statement, on July 9, 2011, asserting that it was imperative for India and Bangladesh to combat terror together, gains particular significance. Krishna declared, “We face new challenges and non-traditional security threats. The rise of religious fundamentalism, extremism and terrorism are not unfamiliar to our region. Such forces sap away the strength of our societies, threaten our state systems and are an impediment to our advancement.” Though Krishna did not name specific terrorist organisation, HuJI-B is certainly a concern for both the Indian and Bangladeshi security establishment.
Amidst these rising concerns, a Bangladesh Court, on July 3, 2011, issued arrest warrants against, Tarique Rahman (46), the fugitive eldest son of former Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and the Senior Vice President of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and 17 others, over the August 21, 2004, grenade attack on an Awami League (AL) rally that killed 24 people and injured another 300, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) formally charged Rahman and 29 others for the attack after an “extended investigation” into the case. The Special Superintendent, CID, Abdul Kahhar Akhand, disclosed that their re-investigations indicated that operatives of HuJI-B had carried out the attack, backed by former State Minister for Home Lutfuzzaman Babar, Khaleda Zia’s Political Secretary Harish Chowdhury, former minister and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leader Ali Ahsan Mujaheed, and incumbent BNP lawmaker, the fugitive Mofazzal Hossain Kaikobad.
Accordingly, the charge-sheet included names of HuJI-B leaders and operatives – Maulana Sheikh Abdus Salam, who later floated a new outfit, the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP); Maulana Abdul Malek; Maulana Shawkat Osman alias Sheikh Farid; Mufti Shafiqur Rahman; Ratul Babu; and Indian national Abdul Majed Bhat associated with Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).
The exposure of these linkages between HuJI-B and other terror based Islamist factions with the BNP have created a new dynamic in Bangladesh politics of, particularly at a time of present crisis for radical Islamist forces in the country. The ongoing War Crime trials have put these forces under tremendous pressure, in turn provoking a concerted bid on their part to enlarge their own spaces for maneuver.
HuJI-B has been implicated in a number of terrorist attacks in Bangladesh and abroad, particularly India, and had been named among 12 militant outfits in a report by the Awami League (AL) Government placed before Parliament on March 16, 2009. HuJI-B cadres had gone deep underground after this report, and none of its senior cadres have been killed since then, though at least 39 members of the outfit have been arrested. Prominent among these arrests are:
May 25, 2011: Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested two HuJI-B militants, identified as Mohammad Abdus Salam (39), ‘secretary’ of the Sylhet District unit and Mohammad Ashraful Islam (30), ‘secretary’ of the Ishwardi sub-district unit of Pabna District, from Savar sub-district in Dhaka District.
April 26, 2011: RAB arrested acting chief of HuJI-B, Rahmatullah alias Sheikh Farid alias Shawkat Osman (47), from the Tongi Railway Station area of Gazipur District.
April 25, 2011: RAB arrested two HuJI-B militants, including its acting ‘Chief’ Abdul Hannan Sabbir and Ainul Haq, the recruitment and secret training coordinator, from a hideout at Keraniganj in Dhaka District.
April 15, 2010: The Detective Branch of the Police arrested the alleged UK unit ‘chief’ of HuJI-B, Golam Mostofa (55), from Osmaninagar in Sylhet District.
November 2, 2009: Police arrested Moulana Sheikh Abdus Salam, founder of the HuJI-B, for suspected links with the August 21, 2004, grenade attack on an AL rally.
These arrests have had significant impact on the organization, and there have been no attacks recorded by HuJI-B in Bangladesh since April 2009. At least 65 civilians had been killed by the outfit between March 11, 2000, and March 15, 2009. No act of violence involving the group has since been recorded within the country.
In neighboring India, however, HuJI-B continues to pose a significant threat. Apart from its suspected involvement in the 13/7 attacks, the outfit is also believed to have been behind the February 13, 2010, Pune (Maharashtra) blast, in which 17 persons were killed – the first major attack in the Indian heartland since the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Significantly, two days after the blast, Ilyas Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade, which controls HuJI-B, claimed responsibility for the attack. Subsequently, on July 9, 2010, intelligence agencies issued an alert about the possible penetration of 31 operatives of Bangladesh-based outfits — HuJI-B and JeI — into India, with the intention of carrying out terror strikes. Prior to the 26/11 attacks, HuJI-B had been involved in a large number of joint and independent strikes, including at least one suicide bombing, in India.
Nevertheless, the surviving leadership at large still possesses the capacity to create trouble. HuJI-B was angered following the arrest of its top leaders, including Sheikh Farid. Intelligence sources indicate that Maulana Yeahia has now taken charge of the outfit. Yeahia received training in Pakistan in 1998 and, on his return to Bangladesh, joined HuJI-B. He is known to have been involved in the fighting in Afghanistan. Despite the increasing pressure on the organization, finances do not present any significant problem. The arrested HuJI-B leader Rahmatullah alias Sheikh Farid alias Shawkat Osman, disclosed, on April 26, 2011, that the organization received financial aid from some 3,000-4,000 associates working in different countries of the Middle East.
Bangladesh has taken firm steps to quell violent Islamist extremist groupings operating on and from its soil, but it is clear that these groups have not abandoned their ideology or their objectives, and that they retain significant capacities, though pressure by intelligence and enforcement agencies has pushed them underground. Recent evidence, however, indicates some increased activity, including joint efforts with other Islamist formations such as IM, to expand capacities. The network of supporting establishments in Bangladesh, including a large number of sympathetic mosques and madrassas, as well as training establishments, has not been dismantled. Some of the Government’s recent measures, including the introduction of the 15th Amendment Bill of the Constitution on June 30,2011, which gives Islam the status of the ‘State Religion’, may well expand the spaces for radical Islamist politics in the country, legitimizing extremist formations and radical political parties such as the JeI. These are the very forces that have repeatedly jeopardized stability and development in Bangladesh in the past, and the state will have to remain extraordinarily vigilant if they are not to return to prominence in the proximate future.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management