Bangladesh: Turning into another Afghanistan?

Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan(We would all be Taliban, and Bangladesh would be Afghanistan). This slogan of the Bangladesh’s main Islamist extremist group, Harkat-ul-Jehad-ul-Islami (HuJI) has to be taken seriously by India. Not strictly in the literal sense, but what Afghanistan was a couple of years ago, Bangladesh could become to the rest of world and India would be the worst affected. This process of transformation from ‘Bengali to extremist Islamist nationalism’ in Bangladesh would inadvertently impact on regions beyond its boundaries. Currently, use of its territories along the borders with Myanmar and India by various extremist groups, including the Islamists for procurement of arms and other logistics, and training their cadres is what makes one compare the conditions in the country to those existing during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It is in this context that one should place the seizure of a huge cache of arms and ammunition in Chittagong Hills Tracts (CHT), on 2 April 2004. The seizure included 1,290 AK series rifles, 1.1 million rounds, 25,020 grenades, 840 rockets, and night vision goggles and silencers for guns. The haul, containing boxes reportedly bearing ‘made in China’ labels, is considered enough to arm a battalion in a modern army.

The international media is still debating how the movement of the contraband through the Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Limited (CUFL) jetty area along the Karnaphuli river conspired, its possible origin and destination. However, security analysts, including those within Bangladesh are convinced that it was not a possible destination. For instance, Brig. Gen. (Retd.) Shahedul Anam Khan, former director general of Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) believes that ‘these were destined for a third country’, and ‘we are not aware of the existence of such a well-manned and well-trained underground set up, capable of not only absorbing the quantum of the materiel brought in, but also proficient in the use and handling of the weapons that were seized’. He further argues, ‘Whoever it was meant for is well-organized and trained to indulge in open hostility… We are not aware of any such groups operating in Bangladesh at this moment either’. For the same reason Myanmar or Bhutan also could not have been destinations.

This leaves terrorist groups operating in various parts of India, Maoist insurgents of Nepal and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka as the suspected recipients of the contraband arms. Among them, the LTTE is not known to, and least likely to adopt the sea route for arms procurement through the Bay of Bengal, a process that would also involve confronting at least four navies in the region, those of India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Further, the outfit is already reported to have gathered weapons during the peacetime since signing of the ceasefire agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) on 22 February 2002. In addition, such an act would be complicated by the presence of international monitoring groups led by Norway. The recent split among the leaders–LTTE chief Prabhakaran and his subordinate V Muralitharan a.k.a. ‘Col. Karuna’ is another factor that rules out LTTE as the end-user, for the moment. On the other hand, not less than 60 insurgent groups active in Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir (J and K) in India are known to be using such weapons. The Northeastern insurgent outfits have procured weapons in such manner in the past. They are also reported to be regrouping following the recent counter-terrorism operation by Bhutan against three of them. However, value of the contraband is estimated to be between Rs.2,000 to Rs.3,000 million and a report has also suggested the alleged ‘coordination between northeastern insurgent outfits and those from J and K’. Various militant and leftwing extremist groups in India also have linkages with the Maoist insurgents of Nepal. Thus, Indian insurgent groups and leftwing extremist groups in the region could have been the possible end-users. Even if the speculation that LTTE, too, could have been a recipient is correct, then does it mean that Bangladesh has become a country that all South Asian insurgent groups use as a transit for weaponry?

The coordination needed for moving such a huge contraband at enormous ‘cost’ requires that involvement of hitherto ‘invisible’ actor behind the incident should be probed. Reports have also suggested involvement of ‘corrupt’ local officials and politicians in the incident. Here the demand of the Bangladesh opposition leader, Awami League president Sheikh Hasina for an international probe into the incident sounds logical. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi authorities have rejected the allegation by Chittagong mayor, A B M Mohinuddin Choudhury that the contraband was ‘shipped from USA and Pakistan to arm Indian rebels camped in CHT’. The mayor’s allegation may appear lacking substance. However, the Mujahideen, too, were allegedly armed and trained in Afghanistan by Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), with active support from the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).