Sunday, 3 July 2016

Javed Anand - What Kind of Prime Minister Are You, Sheikh Hasina? // Praveen Swami - Terror reloaded in Bangladesh // Syed Badrul Ahsan - In denial in Dhaka //

Javed Anand - What Kind of Prime Minister Are You, Sheikh Hasina?
To combat growing terrorism in Bangladesh the PM's lament over, 'What kind of Muslims are these people?' is not enough. The heinous massacre of innocent men and women peacefully eating their dinner at an up-market café in Dhaka this weekend has at last woken up Sheikh Hasina Wajed to the continuing reign of terror – in Allah’s name – in the country of which she has been prime minister (for the second time) since 2009. Or so we hope.

Eyewitness survivors have said the killers stormed the popular Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka’s posh Gulshan area on Friday evening shouting “Allah-o-Akbar”. “What kind of Muslims are these people? They don’t have any religion… terrorism is their religion,” the prime minister is reported to have stated while announcing the end of the siege which claimed 20 lives.

Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain, a hero who refused to abandon his friends in the Dhaka cafe
we can take comfort in the fact that Bangladesh also produced a young man like Faraaz
Irrfan Khan condemns Dhaka terror attack, asks Muslims to not stay silent

Begum Hasina would do better to ask herself the question that millions of Bangladeshi citizens have been asking in their own manner for many months now: What kind of Prime Minister are you, Begum Hasina? What kind of Islam do you profess and what does it demand of you? For the past year-and-a-half her government and police have been mute witness as terrorists have picked their targets at will, one at a time, killing Hindu priests, Shias, Ahmeddiyas, Sufis, Pirs, secular activists, atheists, bloggers, writers, professors, students… One of them was a young student named Nazimuddin Samad. His crime? Organising campaigns for secularism on Facebook.

In an article published on this platform less than two months ago, Bangladesh’s feminist activist Khushi Kabir had pointed to her country’s dangerous drift towards extremist Islam: “The message that there is only one form, a form alien to this land, of belief and practice, that of the Wahabi/Salafis who are not part of the four Mazhabs of the Islamic Sunni belief is now being pushed with full force as the current agenda. Many killed in brutal manner have been believers, Pirs, Shias, Ahmedias, followers of the Sufi tradition, priests from other religions, writers who were not necessarily atheists”.

Kabir had lamented the Hasina government’s myopia over the dark clouds gathering over Bangladesh and the state’s callous naming of the victims as the accused: “Those feeling outraged at this [ongoing] barbarism are asked that one should be careful not to hurt the sentiment of the believers? Whose sentiment are we talking about? Which believers? The misogynists, communalists who preach and breed obscurantism, a group financially strong, having the backing of the powers that be, misrepresenting and misquoting for their own vested interests?”

Kabir had concluded her article with the words: “1971 has taught us that killing cannot stop freedom. It did not then, it will not now”. Her brave words, sadly, have not stopped the Islamists from their murderous misdeeds. Social activists like Kabir are not the only ones concerned over the cancerous growth of extremism in the country’s body polity. The Dhaka Tribune reported on June 6 (2016) that over 1,00,000 ulema from Bangladesh had issued a joint fatwa against terrorism.

ISIS and the Al Qaeda are currently engaged in a fierce competition across our sub-continent aiming to outdo each other in spreading their terror tentacles. That’s now. But the malignant growth of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh can be easily traced back to the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEB) and its militant student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir.

The Islamic State which has claimed “credit” for the latest mass murder at Holey Artisa Bakery has also boasted of targeting others in recent months. It and the Al Qaeda are currently engaged in a fierce competition across our sub-continent aiming to outdo each other in spreading their terror tentacles. That’s now. But the malignant growth of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh can be easily traced back to the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEB) and its militant student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir.

The official website of the JEB continues to protest its innocence, claiming that “Islamists are the most principled, pious, god-fearing and kind people on the earth”. Facts on the ground tell a different tale.

  • In March 2013, Amnesty International issued a press statement on the countrywide attack on Hindus in which more than 40 temples were vandalised and scores of shops and homes were burnt down. Survivors told Amnesty International that the attackers were participants in rallies organised by the opposition Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JIB) and its student group Chhatra Shibir.
  • In April the same month, an entire galaxy of maulanas affiliated to the Imam Ulema Somonnoy Oikyo Parishad, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (Bangladesh) and other religious bodies in Bangladesh publicly denounced the Jamaat-Shibir for their link with terrorist Islamist organisations. “People who believe in Wahabism and Moududism (Maulana Abul Ala Maududi was the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami) are enemies of Islam as they misinterpret Quran and Sunnah”, the Ahle Sunnat (Bangladesh) secretary general Syed Muhammad Masiuddoula had thundered at a Sunni Ulema-Mashayekh Conference on March 17.   
  • In December 2013, the well-known human rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra (AIN) documented 276 major incidents of attack by the Jamaat-Shibir extremists during the year in which a total of 492 people including 15 police members were killed and around 2,200 others were injured.
The demands of the terrorists in the latest carnage included the release of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) activists who were sentenced to a 10-year jail term in January this year for their role in a string of bomb attacks in the country in 2005. The JMB which is now a local ISIS affiliate is committed to converting Bangladesh into an Islamic state through armed struggle. On August 17, 2005 it had detonated some 500 bombs, simultaneously across 300 locations in 50 Bangladeshi cities.

While the origin of the JMB in the late 1990s is shrouded in some mystery, the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB) has been accused of patronising the former while it was part of the coalition government headed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In November 2005, a BNP MP, Abu Hena alleged that the JEB was directly involved in the emergence of the JMB. He even named two JEB ministers in the BNP-led coalition who he claimed "are doing everything for the militants". Hena’s expulsion from the party did not stop BNP’s former minister Oli Ahmed and BNP whip Ashraf Hossain from speaking out and implicating the Jamaat-e-Islami in the rise of extremism in the country.

Recall the vibrant ‘Shahbag movement’ of 2013 (many at the time drew parallels to the ‘Arab Uprising’) which started as a vehement rejection of the International Crime Tribunal’s (ICT) verdict to condemn Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant general secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami, to life in prison. Protestors wanted Mollah, who was convicted for killing hundreds of people and raping a young girl, to be put to death. But the movement soon took the form of a mass civil society awakening which demanded an end to all religion-based politics.

Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Prime Minister of Bangladesh (since 2009) has been leader since 1981 of the Awami Party which spearheaded the country’s 1971 breakaway from Pakistan, rejected the two-nations theory and espoused the ideal of a secular nation and state. Even in this dark moment it should be clear that there are millions of Bangladeshis – from students, professors and activists to a wide spectrum of maulanas wedded to a tolerant Islam – who are staunchly opposed to the Wahhabis/Salafi and the Maududian “enemies of Islam” determined to push the country towards a totalitarian Islamic state. In 2013, the Supreme Court declared the JEB as “illegal” and barred the party from contesting polls. In the past it had never managed more than 4 per cent of the votes in any election in Bangladesh.

So, to return to where this article began, before the terrorists claim their next victim(s), Sheikh Hasina would do well to ask herself: What kind of a Prime Minister am I? What does my Islam demand of me?      
Though the world is transfixed by the debate over whether the Islamic State has arrived in Bangladesh, the name is largely irrelevant to the story. Fired by the call of the Islamic State’s caliphate, and forged from the remnants of the once-feared jihadist groups like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), this new generation of jihadists is fighting a war for the nation’s very soul…

Little is known of just what led Rahman to the Islamic State, but like the men who attacked the Holey Artisan Bakery on Friday night — the last Friday of the holy month of Ramzan — he belonged to the country’s elite, the kind who belonged inside the café. The son of a military officer who gave his life fighting Bangladesh Rifles mutineers in 2009, Rahman had gone on to study at the Military Institute of Science and Technology, one of the country’s premier institutions…

Then, on February 21 last year, he left on a flight for Istanbul, travelling on a visa obtained with a forged invitation to a conference. His maternal uncle, an officer with the military’s Directorate-General of Field Intelligence, desperately called friends in Turkish intelligence to get him back, but it was too late.

Estimates by Bangladeshi intelligence services suggest dozens — perhaps over a hundred — have made the same journey. There are others who have tried, and failed. Asif ‘Shuvo’ Adnan, an Economics graduate and son of well-respected retired judge Abdul Salam Mamun, is facing trial for attempting to leave for Islamic State, along with his friend Mohammad Fazle Ellahi, the son of senior bureaucrat Umme Fatima Sufia Khanam.
Perhaps more important, there has been a steady flow of élite Bangladeshis to these networks at home. Nibras Islam, one of the three attackers so far identified, studied at North-South University, an élite private-sector university. Meer Shameeh Mubasher and Rohan Imtiaz were students of the top-notch Scholastica school.

Earlier this year, the IS announced its arrival in Bangladesh, with its house magazine Dabiq publishing an interview with organisation’s chief, who uses the pseudonym Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif. In it, he described how the Islamic State was drawing followers who had seen its core kernel targetting “the crusaders, the Rafidah (Shia), the Qadiyaniyyah (Ahmadiyya), the Hindus, the missionaries, and others, all within a short period of time”. “This brought hope to the Muslims in Bengal after a lengthy pause in jihad,” al-Hanif concluded.

Who, however, was this core kernel? In its November 18, 2015, issue, Dabiq had given some important clues. The formation of the JMB, it said, had been a “new light of hope born amidst the Muslims of Bengal, a land that for hundreds of years has been drowned in shirk (idol worship) and bidah (religious innovation) due to the effects of both European colonisation and Hindu cultural invasion”.

However, it went on, the “mujahideen of Bengal realised that there was no room for blind partisanship towards any organisation once the Khilafah (caliphate) had been declared and that there was no longer legitimacy for any independent jihad organisation”. The praise for the JMB was of obvious significance. Last year, the Bangladesh security services arrested the organisation’s regional commander, Shakhawatul Kabir. Kabir, who graduated with a degree in English from Dhaka’s Titumir College, had been recruited by the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen in 2006. Three years later, police said, he fled to Pakistan. There, he joined jihad commander Ejaz Khalid, the son-in-law of imprisoned JMB chief Maulana Sayeedur Rahman.

Late last year, police said, Kabir set up an Islamic State recruitment cell inside Bangladesh, along with his old friends, Nazrul Islam, Rabiul Islam and Anwar Hossain. Police said the men planned to carry out a series of bombings, and then use the publicity to draw recruits online. Formed in 1998, from a hard-core of jihadists linked to the anti-Soviet Union jihad in Afghanistan, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen was set up to wage an armed struggle for turning Bangladesh into an Islamic State. In August, 2005, it famously conducted 459 almost-simultaneous bombings in 63 districts of the country, following that up with a welter of suicide bombings, killings of judges, and political assassinations.

Through the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition government, the jihadist group enjoyed a high degree of impunity, with incarcerated leaders often being released, or mysteriously escaping from jail. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, though, executed six top commanders of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen in 2007, including its supreme leader Maulana Abdur Rahman. The executions were followed by a nationwide crackdown that decimated the organisation.

Leaflets the JMB left behind at the site of August, 2005, bombings — printed in Bangla and, interestingly, Arabic — cast interesting light on the organisation’s self-image as part of the vanguard of the international jihadist movement. “We are soldiers of Allah”, it read, “We have taken up arms for the implementation of the Allah’s law, in the way the Prophet, the Sahabas (his companions) and the heroic Mujahideen have done for centuries”. Finally, the leaflets concluded, it was “time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh. There is no future with man-made law”.

The Islamic State’s experience in Iraq — of recovery from utter annihilation at the hands of the US — brought hope back to the shattered remnants of the JMB leadership. It also brought in a new influx of élite recruits, their imaginations fired by the Internet. 

Investigations into the case of Samiun Rahman, a Bangladesh-origin British national held in 2014, suggest the country’s diaspora in the West may be playing a key role in this process.
Having trained in jihadist camps in Syria from September-December 2013, police said, Rahman returned home to Bangladesh. He hoped to sell his ancestral home in Sylhet to fund recruitment operations funnelling Bangladeshis to IS. Rahman, Bangladesh police allege, met with Asif Adnan and Mohammad Fazle Ellahi, on a fan page for Mumbai-based preacher Zakir Naik who has been barred from travelling to the UK and US for his inflammatory speeches. The group succeeded in recruiting seven men before their arrest.

There’s evidence JMB has had some support from Pakistan’s intelligence services. Last year, Pakistani diplomat Farina Arshad was asked to leave Bangladesh on charges of funelling money to the terrorist group — the second to face similar charges. In addition, West Asia-based charities are thought to have pumped money to the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen’s coffers.

The new cells staged their first attack on September 28, 2015, with “Soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh” shooting dead Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella in Dhaka. Then, on October, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for killing Japanese national Hoshi Kunio. IS cells followed this up by targetting the Shia mosque of Hussaini Dalan in Dhaka, another Shia mosque in Bogra, and the Chokpara Ahmadiyya Jamaat Mosque in Bagmara. There were strikes on Hindus, Muslim converts to Christianity, an English-language professor believed to be a secularist — and, finally, the strike on Friday night.

Instead of attempting to wage a large-scale insurgency that will bring down the state, as the JMB did in 2005 — with catastrophic consequences for itself — its leadership, now flying the flag of the Islamic State, now has a new strategy. Through spectacular actions directed at Bangladesh’s aid-dependent economy; through actions that play on the country’s religious and sectarian faultlines; through carefully targetted assassinations: the group seeks to provoke the state into reprisals that will fuel backlash, and in turn generate entropy.
Put simply, the strategy is chaos.

6 months, 14 attacks… read more:

The attack by Islamic State (IS) on a Spanish restaurant in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone of Gulshan late Friday evening exposes once again the vulnerability of the state machinery in Bangladesh. This is not, of course, the first time that violence has shaken up the structure of the state. Since its liberation from Pakistan in 1971, the country has been no stranger to violence, either in its politics or social structure. But in the past decade, the uninhibited growth of Islamist fundamentalism has posed a threat that has overshadowed all previous threats to the socio-political stability of the country.

The threat has now taken on dimensions which leave Bangladesh’s ruling classes looking woefully embarrassed, especially in light of the government’s repeated denials of the presence of Islamic State or its affiliates in the country. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal have for months been dismissive of reports of IS presence in Bangladesh, to a point where the former has regarded such reports as an attempt to undermine her government while the latter has infamously let it be known that all Islamist acts of violence have actually been isolated incidents.

The attack on Holey Artisan Restaurant, a café which largely catered to foreigners and affluent Bengalis in an elite residential region of Dhaka, has now given the lie to the assertions of the government. The fact that the IS has already claimed responsibility for the attack, which left 20 killed and many more injured, is vindication of the long-held feeling that Islamist elements have been making inroads in the country.

But the Sheikh Hasina government as well as the earlier one led by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have been reluctant to acknowledge it. Between 2001 and 2006, when Islamist terror first began to manifest itself, Khaleda Zia’s government refused to countenance the suggestion that religious militancy was on a slow, creeping rise in Bangladesh. Today, it is the government led by Hasina, which publicly and repeatedly proclaims that there is no IS presence in Bangladesh and that all incidents of bigotry-inspired killings were the work of what the prime minister has always termed as a BNP-Jamaat clique. Not many have, of course, bought the story.

When, therefore, Islamists stormed Holey Artisan on Friday evening, it was but grim confirmation of the dangers that today threaten to undermine the Bangladesh state a good many degrees more than they have so far. In these last two years and more, as many as 49 people have been murdered by Islamist fanatics. Bloggers, writers, publishers, Hindus, Christians, two foreign citizens, and secular Muslims have died in targeted attacks by Islamists wielding guns and machetes and operating in ways that have become a pattern: Almost every attack on individuals has been carried out by three men riding a motorbike before making good their escape.

The storming of the cafe, however, is a marked change in approach. That ought not to have been surprising, though, given that in recent months outfits like IS and al Qaeda have threatened to treat Bangladesh as a base for launching terror operations against India and Pakistan. It was a threat which the government never took seriously, preferring instead to score political points against its rivals. The points predictably were never scored and instead it is the administration’s mood of denial which has in these past many months become increasingly palpable in the public eye. The attack on the restaurant has definitively exposed the hollowness of the government’s claims that it is on top of the situation.

The tragedy assumes an even more sinister shade considering that the Islamists, screaming Allahu Akbar (God is great), struck in Dhaka’s diplomatic region. The area to which the authorities have in recent months accorded utmost priority in terms of ensuring security, has now been revealed to be an easy target for the Islamists. None of the routine checks the security forces have carried out in the elite city area for months — checking cars and motorbikes and pedestrians — appear to have worked. Instead, the police and other security forces have been found to be complacent. That the Islamists were able to make their entry into the restaurant on a weekend and take not just its customers and management, but by extension an entire nation hostage, is proof, if any more proof were needed, of the large, deep holes that have been drilled into the nation’s security system. Repeated assurances by the government to foreign governments and organisations as also to citizens that life and property are safe were revealed to have been rather hollow.

But should that be surprising? Over the decades, security failures have led to the assassinations of two presidents, four political leaders in prison, military coups, and mutinies such as the one that left 74 people, including 57 army officers, dead at the erstwhile Bangladesh Rifles (since rechristened as Border Guard Bangladesh).

One does not need much wisdom to understand the enormous damage that the Islamist attack on Friday has inflicted on the state and, particularly, the government. Now, after months of dogged denials of reality, Prime Minister Hasina and her administration must face the very logical and surely relevant question of why they failed to be prepared for a dark eventuality and why they consistently tried to deflect attention away from the Islamist danger and, improbably, towards the political opposition.

For its part, the opposition personified by former prime minister, Khaleda Zia, has certainly played truant where a solidification of Bangladesh’s cultural and political ethos is concerned. Its emphasis on “Bangladeshi nationalism”, which essentially is a carefully calibrated return to the infamous two-nation theory propagated by the Muslim League in the 1940s, has over time created conditions for Islamists to reorganise and reinforce their presence in an otherwise secular milieu. Begum Zia had three notorious Islamist collaborators of the 1971 Pakistan army in her cabinet. In the months leading up to the elections of January 2014, her party’s open support for such medieval Islamist outfits as the Hefazat-e-Islam was a shot in the arm for those who have always looked to Bangladesh being someday governed by Sharia law.

The Islamist attack on Friday raises fears of similar tragedy in future. Religious militancy is alive and well. Whether or not it can be rolled back depends on whether the government can turn around and assert its authority, something it has been unable to do thus far.
The writer is associate editor, ‘The Daily Observer’, Dhaka, and columnist for online newspaper,

see also
The Broken Middle (on the 30th anniversary of 1984)