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Battle for Bangladesh's soul as Islamic radicals push for power

ISIS links strengthen in Bangladesh, challenging its status as a secular state and raising the risk that radicals may push it to become a militant Islamic state.

Following the July 1 attack that killed 22 people in an upscale Dhaka restaurant, Bangladeshi investigators have been uncovering links among a web of militant Islamist groups bent on establishing an Islamic state under syariah law.

Regional security analysts are also warning that if Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed's popularly elected, secular government falls, Bangladesh could slide into the hands of an opposition allied with radical groups with an underlying expansionist agenda that includes parts of India and Myanmar.

One of the groups implicated in the Dhaka attack is the outlawed Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). An objective of the JMB is to create a Greater Bangladesh comprising north-east Indian states and the state of West Bengal (on the eastern flank of India, bordering Bangladesh), as well as Myanmar's Rakhine state.

An apparently accidental bomb blast in 2014 in Burdwan in West Bengal, which killed two JMB militants, woke Indian security agencies up to the threat. Subsequently, at least 20 JMB militants were found and arrested; six were reportedly Bangladeshi citizens.

Since the Dhaka attack, several JMB militants are believed to have fled across the border into north-eastern India and West Bengal, where JMB recruiters have been active.

And in Singapore in May this year, eight Bangladeshi workers were detained for planning to stage terror attacks in Bangladesh. Initially wanting to travel to the Middle East and join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), they found it difficult and refocused on Bangladesh. Their objective - to set up an Islamic state there, bringing it under the self-declared ISIS caliphate.

There is growing evidence of links between the JMB and ISIS. Arrests in Bangladesh - the latest being four individuals on July 21 - have shown that cadres of the JMB have been regrouping and rebranding as ISIS flag bearers in Bangladesh.


A Bangladeshi armoured military tank in Dhaka on July 2, a day after the attack that killed 22 people in an upscale Dhaka restaurant. The Dhaka Tribune has reported that investigators suspect the militants who struck on July 1 were aided by "several foreign extremist groups as well as some home-grown militant leaders now staying abroad", with the aim of "establishing Islamic rule in the country by uprooting democratic forces". PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In its 12th edition last year, ISIS' online magazine Dabiq called the JMB a "champion of Islam" in Bangladesh. The 14th edition, in April this year, has an interview with a "Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif", identifying him as the leader of the caliphate's "soldiers in Bangladesh", which it describes as a "front line of the Islamic State".

The magazine also features pictures of Rohingya Muslim victims of violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state. Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif is also quoted as saying: "We will begin launching operations within Burma once we've reached the capability to do so."

ISIS LINKS IN BANGLADESH
In 2009, Bangladesh's Daily Star reported agencies finding links between militant Rohingya and the JMB as well as the militant Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (Huji), which started in Pakistan.

This, and the ISIS propaganda, raises the spectre of a militant backlash to the repression of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. Even some local Rohingya leaders in Myanmar worry about potential Rohingya militancy - which would leave ordinary Rohingya hostage to much larger forces.

While many of ISIS' claims to terror attacks in Bangladesh may be to score propaganda points, there has been a discernible rise in Bengali-language ISIS propaganda online.

Bangladesh's government has played down ISIS connections. But on July 22, the Dhaka Tribune reported that investigators suspect the militants who struck on July 1 were "assisted by several foreign extremist groups as well as some home-grown militant leaders now staying abroad".

"Their aim is the same - establishing Islamic rule in the country by uprooting democratic forces," the newspaper reported.

Islamic militancy in Bangladesh has spawned several groups, each more radical than the previous one, said Mr Tariq Karim, a former Bangladesh ambassador to India now based in New Delhi as an adviser to the World Bank on South Asian integration. "The radicals have slowly taken over more space," he warned in an interview.

Apart from the JMB, two other groups have also drawn the focus of Bangladesh security agencies - Huji and the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). Both are banned.

Huji, which emerged in 1992 from the Afghan war, has ties to Al-Qaeda and operates across South Asia. The ABT, banned last year, has been using mosques to incite jihad. Bangladesh police blame the ABT for the murders last year of at least four secular bloggers and one publisher hacked to death.

While Bangladesh is overwhelmingly Muslim, it was not Islam but the Bengali identity, culture and language that was the logic for the breakaway from Pakistan and formation of Bangladesh after the brutal Liberation War of 1971 in which an estimated two million to three million Bangladeshis were killed.

Bangladeshi nationalists then fought not only against the Pakistan army, but against radical Bangladeshi Islamists allied with Pakistan.

SECULAR OR ISLAMIC STATE
At stake since, in an often violent winner-takes-all game played out in Bangladesh's polarised domestic politics, have been two competing visions of Bangladesh - as a secular state or an Islamic state under syariah law.

The current ruling party, the Awami League, represents the secular vision. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, represent the Islamist view.

Prime Minister Hasina's father, Bangladesh's independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had banned the use of religion in politics. But on Aug 15, 1975, Islamist elements struck back, assassinating him. In 1979, under the new BNP government led by General Ziaur Rahman - who was later also assassinated - its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, was rehabilitated.

"1975 was an attempt to roll back 1971," Mr Karim said. "The Islamic aspect of Bangladesh became the predominant theme. Post-1975, the deepening annexation of the political space by Wahhabism and Salafi Islam started. Radicalisation of imams started in the late 1970s and 1980s."

After coming to power in 2008, buoyed by her popular support, Prime Minister Hasina struck back, holding war crime trials over the genocide of 1971 despite fierce opposition from the BNP and the Jamaat e-Islami, which had again been banned. In May this year, a Jamaat-e-Islami leader was hanged - the fourth Jamaat leader to be executed since 2013.

Security analysts see overlapping agendas and a symbiotic relationship between several militant groups and the Jamaat e-Islami. In February this year, investigators told the Dhaka Tribune that the JMB had been using the Jamaat to recruit members in northern Bangladesh.

The Jamaat party on July 25 angrily denied any involvement in terrorism or extremism, slamming the media and the government for being "politically motivated".

One narrative mostly from Western analysts is that Ms Hasina's hard line is part of the vendetta between the "two Begums" - she and opposition leader Khaleda Zia - and has contributed to a militant backlash bent on destabilising Bangladesh and bringing her elected government down.

But the view is different in South Asia. While Ms Hasina's war trials inflamed Islamist groups and raised concerns among Western human rights groups, they were popular among most Bangladeshis who saw them as long-delayed justice. South Asian analysts see Ms Hasina as a bulwark against Bangladesh falling into the hands of radical Islamists with a symbiotic relationship with the Jamaat e-Islami.

Bangladesh's next general election will be in 2019. Speaking to The Straits Times on condition of anonymity, a regional intelligence analyst warned: "Ultimately the Bangladeshi people will decide what kind of country they want. But under any other government, especially with the help of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh could end up like Syria."

Separately, Mr Karim acknowledged to The Straits Times that Ms Hasina's crackdown may "raise the hackles of liberals".

"But it is a question of… the line between human rights and rule of law," he said. "Sovereignty in an Islamic state with syariah law belongs only to Allah. It is totally opposed to a democratic secular state in which sovereignty is with the people. And this is much larger than Bangladesh, it is becoming evident," he warned.

During the 1971 war, I was a schoolboy in Kolkata, then spelt as "Calcutta". Those were tense but, in the end, heady days as Pakistani general A.A.K. Niazi surrendered to Indian forces in Dhaka, sent to intervene by then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Bangladesh celebrated its birth then, but the struggle for its soul was far from over.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2016, with the headline 'Battle for Bangladesh's soul as Islamic radicals push for power'. Print Edition | Subscribe