NEW DELHI, March 2 (UPI) -- Inside the Research and Analysis Wing, India's shadowy but influential intelligence service, this week's sentencing of 21 people to death in Bangladesh in connection with last year's wave of 500 coordinated bombings was greeted with a mixture of relief and skepticism.
The relief came because the sentences were an important sign that the ruling coalition government in Bangladesh was at last taking the threat of Islamic and jihadist extremism seriously. The skepticism came because the sentences were evidently timed to coincide with President Bush's visit to India, when India was preparing to present the visiting U.S. president with a large dossier of evidence suggesting that Bangladesh was about to become "the next Afghanistan."
The dossier, which has been seen by United Press International, notes that the Bangladeshi government seems only to move firmly against jihadist terrorist movements when international pressure reaches a peak. The government's decision to ban three Islamist organizations, the JBM, JMJB and AHAB, came in February last year, on the day that foreign aid donors were meeting in Washington to review aid to Bangladesh in the light of the country's grim human rights record and the jihadist threat.
The 21 people sentenced to death were all members of a banned Islamic militant group, the JMB (Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh), but only 18 of the prisoners were in court. Three of the group's leaders, including two who had been trained in Afghanistan and had close links with al-Qaida, were sentenced in their absence.
This is the first verdict from last August's serial bombings, which saw over 500 blasts in all but one of Bangladesh's 64 districts, carefully coordinated to take place within a single hour. Earlier this month, the JMB's top leaders, Sheikh Abdur Rahman and Siddiqul Islam, alias Bangla Bhai, were sentenced in absentia to 40 years in prison for a bomb attack that killed two judges last November.
What troubles Indian intelligence officials is first that the governing coalition in Bangladesh includes Islamist parties that are sympathetic to some of the Jihadist groups, and second, that the groups depend on financing from Islamic charities based in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Abdur Rahman, the leader of JMB, studied at Madina Islamic University in Saudi Arabia, and worked at the Saudi Embassy in Bangladesh from 1985 to 1989. The RAW dossier that is to be given to the American officials traveling with President Bush claims that the JMB has recruited a special organization of suicide bombers called the Shahid Nasirullah Arafat Brigade, whose members get monthly salaries while in training and whose family are promised substantial sums after the "act of martyrdom."
The Indian dossier claims the JMB gets funding from the Kuwait-based RIHS (Revival of Islamic Heritage Society), the Rabata al Alam al-Islami, and the al-Hamain Foundation.
There is no direct evidence that these groups were aware that they were funding violence or terrorism. RAW officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told UPI that "Arabian charities have in the past proved gullible to funding requests from groups outside the Arab world who claim to be seeking funds for religious education, while keeping quiet about their readiness to resort to political violence."
The Indian dossier also claims that Ahle Hadis (AHAB), a branch of the Saudi-based Wahhabi puritan sect of Islam, whose leader in Bangladesh, Asadullah Galib, is now in jail, also gets funds from RIHS and from Saudi Islamic charities. AHAB operates openly in Bangladesh, with 42 offices and some 700 mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools) around the country.
The dossier goes on to track the backgrounds and training of Bangladeshi Jihadist activists in Afghanistan under the Taliban, in Palestinian-run training camps in Lebanon, in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and in Chechnya. The dossier specifies direct links with al-Qaida and with the Kashmir-based Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist organizations.
"When al-Qaida's remaining militants fled Afghanistan after the U.S.-backed military operations overthrew the Taliban, several of the militants ended up in Bangladesh, where they reformed and regrouped and have now built significant operational bases and an influential political movement that preaches an openly Taliban-style program to turn Bangladesh into an Islamist state," a senior RAW official told UPI in a rare briefing of a foreign journalist.
"We have accumulated a list of 573 registered Islamic NGOs in Bangladesh that are linked to Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and we have tracked funding of over $80 million a year, although this is just the tip of the iceberg. This kind of money has a major political impact in Bangladesh," the RAW official went on. "Some of this money is clearly being diverted into the purchase of arms and ammunition."
Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia told parliament last September that her ruling BNP party had allied itself only with "those religious parties that support democracy and our constitution." She also told parliament that there was no evidence of Taliban or al-Qaida militants in Bangladesh, and than any such claims were being promoted by the political opposition in order to create splits and division within the governing coalition.
"The religious parties have made an important contribution to maintaining social integrity and harmony," she said. "There is no allegation against them."
But the Indian dossier and Indian claims that radical Jihadists are well entrenched in Bangladesh is likely to get a sympathetic hearing from the U.S. security officials who are accompanying President Bush to Delhi. Senior U.S officials have already expressed their own concerns.
"There have been several seizures of arms. There were some arms shipments. They were not going to the military, they were not going to any group that is up to do good," the U.S. Commander in Chief for the Pacific, Admiral William Fallon, told a Bangladesh press confidence during his visit last year.
"We know there are people who preach radicalism, who use religion for their own method," Admiral Fallon added. "They look for areas of unrest, they look for weaknesses. When the pressure is applied in some areas, they move to others. So, our concern is that there may be some movement that might try to take advantage of Bangladesh."