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.
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.
But analysts say foreign support is only part of the equation, arguing that extremism has found room to flourish because Islamist politics are gaining ground here. The ruling BNP party, they point out, came to power in 2001 by forming a coalition with two Islamist parties, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Oikye Jote, which together hold 20 seats in parliament.
"The rise of Islamist parties creates a permissive environment, making it difficult to crackdown on militants when the people in power are aligned with Islamist politics," says Ms. Fair.
There is no proof linking terrorist activities to the Jamaat Party, but militants arrested over the past two years have claimed links to local-level Jamaat members, while police have described others as former members of Jamaat's student wing.
The Jamaat Party, however, denies these allegations. "The number is very low. It's not proof that Jamaat-e-Islami was involved in terrorist activities," says Mr. Kamaruzzaman.
Critics of Jamaat are not convinced. Abul Barkat, an economist at Dhaka University, says he's spent the past seven years tracing Jamaat's growing financial power. What he discovered frightened him. "Their central vision is to capture state power," he says, adding the party generates almost $200 million in annual profit, according to his analysis of Jamaat-owned businesses, which he says runs the gamut from banks and insurance companies to technology and media concerns. "They are an economy within the economy - a state within a state," he says, with some profits used to fund militant organizations like JMB.
Kamaruzzaman denies that Jamaat sponsors or patronizes any violent activities: "We have no secret agenda."
Critics like Mr. Barkat see the rise of Islamism as a failure of the democratic process here. Democratic institutions, they say, have been paralyzed by corruption and the enmity between the ruling BNP and the opposition Awami League. Both parties, when not in power, boycott parliamentary sessions and implement nationwide strikes.
"Democracy has gone far downhill since it came in 1991," says William Milam, a former US ambassador to Bangladesh. "Bangladesh is really not a democracy because the government which is elected freely and fairly cannot govern - and that applies to both parties."
Bangladeshi political observers agree, noting that the two parties immediately accused each other after the Aug. 17 attacks, instead of uniting to condemn it, as many had hoped.
Economic inequalities are rising against the backdrop of declining governance, adding fuel to the extremist fire. "Although we have reduced poverty over the last few years by about a percentage a year, inequality is still increasing," says Mustafizur Rahman, research director of the Center for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka. He points out that many of the militants arrested in the wake of Aug. 17 have been from the lowest class of society.
Arresting the culprits, say security experts, now requires the cooperation of the mainstream parties. "This blaming game always demoralizes the investigators," says A.S.M. Shahjahan, a former chief of the national police. "Consensus is a must for the people to come together as a bulwark against this. That is the need of the hour."