While the United States dithers, a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement linked to Al-Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence agencies are steadily converting strategically located Bangladesh into a new regional hub for terrorist operations that reach into India and Southeast Asia, according to noted South Asia expert Selig S Harrison.
For Pakistan's intelligence agencies, especially Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the legacy of the 1971 independence war has been a built-in network of agents within the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party and its affiliates who can be utilised to harass India along its 4,000-km border with Bangladesh, he says in an article published on Wednesday in the Washington Post.
In addition to supporting tribal separatist groups in northeast India, ISI uses Bangladesh as a base for helping Islamic extremists inside India, wrote Harrison, now director of the Asia programme at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
After the July 11 train bombings in Mumbai, a top Indian police official, KP Raghuvanshi, said that his key suspects "have connections with groups in Nepal and Bangladesh, which are directly or indirectly connected to Pakistan", he noted.
Similarly, a State Department report cited evidence that one of the Jamaat's main allies, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami, also headquartered in Pakistan, "maintains contact with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan."
Bangladesh Harkat leader Fazlul Rahman was one of the six signatories of Osama bin Laden's first declaration of holy war against the United States, on February 23, 1998. Since the October 2002 Bali bombings led to repression of Al-Qaeda, some of its Indonesian and Malaysian cells have shifted their operations to Bangladesh, Harrison said.
What makes future prospects in Bangladesh especially alarming is that the Jamaat and its allies appear to be penetrating the higher ranks of the armed forces, he said, citing the recent appointment of Maj Gen Mohammed Aminul Karim as military secretary to President Iajuddin Ahmed and that of Brig Gen ATM Amin as director of the Armed Forces Intelligence Anti-Terrorism Bureau.
Journalists in Bangladesh cannot write freely about the Jamaat without facing death threats or assassination attempts, Harrison said citing the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which has published extensive dossiers documenting 68 death threats and dozens of bombing attacks that have injured at least eight journalists.
"We are alarmed by the growing pattern of intimidation of journalists by Islamic groups in Bangladesh," the committee said recently. "As a result of its alliance with the Jamaat-Islamiyah, the Government appears to lack the ability or will to protect journalists from this new and grave threat."
But the Bush Administration has yet to speak with comparable candour, Harrison said, with the US ambassador calling Bangladesh "an exceptional moderate Muslim state" on July 13.
The latest State Department annual report on terrorism also mentioned only one of the three Jamaat militias as a terrorist group and avoided direct criticism of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for its coalition with the Jamaat, referring only to the "serious political constraints" that explain the government's "limited success" in countering "escalating" terrorist violence, he noted.
The US and other donors gave Bangladesh $1.4 billion in aid last year. There is still time for the administration to use aid leverage and trade concessions to promote a fair election by calling openly and forcefully for non-partisan control of the Election Commission and the caretaker government, Harrison said.
In addition to implicitly threatening an aid cut-off if it is rebuffed, the administration should offer the powerful incentive of duty-free textile imports from Bangladesh if Prime Minister Khaleda Zia cooperates.
In Pakistan, the US has been gingerly pushing Gen Pervez Musharraf for democratic elections because it needs the limited but significant support he is giving against Al-Qaeda and fears what might come after him.
But what is the excuse for inaction in Bangladesh, where the incumbent government coddles Islamic extremists and a strong secular party is ready to govern? he asked.
With 147 million people, largely Muslim Bangladesh has substantial Hindu and Christian minorities and is nominally a secular democracy, but the BNP struck a Faustian bargain with the fundamentalist Jamaat five years ago in order to win power, Harrison wrote.
In return for the votes in parliament needed to form a coalition government, Prime Minister Zia has looked the other way as the Jamaat has systematically filled sensitive civil service, police, intelligence and military posts with its sympathisers, he said.
The Jamaat sympathisers have in turn looked the other way as Jamaat-sponsored guerrilla squads patterned after the Taliban have operated with increasing impunity in many rural and urban areas, he added.
The BNP argues that coalition rule helps moderates in the Jamaat to combat Islamic extremist factions, he said.
But the reality is that Jamaat inroads in the government security machinery at all levels, starting with Home Secretary Muhammad Omar Farooq, widely regarded as close to the Jamaat, have opened the way for suicide bombings, political assassinations and harassment of the Hindu minority.
It had also brought about an unchecked influx of funds from Islamic charities in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to Jamaat-oriented madrassas (religious schools) that in some cases are fronts for terrorist activity, Harrison said.