Bangladesh worries plot to blow up the Federal Reserve will hurt moderate image

The latest high-profile terrorist suspect in the US hails from Bangladesh, a country that has actually shown a remarkable ability to tamp down Islamic militancy.

Elizabeth Williams/AP
This courtroom sketch shows Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis (c.) and his attorney, Heidi Cesare (l.), in federal court in Brooklyn, Wednesday, Oct. 17, in New York.

The case of the 21-year-old Bangladeshi man charged with plotting to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank in New York has raised concern among Bangladeshis that this will hurt their country's image as a moderate Muslim nation.

The FBI arrested Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis on Oct. 17 in a sting after he allegedly parked a van filled with what he believed to be 1,000 pounds of explosives outside the building in Lower Manhattan near the New York Stock Exchange and tried to detonate the "bomb" with a cellphone.

The arrest came as quite a surprise to many in Bangladesh – one of the world’s largest Muslim countries, with a population of 160 million – which has shown significant success at cracking down on militant activities since the militant outfit Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) detonated some 500 bombs throughout the country in 2005.

Although the Muslim majority nation has witnessed a rising trend of sectarian violence against Buddhist and Hindu minorities in the past year, leading to destruction of several Buddhist and Hindu temples in the southeastern and the southwestern parts of the country, most don't see a major militancy threat.  

“I don’t see Bangladesh facing any imminent threat from militancy,” says Adilur Rahman Khan, of Odhikar, a human rights organization in Bangladesh, "unless external elements create a problem" by threatening Bangladesh's sovereignty, he says. 

Despite having a Muslim majority, the people in Bangladesh largely believe in libertarian philosophies and ideologies. "Bangladesh is a country born out of repression and the people express solidarity with the oppressed in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq but it does not mean that they want to create a situation where the ordinary people become the sufferers," says Mr. Khan.

A top official with Bangladesh’s home affairs ministry agrees. “We don’t see any terrorist threat in the country right now,” he says, adding that Bangladesh has worked hard to ensure that the country doesn’t pose a threat to any other nation.

In the past five years the country has taken a number of steps to fight militancy. The High Court has banned punishment under fatwa ( a legal pronouncement in Islam), strengthening the secular legal system. A special tribunal was established to prosecute war crimes committed by Islamists during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. And the government has had a number of terrorists arrested, according to various studies.

Studying in the US

Mr. Nafis studied at a private university in Bangladesh until he transferred to Southeast Missouri State University in January on a student visa. Nafis assembled what he thought was a real bomb that morning and planted it in the van. He was accompanied by an undercover FBI agent posing as his accomplice.

Nafis’s arrest has thwarted the 15th plot to attack New York City since 9/11, according to the New York Police Department. His parents back in Bangladesh are stunned by the news of his involvement in a terrorist plot. 

“He is not linked with it,” says Nafis’s father, Quazi Ahsanullah in Dhaka, breaking into tears.

According to FBI records, Nafis maintained communication with both an individual in the US and another “brother” in Bangladesh while planning the attack. He also discussed Islamic rulings that discouraged jihad in another country with someone on Facebook, who told him that “he was not bound by such rulings.”

A senior faculty member at the North South University in Bangladesh, where Nafis studied before moving to the US, told The Christian Science Monitor that Nafis was involved with the Hizbut Tahrir, a global organization that advocates a pan-Islamic caliphate and was banned in Bangladesh in 2009. Bangladesh military officials arrested leaders of the group in January after what they claimed was a failed attempt to topple the government.

  • Syed Tashfin Chowdhury also contributed to this report.
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