January 31, 2006
Islamic Extremism Strikes Bangladesh
BY David Montero
Leaflets left at the sites of suicide attacks castigate the corruption of the judicial system, saying only God's law can truly bring justice.
History was made twice in one week here, when the country experienced its first suicide bombings just days before the first-ever visit of Bill Gates. On the road out to Gazipur, a small city 20 miles north of the capital, Dhaka several posters read, "Long live Mr. Bill Gates and Mrs. Melinda Gates." It was a symbol of the country's burgeoning prosperity. But I was headed to Gazipur because, only days earlier, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the name of establishing Islamic law. Bangladesh might have Microsoft now, but it also has global jihad.
Bangladesh has often been described as something of a puzzle. It's seen as being the most corrupt country in the world, but has also been lauded as a development success story, a pioneer of microcredit and other innovative programs. Nearly half the population lives below the poverty line, but its economy has been growing by 5 percent per annum for several years. And now, adding to that set of contrasts, some have begun to describe Bangladesh as somewhere between a model -- a moderate Muslim country, a parliamentary democracy headed by a female prime minister -- and a nightmare -- a possibly failing state with rising extremism reminiscent of the Taliban.
Some have begun to describe Bangladesh as somewhere between a model -- a moderate Muslim country headed by a female prime minister -- and a nightmare -- a possibly failing state with rising extremism reminiscent of the Taliban.
I went to Gazipur to see firsthand the evidence of this rising extremism. It was here in November 2005 that a militant, disguised as a lawyer in a black robe, walked into a crowded meeting room of the Gazipur Bar Association where some 50 lawyers and their clients had gathered. He then detonated a explosive that blew out all the windows in the room, reduced piles of paper to ash and killed eight people, including himself. When I visited the site, there was still a bloodstained tie hanging over the arm of a chair. An hour before this attack, another bomber in Chittagong, a major port city, had also detonated an explosive at a courthouse, killing two people. Two days after that, a suicide bomber struck again in Gazipur, killing two people near a government office where lawyers were planning to meet to protest the recent attacks.
All the attackers carried leaflets calling for the eradication of Bangladesh's secular judicial system and its replacement with sharia law. "We don't want [non-Islamic] law; let Qur'anic law be introduced. Law framed by humans cannot continue, and only the laws of Allah will prevail." The operatives belonged to Jamaat'ul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB), an outlawed organization blamed for countless attacks against cultural shows, movie theaters and NGOs and for a massive attack on August 17, 2005, when some 500 bombs exploded simultaneously in 63 of the country's 64 districts. Information collected from suspects is beginning to expose the murky underworkings of the organization, suggesting that it may receive large amounts of foreign funding and that its leaders were trained and radicalized during Afghanistan's jihad.
Bangladesh has long been accustomed to political violence, ever since it broke away from Pakistan in 1971. But suicide bombings are a disturbing new chapter in the country's path to democratic stability, indicating an escalation in the ideological commitment of its Islamist enemies. JMB now boasts of having a suicide squad of 2,000 members.
Bangladesh has long been accustomed to political violence. But suicide bombings are a disturbing new chapter in the country's path to democratic stability.
These violent attacks have set off a wave of panic in Bangladesh. Many feel that a threshold has been crossed, changing the contours of everyday life. Security is heavier now -- metal detectors are everywhere. Some businesses have added security walls to their offices and posted more guards. "They are trying to destroy the image of the nation. But this is not permitted by Islam," said Mohammed Ayub, a resident of Dhaka whom I met near a secret safehouse where police discovered a trove of bomb materials.
Gazipur was still gripped by fear when I arrived. Teachers at a school near the bombsite told me they had been forced to shut their doors after parents complained about their children's safety. Rumors were also circulating that JMB had plans to target girls' schools. JMB believes that "girls don't need to study," explained Asma Jalal, headmistress of Joydepur Government Girls High School.
I met Istaque bal Hossain, a lawyer, on the street in front of the police station. While I was talking to him, a police truck arrived carrying eight recently arrested suspects. Hossain was surprised to see his neighbor among the suspects. "I know him as an electrician, but maybe he is involved," he said, adding that militants have slowly infiltrated the area under the guise of legitimate professions. "Day by day, they're involved in various professions -- as hawkers, as rickshaw pullers, any simple profession."
"We have to remember that every year, 3 million people enter the job market. Two million don't get employment. What are they going to do?"
How had things come to this? I asked this of several analysts, who pointed out that deep economic and political divisions were threatening to pull the country apart. "We have to remember that every year, 3 million people enter the job market. Two million don't get employment. What are they going to do?" said Mokammel Haq, who served for more than 20 years as a secretary to the government. He spoke of the dangerous allure of militancy and jihad, which offers those without options a passage to paradise.
Dr. Mustafizur Rahman, research director at the Center for Policy Dialogue, a leading Dhaka think tank told me that all the positive talk of development has masked the growing disparities of wealth in Bangladesh. "Despite reduction of 1 percent of poverty, poverty is endemic," he said. "Although over the last 15 years we've had about 5 percent growth, we've also had a lot of exclusions." His statements reminded me that the BMW dealer in Dhaka sells about four cars every month, each with an average price tag of $80,000, a colossal sum in a country where so many live on less than $1 a day.
But economics is only part of the equation. The deeper and more pressing issue is the breakdown in political governance. Fighting between the two main political parties has virtually brought democratic institutions to a halt, because each party boycotts the parliament and calls for crippling nationwide strikes when it is not in power. Even during this time of national crisis, the parties blame each other for masterminding the suicide attacks rather than working together to combat them.
One of the suicide bomb attacks targeted local police.
The poisonous politics have left many frustrated, hopeless and alienated, including JMB. Police have recovered diaries in which operatives characterized the two main political parties as the same snake in different disguises, not to be trusted. Leaflets left at the sites of recent suicide attacks on judges and lawyers castigate the corruption of the judicial system, saying only God's law can truly bring justice.
Rahman and others say political frustration and hopelessness have proved a deadly combination here, as elsewhere, creating a mental environment in which young men can be brainwashed into blowing themselves up. "[Islamists] think a more radical nature of politics is needed. They don't see any mainstream party that can serve their purpose," Rahman said.
I found out later that as I sat in Dr. Rahman's office on the morning of December 9, another suicide bomber struck, this time in the town of Netrakona, 220 miles north of Dhaka, killing seven people. I reached there the next morning. This time the attack seemed to target the local superintendent of police, who managed to escape unhurt. But 10 officers had been wounded.
I later visited the hospital where some of the most critically injured had been sent. An elderly woman was sitting up in her bed, supported by her husband; the side of her face was badly burned and scarred. Seeing the wounded brought home the disturbing reality of these attacks: Bangladesh's suicide bombers are not like others the world has seen. They are not targeting what they perceive to be foreign occupiers, as in Iraq or Chechyna or Palestine. Ethnic strife is not part of their impulse, as in Sri Lanka, nor is unwanted allegiance to the West or the United States their justification, as in Indonesia or Pakistan. Here, Bangladeshis are blowing up their own people for not subscribing to Islamic law.
Many are wondering whether the JMB is the dark underbelly of a new generation of Bengalis influenced by global satellite television, copycatting the new cult of death that global jihad has spawned around the world. The poor young men sent to madrasahs can find no use for their religious education in a Bangladesh that now has Microsoft and Motorola, and HBO beamed via satellite.
Officials as well as ordinary people I spoke with said that such violence is utterly out of character with the practice of Islam in Bengal. For several years now, Dr. Abul Barkat, a professor of economics at Dhaka University, has made a point of stopping at the British Museum Library on his travels to the West. There he has pored over ancient tomes to piece together a picture of Islam in Bangladesh. "There is adequate evidence that Islam here is humanistic, secular and democratic," he told me. Barkat and others strongly believe that the humanistic strain of Islam here can prevail over what is happening if civil society musters a strong response against terrorism and the main political parties work together to combat it.
David Montero, a frequent contributor to the FRONTLINE/World Web site, is based in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he reports for The Christian Science Monitor.
Photos: Syed Zakir Hossain