Impact of developments in Afghanistan on Bangladesh

Bangladesh has traditionally been impacted by developments in Afghanistan, which has influenced the radical Islamic matrix and the violent extremism narrative in Bangladesh over a period of time.

During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979-1989, large number of Bangladeshis participated alongside the Afghan Mujahideen in the fight against Soviet forces. A well-oiled mechanism was put in place whereby aspiring Bangladeshis could smoothly find their way to Afghanistan.

According to various estimates, around 3,000 Bangladeshis participated in the conflict against the Soviet Union. According to certain estimates, Bangladeshi cadres performed well and some even went on to become commanders of small Mujahideen units.

Reports also indicate that there was a direct connection between the so-called “Bengali Mujahideen” and Osama bin Laden from time to time.

The Bangladeshi cadres were more interested in ensuring sustenance of the concept of Jihad beyond Afghanistan even after the Soviet Troops withdrew in 1989.

Their contention was that the concept of Jihad, which was an outcome of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, should not die and instead be proliferated in different parts of south Asia. Their dedication and commitment to the cause of Jihad drew the attention of senior Mujahideen commanders to focus on Bangladesh and the region. They were keen that the Rohingyas should be defended under any circumstances with their plight forming a basis for Jihad.

Significantly, one of the main Bangladesh-based militant organisations, the Harkal-ul-Jehad-al-Islami of Bangladesh (Huji-B), was founded by a Bangladeshi national, Abdur Rehman Farooqi, in Afghanistan.

At the end of the Soviet war, those who survived returned back to Bangladesh and organised the Bangladesh chapter of Huji-B in 1992.

The Huji-B has been responsible for several targeted attacks in Bangladesh and became known as a major terror group in the country throughout the 1990s. With the government clamping down on such groups, the Huji-B was somewhat quiet for some time, leading some to think that the group had dissipated.

However, as recently as October 2019, Dhaka police arrested three senior Huji-B operatives in the capital, who were reportedly engaged in reviving Huji-B’s operations in Bangladesh.

Interestingly, all the three detained were lead members of JMB and have had battle experience in Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet war.

Around 30 or more cadres of the group are yet in hiding in different parts of the country. Of the three detained, Muhammad Atikullah had held several meetings with jihadist leaders in Afghanistan during the late 1990s.

Bangladesh security agencies claim that Atikullah held meetings with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden and began working in Bangladeshi mosques and madrassas to raise awareness among locals on Jihadi sentiments.

The Huji-B is also known for indulging in criminal activities and gun running in order to sustain itself. The group’s influence in Myanmarwas evident with the formation of HUJI (Arakan) which was active for some years and has the potential of being revived given the prevailing situation in Myanmar.

Subsequently, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), founded in 1998 on the ideological pattern of Taliban and Al-Qaeda, became a more effective terror entity undertaking simultaneous blasts in 525 locations across various districts in Bangladesh in August 2005.

Just as the Huji-B, the JMB has remained inactive for some time though their footprints have been found in India lately.

In July 2021, three neo-JMB terrorists were arrested in Kolkata where they had arrived to form local modules. There have been indications of JMB cadres moving to Kashmir as well as other locations in the country, which is a cause for serious concern.

The porous border between India and Bangladesh allows them the flexibility of free movement across for shelter and undertaking operational activities.

With the rise of ISIS, large number of Bangladeshi fighters joined the ISIS and contributed towards enhancing the image and impression of cadres from Bangladesh.

The relevance of Bangladeshis in the ISIS was evident from the fact that the ISIS published a highly sophisticated magazine in Bengali indicating the desire in ISIS circles to recruit more cadres from Bangladesh. ISIS has spent considerable amount expecting to build a firm base in Bangladesh.

The JMB’s links with the ISIS led to the latter laying claims to certain terrorist action in Bangladesh as undertaken by the ISIS.

Given this background and linkages between Afghanistan and Bangladesh, there is a huge propensity among radical elements in Bangladesh to revive the radical Islamic narrative in Bangladesh based on the latest Taliban victory in Afghanistan.

Elements belonging to these entities have been projecting the idea that the return of the Taliban was a sign of victory of Islam and hence radical groups in Bangladesh need to come together on a common platform to highlight the relevance of Jihad and the contribution made by the Bangladeshis in Afghanistan over the years. This is to trigger congruence of radical forces with the help of local support.

However, following a long phase of targeted killings of prominent figures from the minority community and also the famous terror incident of Artesan Bakery, there is a realisation in Bangladeshi society that radicalisation is a poison that could ruin Bangladesh.

There have been concerted efforts on the part of the Bangladeshi society at large to stand up against such negative rhetoric. In doing so, they have supported the government’s efforts towards securing the people of Bangladesh from getting swayed by such toxic and venomous radical ideology.

As the Taliban take over reins in Afghanistan, the intellectuals and well-meaning citizens of Bangladesh would expectedly extend their support to the Bangladesh government in staving off any fall out of the developments in Afghanistan.

There is a consensus among the larger cross section of Bangladeshi population that the people of Bangladesh have a promising future in terms of national growth and development and Bangladeshis have strived hard to bring the nation to a high degree of self-reliance based on a strong and robust economic framework.

There is no doubt that Bangladesh is a changed society today with a modern liberal outlook which would enable the country to defend itself against any external threats.