Rise of Militancy: Part 1
Rooted in mujahids returning from Afghanistan
The brutal carnage in Gulshan has taken militancy to an alarming level in Bangladesh. The persons involved, the nature of the attack, the targets and the types of weapons used, indicate the third stage of dangerous militancy in the country. The roots of militancy in Bangladesh were planted in the early nineties, with the return of the mujahideen from Afghanistan.
Broadly speaking, the periods of militancy in Bangladesh can be divided into three parts, based on an analysis of the activities of religion-based extremist elements in the country.
Muslim Millat Bahini, emerging in the mid-eighties, and Harkatul Jihad al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) towards the end of the eighties, are considered to be the first generation militant organizations in Bangladesh.
A decade after this, the militant organization Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was created.
Exactly a decade after this, two militant groups presently active in the country, came into being. One was Ansarullah Bangla Team or Ansar al Islam. They are followers of al Qaeda. The other team has been termed by the police as ‘neo-JMB’. However, they identify themselves as Islamic State or IS. Alongside madrassa students, youth from upper class families with modern education are involved in these two groups, as is evident from the Gulshan attack.
Muslim Millat Bahini: According to investigations by Prothom Alo, before the return of Bangladesh mujahids from Afghanistan, a dismissed army officer Matiur Rahman formed the Muslim Millat Bahini in 1986. A few years before that, some Bangladeshis had gone to Palestine to fight for the Palestine state. At the same time, Freedom Party had also sent many on training to Libya.
Head of Muslim Millat Bahini, the disgruntled Major Matiur Rahman, established a base on a five-acre plot in his village Shimulia of Pakundia, Kishoreganj. He carried our armed training there, though he was known in his village as ‘pir’ (spiritual leader) Matiur Rahman.
Set up on this base were 131 rooms for the members to stay, several tents and 61 bunkers. The camp was powered by its own generator. A madrassa was set up there too, by the name of Shimulia Farz-e Ain Madrassa. War studies were also imparted at the madrassa. The over 300 students of the institution were from Comilla, Jessore, Jhenidah, Chandpur, Magura, Kushtia and Narayanganj.
On 12 December 1989 when police raided the base, a gunfight broke out and continued for two and a half days. A total of 21 died in the fight, including two members of the police. And 20 were injured. Over 500 members of the police took part in the operation. Mortar fire had to be used to bring the situation under control. Wounded, Pir Matiur and 48 of his associates were arrested while trying to flee.
Rifles, revolvers, other firearms, bows and arrows, spears, sticks, swords and large amounts of ammunition, khaki uniforms and other equipment were recovered from the camp. Also found were 27passports with visas of various countries. That was the first exposure of armed activities by any religious militant group in the country.
No activities of the Muslim Millat Bahini were heard of after the arrest of Pir Matiur Rahman. Pir Matiur was later released on bail, but was not kept under strict watch. A senior officer of an intelligence agency told Prothom Alo that Matiur Rahman lives in Khilgaon with his second or third wife. However, nothing further has been found out about him over the past two years.
HuJI-B: On professional grounds, this correspondent has been investigating militant activities in the country for the past 12 years and has spoken to a large number of informed sources inside an outside of the government. Also, information from various cases, intelligence reports, journals and booklets of various organizations, reveal that mujahids were gathered openly from this country during the Afghan war. Banners were even put up in front of the national Baitul Mukarram mosque, calling for volunteers.
HuJI was born in the midst of battlegrounds along the Afghan-Pakistan border towards the end of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. The objective was to send mujahids wherever and whenever there was jihad. The Bangladesh branch was formed to fight for the independence-seeking Rohingyas of Arakan in Myanmar.
Harkatul Jihad al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) was established in 1989 by Maulana Abdur Rahman Faruki of Jessore’s Manirampur, but he died the same year while trying to defuse a mine in Khost, Afghanistan. HuJI-B was later officially launched on 30 April 1992 at a press conference in Dhaka at the national press club. Most of the Afghan returnee mujahids joined the organisation. They were of the hanafi mazhab strain of Islam and educated in the line of India’s Deoband madrassa. Many of the top leaders of this organization studied at madrassas in Pakistan. During the Afghan war they were trained in guerilla warfare and handling heavy weaponry. HuJI-B is considered to be the precursor of militancy activities in Bangladesh.
Highly respected by students of the Deoband-styled qawmi madrassas in Bangladesh, this outfit gathered students from these institutions to stand beside the Muslims of Arakan. They selected students and sent them to Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban hill areas for armed training. News of these training camps appeared intermittently in the media.
HuJI-B grew and spread between 1992 and 1998. At the same time, two armed groups of Rohingyas were organized and active around the Myanmar border. These were the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) and the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO). HuJI-B and the Rohingya rebels worked in collusion. Media later reported of huge funds coming through NGOs from the Middle East in the name of aid for Rohingya refugees. In 2003, 2004 and 2005, BDR and RAB recovered huge caches of arms and ammunition from Naikhangchhari jungles. It is assumed these were of the Rohingya militant groups.
Sabotage starts, 13 attacks in 6 years: Sources in various security forces say that inner conflict over funds and other issues broke out within the Arakan-based organisations around 1998. HuJI-B then moved away from Arakan and upped its activities within Bangladesh. Its first sabotage was the bomb blast at the Udichi programme in Jessore on 6 March 1999 in which 10 persons were killed and over a hundred injured. Awami League was in the government at the time. The people at the time were not clear about militant activities and the government put the blame on BNP leader Tariqul Islam and others.
Seven months after the Udichi incident, on 8 October eight were killed in a bomb blast at the Ahmediya mosque in Khulna. Then on 20 July 2000, the names of Harkatul Jihad and Mufti Hannan came to the limelight when bombs were found planted near a public meeting site of prime minister Sheikh Hasina in Kotalipara, Gopalganj and at the helipad there. The Awami League government at the time failed to arrest Mufti Hannan. Next on 14 April 2001, bombs were exploded during Bengali new year celebrations at the Ramna park venue in Dhaka, on 3 June at the Baniyachar church in Gopalganj and on 16 June at the Awami League office in Narayanganj.
In six years, HuJI-B carried out 13 bomb and grenade attacks, including the bomb blast on 27 January 2005 at a public meeting in Habiganj in which former finance minister SAMS Kibria was killed. The BNP-Jamaat government was in power at the time. A total of 109 persons were killed in these attacks in this span of time, with over 700 injured. Many were crippled permanently.
The biggest and most destructive attack carried out by HuJI was on 21 August 2004 at the public meeting of Sheikh Hasina who was leader of the opposition at the time. The grenade attack left 22 dead, with a few hundred Awami League leaders and activists, including Sheikh Hasina, injured. The name of Arges grenades cropped up then. Such a grenade was used to attack the British High Commissioner at the time, Anwar Chowdhury, on 21 May 2004 at the Hazrat Shahjalal shrine in Sylhet. It was later revealed that the consignments of these grenades came from Pakistan.
Later in their statements in court, Mufti Hannan and others said these grenades came from Pakistan. Other than Anwar Chowdhury, the targets had mostly been Awami League leaders, including Sheikh Hasina. However, the previous Awami League government and the BNP-Jamaat alliance government failed to carry out proper investigations and uncover the truth behind these incidents.
The BNP government had tried to divert investigations into the 21 August grenade attack with the concocted Joj Miah confessions. However, it was the during the BNP government that RAB arrested Mufti Hannan on 1 October 2005 from a hideout in Badda, Dhaka. He was taken on remand for a stretch of 120 days and interrogated. He admitted to his involvement in the 21 August grenade attack and named the others too. RAB kept this under covers. Prothom Alo from the outset had been reporting on HuJI-B and the information trickled out.
After the 1/11 change of scenario in 2007, the caretaker government opened investigations afresh into the 21 August incident. CID in 2008 drew up charge sheets in this case against 2 persons including Mufti Hannan, BNP deputy minister Abdus Salam Pintu and his brother Maulana Tajuddin. Later when Awami League came to power, they pressed charges against BNP leader Tarique Rahman, Jamaat leader Ali Ahsan Mohammed Mujahid, BNP state minister for home affairs Lutuzzaman Babar and a few army officers. The trial is o-going.
The three factions: When HuJI-B tried to enter politics directly in 2007, its amir Maulana Abdus Salam claimed that in 1998-99 HuJI had been divided into three and Mufti Hannan had headed one of the factions. Madaripur’s Mufti Abdur Rauf headed another faction. The mainstream HuJI was headed by Abdus Salam, Sylhet’s Hafez Yahya, Kishoreganj’s Mufti Shafiqul Islam, Comilla’s Abdul Hai and Khulna’s Sheikh Farid.
Mainstream HuJI leaders have claimed that Mufti Mann had contact with Pakistan’s militant outfit Harkatul Mujahideen. They say he was involved with then during the Afghan war.
According to sources, Mufti Hannan at one point of time was close to Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI and Pakistan’s militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. BNP deputy minister Abdus Salam Pintu’s brother Maulana Tajuddin was a coordinator. Some officials of a powerful intelligence agency during the BNP-Jamaat government were close to HuJI, it was reported. Some of them were accused in the 21 August incident and some were made state witnesses. It was said that all three factions of HuJI were actually one behind the scenes.
There were accusations that during its last term (2001-2006), the BNP government remained silent against the militant organisations and reportedly even aided and abetted them at times (JMB activities during in three upazilas of Rajshahi under Bangla Bhai’s leadership in 2004). BNP became active against militancy after the nationwide simultaneous bomb blasts by JMB on 17August 2005. Most top leaders were arrested and put on trial. But other than Mufti Hannan, not significant leader of HuJI was attested at the time. In 2005 Prothom Alo published a special report on the HuJI leaders being out of the reach of the law.
Attempts to enter politics: HuJI-B was banned in October 2005. Then during the caretaker government, advised by certain intelligence officers, they tried to come into open politics under a different name, Islamic Democratic Party or IDP. They opened an office and Paltan and applied to the election commission for registration. Prothom Alo brought the matter to light. The US Embassy even objected to such a party being registered and he election commission eventually turned down the application.
When Awami League came to government in 2009, almost all the top leaders of the three HuJI factions were arrested. That basically brought an end to HuJI and the first generation militant organisation of the country. Some followers of the imprisoned HuJI leader Maulana Abu Sayeed alias Abu Jafar did try to organize under a new name, but were caught by police in October and November last year.
The editorial of Pakistan’s Daily Times on 27 February 2005 stated that the contagion of Islamic militant activities was spawned in Karachi and Khost. And now it has been exported to Bangladesh. If carefully observed, Pakistani influence can be noted all over Bangladesh.
Security analyst and research fellow of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS), Shafqat Munir, told Prothom Alo, it was not just in Bangladesh, but also in the Philippines, Indonesia, Chechnya and other countries that the mujahids returning from Afghanistan set up their groups. Their attacks in 1999 depict just what a dangerous they can be to national security. He said, prior to that, the call for jihad issued by the International Islamic Front in 194 is known as the al-Qaeda declaration. It was signed by a Bangladeshi of the name Fazlur Rahman. Who this Fazlur Rahman is, remains unknown.
Shafqat Munir said, in order to understand the prevailing militancy in the country, its past must be studied. It must be determined how many went from Bangladesh to fight in the Afghan war, how many of them joined HuJI-B, where the others are now and so on. Then steps must be taken accordingly.