The world’s second-largest Muslim state — at 150 million, co-equal with Pakistan, and behind Indonesia — Bangladesh was well on its way to falling victim to a coalition of pro-al Qaeda politico-religious extremists. Almost unnoticed, they have been gnawing away at Bangladesh’s fragile democratic institutions.
Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s husband was former president and military strongman Ziaur Rahman. He was assassinated in 1981. Her rival and head of the Awami League is another woman, Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Her father was the country’s first prime minister, assassinated in 1975.
Under Mrs. Zia’s leadership, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has appeased Islamist fundamentalists by including Osama bin Laden’s local fan club in her government. To wit: Jamaat-e-Islami stands for an Islamic republic. BNP coalition partner Islami Okiyya Jote is linked to the pro-al Qaeda Harkat-ul-Jihad-Al Islami (HuJI), which in turn is linked to Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which wants to impose Sharia law by force. It is widely believed responsible for a countrywide wave of some 500 bombings last Aug. 17.
HuJI, or Movement of Islamic Holy War, is in league with some of Pakistan’s officially banned but still tolerated extremist groups. The Indian army liberated Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, in 1971 after a bloody civil war.
JMB leader Bangla Bhai favors a Taliban-style medieval theocracy, yet another reason opposition Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina accused the government coalition of “letting loose criminal extremist forces.”
Radical Islamist organizations proliferate in the cities, funded by at least 10 Middle Eastern charities, while terrorist training camps have been reported in dense jungle areas to the north. Indian intelligence, which closely watches its former ward, believes it has tracked more than 170 concentrations of pro-al Qaeda militants, including members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Indonesia terrorist group responsible for the Bali bombing and other terrorist attacks.
A former senior Bangladeshi intelligence executive said Jemaah Islamiya leader Hambali, arrested in Thailand in August 2003, had already decided to shift JI elements to Bangladesh to shield them from counterterrorist operations in Southeast Asia.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Christina Rocca flew to Dakha at the end of January to convey U.S. alarm to government leaders coupled with a stern warning: either they curb Islamist militancy and terror financing or face sanctions under the U.S. “Terrorist Financing Act.” Mrs. Rocca also made clear the U.S. expected free and fair elections in 2006, as required by a frayed constitution.
Mrs. Rocca expressed surprise militant JMB leaders were allowed to operate freely even though they were known responsible for numerous terrorism acts. The foreign secretary was presumably hard of hearing because after meeting with Mrs. Rocca he quoted her as having told him, “Bangladesh is not only a functioning democracy but also a role model for Muslim countries.” Then he added, “Rocca was very appreciative of the government’s anti-militant crackdown and hoped that this effort would continue.”
The U.S. agreed to an exchange of intelligence on matters of mutual concern and to train Bangladeshi operatives in the U.S. on how intelligence is shared in practice. The country’s intelligence service knows only too well what the U.S. wants to know. Islamist sympathizers in the service make sure nothing of value is given to the Americans.
Mrs. Rocca called on the family of slain former Finance Minister Shah AMS Kibria who accused the government of “a farcical investigation to cover the masterminds” and demanded a U.N. investigation as happened after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “The culture of killing will not end in Bangladesh unless the people are active against those who give directions for political assassinations from behind,” said Kibria’s widow.
Mrs. Rocca also wanted to know why JMB chief Shaikh Abdur Rahman and sidekick Bangla Bhai had not been arrested. “Because we haven’t caught them,” came the lame reply.
In a well-planned demonstration of trans-Atlantic solidarity, a high-level European Union delegation timed its visit to coincide with Mrs. Rocca’s — and gave Bangladeshi leaders the same message: Stick to fair elections in October of this year or face some unpleasant though unspecified music. The opposition Awami League said the Election Commission and provisions for a caretaker government have already been gerrymandered to favor the ruling BNP and its Islamist props.
Suicide bombings and grenade assassinations are more common in Bangladesh than in Israel, Gaza or the West Bank. But they seldom are reported. Time magazine’s South Asian bureau chief was banned from the country after a 2002 article exposed the government’s lackadaisical response to a buildup of Islamist terrorists with links to al Qaeda.
In 1998, Bangladesh suffered the worst floods of the 20th century, leaving 25 million people marooned while countless thousands drowned. Huge, cyclone-driven natural disasters have been the country’s sad fate for centuries. Bangladesh’s 700 rivers funnel down to a delta of five major waterways that are so many potential Katrinas without levees. Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina sees a political system without levees against the tide of Islamist extremism.
But following Mrs. Rocca’s departure, she rallied her supporters from all over the country and began a “Long March” protest Feb. 2. Opposition activists enlisted an ever-larger following as they moved through towns and villages on their way to Dhaka. Within three days, 100,000 opposition supporters had moved to the capital’s Paltan Square where Sheikh Hasina addressed what began to look like a peaceful counterrevolution against the Islamists. Not for long. Thousands were arrested — Sheikh Hasina said 10,000, the government 5,000 — but she had made her point. Sheikh Hasina also said she was ending the Awami League’s yearlong boycott of the Islamist-dominated parliament. Her only purpose was to hold the other woman leader’s feet to the fire of free elections.
Score one for Mrs. Rocca and the Bush administration. For the next move by Mrs. Zia and her Islamist bedfellows, stay tuned.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.