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The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh
The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Report 187 / Asia

The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh

Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a terrorist organisation, remains active and dangerous despite the decimation of its ranks over the last five years.

Executive Summary

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

Op-Ed / Asia

Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership

Originally published in Asia Times

In August 2017, the flight of 700,000 Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar produced the world’s newest refugee crisis – and one of its worst. Now stuck in miserable camps in Bangladesh, the Rohingya have little prospect of returning to their homes any time soon.

Their suffering is primarily a grave humanitarian concern and the Bangladeshi government and its foreign partners should focus their response on protecting the well-being of those displaced and assisting host communities. But the Rohingya’s plight also raises a so far unspoken question: Will they wait patiently to return in a safe and dignified manner – for now an unrealistic goal – or will the main militant organization in their midst lead them to pursue their goals with violence?

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) formed in 2012 in the wake of strife among Buddhists and Rohingya in Myanmar’s underdeveloped and conflict-ridden northern Rakhine state. The group leveraged the anger and desperation of Rohingya facing daily oppression as an ethnic and religious minority. Through communal leaders, ARSA propagated a message of hope while in fact bolstering its position via a combination of claims to religious legitimacy and fear.

The militants are now attempting to re-establish themselves as a political voice in the Bangladesh camps. But it’s not too late for the refugees to establish non-militant leadership and self-governance.

ARSA does have sympathizers in the camps, but its authority is less clear than before the mass exodus. In the view of many Rohingya, it was ARSA’s attacks on Myanmar police that provoked the country’s brutal, indiscriminate military campaign forcing them into exile. Foreign governments and human-rights organizations have branded this campaign as ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.

Not all refugees hold ARSA responsible for the calamity that befell them. Some adopt the view that, whether or not ARSA’s attacks had taken place, the Myanmar authorities would have found a way to drive the Rohingya from their land.

The Rohingya’s plight is likely to worsen before it improves ... While Bangladesh has thus far been hospitable to the refugees, the political climate could easily turn against them, particularly in the event of ARSA violence on Bangladeshi soil.

But ARSA was also responsible for killings of civilians, both Rohingya and their Hindu neighbors, as it sought to eliminate perceived informants. After careful analysis, Amnesty International concludedthat ARSA massacred dozens of Hindu villagers in August 2017. The group exposed Rohingya civilians to Myanmar’s massively disproportionate response. Its militants did not wear uniforms or do anything else to distinguish themselves from the civilian population, and they launched attacks from the cover of villages.

Since the refugee exodus, ARSA has continued its insurgency, claiming responsibility for an attack on a Myanmar convoy in January. It has also been linked to several killings in the camps.

In October last year, 47 Rohingya religious scholars issued a fatwa condemning any act of jihad, even for self-defense, against Myanmar. But Crisis Group’s May report suggests that this ruling does not necessarily mean the Rohingya have abandoned ARSA or the idea of violent resistance. First, it was issued at the height of the exodus, when the scholars sought to reassure Bangladesh that the refugees were not a security threat. Second, it did not categorically reject violence, but rather denounced particular tactics the signatories viewed as premature or misguided.

Factors other than opposition to violence could hinder ARSA from representing the Rohingya. Village populations that once backed the militants are now scattered across the camps, new leaders (majhis) are emerging and the “common enemy” that ARSA rallied against – the Myanmar security forces – is far away across the border. Most refugees are preoccupied with the daily struggle to establish basic standards of living in the camps.

Nor does it appear that transnational jihadist groups – that is, groups such as al-Qaeda in the South Asian subcontinent, Islamic State (ISIS) or their Bangladeshi affiliates – have been able to exploit the Rohingya crisis to mobilize or recruit in the camps. While concerns this might happen are legitimate given the security landscape in Bangladesh, there is no evidence that it is occurring, nor that a counterterrorism lens is useful for understanding the evolving situation in the camps.

The Bangladeshi authorities appear to share this assessment. Moreover, ARSA itself has always sought to distance itself from transnational groups.

But the Rohingya’s plight is likely to worsen before it improves. The monsoon season has arrived, threatening the camps with flooding. While Bangladesh has thus far been hospitable to the refugees, the political climate could easily turn against them, particularly in the event of ARSA violence on Bangladeshi soil.

The Rohingya need a non-violent leadership who can work to ensure their safe and voluntary return to their homeland.