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Bangladesh Faces Homegrown Terror Groups


The leaders of seven South Asian nations are gathering in the Bangladeshi capital for a two-day summit on Friday and Saturday expected to focus on countering terrorism. For authorities in Dhaka, the issue has taken on new importance, following a series of bomb blasts in August. Some critics are questioning the Bangladesh government's role in the rise of domestic extremism.

It was on August 17 that Bangladesh became a reluctant member of a growing club - the nations of the world that have been rocked by a serious terrorist attack.

In a well-coordinated assault, at least 200 bombs were detonated across the country within a few hours. Some accounts say there may have been close to 500 bombs.

The explosions killed two people, but analysts say the attacks were not intended to be lethal. Rather, they say, the bombs were in part a warning to the government, to demonstrate exactly what this country's Islamic extremists are capable of.

Some people in Bangladesh say the government had been ignoring the risk posed by extremists. Foreign Minister Morshed Khan, however, says authorities here are tackling the problem directly.

"Every country that faced a terrorist attack was always late to wake up, otherwise it would not have happened," he said. "It has happened in the United States, in European countries, in the Middle Eastern countries, and in Bangladesh [in] India, Pakistan everywhere. But most importantly, we realize this poses a great threat. Although still we are not sure that this is a localized one, or something beyond. But we are aggressively addressing this issue."

Leaflets printed by the group Jamaat-ul-Mujaheddin, found at some of the blast sites, call for the imposition of Islamic sharia law in Bangladesh.

The group's operations, as well as those of two other large extremist organizations - Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Harkutul-Jihad-al-Islami, (HUJI) - are prompting concerns that extremism in Bangladesh may be on the rise.

Bangladesh was founded in 1971, when it split from Pakistan and formed a secular government. The vast majority of Bangladesh's 150 million people practice a moderate form of Islam. But the nation's endemic poverty and corruption have provoked widespread anger toward the government and have fostered the growth of extremist tendencies.

Some say the government is part of the problem. The Bangladesh National Party's ruling coalition includes the Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami. The party believes government should be based on Islamic principles, as outlined in the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

The political opposition in Bangladesh says Jamaat-e-Islami is a front for extremism. The general secretary of the opposition Awami League, Abdul Jalil, says Jamaat-e-Islami has forced the government to shield extremists from prosecution.

"Jamaat-e-Islami, being in the power, influences the government to give shelter, this way and that way," he said. "So these are the positions we are facing in this country. The secular democratic forces of the country, they are under threat under this government."

Jamaat-e-Islami spokesman Abdur Razzaq says the Islamic principles his party advocates are democracy, pluralism, and human rights. Mr. Razzaq says there is no link between his group and extremists.

"But we provide challenge to them that you prove it," he said. "There is no evidence. And secondly, Jamaat is part of the establishment, part of the government. Who is the beneficiaries of this August attack? [It is] the enemies of Bangladesh, the enemies of Islam, the enemies of democracy. So we being in the government, it is unthinkable that we will do something that would tarnish our image, the image of Bangladesh, the image of democracy, and the image for which we stand for."

Some observers remain concerned that Bangladesh still could be exploited by extremists. Ajai Sahni is a terrorism expert at the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi research center. He says the bombings three months ago were partly a recruiting tool for extremists seeking to consolidate their domestic support.

Mr. Sahni says militants hope to eventually internationalize Bangladesh's extremist movement along the lines of Pakistan, where militants have been linked to a number of international terrorist groups.

But the terrorism expert adds that poverty and the nation's reliance on international assistance will put limits on the growth of Bangladeshi extremism.

"I think it is moving toward a safe-haven 'facilitatory' center, a kind of a hub of coordination," he said. "That is the kind of thing they would be able to create in Bangladesh. Would Bangladesh ever become a primary exporter of terrorism the way that Pakistan did? I suspect not in the foreseeable or immediate future. Primarily because it is a country which is extremely dependent, and it does not have the kind of strategic levers that Pakistan keeps pulling to secure immunity."

Bangladesh has banned the three extremist groups that have aroused the most concern here - the Jamaat-ul-Mujaheddin, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Harkutul-Jihad-al-Islami. Authorities have arrested some militants suspected of involvement in the August 17 bombings, but they are still hunting for the attacks' ringleaders.

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