Bangladesh's liberal cultural history has been cited as a natural anti-dote to the growth of terrorism in that country. However, each passing incident that has posed fundamental challenge to the country's body politik, leading to many analysts questioning this assumption, going beyond conspiracy theories.
Open source data, remains generalised and hence provide little in terms of a conclusive statement on the status of Islamist radical terrorism in the country. However, the fact remains that the country has banned three Islamist outfits in the country, the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Shahdat al Hiqma for terrorist activities.
The debate, whether Bangladesh has indeed become a base for international terrorist network such as the al-Qaeda, started with two publications, in the Time magazine and also in the Far Eastern Economic Review in 2002. It has further deepened with frequent recovery of arms and explosives in different parts of the country, incidents of explosions and reportage on terrorist mobilisation. These reports were not taken seriously then and the then United States' ambassador Mary Ann Peters questioned the findings of the articles based on unidentified sources and unsubstantiated claims. She said, "The US embassy in Dhaka follows terrorism issues closely and has no evidence to support the report."
However, within two years, the stand has changed. The United States' country report for 2004 on Bangladesh noted, "Bangladesh's long tradition of inclusive, moderate Islam is increasingly under threat from extremist alternatives, already offering an attractive breeding ground for political and sectarian violence. Endemic corruption, poverty and a stalemated political process could further contribute to the type of instability and widespread frustration that has elsewhere provided recruits, support and safe haven to international terrorist groups." Although it refrained from passing a judgement on the issue under discussion, it did provide broad hints at factors that facilitate the growth and ultimate consolidation of radical Islamist networks.
Terrorism in Bangladesh is believed to have been empowered through a process and policy of denial by the successive regimes. A country, which has witnessed bitter political rivalry between the two mainstream parties, it has been easy for the current coalition government to brush aside the debate and give it a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) vs the Awami league (AL) colour. Before the 23rd February 2005 proscription of the JMB and the JMJB, the government refused to acknowledge the existence of these outfits and blamed the wild imagination of the media for painting the country in bad light. In addition, political compulsions of protecting coalition partners such as the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, which has proximity with radical Islamist forces, ensured that the destabilising forces make an unhindered growth.
Investigations into the 17 August country-wide terrorist attacks have brought out details of the nexus between the radical forces in Bangladesh with the funding agencies in various countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Apart from pointing at the large-scale mobilisation capabilities of the militant outfits, interrogation reports have outlined the use of religious seminaries for training and mobilisation and even for assembling of explosives. In addition, it has also brought into open the nexus between radical outfits with retired and serving members of the armed forces leading to the launch of an investigation by the Directorate General of Forces intelligence (DGFI). In effect, the recent explosions have ensured that the contours of Islamic radicalism in the country, which went on under cover, is brought to public notice.
The trademark Bangladeshi official response of blaming the opposition, neighbouring India and criminals in the country for the incidents, has found little international approval as the country dithered on the investigation into past incidents. As a result, only few in Bangladesh were pointing fingers at their traditional bete noires when the August 17 country-wide explosions occurred.
The debate over the slide of the country into the clutches of radical Islamist forces would be incomplete without a reference to the slide of the madrassas to the arms of the radical Wahabi Islam. Generous funding from agencies outside has ensured that seminaries dispense with the local moderate Islam and establish a link with the radical elements world-wide. Reports suggest that an increasing number of Bangladesh's madrassas are now following the pattern of study of the madrassas in Pakistan and have become Deobandi in their worldview. As a result, Bangladeshi branches of international outfits like Harkatul Mujahideen al-Islami (known as HuJI in Bangladesh) and Hizb-ul-Tahrir (HuT) have grown in influence.
Recent trends cause serious alarm. Indeed coming months are likely to indicate the extent of this deterioration and whether indeed Bangladesh is heading for inevitable chaos.