By Bhaskar Roy*
Deposing (Feb.9, 2016) before the U.S. Armed Services Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper said in a written statement that Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s, “continuing efforts to undermine the political opposition will probably provide openings for transnational terrorist groups to expand their presence in the country”.
Clapper went on to say that Sheikh Hasina and other government officials have maintained publicly that the killing of foreigners is the work of the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami political parties and are intended to discredit the government. He, however, noted that the Islamic State (IS) had claimed responsibility for “eleven high profile attacks on foreigners and religious minorities”.
The fact, however, is that terrorist groups like Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) which owes allegiance to al Qaeda and al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS) have also claimed responsibility for the murder of progressive bloggers and minorities.
At the end of December last year, police in Chittagong arrested three students of Chittagong University from a house and recovered arms, ammunition and explosives, as well as an MK II sniper rifle. All of them were members of the notorious terrorist organization – the Jamatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) .One of those arrested was also a member of the Islamic Chhatra Shibir, the students’ wing of the Jamaat.
The JMB assumed a high profile and acted with impunity during the time when the BNP-Jamaat alliance government was in power in Bangladesh (2001-2006).Both the BNP and Jamaat dismissed the JMB as a figment of the imagination created by journalists, till the group engineered simultaneous bomb blasts in 63 out of 64 districts of Bangladesh in August,2014. The JMB and its leader Shayk Abdur Rehman were accorded protection and cooperation by BNP ministers.
Another terrorist organization, HUJI, was very active at that time. The military commander of HUJI made at least two attempts on Sk. Hasina’s life, one of which was nearly fatal. The HUJI commander, Mufti Hannan, who was the kingpin, was accorded protection by 2 successive home ministers of BNP. Hannan has recently been sentenced to death by a Bangladeshi court for an attack on the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Anwar Choudhury in which two others were killed and Choudhury escaped with injuries.
During this period when the BNP-JEI alliance ran the country, Indian insurgent groups like the ULFA, NSCN(I/M) and others were given sanctuary in Bangladesh and actively assisted in procuring arms, ammunition and communication equipment which were smuggled into India’s North-East for waging war against the state. Bangladeshi intelligence organizations like the DGFI and NSI were assisting them. In fact, ULFA commander Paresh Barua and his family lived openly in Dhaka.
All this information and more about JMB, HUJI and others and the complicity of ruling politicians are documented in court records and the national media. Many members of JMB and HUJI are in custody and undergoing trial. Many others are free or absconding.
James Clapper would have done well to note that the IS has adopted the JMB as the only true jehadi group in Bangladesh striving for a Caliphate.
Clapper’s testimony is both alarming and disappointing. The rise of terrorism was not caused by Sk. Hasina’s political fight but by the machinations of the other two major political parties, the BNP and Jamaat. On being elected prime minister for the second time (in January in 2010) Sk. Hasina stated that her prime priority was to eradicate terrorism from Bangladesh and South Asia. She has kept to her promise, but not succeeded fully because of forces against the state.
The people of Bangladesh are highly politics-sensitive, whatever ideology or political philosophy they may follow. There is a cultural strain running through thousands of years in some Asian countries. They are regional and not necessarily similar. These cultures have evolved differently as outside cultures have been imposed on them through conquests or migrations – but some basic roots survive.
Europeans, such as the Germans and the British have, to some extent, an understanding of cultures of the east. Most Americans, especially in the establishment, unfortunately are not in depth here, hence there are so many miscalculations. Using force or using forceful policies do not necessarily help. To fix a target and work towards it with might, ignoring the red flags that come up, ultimately result in defeatist policies and chaos. Dealing with human beings is difficult. A man can be forced to lie prostrate but his “heart and mind” cannot be changed by force. The chaos left behind in Iraq is a case in point. However bad Saddam Hussain may have been, he kept Islamic terrorists out, made his scud missiles inoperative and dismantled his nuclear and chemical weapons programme, in good faith. The source called “curve ball”, if he ever existed, has turned out to be a fraud.
The president of the country was hanged. Today, Iraq is a hotbed of sectarian war, the I.S. is creating mayhem there, breeding terrorists that will eventually target the U.S. and the west.
Promoting and supporting democracy is American state policy. Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of, “Government of the people, by the people and for the people” is highly laudable political philosophy. That is why America is where it is today. Unfortunately, the American establishment has not followed President Lincoln in the post war era in many regions across the globe.
In the case of Bangladesh, American policy leaves much to be desired. History needs to be revisited. Times and conditions were different in 1971, but if lessons are not learnt from history, the same mistakes can be repeated with devastating consequences. Former U.S. secretary of state and national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, took the break up of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh as a personal affront. In his book “The Blood Telegram”, author Gary Bass recounts the horrific genocide perpetrated by the Pakistani army on the Bengalis of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1971 and how the cables sent by US consul general, Archer Blood to Washington were met by deafening silence.
Is the USA in a dilemma with friend Pakistan and sovereign Bangladesh with which it has good political, economic and social relations?
Of course, the Awami League and its alliance partners have a bitter relationship with the BNP-Jamaat combine. The reasons are open and obvious. There were some hard decisions by the government, and security forces overplayed their hand on occasions.
But blaming Sk. Hasina’s politics for the entry of terrorist groups in Bangladesh is plain misreading of the situation and biased. The BNP made a mistake by boycotting the last general elections. The Jamaat refused to comply with the Constitution and electoral laws. They want to implement Sharia law (which discriminates against women).A majority of Bangladeshi women are opposed to such a proposition.
If Sk. Hasina was throttling the opposition, she would not have allowed the opposition to hold street protests or allowed agitations by religious groups supported by the opposition, resulting in mayhem and death of ordinary people. This is how religious extremism and terrorism took root in Bangladesh.
Nobody denies that Bangladesh must remain a democratic, secular, multiparty country. This is in the genes of the majority of the people of Bangladesh. But when some political parties promote the agenda of external interests to sabotage the fabric of the nation that will not be acceptable. The country will be thrown into a terrorist and extremist inferno which will spread to neighbouring India. The JMB’s foray into India is cited in this case.
Bangladesh is infested by religious extremist groups. The “demand for Sharia Law” cannot be contained in the domain of religious politics. The BNP is shortsighted, and the Jamaat uses the BNP and other such groups as their instruments.
The US has to look at Bangladesh through a realistic prism and not through the lens of the cold war era. James Clapper must go beyond intelligence inputs, which can be predetermined. Think about Iraq.
The US leads the global war against terrorism. It has international support. But do not mix politics with terrorism.
*The writer is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]