Could Islamists, jihadists turn Bangladesh into neo-Taliban state?

Terror org. BNP aims to establish Sharia Law in Bangladesh with the backing of Islamist allies, potentially making the state an antisemitic caliphate. The Biden administration supports the BNP.

 Anti-militancy elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in Bangladesh. (photo credit: Weekly Blitz)
Anti-militancy elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in Bangladesh.
(photo credit: Weekly Blitz)

Bangladesh, the third-largest Muslim country in the world, is at a crossroads. Its next general election is scheduled to be held on January 7, 2024, at a time when antisemitic, anti-Israel, anti-West radical Islamist, and jihadist groups are openly showing fangs, generating extreme wariness among the people in the country and the region, as an Islamist takeover of Bangladesh would turn it into another neo-Taliban state. Such fear is gradually getting intensified, as in recent years the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is termed as a “tier-3 terrorist organization” by a number of US courts, and its ideological allies  – such as Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and pro-Caliphate Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI) – are getting exposed sympathy of the Biden administration.

Biden administration’s recent actions may have severe consequences for Bangladesh, potentially turning it into a neo-Taliban state. Following the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, many Afghans who had supported and collaborated with US forces were left in a vulnerable position, targeted by extremist groups. Now Biden is making a similar mistake in Bangladesh, a South Asian country, by seemingly supporting Islamist forces with a long history of anti-American, antisemitic, and anti-Western sentiments, where these Islamist bigots were on record for setting fire to American flags and chanted slogans such as “Death to America” and “We shall become Taliban, Bangla [Bangladesh] will be Afghan.”

During the 2001-2006 rule of the coalition government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), there were several incidents in Bangladesh where American flags were burnt by protesters. These protests were often triggered by various factors, such as political developments, international events, and public sentiment.

The Biden administration’s disturbing diplomacy has raised concerns about the long-standing relationship between the United States and Bangladesh, potentially jeopardizing the 51-year history of cooperation between the two nations. Since the US recognized the newly independent Bangladesh in 1971 after its victory over Pakistani occupation forces, the relationship had been marked by cordial cooperation and significant development partnership. However, this positive trajectory now seems to be taking a troubling turn due to President Joe Biden’s diplomatic approach.

In recent years, the Biden administration has claimed to uphold democracy but has shown hostility towards Bangladesh’s ruling secularist Awami League government, while seemingly collaborating with the ultra-Islamist Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its jihadist allies, including Jamaat-e-Islami. This approach is dangerously pushing Bangladesh towards a future reminiscent of a neo-Taliban state or even a caliphate.

 Weapons recovered from a militancy hideout in Bangladesh. (credit: Weekly Blitz)
Weapons recovered from a militancy hideout in Bangladesh. (credit: Weekly Blitz)

Bangladeshi Hamas-Hezbollah links

It is essential to note that BNP and its Islamist partners have a history of harboring anti-American, antisemitic, and anti-Western sentiments. Asa mentioned, these Islamist groups have been on record for setting fire to the American flag and chanting slogans like “Death to America.”

In a deeply concerning move, during the 2001-2006 rule of the BNP-Jamaat coalition government, they even named a bridge “Hezbollah” as a “mark of honor,” openly expressing their support for the Lebanese resistance group, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization. The BNP-Jamaat coalition government’s junior communications minister, Salahuddin Ahmed, told French news agency AFP, “I named the bridge Hezbollah because of our love for the Lebanese resistance group. Hezbollah is the only group which is fighting Israel, and the bridge is named after the group as a mark of honor.”

Then-foreign minister Morshed Khan went as far as to label Israel’s actions as “state terrorism” and “religious terrorism,” while accusing the United States of sponsoring it.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami consider Jews and Israel as “the enemy” and support the “elimination of the Jewish state from the world map”, while they recognize Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas as “ideological allies.”

Biden’s recent actions in Bangladesh could have dire consequences – potentially, as mentioned, turning the country into a neo-Taliban state. Following the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, many Afghans who had supported the US found themselves vulnerable and targeted by extremist groups. Unfortunately, it appears that a similar mistake is being made in Bangladesh, with President Biden seemingly aligning with forces known for their vehement anti-American sentiments.

Of further concern is the active support for Islamist groups, including BNP, JeI, and Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and officials at the State Department. The US ambassador in Dhaka, Peter D. Haas, has been observed associating with individuals who burn American flags and even threatening Bangladeshi media outlets with visa-related consequences to coerce them into promoting the agenda of these Islamist forces.

By supporting the BNP, the Biden administration may inadvertently bolster an organization with an agenda that contradicts American values and foreign policy objectives. The BNP’s aim is to establish Sharia Law in Bangladesh with the backing of Islamist allies, potentially transforming the nation into an antisemitic caliphate, mirroring the Afghan model. Such a development could significantly undermine US interests in the region.

Inadvertently empowering Islamist groups in Bangladesh could lead the country down a path toward becoming a neo-Taliban state, with far-reaching implications for American foreign policy and the global fight against terrorism. These decisions demand careful consideration and a reevaluation of the US approach to Bangladesh to ensure the preservation of shared values and interests.

Looking back before 2009

Almost two decades ago, during 2001-2006, when an ultra-Islamist and ruthlessly antisemitic government comprising BNP and JeI was in power, eminent journalist and counterterrorism expert Alex Perry in his article in Time magazine on April 14, 2002, saw Bangladesh as a “deadly cargo,” as it had become a breeding ground and safe haven for terrorists, insurgents, and militants.

Following publication of Alex Perry’s article, journalist Bertil Lintner, in an article in South Asia Terrorism Portal, wrote: “While Bangladesh is yet far from becoming another Pakistan, Islamist forces are no doubt on the rise, and extremist influence is growing, especially in the countryside. According to a foreign diplomat in Dhaka, ‘In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the leftists who were seen as incorruptible purists. Today, the role model for many young men in rural areas is the dedicated Islamic cleric with his skull cap, flowing robes and beard.’”

Commenting on the 2001 general election and the Islamist coalition government of BNP and JeI returning to power, Bertil Lintner wrote: “Since last year’s election, however, extremist Islamist groups have once again become more blatant in their attacks on the country’s minorities and secular forces. The HuJI especially has attracted the attention of security planners in the region. The group was formed in 1992 reportedly with funds from Osama bin Laden. The existence of firm links between the new Bangladeshi militants and Al Qaeda were first proven when Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh” (to which HuJI belongs), signed the official declaration of ‘holy war’ against the United States on February 23, 1998. Other signatories included bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri (chief of the Jihad Group in Egypt), Rifa’i Ahmad Taha aka Abu-Yasir (Egyptian Islamic Group), and Sheikh Mir Hamzah (secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan).”

Western nations’ bias

Since 2001 in particular, when the BNP-Jamaat coalition comprising hard-line Islamists, antisemites, jihadists and anti-Hindu elements succeeded in returning to power, Bangladesh quickly started becoming another Pakistan or Afghanistan. Within this troubled and polarized atmosphere, there has been a surge in Islamist militancy in the name of “defending Islam.” Ahmadis fell victims of extreme cruelty from various groups, namely Khatmey Nabuwat Andolan (KNA) and the Khatmey Nabuwat Movement (KNM), which were getting direct patronization from BNP, JeI, and a few other Islamist groups in the country. Well entrenched but subdued Deobandi militant groups like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami-Bangladesh (HuJI-B), both of which trace their lineage to JeI, became increasingly militant and energized. New groups had also emerged such as Ansar al-Islam, which acted as the Bangladeshi wing of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS); and Jund al-Tawheed wal Khilafah (JTK), whose loyalties lie with the Islamic State, making Bangladesh a new field of competition for the global jihadist powerhouses.

The conducive atmosphere of Bangladesh for Islamist militancy has been broadly created by two historical factors: the country’s political patronage of Islamism that nourished over a dozen extremist groups over the decades; and the rise and consolidation of the Deobandi-oriented JeI organization and its clamor for sharia-based governance in Bangladesh.

Ever since Bangladesh emerged as a nominally secularist state in 1971 after a war against Pakistan, the country has witnessed a sporadic, internal politico-religious tug-of-war. Even though the constitution emphasizes secularism as one of its four state principles and has banned the use of religion in politics, the clamor for a sharia-based Islamic state, ostensibly propounded by the JeI, which was later joined by BNP, has powerful backers in the country even today. The JeI-BNP nexus has strong connections with a myriad of militant groups that have mushroomed throughout the country in recent decades under its patronage. These groups look at JeI-BNP as their spiritual and ideological fountainhead.

There was a respite of 17 years from Islamist-related violence after a crackdown on Islamist groups after the military intervened in January 2007 to impose a caretaker government, and during the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government which came to power in 2009 following a landslide victory in the December 2008 general election. At this stage, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) – the elite force of Bangladesh Police – a played magnificent and extremely courage role in continuing offensives of terrorists and jihadists, where Awami League government under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vowed to eliminate Islamist, jihadist, and terrorists from the soil of Bangladesh.

But the period of relative calm ended with the Islamist backlash against secularists in 2013, unleashing violence onto Bangladesh’s streets as BNP and JeI launched countrywide arson and bomb attacks, followed by the murder of Awami League leaders, thus creating a fearsome atmosphere. This notoriety continued for months – this time again – RAB played a key role in saving the country from turning into another Afghanistan or Pakistan.

It may be recalled here that in 2013, a few months away from the 2014 general elections, while pro-caliphate Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI) had gathered hundreds and thousands of madrassa teachers and students, including dozens of individuals who had fought in Afghanistan against Soviet Union and Palestine against Israel as “mujahedeen” had also joined these gatherings, thus demanding enforcement of caliphate in Bangladesh, with HeI chief as ameer of the caliphate. Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and the Jatiya Party had openly declared solidarity with Hefazat’s dangerous bids. It was later revealed that BNP, Jamaat, and other Islamist forces in Bangladesh had secretly chalked out a blueprint of establishing Sharia rule in Bangladesh by staging an Islamic revolution – xeroxing that of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran.

Following the 2014 general election, which was boycotted by BNP and Jamaat, this nexus of Islamists carried out systematic bombings and arson attacks on religious minorities, singling out the minority Hindu community, for the “crimes” of voting for the Awami League. While Hefazat was demanding turning Bangladesh into a caliphate, BNP and Jamaat demanded the appointment of a “caretaker government” system to oversee elections – a practice Bangladesh’s Jatiya Sangshad (National Parliament) had abolished. Violence continued unabated, while dozens of Hindu homes and temples came under arson and bombing attacks. Hindu religious scriptures were burned to ashes, while deities were demolished by the members of BNP, Jamaat, Hefazat and their Islamist cohorts. Hindu girls and women were raped by these Islamist thugs, thus establishing a total reign of terror on Hindus in Bangladesh.

Conspirators of turning a secularist Bangladesh into a Sharia nation would have succeeded in 2013 unless members of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) had not intervened into the matter and driven away thousands of HeI members when they laid a siege of Dhaka city’s Motijheel commercial area. As the conspiracy of unseating the secularist Awami League government through Hefazat-e-Islam’s attempted a midnight revolution, the BNP-Jamaat nexus immediately began massive propaganda in the Western countries by bringing false accusations of “violating human rights” and “mass murder of Hefazat men.” At this stage, an NGO called Odhikar, under the leadership of Adilur Rahman Khan – a leader of the (BNP – began false propaganda with the agenda of misleading various international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, while the BNP-Jamaat nexus continued spending millions of dollars towards lobbyist activities in the Western nations – especially the United States – with the goal of gaining sympathy and misleading the Western policymakers against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League, and the country’s law enforcement agencies, including Rapid Action Battalion.

Radical Islam poses continuous threat

Although the people of Bangladesh rejected the Islamist-jihadist conglomerate of BNP-JeI and voted a secularist Awami League into power through a landslide victory during the general election in December 2008, it became a herculean task for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government to check the rise of militancy and terrorism and eliminate the existence of training camps and hideouts of the anti-India separatist group ULFA. It was also a difficult task to fight jihadist outfits such as JMB, HuJI, and later the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), which had formed an alliance with al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

These militant outfits had turned disparate in destabilizing the law and order situation in Bangladesh with the ulterior goal of unseating Sheikh Hasina from power. Well-orchestrated attacks targeting secularist individuals, journalists, bloggers, and even foreigners became almost a regular occurrence. At this juncture, the Awami League government under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina began taking tougher actions against these elements, where the international community, including the United States, played an extremely effective role by training members of law enforcement agencies, including Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), thus enabling these agencies to effectively combat terrorism and militancy in the country. Due to such rigorous efforts, militant outfits, although forced underground, continued heinous jihadist attacks. Two of the victims of these attacks were US citizen Avijit Roy and his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed.

On February 26, 2015, Roy and Ahmed, both Bangladesh-born US citizens, were visiting Dhaka to attend a book fair when they were attacked by assailants with machetes. Roy was killed, and Ahmed survived with critical wounds.

Two related groups have claimed responsibility. The Ansarullah Bangla Team, an al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist group based in Bangladesh, claimed responsibility for the attack. Shortly thereafter, Asim Umar, the now-deceased leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, posted a widely circulated video claiming that AQIS followers were responsible for the attack on Roy and Ahmed.

In 2016, the US State Department designated AQIS as a Foreign Terrorist Organization under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224, which provides authority to sanction terrorists and those who support terrorists or terrorist acts.

On December 20, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, through the Rewards for Justice (RFJ) office, authorized a reward of up to $5 million for information for information leading to the arrest or conviction of anyone involved in the murder of Avijit Roy and the attack on Rafida Bonya Ahmed.

In July 2016, there was a jihadist attack in Bangladesh at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka’s Gulshan area. During this gruesome massacre, several foreign nationals, as well as locals, were brutally murdered by the members of Islamic State.

Since the coalition government of BNP and JeI came to power in 2001, counterterrorism experts throughout the world were seeing the country as a “breeding ground of militancy and terrorism,” while others saw the country becoming “another Afghanistan or Pakistan.” During 2001-2006, BNP-JeI coalition rule, several militant outfits, including Jamaatul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB) – which later formed a franchise with Islamic State (ISIS) and Hakratul Jihad-e-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), were gaining strength under the direct patronization of the government. At the same time, separatist groups in the northeastern states of India – particularly United Liberation Front of Assom (ULFA) – were allowed by the BNP-JeI regime to use Bangladesh soil in continuing cross-border terrorism in India, while ULFA was also allowed to establish its training camps and hideouts within Bangladesh. Additionally, the BNP-JeI government was actively collaborating with ULFA by coordinating and implementing a supply of weapons and explosives sent by Pakistani ISI and other foreign elements for these separatist groups.

Biden administration’s maneuvers

The recent maneuvers by the Biden administration could have a considerable impact on Bangladesh. Antony Blinken, along with other officials from the State Department, seem to be extending support to Islamist factions in Bangladesh, including the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami. Peter D. Haas, the US ambassador stationed in Dhaka, has allegedly been spotted socializing with figures who have articulated anti-American views. Such conduct contravenes established diplomatic protocols and could conceivably result in the ousting of the US Embassy from Bangladesh. The Biden administration’s strategy risks unsettling Bangladesh and creating an environment conducive for extremist entities to ascend to power. While this could potentially serve American objectives related to resource acquisition and geopolitical leverage, it imperils regional stability.

Further complicating matters are the swirling allegations surrounding Hunter Biden’s lobbying endeavors in favor of the BNP. The BNP has been instrumental in fomenting anti-American sentiment, endorsing terrorism, and promoting militancy.

The US State Department’s imposition of visa restrictions on Bangladesh is thought to be influenced by Hunter Biden’s lobbying for the BNP – a perplexing move, considering the BNP’s recent classification as an “undesignated tier-3 terrorist organization” by a US court.

The Biden administration’s backing of the BNP, a party designated as a tier-3 terrorist organization by the United States, has elicited concern from various sectors. Such endorsement could potentially turn Bangladesh into a sanctuary for extremist ideologies. ■

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research-scholar, and editor of Blitz, a newspaper publishing from Bangladesh since 2003. He regularly writes for local and international newspapers. Follow him on X @Salah_Shoaib