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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bangladesh to Go Islamist?

By Dr. Richard L. Benkin


  • Having lost their safe havens first in Afghanistan, then in Pakistan, Islamists like Al-Qaeda are in need of a new base.
  • With the help of sympathetic Pakistanis and others, they set up bases in Nepal over the last year during that country’s social and political unrest.
  • Nepal’s tiny Muslim population qualifies that country as nothing more than an Al-Qaeda way station.
  • Bangladesh, the world’s third largest Muslim nation, almost touches Nepal at one point; and in Bangladesh, conditions are favorable for an Islamist takeover.
  • But not inevitable.

Afghanistan to Pakistan to Nepal to Where?

In late 2001, the US military expelled Al-Qaeda forces from Afghanistan and destroyed the terror group’s infrastructure and base of operations. From there, many of the terrorist leaders and their minions fled to mountainous and less easily patrolled areas of neighboring Pakistan, the so-called tribal belt. Over the next few years, however, Pakistani forces loyal to strongman General Pervez Musharaf, rooted out most of them, killed some of them, and harassed them enough to disrupt their comfortable network of hiding places. While Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization responded in part by de-centralizing, the group still needed a safe base of operations. But where might that be?

Afghanistan was crawling with coalition forces; Pakistan was no longer a safe haven; and the US was in the Middle East with its eyes, at least, on Islamist Iran.

As early as 2004, a US official in the Himalayan nation of Nepal commented, “Al-Qaeda's nest in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been destroyed. The birds are looking for a new home,” and suggested that Nepal might be that home. The official’s muses were based in part on a growing state of turmoil in the tiny nation, which he believed made Nepal an easy mark for the Islamists. The turmoil soon worsened, and on February 1, 2005, King Gyanendra seized absolute power, dissolving the parliament and sacking the Prime Minister. He said he took the action in order to defeat Maoist rebels whose violent insurgency had already claimed over 13,000 victims. Compounding the chaos created by the leftist revolt, the king’s action sparked a year of street clashes involving a plethora of different groups from human rights activists to leftists seeking to replace the monarchy with a communist dictatorship. With continuous street violence and the government fighting to maintain its power base, border control was non-existent, and the warnings of that US official seemed prophetic. On April 20, 2006, the king ceded the powers he grabbed; but by early 2006, the Indian intelligence service reported that Al-Qaeda terrorists were operating in several Nepalese towns. “Faced with grave internal crisis,” it reported in the Indian paper, Pioneer, “Nepal provides the kind of environment that suits a terrorist outfit like the Al-Qaeda.”

Unfortunately, both the prescient US official and Indian intelligence got a piece of the puzzle correct but failed to discern the true intention behind the Islamist move. Each party was mired in its own point of view. The Americans were concerned that Al-Qaeda would ally with the Maoist rebels and help them take over Nepal. The Indians were afraid that the strengthened Maoists would ally with India’s ultra-left guerillas, who have been fighting a terror war there for years. Both were right about the Islamist-Maoist connection, but they missed the bigger picture.

Now what is particularly interesting about Al-Qaeda setting up house in Nepal is the fact that Nepal is 89 percent Hindu and most of the rest of its people are Buddhist. This hardly qualifies Nepal as the next Islamic republic. Moreover, Al-Qaeda first made its name fighting communists, and its own fundamental Islam is diametrically opposed to Maoism’s enforced atheism. Nepal is only a way station; the alliance with the left only a temporary marriage of convenience. Continuing the line from Afghanistan through the mountains of Pakistan, then disputed Kashmir and across the Indian-Chinese frontier into Nepal; leads to Al-Qaeda’s real, non-fictional Shangri La: the world’s third largest Muslim country, Bangladesh.

All of the areas mentioned are remote, mountainous, and difficult to patrol, as is the point where Nepal and Bangladesh almost touch. Still, cooperation among Pakistani border guards on the trek and from diplomats and intelligence personnel in Nepal were essential. The Islamists were able to count on that given their support in Pakistan, despite the fact that Musharaf and his supporters see the nation’s interest in working with the United States to defeat them. The Indian intelligence report even alleges that Nepal’s Al-Qaeda camps are run by Pakistani intelligence and funded through the Pakistani embassy in Kathmandu.

Bangladesh Ripe for the Islamists?

Bangladesh is uncomfortably conducive to an Islamist takeover. The country is a democracy, consistent with the wishes and traditions of its people, and the Islamists intend to use the democratic process to assume power and then destroy it. National elections are scheduled for January and while Bangladesh Ambassador to the United States, Shamsher M. Chowdhury, hews the government line that “the Islamists are weak,” facts predict a far different outcome.

The current government correctly touts figures that demonostrate it has had some success in fighting poverty, but figures also show that the country remains one of the poorest in the world. More importantly, massive sections of the electorate experience ongoing lives of economic privation. Infrastructure is inconsistent at best even in the capital, primitive in many cases; and the nation always finds itself judged as the first or second most corrupt country in the world by every international survey. That same combination of crushing poverty and endemic corruption helped propel Hamas to power through elections in the Palestinian territories. It has also powered Islamist gains in North Africa (Muslim brotherhood) and elsewhere in the Muslim world. On top of that, Bangladeshi Islamists have something their counterparts did not. They already are part of the government, and they have become major power brokers in determining whether the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) or its rival Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) will form the next government. With national elections looming, the BNP’s unwillingness to alienate the Islamists have fueled many government decisions, something that several unnamed and highly placed Bangladeshi officials have admitted privately on several occasions. Large portions of the population remain unsatisfied with the performance of either major party, and current squabbling between the BNP and BAL over the upcoming elections is eroding popular support for the major parties further. Day by day, the Islamist option becomes more attractive to voters. Those 2006 Palestinian elections provided Al-Qaeda and their allies with a blueprint for a bloodless takeover. When existing political blocs and the government are tainted with corruption and ineffectiveness, the Islamist brand of religious fundamentalistm seems pristine, as does its rhetoric. Palestinian voters, for example, chose to ignore Hamas’s anti-peace platform, choosing instead to grasp at what they hoped was a lifeline to save them from a corrupt and chaotic regime.

Bangladesh Islamists might not command the largest number of votes, but even if they do not, a strong showing could give them sufficient power to demand a major portfolio—and given their stated aim of replacing current Bangladeshi law with Sharia (Muslim law), it is not out of the question that they would demand the Law Ministry in exchange for their support. A Muslim with extensive knowledge of the law, explained the real significance of such a move. Implementing Sharia, he said, does not require changing the law itself. It can be done administratively by instructing judges and prosecutors that no specific law can be enforced without first making sure it does not conflict with Sharia. The Law Minister can do that.

Events in May further strengthen suspicions of an Islamist takeover. For two days, workers rioted in Dhaka, ultimately forcing the government to deploy the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles to quell the violence. Other parts of the country had seen periodic social unrest earlier in 2006. The post-violence search by the press, government officials, and the “Bangladeshi street” for conspiracies was a common knee-jerk reaction there; but there is some substance to what one official called “a vested quarter at home and abroad planned the ransacking of garment industries to create an anarchic situation,” as reported in the Bangladesh weekly, Blitz. Bangladeshis seem afraid to say whom that “vested quarter” with bases both in Bangladesh and abroad might that be. But only the Islamists (including their allies in the ruling coalition) satisfy the domestic/international criterion and have a history of using violence in Bangladesh to promote their agenda. They are also the only force—at home and abroad—that benefits from the recent violence.

Last year, Bangladesh experienced a wave of terror bombings by Islamists intended to force the nation to implement Sharia (Muslim law) as the law of the land. Regardless of the rationale or the perpetrators, continued violence works against the sitting government and opens the door for a force that claims to have “the answer” to emerge. Radical Islam has been posed as the answer openly elsewhere and less openly in Bangladesh. At first, some people wondered if the recent violence was the beginning of a takeover by a foreign power, through a state of emergency, or by leftists. With the sudden stop in the violence, it is clear that was not the case. That drop, preceded by a sudden eruption, follows the same pattern taken by last fall’s terror attacks, which have not been repeated since. If social unrest and violence erupts periodically from now until the January elections, it would be foolhardy not to look for Islamist hands behind it. And the violence might allow them to achieve their goals by manipulating voter sentiment

But not Inevitable.

An Islamist power grab in Bangladesh, while a distinct possibility, is not inevitable. The country has been holding elections judged fair by international monitors, and its leaders have made it clear that they see their nation’s interest as lying in cooperation with the United States to defeat radical Islam. Radical Islam, moreover, is inconsistent with the Bangladeshi people’s traditional faith. And it should not be forgotten that Bangladesh has substantial religious minorities, especially Hindu. A takeover by radical Islamists could provoke Indian intervention to save that population, or (open or clandestine) action by China concerned about Islamist support for their counterparts who have been fighting a terror war in China’s western provinces.

What is clear is that the current policy of benign neglect by the United States and other western nations will almost guarantee disaster. Islamist activity both inside Bangladesh and in the region as a whole marks a highly committed organization that has been working on this outcome for years. Even before the events noted here, Islamists have been buying influence over the public through its network of madrassas (schools), key positions at the nation’s universities, major media (print and broadcast), and attaining positions of influence among government workers and the police. If a counterforce is not equally committed, it stands no chance against them.

Bangladeshi leaders from both major parties, but especially the stronger BNP, must be made to take unequivocal positions, not only in condemning obvious acts of terror but also in opposing those words and deeds that provide Islamists with their ideological underpinning. Various countries—in particular, the United States—have the incentives and ability to help the Bangladeshis take that direction. The Islamists have made their intentions clear in words and actions. In country after country and now in Bangladesh, they have not scrupled about sacrificing innocent victims to advance their platform. History has shown that it is best to take them at their word, but those parties that can provide an effective counterforce are choosing not to do so. Among the Bangladeshis themselves (both inside and outside the government), there are those willing to take on the Islamists—whom they perceive to be the real threat to their nation—but they are waiting for the United States and others to show that if they do, they will stand with them. Opportunities for that exist at this time.

The situation is not unlike that which the world faced between 1933 and 1939. Then, too, quite a few individuals were ready to oppose a murderous group of committed believers moving their country into a barbarous dark age—and promising to take the rest of the world there, too. But when they stood in opposition, they did not receive the support they needed to be effective or even to survive; discouraging othes from taking that step. In 1939, the civilized world finally found the same sort of commitment that had long been driving the enemies of light; it took six years and tens of million dead before they were defeated. Action now in Bangladesh could help avoid another mistake of delayed commitment.
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