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Bangladesh: Arrests of Islamic Militants Raise Questions about Terror


Bangladesh has banned two extremist Islamic groups and arrested 70 of their members this month - admitting a problem the country has long denied. The question now being asked is whether Bangladesh's homegrown militant groups could be linked to any global terrorist organizations.

In the past month, the Bangladesh government arrested 70 militants from Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and banned the two radical Islamic groups.

The suspects have been charged with sedition for their alleged roles in a series of killings, robberies and political violence and bombings across the country.

The charges do not include attacks on opposition party members, such as an assassination attempt on the former prime minister, Sheikh Hasina.

Abdul Jalil, the general secretary of the opposition Awami League, says his party is pleased, as it has been trying to convince the government for years to move against militant organizations. He thinks the difference now is Dhaka is under international pressure to do more to crackdown on militancy in the age of anti-terrorism.

"By doing this, they have accepted the reality. But still then the people of Bangladesh doubt that the arrests and taking action against all these fundamentalist parties is [anything] but an eyewash to the foreign world," he said.

Critics say the government has been reluctant to act because of tensions within the ruling coalition - which for the first time include two Islamic parties: Islami Oikya Jote and Jamaat-e-Islami.

The government denies this is an issue. But some experts note there has been a so-called " Islamicization" of Bangladeshi politics since Islamic parties entered the government in 2001.

Ali Dayan Hasan, the Bangladesh analyst for Human Rights Watch - based in Pakistan, said "Jamaat-e-Islami is an international organization. It has a political wing that operates in Pakistan. And it is an ideological international religious organization. It has very clearly stated
political aims. Those political aims go against the grain of pluralism and democracy and secular politics, as we understand it… And the second you have that sort of political outlet as a member of the government, you have to start catering to its demands."

Bangladesh was founded as a secular state in 1971, when it broke free of neighboring Pakistan. The vast majority of its 141 million people are moderate Muslims.

And members of the ruling coalition say there are no designs to change the system. Abdur Razzak is a spokesman for the Jamaat-e-Islami and he denies his party wants more Islam in government.

"It has been taking part in the elections of this country since 1979. It has been represented in the parliament in one way or another. Jamaat believes in rule of law, multi-body systems, democracy, human rights, independence of judiciary - you name it," he said.

Despite political disagreements about why the government decided to act now against these two Islamic militant groups - there is general agreement that they pose a threat. But is the nature of that threat related in any way to international terror organizations?

Zachary Abuza is the author of the book, "The Rise of Militant Islam in Southeast Asia." He sees parallels between the attitude of the Bangladesh government today and that of the Indonesian government, before the 2002 terrorist bombings on Bali by a militant group linked to
al-Qaida.

"What is coming out of the Bangladesh government sounds hauntingly like what is coming out of the Indonesian government before the Bali attacks. You're getting this constant mantra about how they're moderate; it's a tolerant, secular society that has no tradition of Islamic radicalism. And I think that really belies some of the evidence we've seen," he said.

That evidence, says Mr. Abuza, is anecdotal but worrying. Bangladeshi radicals have fought alongside the hard-line Islamic Taleban in Afghanistan. And there are some Bangladeshis who support Osama bin Laden - the head of the al-Qaida terror network, which has declared a holy war on the United States and non-Muslims.

But despite those tentative links, Mr. Abuza, along with Human Rights Watch and Bangladesh government and opposition leaders, say there is no compelling evidence to suggest that al-Qaida is using Bangladesh to hide or train operatives for its campaign of global terror, as it did in Afghanistan.

There is more concern that smaller militant organizations - possibly regional groups from northeastern India or Pakistan, fighting against their own governments - could be taking advantage of what had been the government's apparent reluctance to act against them. That would make Bangladesh a refuge for militant organizations seeking to hide or train for their own operations.

Christine Fair is a South Asia analyst for the independent policy group, the United States Institute of Peace, based in Washington. "I don't think it's in the realm of the far-fetched to say that other militant organizations can take advantage of local political environments to train, to conduct operations, that is completely in the realm of possibility. And you don't have to have an overarching al-Qaida connection for that to happen," she said.

Many are now waiting to see how the Bangladesh government handles the trials of the 70 militants it arrested this month as a means of gauging its commitment to fighting political violence and terror within its own borders. It may be the key, some warn, to ensuring that Bangladesh is not seen as the new haven for other militant organizations seeking to
carry out agendas of their own.
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