Quiet Bangladesh woken by bombs

Hundreds of simultaneous explosions Wednesday revealed surprising coordination by militants.

Some 300 small bombs rocked cities across Bangladesh Wednesday, killing one person, wounding at least 100, and raising questions here about whether the government has come down hard enough against a rising tide of Islamic militarism.

The bombs reportedly targeted mainly government offices, bus and train stations, and markets in 63 of the country's 64 districts. Police suspect that the homemade bombs were not designed to kill. However, the breadth of the attack - along with the timing of explosions within a half hour time frame - suggests a high degree of coordination.

No one claimed responsibility for the blasts, but copies of a leaflet found at most of the bomb sites carried a call by an Islamic group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, for Islamic rule in Bangladesh.

Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and other militant outfits were banned in February for their alleged involvement in criminal activities. But critics here say the government, which includes two Islamist parties, has been reluctant to take a harder line with militant groups.

"The government has been suffering from some sense of self-complacency," says Zaid Bakht, Research Director of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies. "They think they are in control of extreme right elements. They government has been discounting their size, their capacity and how they can destabilize things here."

Most of Bangladesh's 141 million people are Muslim. The country was founded on secular principles and enjoys a moderate, peaceful reputation. However, political violence has been a part of the long-standing rivalries between the two main political parties - the right-leaning Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which is now in power, and the left-leaning Awami League. According to Maj. Gen. Mainul Hossain Chowdhury (ret.), Bangladesh has seen some 400 other bombing cases since 1999.

Wednesday's blasts focused attention on the presence of Islamic militants, who have been blamed in the past for bomb explosions at religious shrines and rallies. Jaamat-ul-Mujahideen said the blasts were its "third call" to establish Islamic rule in the country. "If ignored and [if] our people are arrested or persecuted, Jaamat-ul-Mujahideen will take the counter-action," the leaflets said. They also warned the United States and Britain against occupation of Muslim lands: "It is also to warn Bush and Blair to vacate Muslim countries, or to face Muslim upsurge."

Some analysts here see the latest attacks as an attempt by Islamists to gain influence within a turbulent domestic political scene.

"It is not international terrorist organizations involved here.... I believe it is to gain the political will of the people," says Mahbubar Rahman, a member of parliament. He adds that he does not think the Islamic fundamentalist groups have the capability of organizing such a countrywide network.

But Bakht is not as quick to dismiss the organizational power of such groups.

"This implies strong organization throughout the country. What small extremist Islamic groups we have, so far they have not been able to demonstrate nationwide organizational strength," says Bahkt. "Our assessment of the size and organizational strength of these elements need to be reconsidered."

Bangladesh has many of the same demographic and cultural factors at play that led to the rise of militant Islam in nearby Pakistan and in Afghanistan. In particular, it has a network of Deobandi religious schools, or madrassahs that, like Pakistan's, have contributed to radicalization of many poor youth.

In recent years the country has seen a rise in Islamist violence against its Hindu minority and is home to a number of suspected Islamist terror groups, including the Harakat al-Jihad al-Islami, or the Islamic Jihad Movement, which has ties to Al Qaeda's leadership and to an organization of the same name in Pakistan.

But Bakht and other analysts in Bangladesh discount the possibility of a foreign hand in Wednesday's attack. If international extremist groups are hiding in Bangladesh, Wednesday's attacks would be counterproductive, he argues. "They would not want to publicize themselves by stirring things up."

Bakht also notes that the bombs were left in open places, meaning the attackers could have hit much harder but chose not to. Indeed, police who examined a number unexploded bombs said they were wrapped in tape, paper, or sawdust rather than the nails or shrapnel that more deadly bombs use.

Still, observers who have followed the rise of militant Islam in Southeast Asia warn against downplaying these attacks just because of the small size of the bombs. Zachary Abuza, a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace, sees parallels with Indonesia, the scene of large-scale attacks in Bali and Jakarta that were presaged by early, less effective blasts.

"[Bangladesh] is a country of concern to me because what you get out of the leadership sounds so much like what you got out of the Indonesian leadership before the Bali blasts. They would say that the country was a moderate Muslim country, the people were tolerant, they were secular, the radical Islamists were a distinct minority that had no interest in political violence," says Mr. Abuza.

Wire material was used in this report. Dan Murphy in Baghdad and Ben Arnoldy in Boston also contributed.

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