Fifteen years ago, on 21 August 2004, the leader of the opposition at the time, along with other leaders of Awami League, narrowly escaped death when a grenade attack was launched at an Awami League rally on Bangabandhu Avenue. However, 22 leaders and activists of the party were killed in the blasts, including Awami League leader Ivy Rahman. A few hundred were injured, some maimed for life.
Had the Awami League president Sheikh Hasina and the other top leaders of the party been killed in that grenade attack by the Islamic militant outfit Harkat-ul-Jihad, the country would have been pitched into mayhem.
According to information elicited from HuJi leader Mufti Abdul Hannan and other arrested militants, it is clear that Sheikh Hasina and the top leaders of Awami League were the main targets of the 21 August grenade attack.
However, we recall that from 2004 to 2006, the BNP-Jamaat government went as far as to say that Awami League itself had orchestrated the grenade attack so as to win sympathy and support of the people. They said the attack was carried out in a manner so that Sheikh Hasina would escape from injury and that the BNP-led coalition government would be blamed.
Even in parliament, on 15 September 2004, members of the treasury bench blamed Awami League for the 21 August grenade attack. They said that having failed to win the election, Awami League was trying to create anarchy to come to power. BNP blamed both Awami League and India for the grenade blasts.
The four-party coalition government’s one-man judicial commission of chief justice Zainul Abedin (then with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court) repeated almost this same contention in his report. This so-called inquiry report, prepared after just 40 days’ investigation, had the same fabricated narration as spewed out by the leaders and ministers of the coalition government.
The BNP-Jamaat government tried to make the people believe that the grenade attack was carried out in accordance to a plan drawn up by the Indian intelligence. They said that the grenade attack was planned by Subrata Bain, one of Bangladesh’s top criminals presently a fugitive in India. The pro-government media also propagated such stories as put forward by the coalition government. The writers and intellectuals of the coalition government camp wrote columns based on the same line of lies.
The BNP leadership tried to establish the narrative that Mukul, a criminal of Badda, had brought the grenades to Dhaka from Bashirhat in India via the Satkhira border. Former ward commissioner and Awami League leader of Dhaka’s Maghbazar, Mokhlesur Rahman, was arrested on false charges in this connection. He was later released on bail and told the media that the CID officials had put pressure on him to give a ‘confessional statement’ in court, indicting Awami League leaders.
As part of this ploy to divert the case in a different direction, in June 2005 a young man named Joj Miah was arrested in Senbagh, Noakhali. CID made Joj Miah ‘confess’ in court that a 14-member group, including himself, carried out the grenade attack following instructions from Subrata Bain. He said he had no idea what a grenade even looked like before this.
He said Subrata Bain had taught them at an open space near the south gate of Baitul Mukarram how to hurl a grenade and how to carry out the attack. They did so accordingly.
Later, however, Joj Miah’s mother and sister said that CID had a role in making Joj Miah a ‘state witness’. A certain CID police super would pay them a certain amount every month to run their family. Towards the end of the coalition government’s term, all this information was revealed in a Prothom Alo report.
Actually from the very outset Prothom Alo has questioned Joj Miah’s narrative. BNP leaders tried to explain how the plan was drawn up from the other side of the border and how Subrata Bain and his associates had carried out the grenade attack. They failed to prove this story and the truth finally emerged.
Things changed when the military-backed caretaker government came to power on 11 January 2007. The case was revived and investigations were started afresh on 21 August. The truth behind the scenes began to emerge and it was proven beyond doubt that the coalition government had intentionally tried to protect the militant extremists and the actual criminals.
Top persons of the BNP coalition government and the home ministry at the time then tried to say that the police and CID has misguided them and had confused them with motivated reports. They said they discovered the truth too late.
This narrative of theirs was hardly plausible. It was at the behest of the top levels in the government that the National Security Intelligence (NSI), CID and the police had tried to divert investigations into the 21 August grenade attack to a different direction. They tried to place the blame on Awami League leadership and India, while shielding the actual criminals.
Evidence of the case was destroyed. The government brought in foreign experts from Interpol and FBI, but confused them with false narratives. They had brought in these foreign investigators just as eyewash to fool the people.
Prothom Alo’s investigations at the time revealed that prime minister Khaleda Zia had prohibited the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) from investigating the 21 August grenade attack. The head of this powerful agency was not included in the investigation process. The prime minister formed a committee comprising handpicked military and civil officers of her choice to investigate the 21 August incident. But even the report of that committee never saw the light of day.
Questions thus arose at the time as to whether high-up quarters of the coalition government were involved in the 21 August grenade attack. This question even struck the senior DGFI officers.
Top leader of the banned militant organisation Harkatul Jihad, Mufti Abdul Hannan, was arrested on 1 October 2005 from Badda in the capital city. This was during the rule of the BNP coalition government. Mufti Hannan confessed to the joint interrogation cell that he was involved in the 21 August grenade attack. However, he was not made an accused in the case and no move was taken for him to confess in court. No effort was made to arrest those he named as involved in the attack.
Towards mid-2007, Prothom Alo laid its hands on the details of what Mufti Hannan had revealed at the joint interrogation cell. This was published in the daily on 21 August 2007. Then on 28 August that year, the caretaker government appointed ASP of CID, Fazlul Kabir, as investigating officer and began investigating the case afresh.
In October that year, RAB arrested nine militants who were associates of Mufti Hannan, from various places of the country and in possession of arms, grenades and explosives. Among them, Abul Kalam Azad alias Bubul and Jahangir Alam were directly involved in the 21 August attack.
Six persons including Mufti Hannan and these two made confessional statements in court in November 2007 and the names of those involved in the planning, grenade supply and the attack were revealed.
On 17 January 2008, deputy minister of the BNP-Jamaat coalition government Abdus Salam Pintu was arrested. Investigations revealed that the militants had held a meeting three days before the incident at the Dhanmondi residence of this deputy minister. The investigating officers were certain that the deputy minister’s brother Maulana Tajuddin had supplied these grenades which were brought from Pakistan.
Two members of Harkatul Jihad, Mursalin and Muttakin, were directly involved in the grenade attack, according to CID, and are still in Tihar jail in Delhi. They are from Faridpur in Bangladesh.
Mufti Ahsan Ullah alias Kajol, also involved in the 21 August attack, was killed on 8 March 2006 with a top Lashkar-e-Tayeba militant Yazdani, during an encounter with the Delhi police.
It is evident that Mufti Hannan and his accomplices were in close collusion with Indian militants. Most of the Harkatul Jihad leaders, including Mufti Hannan, were trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Immediately after the 21 August 2004 grenade attack, I had the opportunity to speak directly to Khaleda Zia, who was prime minister at the time, and Sheikh Hasina, who is presently the prime minister.
I recall that Tarique Rahman was also present that afternoon when I met with Khaleda Zia at the Prime Minister’s Office. She seemed quite disturbed.
She had invited newspaper editors to meet with her. At the very outset she asked me who I thought could be involved in the incident. I said it was difficult for me to specify anyone, but it could be the Islamic militant outfit Harkatul Jihad or India’s insurgent group United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) or Bangabandhu’s killers in Freedom Party or some such group.
Khaleda Zia said that Freedom Party no longer existed and rejected the idea that they could be involved. She did not comment about Harkatul Jihad or ULFA. But she did say, you all exaggerate your reports about the religious organisations. You all are biased in your writings.
I remember my discussion with the prime minister of the time was a bit heated at one point. I said you all are not accepting the case filed by Awami League, not handing over the dead bodies and not allowing any mourning or protest rally. Why won’t Awami League be able to express its sorrow?
At that point Khaleda Zia got agitated and said, Awami League won’t be allowed to do anything. It will be punished if necessary. She said that they would not allow the 1996 like situation to arise again.
Next on the morning of 27 August I met with the present prime minister Sheikh Hasina. The objective of my visit was to express my empathy and support after the horrendous attack. Sheikh Hasina, then the leader of the opposition, was naturally grieving and agitated. A very disturbed situation prevailed at Sudha Sadan. Sheikh Hasina kept breaking into tears. But her accusations were clear, “Tarique Rahman and his Hawa Bhaban associates were directly involved in the attack. They orchestrated this in a planned manner.
She appealed to the media to publish the truth about the incident. Prothom Alo never hesitated to reveal the truth about the incident.
That morning I was really amazed at the manner in which Sheikh Hasina took up her life once again and even in that injured state took control, expressing her courage and her empathy towards the party people.
Though militant activities began in this country from the beginning of the 1990s, it was the Swedish journalist Bertil Litner who rang the alarm bells abroad. Many brushed aside the apprehensions he expressed in his report, ‘Cocoon of Terror’, published on 4 April 2002 in the Far Eastern Economic Review, quickly seeing it as an image damaging conspiracy.
Even the series of reports published by Prothom Alo in August 2004 were considered to be attempts to tarnish the image of the coalition government.
We were aware that from the start of the nineties militant organisations in Bangladesh had forged ties with Afghanistan and militant groups backed by Pakistan in Kashmir. At the same time, many NGOs began functioning in Bangladesh with funds from rich Arab states. The matter was not given much attention at the time. Quite openly, in fact, slogans were even heard on Dhaka’s streets, calling for Bangladesh to make another Afghanistan.
In light of the past three decades it can be said that the incidents of 21 August, the bomb blasts and the grenade attacks of the nineties and the first two decades from 2000, and the 1 July 2016 Holey Artisan militant attack, were not isolated incidents.
Alongside various international militant outfits, several international organisations close to Al Qaeda were active within Bangladesh at the time. Benevolence International Foundation, closely linked to Al Qaeda head Osama Bin Laden, was active in Bangladesh for 10 years and had an office in Dhaka’s Uttara. Prothom Alo investigations found it registered with the NGO Affairs Bureau in 1992 and had a bank account in Dhaka in the name of Enam Arnott, its head based in Dhaka. He was later tried and sentenced to eight years imprisonment by a court in Chicago.
Another Saudi-funded organisation, Al Harmain, was registered with the NGO affairs bureau and worked for 10 years in Bangladesh. Its office was also in Uttara. In September 2002, police nabbed seven foreign nationals involved with Al Harmain and interrogated them. However, following intervention by the Saudi embassy, they were soon sent abroad. Later, under US pressure and Saudi initiative, they closed their activities in Bangladesh and other countries. Then 14 foreign nationals working with the organisation had to leave Bangladesh.
It was also learnt that the Kuwait-based NGO, Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, which was working in Bangladesh, had been accused of funding and motivating Islamic militant activities.
Around 3000 Bangladeshis had taken part in the Afghan war, according to Mufti Shafiqur Rahman, acting amir of Harkatul Jihad Bangladesh. Around 2500 trained militants returned to Bangladesh from Afghanistan after the war. Many of them were associated with Harkatul Jihad. And 24 Bangladeshis died in the Afghan war.
A week after the Taliban government was formed in Afghanistan, on 30 April 1992 the Bangladeshi mujaheeds held a press conference at the national press club in Dhaka. Harkatul Jihad leaders joined the programme.
The internationally known and prohibited Harkatul Jihad first carried out the series of bomb and grenade attacks in 1999 in the country.
On 21 August 2004 they carried out the grenade attack in an attempt to kill Sheikh Hasina. On 6 March 1999 they had launched a bomb attack on an Udichi cultural event. After that they carried out 23 large scale bomb and grenade attacks in which 181 persons were killed and 1399 injured.
When the military-backed caretaker government came to power, on 28 August 2007 investigations began into the 21 August grenade attack, with charge sheets submitted against 22 persons including Mufti Hannan.
When Awami League came to power in 2009, investigations were stepped up and 32 more were included in the charge sheet. The court finally gave its verdict on 10 October 2018. In all, 19 were sentenced to death, 19 to life imprisonment and 11 were given varied prison sentences and fines.
Though the Harkatul Jihad militants were arrested and punished, it cannot be said that militancy has been wiped out. The militants have organised from time to time in different groups and carried out various acts of sabotage.
The attack in 2016 on Holey Artisan Bakery by IS-backed Neo-JMB militants stunned the nation. The law enforcement’s bold measures brought militancy under control but did not uproot it. Signs of militancy crop up now and then.
We look to the government to bring the militant outfits under control and take legal measures accordingly. There must also be intellectual exercise and a national strategy to ensure that those drawn to extremist ideology are deradicalised and that no new persons are motivated by such extremism.
* Matiur Rahman is editor of Prothom Alo. This piece appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.