A decade and a half ago, on 21 August 2004, the militant group Harkatul Jihad carried out a devastating grenade attack on an Awami League gathering at Bangabandhu Avenue in the capital city Dhaka. This was a culmination of militant attacks, leading up to the attempt on present prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s life on that fateful day. Hasina was then the leader of the opposition.
Harkatul Jihad stands as an example of how the negligence of a government, or even cooperation to a certain extent, can lead to such a dangerous outburst of a secret militant outfit, in this case, Harkatul Jihad al-Islami (HuJi-B).
From March 1999 till January 2005, this militant group carried out 13 bomb and grenade attacks throughout the country. A total of 106 persons were killed in these incidents, with over 700 being injured.
There were attacks on Awami League and CPB (Communist Party of Bangladesh) meetings, on cultural programmes for the Bangla new year organised by of Udichi and Chhayanaut, attacks on the religious minorities and on the British High Commissioner. During this span of time, at least four attempts were made on the life of Awami League president Sheikh Hasina.
However, neither the Awami League government at the time nor the subsequent government of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) took any effective measures against the militants. When the caretaker government came to power in 2007, the 21 August grenade attack case was revived and gradually the facts behind the scene began to unfold.
Within a year of Awami League coming to power in 2009, almost all the kingpins and important militant figures of HuJi-B were arrested. Three of the militant leaders, including Mufti Hannan, were hanged. The militant outfit lapsed into silence, but the danger lingered.
Inspired by the ideology of the international militant organisations like IS and Al Qaeda, several other militant groups began to pop up and pose as a threat. This was manifested on 1 July 2016, in the brutal militant attack on Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan, Dhaka.
Local militant groups modelled on IS ideology came to the limelight again in recent times where bombs were found planted near certain police boxes in the city and when a time bomb exploded in a police vehicle.
Focus is now on three main militant groups in the country - Jamayatul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), the pro-IS Neo JMB, and the pro- Al Qaeda Ansar al Islam. Other than the Holey Artisan attack, none of these outfits managed to carry out any large attack like HuJi-B.
Comprising mujaheedin (soldiers) who went from Bangladesh to fight in against the Soviet forces Afghanistan, HuJi-B introduced this form of militancy in Bangladesh. They were of the qawmi madrasa ilk and many of the leaders had studied in madrasas in Pakistan.
They formally launched their organisation in 1992 at a press conference in the National Press Club in Dhaka. From then till 1998, they concentrated in expanding their organisation. Their initial aim was to fight on behalf of the Muslims in the Indian side of Kashmir and also for the Muslims seeking independence in the Arakan state of Myanmar.
However, from 1998 HuJi shifted attention away from Myanmar and began to concentrate on carrying out acts of sabotage within Bangladesh. Their targets were progressive political parties and organisations.
During the 1996-2001 rule of Awami League, HuJi carried out 8 significant bomb attacks. They took three attempts on the life of Sheikh Hasina. The first attempt was a helipad and the site where the prime minister Sheikh Hasina was to address a public rally in Kotalipara, Gopalganj.
After this attempt was foiled, HuJi next planned to kill her when she would be laying the foundation of Rupsha Bridge in Khulna on 30 May 2001. But this plan fell through too when 15 militants were found in motor boats on 27 May near the bridge. One of these militants, Masum Billah alias Mufti Moin, was involved in the 21 August grenade attack.
When the BNP-Jamaat government came to power, no progress was made on this case. All those arrested were soon released on bail.
HuJi’s next assassination attempt was planned for 25 September 2001 at an election campaign meeting in Sylhet, but Sheikh Hasina arrived much after the scheduled time. The meeting was to be held at the Aleya madrasa grounds in Sylhet. After she arrived at the place and was on the stage, around 8 at night, the prepared bombs accidently exploded at a mess nearby, killing two militants on the spot. Two injured HuJi militants, Masud Ahmed (Shakil) and Abu Obaid, were arrested. Masud Ahmed gave a confessional statement in court, but very soon the matter was swept under covers.
Later on 5 October and 19 November 2006, two important HuJi leaders, Maulana Abu Sayeed and Mufti Hannan, spoke about this attempted killing in their confessional statements. Investigations were later resumed.
One government neglects, another covers up
HuJi leader Mufti Abdul Hannan’s name came to the forefront after the Kotalipara incident of 2000. But the Awami League government at the time failed to arrest him or take any effective measures against the militants at the time. They also neglected the case regarding the attack on the Udichi event in the previous year in Jessore. If fact, they misdirected the investigations by targeting leaders of their political opposition BNP.
A series of bomb attacks and killings took place after this in 2001. These included the attack on the CPB rally in Paltan Dhaka on 20 January, on 14 April at Ramna on the Bangla New Year programme, on 3 June at the Catholic church in Bainarchar, Gopalganj, and the bomb attack at the Awami League office on 16 June in Narayanganj.
BNP came to power in October 2001 and they did not take any initiative regarding these cases. Instead, they diverted the investigations of the 21 August 2004 grenade attack.
Prothom Alo carried out investigations into HuJi’s activities from the very outset. When the caretaker government took over in 2007, the 21 August grenade case was taken up again, charge sheets were filed and the trial began.
Meanwhile, taking advantage of the government’s complacence towards HuJi, a new militant group, JMB, has sprung up. They believed in the salafi ideology. From 2001 they carried out attacks on cinema halls, jatra performances, shrines and NGO offices. They stepped up their activities in 2004-05. No effective action was taken against them. In fact, in 2004, police even cooperated with JMB and its leader ‘Bangla Bhai’ in the outfits’ so-called fight against extremists in Rajshahi. There were allegations that certain BNP ministers and MPs were also backing them.
After the series of countrywide synchronised bomb attacks on 17 August 2005, the BNP government began to take action against JMB, but nothing with tangible outcome.
The ‘who’ and ‘why’ behind the scenes
HuJi remained silent during the first three years of BNP’s 2001-06 term in the government. They resumed their violent acts on 21 May 2004 with the grenade attack on the British High Commissioner in Sylhet.
Three months later, they carried out the grenade attack on the Awami League rally at Bangabandhu Avenue in the capital city, in an attempt to kill the opposition leader at the time, Sheikh Hasina. She narrowly escaped death, but Ivy Rahman and 22 others were killed. Hundreds were injured, including Sheikh Hasina.
On 27 January 2005 former finance minister SAMS Kibria and five others were killed in a HuJi grenade attack at an Awami League rally in Habinganj.
HuJi had moved away from its original ideology and became a pawn in the hands of local and international groups, according to experts on militancy. They feel that their aim was to kill Sheikh Hasina and render Awami League leaderless.
A senior CID officer who had interrogated Mufti Hannan, had told Prothom Alo that this militant leader had said that the plan to kill Sheikh Hasina had been made from very high up. He was merely instrumental in the attempt to implement the plan. He did not clarify what he meant by ‘very high up’.
In court, Mufti Hannan had said in July 2000 the HuJi central committee had taken up the plan to kill Sheikh Hasina. He said they had been reassured of cooperation by the then deputy minister Abdus Salam Pintu, state minister for home affairs Lutfuzzaman Babar and BNP leader Tarique Rahman.
Former executive director of Ain O Salish Kendra Md Nur Khan, who has studied militant activities over time, told Prothom Alo that HuJi’s attacks had been against non-communal political parties and organisations. It seemed that certain vested quarters were using them to disrupt the stability in the country.
Consignments or arms and intelligence contacts
A part of HuJi has also been involved in sending consignments of arms and ammunition to Indian-controlled Kashmir. Involved in this too were Abdus Salam Pintu’s brother Maulana Tajuddin, Mufti Hannan, Kashmir’s Hizbul Mujaheedin leader Yusuf alias Majed Butt and others, as was revealed in the confessions of Mufti Hannan and others.
Militants under control, but risks remain
A small faction of HuJi-B is trying to reorganise again. It has been learnt that they are even committing robberies in order to generate funds. However, senior levels within the police say that HuJi is done and over with for the time being. In the global context, two militant organisations are the main threat and both these organisations have followers in Bangladesh.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies research fellow Shafqat Munir said, “HuJi is quiet at the moment. But it must be seen whether they have joined other militant organisations or trying to reorganise themselves.” He said that bold measures by the law enforcement have brought militant activities under control in this country to a great extent, but the risk remains. Long term measures must be taken to eliminate this risk. There is no scope to underestimate the militants or the risk of violent extremism, he observed.
* This report, published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir