Source: New Ghana - Photo: 2024

Behind the Dangerous Resurgence of  ‘Al Qaeda’ in Bangladesh

Analysis by Jennifer Hicks*

HONGKONG | 22 January 2024 (IDN) — During the Spring of March 2002, Osama bin Laden’s second man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, set foot in Bangladesh at the invitation of leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that had been attempting to turn the country into a global jihadist launchpad.

Giving a detailed description of Zawahiri’s arrival in Bangladesh in a 14 April 2002 article in the TIME magazine, journalist Alex Perry wrote: “As it headed for port through the midwinter dusk, there was little about the MV [motor vessel] Mecca that stood out from the other boats plying the waters off southern Bangladesh. Port workers and fishermen noted the same squat deckhouse and plump hold that for centuries have sheltered fishermen from the cyclones of the Bay of Bengal. The Mecca had the usual rusted rigging and smoke-blackened stern.

And the crew too was like most others working off Chittagong: pure Rohingyas stocky Muslim refugees from western Burma. Only the thick salt marks high on the Mecca’s bow hinted that it was ending a voyage longer than most fishing trips. But this was Chittagong, South Asia’s premier hub for pirates, gunrunners and smugglers. When the dockworkers saw the Mecca anchoring on a sandbank three kilometers out to sea on the night of 21 December, it was a signal to all not to ask questions.”

The exact nature of the Mecca‘s cargo or the shipment’s eventual destination remained unknown for nine months. “But there were clues. Port workers that night said they saw five motor launches ferry in large groups of men from the boat wearing black turbans, long beards and traditional Islamic salwar kameez. Their towering height suggested these travellers were foreigners, and the boxes of ammunition and the AK-47s slung across their shoulders helped sketch a sinister picture.”

A senior member of Bangladesh’s most prominent terrorist group, the 2,000-strong al-Qaeda-allied Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), told TIME in July that the 150 men who entered Bangladesh that night were Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan. Three senior Bangladeshi military sources also confirmed. On 7 October, Indian police arrested Burmese-born HUJI fighter and weapons courier Fazle Karim (alias Abu Fuzi) as he arrived in Calcutta by train from Kashmir.

“A veteran of al-Qaeda’s camps in eastern Afghanistan who told his interrogators he had twice met Osama bin Laden, Karim said he recognized two people he had trained with in Afghanistan while visiting HUJI hideouts in Bangladesh in August. The pair told him they were part of a group of “more than 100 Arabs and Afghans belonging to al-Qaeda and the Taliban who had arrived by ship at Chittagong in winter,” Karim said, according to transcripts of his interview with Indian police.

Alex Perry added: “The arrival of a large al-Qaeda group in the capital, Dhaka, that night raises pressing concerns that Bangladesh may have become a dangerous new front in America’s war on terror. Indeed, one Bangladeshi newspaper last month even quoted an unnamed foreign embassy in Dhaka as saying Osama bin Laden’s No. 2, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been hiding out in the country for months after arriving in Chittagong. (Last week, in an audio message that authorities have tentatively authenticated, al-Zawahiri warned of further attacks against the US, vowing that it will not go “unpunished for its crimes.”)

According to a source inside a Bangladeshi Islamic group with close ties to al-Qaeda, al-Zawahiri arrived in Dhaka in early March and stayed briefly in the compound of a local fundamentalist leader. It’s unclear how al-Zawahiri came to be in Bangladesh, or whether he’s still there. However, a source in the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), a Bangladeshi military intelligence agency, told TIME that al-Zawahiri is believed to have left Bangladesh this summer, crossing over the eastern border into Burma with Rohingya rebels. US intelligence, however, has no evidence this report is true.”

In the article, Alex Perry further wrote: Bangladesh, it is true, is no Afghanistan, or even Pakistan. For centuries, Bengalis have been united by a culture of tolerance that defies the familiar South Asian divide between Hindu and Muslim. After 11 September, the CIA did set up a new five-man base in Dhaka, but merely as part of a global policy of establishing a presence in all Muslim countries. The American intelligence community’s view is summed up by one US source who told TIME that Bangladesh is “not a real hot account.” But Bangladesh also has its fundamentalists. Its southern coastal hills and northern borders with India are lawless and bristling with Islamic militants armed by gunrunners en route from Cambodia and southern Thailand to Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Central Asia and the Middle East.

Following the publication of Alex Perry’s article, journalist Bertil Lintner, in another article in South Asia Terrorism Portal, wrote: “…While Bangladesh is yet far from becoming another Pakistan, Islamist forces are no doubt on the rise, and extremist influence is growing, especially in the countryside. According to a foreign diplomat in Dhaka, “In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the leftists who were seen as incorruptible purists. Today, the role model for many young men in rural areas is the dedicated Islamic cleric with his skull cap, flowing robes and beard.”

Since 2001, when the BNP-Jamaat coalition comprising hardline Islamists, anti-Semites, jihadists and anti-Hindu elements succeeded in returning to power, Bangladesh—the third-largest Muslim nation quickly started becoming another Pakistan or Afghanistan. Within this troubled and polarized atmosphere, there has been a surge in Islamist militancy in the name of “defending Islam”.

Well-entrenched but subdued Deobandi militant groups like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami-Bangladesh (HuJI-B), both of which trace their lineage to JeI, became increasingly militant and energized. New groups had also emerged, such as Ansar al-Islam, which acted as the Bangladeshi wing of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and Jund al-Tawheed wal Khilafah (JTK), whose loyalties lie with the Islamic State, making Bangladesh a new field of competition for the global jihadist powerhouses.

Islamist militancy created by historical factors

The conducive atmosphere of Bangladesh for Islamist militancy has been broadly created by two historical factors: the country’s political patronage of Islamism that nourished over a dozen extremist groups over the decades and the rise and consolidation of the Deobandi-oriented JeI organization and its clamour for sharia-based governance in Bangladesh.

Ever since Bangladesh emerged as a nominally secularist state in 1971 after a war against Pakistan, the country has witnessed a sporadic, internal politico-religious tug-of-war. Even though the constitution emphasizes secularism as one of its four state principles and has banned the use of religion in politics, the clamour for a Sharia-based Islamic state, ostensibly propounded by the JeI, which BNP later joined, has powerful backers in the country even today. The JeI-BNP nexus has strong connections with a myriad of militant groups that have mushroomed throughout the country in recent decades under its patronage. These groups look at JeI-BNP as their spiritual and ideological fountainhead.

It may be recalled here that in 2013, few months away from the 2014 general elections, while pro-Caliphate Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI) had gathered hundreds and thousands of madrassa teachers and students, including dozens of individuals who had fought in Afghanistan against Soviet Union and Palestine against Israel as “mujahedeen” had also joined these gatherings thus demanding enforcement of caliphate in Bangladesh with HeI chief as “Ameer” of the caliphate. Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami and Jatiya Party had openly declared solidarity with Hefazat’s dangerous bids. It was later revealed that BNP, Jamaat and other Islamist forces in Bangladesh had secretly chalked-out a blueprint of establishing Sharia rule in Bangladesh by staging an Islamic revolution—xeroxing that of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran.

Conspirators of turning a secularist Bangladesh into a Sharia nation would have succeeded in 2013 if members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) had not intervened and driven away thousands of HeI members when they laid a seize at Dhaka city’s Motijheel commercial area. As the conspiracy of unseating the secularist Awami League government through Hefazat-e-Islam’s attempted midnight revolution, the BNP-Jamaat nexus immediately began massive propaganda in the Western countries by bringing false accusations of “violating human rights” and “mass-murder of Hefazat men”.

Misleading the Western policymakers against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

At this state, an NGO named Odhikar under the leadership of Adilur Rahman Khan—a leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) began false propaganda with the agenda of misleading various international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International etcetera, while BNP-Jamaat nexus continued spending millions of dollars towards lobbyist activities in the western nations—especially the United States with the goal of gaining sympathy and misleading the western policymakers against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Awami League and country’s law enforcement agencies—including Rapid Action Battalion.

Although people of Bangladesh rejected the Islamist-jihadist conglomerate of BNP-JeI and voted a secularist Awami League into power through a landslide victory during the general election in December 2008, it became a herculean task for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government in checking the rise of militancy and terrorism and eliminate existence of training camps and hideouts of anti-India separatist group—ULFA, while it also was a difficult task to fight jihadist outfits such as JMB, HuJI and later Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), which had formed alliance with Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

Following its foiled attempts of turning Bangladesh into a neo-Taliban state with effective collaboration of Biden administration, several rogue NGOs, media outlets and controversial Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) at the direct instructions of its acting chairman Tarique Rahman—a convicted terrorist who is seen by the US authorities as “notorious and widely feared” and “symbol of kleptocratic government and violent politics in Bangladesh”—this ultra-Islamist and pro-Pakistan party has recently launched ‘India Out’ movement by xeroxing similar acts in Maldives, clearly with the target of instigating masses towards Islamism, jihadism, anti-Hindu and anti-India sentiment.

Meanwhile, cyber activists of BNP and anti-India elements are intensifying ‘India Out’ propaganda on social media, while it has also been joined by the Bangladesh representative of Al Jazeera—the Qatari broadcast network which has been extremely hostile towards Sheikh Hasina and the government.

Supporting ‘India Out’ movement of BNP, in a post on ‘X’ platform, Al Jazeera’s Bangladesh has shared an anti-India video tagging an Islamist propagandist named Pinaki Bhattacharya, who converted into Islam and fled Bangladesh when authorities pressed charges of producing counterfeit medicine and amphetamine inside his pharmaceutical factory.

Cyber activists behind ‘India Out’ propaganda in Bangladesh

According to an Indian website, sitting in France as an asylum-seeker, a self-proclaimed cyber activist Pinaki Bhattacharya is anti-Hindu and anti-India extremist. He has been regularly publishing contents defaming Hindu religion. It said, Pinaki became popular amongst radical Muslims and anti-India and anti-Hindu bloc in Bangladesh for his jihadist and anti-India publications. He persuaded Bangladeshi Muslims to wage jihad against the Hindus and join jihadist forces in Jammu and Kashmir in India.

Dozens of cyber activists of BNP and Jamaat are pushing-forward ‘India Out’ propaganda on social media platforms, while some of them are also calling for boycotting Indian products in Bangladesh.

Considering BNP’s past track record of having connections with Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, this ultra-Islamist party, as part of its ongoing ‘India Out’ movement, may involve global and regional terrorist groups against India, thus posing serious security threats to the region. Moreover, this may also instigate locals to join this plot, whereas radical Islamic forces and militancy groups may resurge with their agenda of Islamization of Bangladesh under the garb of hatred towards India and Hindus in particular, as well as the non-Muslim populace in the country. This is purely Al Qaeda’s agenda that its ally, BNP, is attempting to implement.

* Jennifer Hicks is a columnist and political commentator based in Hong Kong, writing on a large range of topics. She has worked at the now defunct Hong Kong Free Press and is currently writing a research-based book titled “South Asian Journalists under the Influence of Islamism, anti-Semitism and Jihadism”. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo source: New Ghana.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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