Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh: A Whirlwind in Formation
In the last 13 years, one of the significant achievements of the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh has been to maintain strict control over the growing Islamic radicalism in the country. She became prime minister for the second time in 2008 when religious radicalism was at its peak due to Bangladesh Nationalist Party's (BNP) alliance with fundamentalist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), unchecked external funding to Madarsas, and anti-minority and anti-secular policy of the BNP. The consolidation and proliferation of radical groups reflected when 459 bombs were detonated in 63 out of 64 district towns within seven minutes on August 17, 2005. Despite that, between 2005 to 2009, only four terrorist groups -- Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Shahadat-e al Hikma, were officially banned out of around 33 terrorist groups present in Bangladesh. More than 100 Islamic political parties and organisations were present at that time in the country.
As mandated in the party principles for upholding democracy and secularism, the Hasina government enacted the country's first anti-terrorism law in 2009, which was amended in 2013. This amendment took place after a series of attacks on secular bloggers, writers, publishers, cultural activists, and politicians. The amendment allowed the Courts to accept videos, still photographs and audio clips used in Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and other social media for trial cases. Moreover, the government previously formulated the Money Laundering Prevention Act, 2012, further shrinking the organisational growth of the fundamentalist groups, who were getting funds from external sources. Prime Minister Hasina declared a "zero-tolerance" policy after the July 2016 Holi Artisan cafe attack in which 29 people were killed, including five militants. This approach brought substantial control over the proliferation of fundamentalism in Bangladesh.
Although the Hasina government took strong measures, including arrests (on an average 150 cadres in a year since 2016), shirking of funding and recruitment sources, dismantling of training camps, neutralising online radical preaching and also soft approaches like counselling of cadres against some major fundamentalist organisations like JMB, Ansar al-Islam/Ansarullah Bangla Team, Allahar Dal, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), and Neo-JMB, interestingly, the Awami League (AL) went soft on the Hefajat-e-Islam (HeI).
There could be broadly three factors behind AL's engagement with the HeI despite knowing the latter's views on secularism, democracy, minorities and its linkages with external forces, including Pakistan. First, the AL needed a group with a strong grassroots presence to counter JeI. Second, former Amir of HeI, Late Allama Shah Ahmed Shafi, was considered a moderate leader with an excellent personal relationship with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Since the AL was targeting Islamist political groups associated with the BNP, it did not feel antagonised with HeI to keep the Ulemas divided. On the other hand, from Shafi's perspective, the tactics would have been to maintain a friendship with a potential challenger until the HeI emerges as a strategic balancer. The third factor could be, as one scholar has interpreted, the domination of 'Ulemas' in the domestic politics of Bangladesh.
Despite knowing the nuisance values of the HeI, these factors forced the AL to adopt a softer approach towards it, which later turned out to be a big mistake after the death of Shafi in September 2020 and when the control of the organisation went to racial fundamentalist leaders like Junaid Babunagari who has been opposing Shafi's reconciliatory approach towards AL despite the killing of around 50 HeI cadres by the police in the Shapla square incident in 2013.
Media sources claimed Junaid Babunagari to be a Hadith scholar who studied in Pakistan's Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia for four years. Multiple sources have confirmed that Babunagari and his groups have been in constant touch with the Pakistani mission in Dhaka and have also met with ISI agents in some cities of South-East Asia and the Gulf countries. Since the JeI was deregistered as a political party by the Supreme Court in 2013, Pakistan has been trying to use HeI to dethrone the AL government, which is ideologically against Islam as interpreted by contemporary Islamic radical groups active in Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, the Taliban, and the Gulf countries.
The new leaders of the HeI, who were waiting to show their popularity and control over the organisation and wanted to express their intention against the AL government, took advantage of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Dhaka on March 26, 2021. Prime Minister Modi undertook a two-day official visit to Dhaka to participate in the 50th Independence Day event. It also coincided with the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's founder and father of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The cadres of the Hefajat organised violent street demonstrations after holding Friday prayers in the mosques in Dhaka, Hathazari, Brahmanbaria, and other Hefazat dominated places. Around 13 cadres of the HeI were killed in police firing. Hundreds of the organisations were arrested for a series of violent demonstrations organised by the HeI in several parts of the country.
Evolution and linkages of HeI
Evidence indicates that the HeI was formed in 2010 with its headquarters at Hathizara in Chittagong district when a politico-cultural vacuum was created due to strong actions by the AL government under the counter-terrorism law and reopening of the war crimes trials against the BNP-led alliance partners. The AL government set up a special tribunal on March 25, 2010, to trial "war criminals" accused of genocide and those who sided with the Pakistani military during the 'Liberation War'.
Although the HeI was formed officially in 2010, its conceptual and structural inception perhaps began clandestinely sometime during the BNP regime with the support of Pakistan as a plan-B in case the mainstream Islamic political parties either failed or were neutralised by the State. Otherwise, an organisation like HeI cannot mobilise many people in just three years and sustain protests in the big cities for such a long period. To note, in 2013, HeI organised a huge rally across the country and placed a 13-point demand before the government. This rally proved how HeI has become a big party in a short period, with increased capability to hold rallies for days across the country.
Media reports said that the Bangladeshi government has been looking into the role played by Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka in supporting and funding the agitation and embarrassing the Sheikh Hasina government. Also, several MPs from the Bangladeshi parliament had tweeted suggesting links between HeI and the Pakistan High Commission and the ISI before PM Modi visited Dhaka in March 2021.
During the investigation, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) on May 5 gathered that the Hefajat militants plan to create a Taliban state in Bangladesh, similar to Afghanistan. During interrogations, the militants have also revealed that several JeI and Hefajat leaders are linked with the militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Pakistan. The militant leaders also say that they are against the values of the 1971 Liberation War. Besides, the police claimed that it has also collected various evidence connected to Hei's Islamist activities. According to Mahbubur Rahman, the present Joint Commissioner of DMP, "Mamunul Huque and Harun Izhar, the Islamist radicals, led the massacres and anarchy to oust the government headed by Sheikh Hasina, mostly funded by the militant outfit of Pakistan."
Other than Pakistan, HeI has been getting regular funds from the Middle East through Bangladeshi expatriates. In a press statement on May 30, 2021, the detective branch of Bangladesh policy said, "Mamunul Haque, the former joint secretary-general of Hefajat, transacted around Tk 6 crore within a year. Police also found details of multiple bank accounts maintained by Monir Hossain Kashemi, the financial affair secretary of the recently dissolved Hefajat committee."
Therefore, available Bangladeshi media sources indicate that HeI has been ideologically and financially supported by Pakistan and also certain groups in the Gulf countries. Over a period of time, it has developed strong grassroots level cadres beyond Chittagong. Given its support base and ideological inclination to bring Bangladesh under strict Islamic law, it would be a challenging task for the Hasina government to take strong action against its cadres, both for political and security reasons. Despite the government arresting its top leaders and imposing a ban on its central committee in April this year, the outfit has quickly formed a new central committee with Junaid Babunagari as it Ameer on June 7, 2021. Most importantly, the announcement was made in Dhaka, far from its dominant territory. Although the HeI claims to be an apolitical organisation, it retains the ability to exert influence in the domestic politics of Bangladesh in a big way in future given its Islamic ideology, strong organisational structure, committed and indoctrinated cadres and support from the external forces.
 For further details, see, Paul Cochrane, “The Funding Methods of Bangladeshi Terrorist Groups, CTC Sentinel, Vol. 2 (5), May 2009, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-funding-methods-of-bangladeshi-terrorist-groups/
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The article is part of South Asia Conflict Monitor, June 2021