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PART 2: Behind the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami
By Sudha Ramachandran

PART 1: Bangladesh treads fine terror line

BANGALORE - With insurgents from India, Myanmar and Thailand and jihadis from Afghanistan, Indonesia and the Philippines all flocking to Bangladesh for refuge and training, the country is fast acquiring an image of being a haven for terrorist groups.

Of the militant groups in Bangladesh, it is the network and infrastructure of the Bangladesh unit of the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) (Movement of Islamic Holy War) that is growing the fastest.

The origins of the Bangladesh unit of HuJI can be traced back to Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan that HuJI - a Sunni extremist group of the Deoband tradition - was first set up in 1980. In 1992, a Bangladesh unit of HuJI was set up, reportedly with direct assistance from Osama bin Laden. HuJI has strong links with al-Qaeda - it is a member of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF). Today, HuJI is said to have about 15,000 members, including 2,000 hardcore fighters. Its members are recruited mainly from Bangladesh's 60,000 madrassas (seminaries) and exported to other countries.

Bangladesh shares a 4,095-kilometer border with India. Among the five Indian states with which Bangladesh shares borders are the insurgency-wracked states of Tripura and Assam in India's northeast. Hundreds of illegal migrants, smugglers and insurgents cross the hard-to-police India-Bangladesh border. To the southeast, Bangladesh shares borders with Myanmar, which is also conflict-ridden. The terrain here is rugged and thickly forested, providing useful cover for moving fighters and weapons through Myanmar to the rest of Southeast Asia.

But it is the coastal area around the Bangladeshi port city of Chittagong that has proved most useful to HuJI's gun-running. And it is here - the area around Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar - that HuJI has built its bases. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, HuJI maintains "six camps in the hilly areas of Chittagong, where its cadres were trained in the use of weapons. Unconfirmed reports also hold that it maintains six training camps near Cox's Bazaar."

HuJI's primary mission in Bangladesh was to establish Islamic rule, evident by its slogan: "Amra sobai hobo Taliban, Bangla hobe Afghanistan" (We will all be Taliban and Bangladesh will be Afghanistan). Like the Taliban, HuJI regards music, dance and movies as unIslamic and corrupting influences. It is opposed to Indian and Western cultural influences in Bangladesh, as it sees these as Hindu and Christian, respectively.

HuJI has a history of carrying out violent attacks on secular and progressive intellectuals, writers and journalists. In 2000, it assassinated a senior Bangladeshi journalist for making a documentary on the plight of Hindus in Bangladesh. Many secular intellectuals, including the controversial feminist writer Taslima Nasreen, have figured in its hit list. HuJI was the prime suspect in the assassination attempt in 2000 on then prime minister Sheikh Hasina, who is also the leader of the secular, center-left Awami League. Many of the bomb explosions and grenade attacks in Bangladesh in recent years are said to have been masterminded by HuJI.

While HuJI's original mission was to set up Islamic rule in Bangladesh, its ambitions and the geographical spread of its role have grown substantially over the years. During the 1990s, it was involved in training Muslim Rohingya insurgents from Myanmar. HuJI sent its members to fight in Afghanistan and against Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. HuJI provided sanctuary for Indian insurgents from the northeast.

That Bangladesh Islamist radicals would become a key link in the al-Qaeda-led global jihad network was evident by the late-1990s. Among the five signatories to bin Laden's February 23, 1998 call for "jihad against the Jews and crusaders" was Fazlur Rahman, who was representing the "jihad movement of Bangladesh". HuJI is a constituent of this movement.

HuJI's profile in terrorist circles rose rapidly post-September 11, 2001. With the fall of Kandahar in late 2001, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were forced to flee Afghanistan. Bangladesh emerged as a new nest for many of them. As early as December 21, 2001, around 150 heavily armed Arabs and Afghans arrived at Chittagong port aboard the MV Mecca. HuJI is said to have hosted them and the subsequent waves of al-Qaeda fighters.

HuJI's post-September 11 responsibilities to further the jihadi cause have grown considerably. It appears to have been made responsible for training jihadi fighters from southern Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Brunei. It is now said to be sending its fighters to Indonesia, the Philippines and Chechnya. Its profile in the world of terrorism has increased. HuJI's hand is suspected in two assassination attempts against Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and in the attempt in August this year to kill Hasina, now leader of the Bangladesh opposition. It is said to have played a major role in the attack on the US consulate in Kolkata two years ago.

Bangladesh's general election in October 2001 threw up a government that provided a favorable environment for Islamist outfits like HuJI to flourish. A new coalition government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party came to power in that election. The ruling coalition includes two Islamic fundamentalist parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islamic Oikya Jote. Both have openly expressed support to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and there are close links between these parties and HuJI. The Islamic Oikya Jote's chairman, Azizul Huq, is said to be a member of HuJI's advisory council.

Powerful patrons in government have enabled HuJI to flourish. HuJI has powerful patrons abroad as well. It has received funds from bin Laden. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, HuJI receives financial assistance from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan through Muslim non-governmental organizations in Bangladesh, including Adarsa Kutir, al-Faruk Islamic Foundation and Hataddin.

Intelligence and security agencies describe the threat posed by HuJI to global security as potential rather than imminent. Preoccupied with other hot spots, they are not paying adequate attention to the growing network and capacity of HuJI. Meanwhile, this terrorist outfit is spreading its tentacles quietly.

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

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Dec 10, 2004
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