Pakistani militants expand abroad, starting in Bangladesh
Bangladesh has arrested suspected members of Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Pakistani militant group was blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks -- and some fear it could target India again and provoke regional tensions.
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Police have unearthed past attacks in India that might have had links to Bangladesh. Recently arrested suspect Billal Mandal told police that the 1999 hijacking of an India airliner was planned and executed here. The team stayed in Dhaka, and after Mr. Mandal sneaked them into India, they hijacked the plane from Nepal, he said. Those claims are still being investigated, but the incident has long rankled Indian officials: It resulted in the death of an Indian citizen and the ransom of two high-level Pakistani militants. One of those was Maulana Masood Azar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed.Skip to next paragraph
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American officials fear that a new attack could inflame Indian-Pakistani relations – still recovering from the Mumbai attacks – and distract Pakistan from helping the United States fight militants along its border with Afghanistan.
“Our concern is that a new major attack in India would exacerbate tensions in India and Pakistan, to potentially cause Pakistan to reallocate resources from the western border fighting against the threat from Afghanistan to the eastern border [with India], which then puts our troops in more jeopardy,” says the Western diplomat.
How to uproot militants
Since taking office in January 2009, Bangladesh’s liberal-leaning Awami League has taken serious steps to tackle terrorism. Last year it created a 59-member naval counterterrorism commando squad. It has strengthened the government’s financial intelligence capacities and tightened money-laundering laws.
But some observers worry that militants here may enjoy support from a patronage network that appears to have grown under the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which held office from 2001 to 2006.
The BNP has consistently denied supporting militants, and the accusation remains unsubstantiated. One of the party’s leading ministers, Aminul Haque, was sentenced in 2008 to 31 years in prison for providing political support to the leaders of JMB. Last May, police arrested two former heads of national and military intelligence who served during the BNP years. They are both under investigation for allegedly helping to ship arms in 2004 to the United Liberation Front of Assam.
“I would not say that the full state mechanism was supporting [militants]. I would say state actors. Not only ministers, but the state agencies, like security forces also supported [them]. They gave backup, covered their movements,” claims retired Maj. Gen. Muhammed Abdur Rashid, a security analyst in Dhaka.
At the least, many agree that the BNP did little to stop them. “At a minimum, I don’t think the last government, the BNP four-party alliance, took many effective measures to counter that,” says the Western diplomat.
Cutting off such assistance would require broad political support. But the Awami League and the BNP, now in the opposition, rarely see eye to eye. Both blame the other for the rise of militancy.
One reason for optimism, though, is Bangladeshis themselves. When JMB first appeared in 2005, the public quickly turned against it. Municipal and village authorities formed resistance committees to report the group’s activities to police. In 2007, Bangladeshis largely welcomed the execution of JMB leaders. Many supported a government initiative last year to form village-based resistance groups.
The tone of Islam in Bangladesh also acts as a bulwark against militancy. First spread by religious mystics, Islam here is syncretic and tolerant.
“Common people don’t like militancy. But they are confused as to how to combat it,” says General Ibrahim. “The government of Bangladesh has to discuss it openly. We have to bring this feeling that it’s a national problem.”