Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sarbaharas... Islamists... Jihad?

Daily Star reported a bomb attack in Pabna Sadar which left two dead.

Police suspect that 'Janajuddho' (of the Purbo Banglar Communist Party) was responsible and that an 'internal feud' might be part of the dynamic.

News invovling the Sarbaharas has seemed to be picking up in the last few weeks (at least from the Daily Star's perspective). Earlier this week, two members of the 'Red Flag' (PBCP) died from bullet injuries sustained during a gun fight with police and RAB in Atrai upazila (Naogaon).

The police and RAB seemed to have managed to not only clamp down on Islamist militants but the leftist thuggery as well. As long as the security forces keep the groups off-balance they can avoid a situation similar to 2004, when Siddiqul Islam (Bangla Bhai) of the JM(J)B rose to infamy.

The Islamist militancy front has been somewhat more quiet of late (the last week or so), following the sensational arrests of three Lashkar-e-Taiyeba members. First was Mufti Obaidullah (New Nation) who provided a wealth of information. Obaidullah evidently said that while there were similarities (and probably links) between LT and Harakatul Jihad, they did not "work like" JMB. In addition, he claimed (truthfully as it turned out) that there were other LT leaders in Bangladesh working as madrassa teachers (Daily Star). His information contributed to the arrest of Mufti Habibullah in Dhaka.

Mufti Habibullah revealed that he and Obaidullah entered Bangladesh in 1995 after bribing Indian border guards. Obaidullah bounced around the country teaching at madrassas in Moulvibazar (Sylhet), Madaripur (Dhaka), Munshiganj (Dhaka), Jessore (Khulna), as well as Dhaka (New Nation). For his part, Habibullah taught at madrassas in Jessore, Dhaka, and Habiganj (Sylhet) (Daily Star). What is interesting is the complete absence of any links to Rajshahi.

The Daily Star article also noted additional tidbits: Daud Merchant (associated with crime boss Daud Ibrahim), detained about two months ago, are evidently the sources of the leads for the arrest of the LT members. Moreover, on the first day of remand Habibullah admitted that LT was planning for an 'armed-jihad' in Bangladesh (Daily Star). Finally, a third LT member was arrested in Shyamnagar sub-district (Satkhira, Khulna) in the Sundarbans. Like his colleagues, Muhaddis Obaidullah was teaching at a Kawmi madrassa (New Nation).

This LT episode begs some interesting questions. First, what is the extent of the dialogue and networking between Daud Ibrahim and LT? Second, does LT really not have any presence whatsoever in Rajshahi division? Finally, this seems to cast some doubt on the general Western (and Chinese) conception that the Bangladeshis are "inept." This entire operation was carried out by Bangladeshi security forces based on Bangladeshi-derived information from a suspect that they previously arrested.

The Awami League government has certainly started raising expectations that subsequent governments (whether BNP or otherwise) will have to maintain. The first half of 2009 has certainly been a far cry from the five years of BNP-Jamaat rule, when action was only taken following 500 explosions in over 60 districts.

As the Daily Star points out some of these LT cadres are wanted by the US and India as well. The Bangladeshi government is continually demonstrating its resolve in dealing, not only with Bangladeshi Islamist militancy, but in transnational militancy. The next steps should be to engage the Bangladeshi government on multiple levels and either extradite the arrested or ensure that they are given a proper trial.

This episode also points out to additional problems that should be addressed bilaterally between Bangladesh and India. First is the issue of border control, India and Bangladesh must cooperate at the local level to catch militants as they are crossing the border. The US and UK (to say nothing of Australia) should provide reommendation and equipment to enable the border forces to effectively police their areas. Bangladesh must also rein in the rogue madrassas. While not all madrassas are harboring Islamist militants, it would be a mistake to think that none of them do.

Effective control of the country's education would not only cut-down on incidences of harboring but on improving the administration and overall educational quality of the madrassas. In an effort to rein them in the government will be attempting to enforce regulations to have madrassas hang potraits of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Earlier regulations also made it compulsory for madrassas to raise the national flag and sing the anthem (though some are still resisting).

In this regard, the government and the people should expect resistance to continue for some time, until all accept the necessity for the government to promote the idea of Bangladesh as democratic and secular. There is no problem with madrassa education (as evidenced by the fact that it is not outlawed) but there is a problem when a teacher espouses the removal of the democratic system of government. Hopefully the hanging of the picture of PM Hasina is meant to be the portrait of whoever is the sitting PM...
Finally, though this goes without saying it is worth repeating. Bangladesh (as well as the US, India, and UK) should be on watch for Habibullah's warning of an "armed-jihad." While this could simply bean attempt at disturbing the peace, LT (as well as HUJI, JMB or any other armed Islamist militant group) could easily find a foothold in the less governed, less patrolled, more locally corrupt, and less developed portions of the country. Regarding Obaidullah's remarks that LT and HUJI don't "work like" JMB, this is interesting and should be explored.
It may simply refer to the fact that LT and HUJI have not really done much in Bangladesh (aside from possible links to some high profile attacks a few years ago, British High Commissioner, Sheikh Hasina, NGOs), unlike JMB. Or it could be referring to JMB's alienating the local population, such as through displays of force, riding into Rajshahi aboard motorcycles and minibus (under police escort) and other more grotesque displays.

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