The Bengali Taliban: Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh
The April 30 sentencing of four cadres of the outlawed Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) to 26 years of hard labor for throwing bombs at a local court in 2005 returned the focus to Bangladesh’s struggle against pressing odds to contain the rise of Islamic extremism (Daily Star [Dhaka], May 1).
The government has been hunting down JMB leaders and cadres ever since the group carried out an audacious series of blasts in 63 districts of a total of 64 across Bangladesh, planting 458 locally-made bombs while distributing leaflets which declared, “We’re the soldiers of Allah. We’ve taken up arms for the implementation of Allah’s law the way the Prophet, Sahabis [companions of the Prophet] and heroic Mujahideen have done for centuries…it is time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh” (Bangladesh Observer, August 18, 2005). In the crackdown that followed, two top leaders of the group, Shaykh Abdur Rahman and Sidiqul Islam (alias Bangla Bhati), were executed in 2007; several hundred cadres have also been arrested from different parts of the country. Many of these have since been given tough sentences by a judiciary which was once high on the list of JMB’s potential targets.
Though the crackdown was ordered by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government under pressure from the Bangladesh Army and public outrage, it was the caretaker government run by the Army which saw the increasing clout of groups like JMB as a direct threat to its authority. The Army is deeply skeptical of political parties like the BNP, its rival Awami League (AL) and the ultra-conservative religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), which aligned with the Pakistan Army during the independence struggle and opposed the creation of Bangladesh .
JMB drew its ideological and political support from JeI—both executed JMB leaders Abdur Rahman and Bangla Bhai were active members—which was the reason why the BNP government, which relies on JeI support, dragged its feet in taking a strong action against religious extremist groups despite credible evidence . Both Rahman and Bangla Bhati were members of Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the student wing of JeI, during their college days and maintained close contacts with JeI leaders .
In fact, Bangladeshi intelligence agencies warned the government back in 2003 about JMB and the threat it posed to the state (Daily Star, August 28, 2005). The group was banned in February 2005 after a key leader—a university professor and ideologue, Dr. Mohammad Asadullah al-Ghalib—revealed the group’s plans to overthrow the civilian government through violence (New Age [Dhaka], February 28, 2005).
Set up in 1998, JMB is one of several extremist and terrorist organizations in Bangladesh waging a fratricidal war against the young nation-state with the aim of establishing an Islamic state. This type of political violence has existed since 1971, when largely Bengali East Pakistan wrested independence from Punjabi-dominated Pakistan. Though substantive evidence of the JMB’s links with global jihadi groups like al-Qaeda has yet to surface, JMB’s transnational terrorist linkages—ideological and material—are evident.
Creation of the JMB
JMB’s founder and spiritual leader was Shaykh Abdur Rahman of Jamalpur district in Bangladesh. Abdur Rahman studied at Madina University and worked as a translator and interpreter at the Saudi Embassy in Dhaka before traveling to Afghanistan to take part in jihad (Daily Star, August 28, 2005). He most likely followed in the footsteps of the 3,500-strong batch of recruits dispatched to terrorist training camps by Harkat-ul Jihad al Islami (HuJI), an al-Qaeda-friendly Deobandi group. His association with HuJI, widely regarded as al-Qaeda’s South Asia arm, could also be noted from his reported links with two foreign—likely Arab—trainers who came to Bangladesh in 1995 to train militants from the Bengali-related Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group fighting for independence from Myanmar (al-Jazeera, April 2, 2007). Rohingyas formed the backbone of the Bangladeshi terror groups often known as the Bangladesh Taliban and had considerable presence in the Korgani town of Karachi, one of HuJI’s key operational headquarters from where it assisted al-Qaeda and other groups.
These trainers had come to Bangladesh on the invitation of Asadullah al-Galib, a professor in Rajshahi University and head of the militant Islamist Ahle Hadith Andolan Bangladesh (AHAB). Al-Galib was a close ally of Abdur Rahman and part of the triumvirate—Abdur Rahman and Bangla Bhai being the other two—which ran JMB till 2005. Arrested in February 2005, al-Galib today awaits trial in scores of terrorism cases. The foreign trainers coached the Rohingyas for the Afghan jihad first and then trained local recruits for five to six years. In 1998, after returning from Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman and al-Galib decided to launch their own militant outfit in Bangladesh, calling it Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. There are also reports that one of Rahman’s close associates, Faruq Hossain (alias Khaled Saifullah), was a HuJI leader and had learned bomb-making in the terrorist training camps of Afghanistan (Daily Times [Lahore], January 24, 2005; Daily Star, March 2, 2006). The contours of the outfit were decided at a 1998 meeting the duo had at Chittagong, the nerve center for extremist activities in Bangladesh (al-Jazeera, April 2, 2007). The first meeting of the JMB commanders was held in early 2002 at Khetlal in Joypurhat, but a series of arrests of some senior leaders, including Abdur Rahman’s younger brother, Ataur Rahman—who was being groomed as the military commander of the group—forced JMB to go underground and expand their activities across the country (New Age, October 2, 2005).
The Political Agenda
JMB has a clear political agenda: It aims to capture power through armed revolution and run the country by a Majlis-e-Shur (Central Committee) under Islamic laws. The group also wants to rid Muslims of “anti-Muslim” influences, particularly those related to women, an ideology it shares with the Taliban. Abdur Rahman, however, denied any linkages with the Taliban and said in a May 2004 interview: “We are called part of al-Qaeda, Taliban or [an] Islamist militant organization. We are not like that … If the people of Bangladesh give us the responsibility of running the nation, we will accept it … We would like to serve people in line with Hilful Fuzul (a social organization founded by the Prophet Muhammad) to serve the destitute” (Daily Star, August 28, 2005).
Before the crackdown, the JMB was led by a seven-member Majlis-e-Shura, comprising its top leadership, including Abdur Rahman and Bangla Bhai. The group had 16 regional commanders and 64 district heads, besides hundreds of operational commanders. The cadre was organized in three tiers (Star Weekend Magazine [Dhaka], December 5, 2005). The first tier was known as Eshar, where the 200 members were full-timers and reported directly to the Central Committee. The second tier was Gayeri Easher and had about 10,000 members. The third tier was Sathis or Sudhis (assistants) consisting of younger foot soldiers. For operational requirements, the group divided the country into nine divisions—one division each in Khulna, Barisal, Sylhet and Chittagong, two each in Dhaka and Rajshahi (The Independent [Dhaka], September 22, 2005).
Training for Terror
A close ally of the group is the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), considered to be a more radical and violent wing of JMB. The leadership, structure, objectives and operational methodology of JMJB were similar to that of the JMB. Both groups had strong bases in the northwestern districts—Rajshahi, Naogan, Joypurhat, Natore, Rangpur, Bogra—and the southern districts of Bagerhat, Jessore, Satkhira, Chittagong and Khulna. At the height of its activities, the group had networks in 57 districts working through madrassas and educational institutions and at least 10 training camps at Atrai and Raninagar in Naogaon, Bagmara in Rajshahi and Naldanga and Singra in Natore. The recruits were trained with the help of video footage of warfare training at al-Qaeda’s now defunct Farooque camp in Afghanistan, pro-Taliban videos and recorded speeches of Osama bin Laden. Recruits are also spurred by motivational speeches, leaflets and graffiti written and distributed across the country.
The JMB also had a suicide squad called Shahid Nasirullah Arafat Brigade; members had an “insurance policy” from the group (UPI, March 2, 2006). Bomb-making was a specialized task which was stressed during training, most of which takes place in open fields, mosque grounds and in wooded areas.
The group relies on the following sources of funding: Robbery and extortion, illegal tolls or taxes on traders and other businessmen in the areas they control, donations from local patrons, expatriate Bangladeshis and charities and NGOs based in West Asia. A joint 2005 report prepared by Bangladesh’s Special Branch, National Security Intelligence (NSI) and Defense Forces Intelligence pointed out that 10 Islamic charities and NGOs were promoting and funding extremist groups like JMB .
The massive crackdown and the harsh sentencing of JMB leaders and cadres since August 2005 have crippled the group considerably. But recent arrests of younger cadre members, media reports of regroupings in remote areas of Gaibandha District of north Bangladesh  and a continuing manhunt for the new leader of the JMB, Maulana Saidur Rahman—a former JI leader—raises fears about the possibility of JMB’s renewed attempts to make a comeback in a country which is vulnerable to the increasing spread of al-Qaeda ideology (Gulf Times [Kuwait], October 2, 2007; Daily Star, January 19).
1. A detailed analysis of the nexus between JeI and extremist groups like JMB can be found in: Hiranmay Karlekar, Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan? Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005. See also Terrorism Monitor, January 13, 2005.
2. Selig Harrison, “A new hub of terrorism?” Washington Post, August 2, 2006. Refer also to: Maneeza Hossain, “The Rising Tide of Islamism in Bangladesh,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol. 3, February 16, 2006, Hudson Institute; Ajit Doval, “Islamic terrorism in South Asia and India’s strategic response,” Policing, Vol. 1, 2007, Oxford University Press.
3. For a good reference to the politics of extremism in Bangladesh, see: Liz Philipson, “Corrupted democracy,” Himal South Asian, August 2006.
4. Chris Blackburn, “Terrorism in Bangladesh: The Region and Beyond,” Paper presented at the Policy Exchange Conference in London on November 14, 2006; New Age, September 22, 2005.
5. A report prepared by Dhaka-based NGO The Bangladesh Enterprise Institute; “Trend of Militancy in Bangladesh and Possible Responses,” quoted “a suspected militant commander, Mustafizur Rahman Shahin, who was arrested in Pabna, as saying that some 5,000 operatives are active across the country.” See also The New Nation, February 29; Bangladesh Today, February 29.