By Ajit Kumar Singh
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. 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. – HuJI-B: Potent Threat, SAIR, August 1, 2011
HuT’s radical ideology, the propagation of hatred against ‘infidels’ and ‘deviants’, and the flirtation with violence and terrorism hold significant potential dangers within the far from stable South Asian environment. – HuT: Extremist Spectre, SAIR, October 24, 2011
In nearly three years of almost consistently positive news from Bangladesh, the revelation that a coup plot had been foiled by Dhaka has sent shock waves through the region, and underlined the dangers of residual Islamist extremism within the country.
On January 19, 2012, it was disclosed that the Bangladesh Army had discovered and neutralized a plot by some serving and retired Army officers, at the instigation of some Bangladeshi civilians at home and abroad, capitalizing on the sentiments of the Islamist extremists. The conspiracy was intended to overthrow the Awami League (AL) led civilian Government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed.
Revealing the details of the plot, Brigadier General Muhammad Mashud Razzaq, Director of the Personnel Services Directorate, and Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Sazzad Siddique, acting Judge Advocate General of the Army, in a Press briefing on January 19, 2012, circulated a statement saying that “around 14 to 16 mid-level officers were believed to have been involved in the bid”, which came to notice when Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Ehsan Yusuf on December 13, 2011, instigated a serving Major (not named) to join him in executing his plan. The Major revealed the plot through the chain of command. Two retired officers, Ehsan Yusuf and Major Zakir, were arrested. Another plotter, a serving Major, Syed Mohammad Ziaul Haque alias Major Zia, is on the run. Meanwhile, a Court of Inquiry was constituted on December 28, 2011, to unearth further information about the plot.
Though it will take time to unravel all the facts, the revelation that at least two plotters have already admitted their links with the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT, ‘Party of Liberation’) has once again brought focus on Islamist fundamentalist groups that continue to maintain their strong presence in the country’s military establishment. Indeed, on January 8, 2012, HuT had circulated provocative leaflets, based on the fugitive Major Zia’s internet message, throughout the country. Zia had sent out two e-mails containing imaginary and highly controversial contents, styled “Mid-level Officers of Bangladesh Army are Bringing down Changes Soon (sic)”. The Bangladesh Security Forces (SFs) on January 20, 2012, arrested another five HuT cadres in connection with the failed coup attempt.
This is the second attempt military revolt by hardliners under the Hasina Government since it came to power after the elections of December 2008. On February 25 and 26, 2009, shortly after the Government took charge, members of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), since renamed the Bangladesh Border Guards, staged a mutiny against their commanding officers, killing more than 74 persons, including 52 officers, SF personnel and six civilians, including the Director General of the BDR and his wife. The mutineers, backed by the Islamists, wanted to create a rift between the Hasina Government and the military, in order to overthrow the civilian Government. They failed in the face of an effective and concerted response by the military top brass.
Interestingly, Sajeeb Wazed, an Information Technology specialist, political analyst and advisor to Sheikh Hasina, along with Carl Ciovacco, in an article titled ‘Stemming the rise of Islamic Extremism in Bangladesh’ published in the Harvard International Review on November 19, 2008, had underlined the ‘astronomical growth’ of Islamists in the military, claiming that madrassas (religious seminaries) supplied nearly 35 per cent of Army recruits. Indeed, the seminaries in Bangladesh have emerged as the principal medium for fundamentalists to propagate radical ideologies.
The radicalization process has been rooted in Bangladeshi politics since the bloody coup of August 15, 1975, which killed the country’s founding father, Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Sheikh Hasina’s father). The coup leaders used Islam as an instrument to legitimize and secure their power. Succeeding regimes have collaborated with radical and fundamentalist Islamic political organizations. Indeed, the principal political parties, in their efforts to oust the military from power, maintained tactical relationships with fundamentalist political organizations, giving them unbridled power, which radicalised society and the polity to the core. The AL was guilty of such alliances in the past, though, in its current tenure, it has acted with determination and consistency against Islamist extremist elements in the country.
On April 2009, the AL Government blacklisted 12 extremist organisations – Harkat-ul Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Shahadat-e-al-Hiqma (SAH), Hizbut Touhid, Islami Samaj, Ulema Anjuman al Baiyinaat, HuT, Islamic Democratic Party, Touhid Trust, Tamir-ud-Deen, Alla’r Dal. Four of these 12 groups, including HuJI, SAH, JMJB and JMB, had already been banned during the earlier Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JeI) coalition regime.
Later, on March 25, 2010, the AL Government set up a special tribunal for the trial of “war criminals” of Liberation War of 1971. Five of the Jamaat’s top leaders, including its ‘chief’ Motiur Rahman Nizami and Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid, were jailed in this connection. Subsequently, on January 11, 2012, former JeI ‘chief’ Gholam Azam was sent to jail by the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT), which, on January 9, 2012, had accepted formal charges against Azam and present ‘chief’ Nizami for their alleged involvement in war crimes.
Further, on June 27, 2011, 666 members of the 24th Border Guards Battalion were tried before the BDR Tribunal, a military court. All but nine were found guilty and sentenced to terms ranging from four months to seven years in prison.
In June 2011, the Government passed the Constitution (15th Amendment) Bill, 2011, restoring secularism as a ‘fundamental pillar’ of the Bangladesh Constitution.
An extremist backlash was almost inevitable.
Meanwhile, on January 19, 2012, Prime Minister Hasina accused the “desperate” opposition of “plotting” against her Government. Criticizing the BNP, she declared, “They are desperate to spoil the democratic process. They are threatening the Government to protect the war criminals.” It is widely reported that the BNP is vehemently opposing the trial of war criminals to support its ally, JeI, and some of its own leaders. Notably, a former BNP Minister Abdul Alim and a BNP lawmaker Salahuddin Qader Chowdhury, have been accused of war crimes.
Though there is no conclusive report of direct BNP involvement in the attempted coup, some developments raise a finger of suspicion. Indeed, Abdul Hye Sikder (a former leader of the cultural wing of BNP) wrote a provocative article in Amar Desh, a vernacular daily, instigating the anti-Government sentiment of the Islamist forces within and outside the Bangladesh Armed forces. Apparently referring to BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia’s remarks at a Chittagong rally on January 9, 2012, that ‘even army personnel are being abducted’, Brigadier Razzaq, while disclosing details of the coup plot, hinted at possible BNP involvement, stating, “Even a large political party sang along imaginary, misleading and propagandist news to bring allegations, which created unexpected and provocative debate among the Army and conscious citizens.”
HuT has been gradually gaining grounds in Bangladesh, and is currently regarded as the strongest anti-state organisation in Bangladesh. Another such group, Hizbut Touhid, established in 1994 at Korotia village in the Tangail District, and led by Bayezid Khan Panni alias Selim Panni, who claims himself to be the Imam-uz-Zaman [Leader of the Age], has also extended its base. The Hizbut Touhid, which aspires to establish the ‘world leadership’ of the Imam-uz-Zaman, declares itself against democracy and democratic institutions, which it regards as ‘rules of evil’.
According to SATP data, the SFs have arrested 213 HuT cadres since March 10, 2000, (till January 22, 2012), out of which 96 have been arrested since the Hasina Government came to power in January 2009. 107 Hizbut Touhid cadres have also been arrested by the current Hasina regime. Nevertheless, these groups, in alliance with the JeI, continue to constitute a major threat for the Hasina Government, though the dangers have, in some measure, been minimised by sustained SF action.
These dangers have not, however, seized to exist, and even a group like the JMB, which was decimated in the aftermath of the serial bombings of August 2005, is reported to be exerting visible efforts to engineer a revival. Quoting Abu Talha Mohammad Fahim aka Bashar, a son of detained JMB chief Saidur Rahman, officials of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) disclosed that the reorganisation attempts under the directives of JMB’s acting ‘chief’ Sohel Mahfuz, were being intensified.
The failed coup is a reminder that Islamist Forces in the country, while they have weakened, have not been entirely contained. Despite the tremendous gains of the past three years, the threat of an Islamist resurgence, of coup attempts, of terrorism and of engineered political violence, will persist as long as these groupings continue to have a base in the country.
Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management