AROUND THE REGION
BANGLADESH OUT TO CRUSH ISLAMIST RADICALS
The furore over the twin murders of an Italian and a Japanese national in Bangladesh within a week has buried a big piece of news. In the first week of October, Bangladesh police hunted down Mohammed Javed, the military wing chief of the dreaded Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in the port city of Chittagong. Four other JMB activists were arrested with Javed. Mysteriously enough, Javed died next day in a ‘grenade explosion’ while he was apparently leading the policemen to an arms cache of the JMB. Bangladesh security agencies have been accused of employing extra-judicial executions and torture in their fight againt terror and human rights groups across the world have been critical of the Hasina government. The Prime Minister is however undeterred and insists her government has ‘zero-tolerance’ for terror and those who perpetrate it.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) has particularly come in for some adverse observations for its very heavy handed campaign against the terror groups. Many Islamist radicals have been picked up by the RAB and then died mysteriously within a day or two in ‘crossfire’. Invariably these ‘crossfires’ happened when the RAB would be taking the militant to track down a rebel hideout or an arms cache and were fired upon by other militants. Some security personnel are also found to be injured – as were three policemen on Saturday when Javed died of the grenade explosion. The Bangladesh security agencies can be accused of extra-judicial executions, torture, hounding of family members of Islamist radicals – but they cannot be blamed for lack of commitment in chasing or hunting them down. Something that even the Americans, usually critical of Hasina's government, have to acknowledge.
With Javed’s death, the JMB has lost its main operating leader in Bangladesh. He was a textile engineer who had turned to militancy and developed a network of terrorist cells around Chittagong. The Detective Branch and RAB have been on Javed’s trail ever since they busted two arms training camps of the JMB in hills around Chittagong and Ukhia. This was an area traditionally dominated by the Jamaat e Islami party which sheltered JMB and HUJI activists. In fact, the growth of Islamist radical groups in Bangladesh peaked between 2001 and 2006 when the Jamaat was in power with the BNP. Chittagong port was also the hub of weapons smuggling for both these Islamist radical groups and Northeast Indian rebel groups like the ULFA.
Bangladesh intelligence says the JMB may still have a few leaders and ‘sleeper cells’ left in West Bengal and Assam , where the JMB had developed secure bases until the accidental bomb explosions in October last year blew the lid off its presence. Assam police chief Khagen Sarmah had talked of the JMB’s presence in Assam immediately after the Oct blasts in Burdwan. In December last year, Shahnur Alom, a Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) militant and a key accused in the Oct 2 blast in West Bengal's Burdwan district, was arrested in Assam. In September this year, nearly ten JMB activists including a top leader Ashique have been arrested in Assam.
But Bangladesh intelligence officials are most worried about JMB’s main bomber Jahidul Islam alias Boma Mizan who they believe is operating in an area between western Assam and northern part of West Bengal. They suspect he is planning a major attack across the border on some Bangladesh target , specially to avenge Javed’s capture and death. Mizan escaped in a dramatic fashion in early 2014 when his comrades attacked a police van carrying him and two other JMB leaders to a court from prison . The prison van was ambushed at Trishal and some policemen were killed. Police recaptured one of the escapees and he was again killed in a ‘crossfire’ – but they failed to track down Mizan. One Detective Branch (DB) official told this writer that Mizan is ‘definitely in India’, operating around western Assam and northern Bengal. “He is a major cause for worry for us,” the DB official said.
DB and RAB have provided a lot of leads and inputs to India’s NIA which is investigating the Burdwan blasts. Even India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval has been all praise for Bangladesh agencies in the fight against terror. But the Bangladesh agencies say they look forward to ‘regular real-time cooperation’ from Indian agencies in tracking down the JMB remnants. According to their estimates, atleast 20 JMB ‘sleeper cells’ remain active in West Bengal and Assam. Until they are neutralized, India and Bangladesh cannot take it easy.
As far as the murders of the Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella in Dhaka and Japanese farming expert Hosio Kunio in Rangpur is concerned, Bangladesh and Indian intelligence have both discounted the involvement of Islamic State, though the Middle East radical group had apparently claimed responsibility.
Bangladesh Information Minister Hasanul Huq Inu claimed on Thursday that the JMB was involved in the murder of the two foreigners -- Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella (Sept 28) and Japanese farming expert Hosio Kunio (Oct 2).
"Both these murders were possibly executed by JMB militants with backing from BNP-Jamaat, who are shielding them as they did when they were in government ", he said.
Hasina blames the BNP-Jamaat alliance for trying to 'destabilise' her government and 'discredit it', a charge the BNP has denied.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book "Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press. )