How extremism came to Bangladesh
Foreign funding and bitter politics may have played a role in the recent bombings.
For years, they gathered in hidden training camps, mosques, and madrassahs, learning how to use weapons and build bombs. In their diaries they scrawled slogans of political alienation. On Aug. 17, their ideology culminated in a series of nearly 500 bomb blasts that shook the nation and killed three people.Skip to next paragraph
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In the aftermath of the attacks, Bangladesh is confronting a realization long suspected but consistently overlooked: Islamist militant groups have taken firm root here, demonstrating a widespread, highly coordinated, and well-funded network. The government, after consistently denying the threat, recently blamed Jama'atul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB), for the attack.
Bangladesh is not supposed to be a breeding ground of extremism. Although one of the world's poorest countries, it is often lauded as a development success story. Poverty rates have declined, life expectancy is up, and the economy has consistently grown by 5 percent annually for years - above average for most developing nations.
But remarkable development and extremism are not mutually exclusive. The rise of JMB, observers say, shows how homegrown militancy, invigorated by foreign funds and leadership radicalized in Afghanistan, has flourished here because of growing economic inequalities and acrimonious politics that have crippled the functioning of democracy.
"Because [Bangladesh] is seen as this development success story, it's fallen under the radar," says Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "There's too much at stake here. Until now, we could say this is a really good example of Islam and democracy coexisting."
Since the Aug. 17 attacks, police have arrested more than 300 people and begun to understand more about the JMB. The group was banned in February after members confessed to bombing 'un-Islamic' targets, including theater shows and the offices of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Abdur Rahman, the spiritual head of the organization, told the press last year that he admired the Taliban and had traveled to Afghanistan. He claimed his organization had been operating underground since 1998, with the aim of founding an Islamic state. His network was active across the country, he said, with 10,000 trained full-time operatives, and 100,000 part-time activists, funded with a payroll of more than $10,000 a month, a huge sum by Bangladeshi standards.
The government is now following the money trail and working with the country's banks to identify suspicious accounts and transactions, some possibly originating abroad. "They've received monetary help from Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Pakistan," says a retired police investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They first started in 1989 during the Afghan war."
Another JMB leader, Muhammad Asadullah Al-Galib, who was arrested after the February crackdown, is alleged by intelligence agencies to have received large funding from the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS), a Kuwait-based organization. In 2002, the US State Department blacklisted some RIHS offices, citing their support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. RIHS and Galib's organization have reportedly constructed over 1,000 mosques across Bangladesh and 10 madrassahs.