May 1, 2007

Bangladesh: Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

Stratfor looks at the latest jihadi terror bombings in Bangladesh.

Three bombs exploded at train stations in Bangladesh's capital of Dhaka, its main port of Chittagong and the northeastern city of Sylhet on May 1. The previously unknown group Jadid (meaning "new") al Qaeda Bangladesh claimed responsibility for the attacks, which injured one rickshaw puller.

While the bombings were small in scale, they shared many features with larger, more destructive attacks carried out elsewhere by militant groups operating in India as well as jihadist groups. Given the incompetence of Bangladesh's security forces, the South Asian country's political instability and the relatively free reign enjoyed by militant groups operating there, it is unlikely much can be done to prevent future attacks by Jadid al Qaeda Bangladesh.

Jadid al Qaeda Bangladesh claimed responsibility for the bombings in leaflets and inscribed metal plates left at the Dhaka and Sylhet stations. According to Bangladeshi officials, the messages said "Stop associating with nonbelievers. Stop working for NGOs by May 10. Or prepare for death." Written in Bengali, but signed in English, the messages demanded that "If Hazrat (Prophet) Mohammed is not declared the superman of the world by May 10, all nongovernmental organizations will be blown up."

The warning against associating with nonbelievers was a reference to the Ahmadiyah sect, a heterodox Islamic offshoot considered heretical by mainstream Muslim groups. Sunni extremists have targeted this group in the past. Many conservative Islamic groups in Bangladesh oppose nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in part because they are funded by Western donors and employ women workers, while some NGOs involved in AIDS work have been targeted in the because they are associated with "un-Islamic" issues and behavior.

Mass transit has been a favorite target of militant groups because of the soft nature of the target and the guarantee of a high casualty count. This was evident in al Qaeda's March 2004 attack on commuter trains in Madrid, the July 2005 bombings in London, and the bombings of commuter trains and stations in Mumbai, India, one year later. Militants in South Asia have been paying particular attention to trains since the Mumbai attacks, with hoaxes and threats called in to railway stations as well as actual attacks on trains.

The spread of these tactics in Bangladesh also comes at a time of increasing Islamization of militant groups operating in northeast India. Although Jadid al Qaeda Bangladesh appears to follow the tactical doctrine of al Qaeda and Kashmiri Islamist militant groups operating in India, its attack was much smaller is scope and fell far short of the effectiveness of the more established groups.

The attack occurred at approximately 7 a.m. local time, when large numbers of commuters could be expected to generate a high casualty count. Given that May 1 is a public holiday in Bangladesh, traffic was higher than usual, with the stations packed with people traveling to visit family during the two-day holiday. This attack's timing is consistent with the tactics of jihadists, who often time their attacks to maximize death and destruction.

The Dhaka bomb was planted near the station ticket counter, the Sylhet station bomb was placed under a seat in the waiting room and the bomb in Chittagong exploded on a sidewalk outside the station as a rickshaw puller tried to open the small cotton bag it was hidden in.

If Jadid al Qaeda Bangladesh is in fact a new group, its first attack proves the group possesses at least one competent bomb maker. This was established by the near-simultaneous detonation of multiple bombs separated by great distances. Whether other improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set to go off at the same time elsewhere ultimately failed to detonate remains unknown -- but if this attack only targeted the three stations, the bombmaker earned a 100 percent success rate.

The group also seems reluctant to cause mass casualties. Despite exploding at crowded stations, the IEDs failed to kill anyone, while the rickshaw puller, who had one of the devices explode in his face, only suffered slight injuries. This is consistent with some -- but by no means all -- earlier bombings in Bangladesh.

Previous small bombings in Bangladesh notably included the 2005 bombing campaign by the outlawed Islamist group Jamaat al Mujahideen. In August of that year the group detonated more than 200 small devices across the country, killing three people and injuring more than 100. In November of the same year it attacked courthouses in Dhaka, killing at least 13 and wounding approximately 40.

Bangladesh's security forces are ill-equipped to deal with militant groups. Thus, Jadid al Qaeda Bangladesh might succeed in carrying out more, possibly bigger bombings if their May 10 deadline is not met. While mass arrests could disrupt the group's cells, Bangladeshi security forces' ineptitude combined with the country's unstable political situation make it unlikely much can be done to stop the country's many militant groups.[Stratfor]

So, finally the chickens have come home to roost in Bangladesh too. Bangladesh is now paying the price for electing Begum Khaleda Zia as its PM who happily hobnobbed with jihadi groups and also let them have a free run during her regime.

If as Stratfor states, Bangladesh is ill-equipped to deal with militant groups then India should offer full support to the current administration in the fight against jihadi terror. As Bangladesh is also the base for terror groups targeting India, particularly India Northeast, a sincere cooperation between the two countries can mitigate the threat of jihadi terror to both countries significantly.

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