The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh
Asia Report N°187
1 Mar 2010
Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a terrorist organisation, remains active and dangerous despite the decimation of its ranks over the last five years. Its links to the Pakistan group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) remain a particularly serious concern. Since its coordinated bombing attack across the country on 17 August 2005, police have arrested hundreds of JMB members; they have also executed every member of its original leadership, including its founder, Shaikh Abdur Rahman. Its last successful attack was in January 2006. The state has succeeded in tackling the Islamist extremist threat to the extent that organisations such as JMB are struggling to survive. But the arrest of 95 JMB operatives since October 2008 and discoveries of huge caches of explosives demonstrate that JMB was able to regroup, recruit and raise funds. No one should take its demise for granted: the possibility of another attack remains, and the government should move quickly to create a planned police-led counter-terrorism force. It should also step up counter-terrorism cooperation, particularly with neighbouring India.
The crackdown after the 2005 bombings yielded a wealth of new data, much of it from court documents, about JMB’s origins, aims, training, funding and leadership. While Shaikh Abdur Rahman deliberately sought out contacts with Pakistan-based jihadi organisations, including al-Qaeda and LeT, his goal from the beginning was the establishment of Islamic rule in Bangladesh. He had no broader jihadi agenda, nor was he interested in indiscriminate civilian casualties. JMB focused its attacks on government offices, particularly courts and judges. It was set up with two wings, one for da’wah (religious outreach) stressing the need for Islamic law, and a military wing, whose members, called ehsar, underwent rigorous training. At its height in 2005, it may have had as many as 2,000 ehsar in nine regional divisions, with its stronghold in Rajshahi, in the country’s north west. Today, the number may be down to 250.
JMB initially had two main bases of recruitment: the network of mosques and schools associated with the Salafist organisation Ahle Hadith, and the youth wing of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, called Islamic Chatra Shabir (ICS). Family networks were also important, with members drawing in their brothers, sons and nephews. Within the top leadership, arranged marriages with women from top JMB families were instrumental in cementing solidarity. Since the 2005 crackdown, there has been less reliance on open da’wah meetings for fear of infiltration and more reliance on four madrasas run by JMB itself. There also appears to be an increase in recruiting from elite schools and universities.
Money was never a problem for JMB and even in its reduced circumstances it appears to have multiple sources of funding. After the crackdown it reduced its reliance on crop donations and a form of taxation in rural areas, again for fear of infiltration, but it draws on income from a number of local businesses. It also appears to rely heavily on donations from JMB members and supporters working in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In addition, its control of hundi operations – the system of sending money across borders without any electronic transactions that is also known as hawala – has been an important income-earner. The organisation is also involved in transnational crime: the arrest of a key leader in late 2008 revealed JMB’s involvement in a counterfeiting ring run by LeT across South Asia, and in arms smuggling across the Indian border.
JMB’s current strategy is to rebuild the organisation with a lower profile to gradually launch a Taliban-like military takeover of a district in the north west and use that as a base to establish Islamic law. Given its somewhat depleted resources and the new intelligence available to authorities following important arrests in 2008 and 2009, that goal seems wildly unrealistic. The one quality that the leadership has in abundance, however, is patience.
The danger from JMB is exacerbated by its links to other Bangladeshi and international jihadi groups and to members of the Bangladeshi diaspora in Britain. New information has revealed operational ties to LeT and to al-Muhajiroun, the groups whose members took part in the London underground bombings of July 2005. There has also been collaboration between JMB and a splinter of the once formidable but now diminished Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Bangladesh (HUJI-B).
Bangladesh’s political mainstream has long understood the danger posed by JMB but has either deliberately used it for narrow political ends, as during the coalition government led by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) from 2006 to 2007, or been distracted by other concerns. The current Awami League government is especially aware of the problem as its members have been victims of attacks. But internal wrangling, lack of coordination between security agencies and the absence of a single counter-terrorism force have undermined any sustained effort to dismantle the organisation.
Dhaka/Brussels, 1 March 2010