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PART 1: Bangladesh treads fine terror line
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - A death threat to the Indian cricket team allegedly issued by an Islamic militant group in Bangladesh draws attention once again to the presence of anti-India militant groups operating in that country. A hand-written letter from a group calling itself Harkat-ul Jihad - it is believed to be a front organization of the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), an outfit with strong al-Qaeda links - threatening the Indian cricket team with death was received by
the Indian High Commission in Dhaka last week. The letter said
the Indian cricket players, who were due to arrive in Bangladesh on Wednesday, would be attacked to avenge the death of Muslims in the Gujarat riots in India of 2002.

In September this year, the World Bank's director in Bangladesh, Christine Wallich (an American), received a letter threatening her with death. She is believed to be the first foreigner in Bangladesh to have received such a warning.

While the Indian government is taking the threat seriously - it sent a team of experts to Bangladesh to assess the security arrangements before the Indian cricketers began their tour - Dhaka has dismissed the threat as a hoax. Whether or not this threat turns out to be a hoax, the underlying issue - growing Islamic extremism in Bangladesh and the government's denial of the problem - remains, and is likely to trouble the already fraying India-Bangladesh relations, a retired Indian diplomat told Asia Times Online.

This is not the first time that the Indian government has raised the issue with Dhaka. New Delhi has been drawing attention to the presence of anti-India militant training camps in Bangladesh and the growing fundamentalist extremism there. It has repeatedly asked Bangladesh to shut down the camps run by India's northeastern insurgents there. In September, for instance, India provided Bangladesh with a list of 195 camps run by northeastern insurgents on Bangladesh soil, with specific details regarding their location.

The growing role of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in training anti-India militants based in Bangladesh has worried Delhi for some time now. India's Border Security Force director general, Ajai Sharma, told the media in September that there were "firm reports" that the ISI had set up new training centers for terrorists in Bangladesh. "The terrorist groups operating in Jammu and Kashmir are also being trained there ... It [ISI] is now fully concentrating in Bangladesh," he said.

India is not alone in pointing out that Bangladesh is turning into a haven for extremist and terrorist outfits. For some time now, the international media, too, have been reporting increasing extremism, including al-Qaeda activity, in Bangladesh. In April 2002, Bertil Lintner wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review that after the fall of Kandahar in Afghanistan in late 2001, hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters arrived by ship from Karachi to the Bangladesh port city of Chittagong. Lintner drew attention to training camps funded by al-Qaeda and run by the HuJI in Bangladesh in which Muslim Rohingya extremists and Jemaah Islamiah militants were being trained.

Quoting "well-placed local sources" he pointed out that this "would have been impossible without at least some tacit agreement with the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), Bangladesh's chief intelligence agency, which is closely connected with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence." A few months later, Time magazine's Alex Perry provided details on southern Bangladesh having become "a haven for hundreds of jihadis". Local media reports, too, have detailed the way in which Islamic extremist outfits flourish in Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh government has reacted fiercely to any suggestions that the country is becoming a haven for Islamic extremism. It banned the distribution of the Far Eastern Economic Review issue that carried Lintner's "baseless" article. Newspaper offices have been raided and journalists taken into custody for investigating the al-Qaeda presence in the country. India's allegations that Bangladesh is providing sanctuary to anti-India militants and encouraging Islamist extremism have met with a similar response from Dhaka - outright denials and outrage.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's reluctance to act against extremism has its roots in domestic politics. Her Bangladesh Nationalist Party's (BNP's) partners in the coalition government include the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islamic Oikya Jote, both known for their support to Islamic fundamentalism, the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Jamaat had collaborated with the military regime in Pakistan during the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh from Pakistan and continues to be close to Islamabad. Its anti-India obsession is therefore not surprising.

The Jamaat is responsible for the proliferation of madrassas (seminaries) in Bangladesh, many of which are known to recruit and train jihadi fighters. Even if the Jamaat is not directly responsible for terrorist acts, its inclusion in the coalition government - it has two ministers in government - has encouraged radical Islamist groups to feel that they enjoy protection from the government and can act with impunity. Its student wing, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir, is said to be behind many bombings and attacks on secular intellectuals and writers.

As for the Islamic Oikya Jote, several of its membership are said to be members of HUJI. Senior leaders from both parties have openly flaunted their Taliban/al-Qaeda connections.

In addition to political compulsions to keep her fundamentalist partners in the coalition government happy, Khaleda's inaction against Islamic jihadis is prompted by her intense political and personal rivalry with Sheikh Hasina, leader of the opposition Awami League. "The BNP sees its fundamentalist friends as useful weapons to keep the secular Awami League in check," a senior Dhaka-based journalist told this correspondent in February 2003.

Besides, its difficult relationship with India has prompted the BNP to not accommodate Delhi's concerns. The BNP's equation with Delhi has never been easy and it has resented India's warm ties with the Awami League. Delhi has always been more comfortable dealing with an Awami League government, the warm relationship going back to 1971 when India diplomatically, materially, politically and militarily backed the Awami League-led Bangladesh liberation war. The BNP has allowed anti-India militant groups sanctuary on Bangladeshi soil as this provides it leverage with India. Its warming up to Pakistan while ignoring the nexus between the DGFI and the ISI are attempts to put pressure on Delhi.

But it is not just the Khaleda government that is to blame for the current state of affairs. Every government, whether led by the BNP, the Awami League or the military, has contributed to the problem by ignoring the warning signs, appeasing the fundamentalists or encouraging extremism.

Sections in Delhi tend to describe the growing fundamentalism in Bangladesh as the "Talibanization" of that country. This might be an exaggeration of the present situation, as Bangladesh is still far from becoming another Afghanistan or even a Pakistan. The country has a proud history of linguistic nationalism triumphing over religious nationalism; there is still a strong Bengali culture that Bangladeshi Muslims and Hindus share. But the government's refusal to take on the jihadis and other extremists head-on could change that. Bangladesh's status as a moderate Muslim country is being undermined.

Short-term political gains appear to be behind the Bangladesh government's refusal to counter the threat posed by Islamist and anti-India extremist outfits operating from its territory. These extremist forces are undemocratic. Given the fact that military politics have played a big role in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh, the government's reluctance to tackle terror could prove costly to the country's nascent democracy in the medium and long term.

TOMORROW: Behind the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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Dec 9, 2004
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