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.

One morning last November, police investigators scrambled up a hilltop in Chittagong, a sprawling port city in Bangladesh’s south. They had come to the redoubt of one of Chittagong’s most notorious madrasas. When the team informed local police it would be launching a raid, the local police refused to join in.

Bangladesh, the world’s third-largest Muslim nation, is familiar with militancy. Since 2005, police have battled a home-grown group called Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in its violent quest to impose Islamic law.

But this raid was different. The police say they’d learned that three men inside the stronghold were in contact with suspected militants in Pakistan and were planning to bomb the American, Indian, and British embassies in Dhaka. Working quickly, the team found the three men, along with two others, and pulled them out.

Only during interrogation did they discover just how international the group was – and how expansive its aims.

All of the men confessed to being operatives of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based group blamed for the devastating 2008 Mumbai (Bombay) attacks and believed by American intelligence officials to be eying targets in the West. Two were Indian nationals. One, T. Nazeer, was Lashkar’s chief of South Asian operations.

Even more disturbing, says the officer who led the raid and spoke on the condition of anonymity, the detainees said they had planned to attack targets in India and had received support from Pakistan’s intelligence establishment. After the raid, police arrested several more LeT members and other Pakistani militants throughout the country.

The arrests opened a troubling new chapter in Bangladesh’s battle with extremism. They exposed the growing reach of Pakistani militants into this largely peaceful country – and their alleged intent to launch attacks on India that could inflame regional troubles.

Since taking power in 2009 Bangladesh’s new government has moved to clamp down on militancy – an effort that led to the LeT arrests. But it faces an ambitious enemy with potentially powerful supporters and at the same time must battle political infighting.

“Unfortunately, Bangladesh has become the junction point of people who are interested in militancy. It is not likely to be eradicated very soon. The two major political parties have never been able to come to a common approach to the problem,” says retired Maj. Gen. Syed Muhammed Ibrahim, a security analyst in Dhaka.

A staging ground to attack India

Since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has become a victim of its geography – tucked under India’s northeastern flank, sharing with it 1,500 miles of poorly guarded border. Communists, Kashmiri insurgents, and Assam separatists have poured across its flatlands for decades, trafficking arms, drugs, and mercenaries in and out of the region for their fight with India.

Pakistani extremist groups are the latest to join that stream, say Bangladeshi security officials, US military officials, and Western terrorism experts who follow LeT’s movements.

“Right now our concern is the movement of Lashkar-e-Taiba … and specifically their positioning in Bangladesh and Nepal, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka,” Adm. Robert Willard, head of the US Navy’s Pacific Command, told a recent Senate hearing.

Since November, police have arrested more than a dozen suspected LeT members, including at least four Pakistanis and six Indians, who confessed that dozens more members remain on the loose. Another suspect confessed to being a recruiter for Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Pakistani group suspected in the 2002 killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

“What [LeT] have been able to do is lay a very solid foundation [in Bangladesh]. They’re playing for the longer game. They’re building up the infrastructure, building up the support networks,” says John Harris, a terrorism expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

More concerning, police say, was the suspects’ claim of assistance from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. “They explained that the ISI helped them with the preparation of their passports. They were taken to Pakistan for training,” says the police commander who led the raid. “They are all here to organize attacks against India.”

He says his force has confirmed that the ISI was providing funding and other support to the militants, but would not elaborate. His claims were not possible to verify.

Experts concur there is no direct evidence of ISI involvement, and disagree over how big a threat LeT poses in Bangladesh. The group’s size and strength here remain unclear. They debate whether LeT plans to attack only Indian interests, or also Bangladeshi and Western ones. “We never saw any evidence” that LeT planned to bomb embassies in Dhaka, says one Western diplomat here, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Pakistan’s intelligence establishment cultivated LeT in the 1990s as a proxy force to fight India but says it has severed all ties with the group.

In recent years, however, several Pakistani military officers have been detained on suspicion of aiding LeT. In January 2009, US prosecutors accused Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, a Pakistani colonel who retired in 2007, of assisting David Headley, the American LeT operative who had provided surveillance for the Mumbai attacks and planned to attack the offices of a newspaper in Denmark. Syed was arrested in Pakistan but later released.

Also after the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan detained five military officers – including two serving lieutenants – for having been in contact with Mr. Headley, according to Western media reports.

Still, in the past week the militant group Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely thought to be a front for extremist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, appears to be trying to win the hearts and minds of Pakistanis by providing massive aid efforts to the more than 3 million displaced by the country's worst floods in decades.

Provoking regional tensions

What is happening in Bangladesh may be part of a regional contest between India and Pakistan. Pakistan fears that India is building up its presence in Afghanistan, under the cover of aid and diplomacy, to circle around to Pakistan’s west. And Pakistan, in turn, may be circling around India’s underbelly via Bangladesh.

The tussle appears to have been building for years. Two alleged LeT members arrested here told police they have been in the country for 15 years, recruiting members and planning logistics.

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.

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.”

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