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The Infrastructure of Terror in Bangladesh

By Hiranmay Karlekar

23 July 2016

The recent arrest of three persons, including a professor of the North South University, highlights the fact that Bangladesh's educational institutions need to be thoroughly investigated for terrorist links

The arrest on July 16 of Professor Gias Uddin Ahsan, Dean of the School of Health and Life Sciences, and acting

Pro-Vice Chancellor, North South University (NSU), one of Bangladesh’s best-known private universities, underlines a harsh fact — a thorough scanning and overhaul of Bangladesh’s educational institutions is needed for halting the drift of young students from well-known schools, colleges and universities, toward organisations like the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, Al Qaeda, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, Ansar al-Islam (erstwhile Ansarullah Bangla Team) and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Professor Ahsan and two of his associates, have been arrested for renting out his flat, and not informing the police about the fact of its being rented out and details of the tenants. The flat was subsequently used by the perpetrators of the terror attack at Holey Artisan Bakery and O Kitchen restaurant in Dhaka on July 1, a Press release by Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) on July 16 said that a probe “has found that the militants gathered at Flat-A/6, House-3, Block-E on Road-6. The associates of the militants rented the flat in May. Following the Gulshan café attack, the associates fled the flat.” According to the police, they also found a carton loaded with sand which, they suspected, was used to store the grenades used in the

July 1 Attack

The DMP started keeping records of house-owners and tenants from November, 2016, and, on February 29, 2016, Dhaka’s police commissioner had formally requested people to provide the required “identification information” by March 15. Earlier, on March 13, the Bangladesh High Court had upheld the DMP’s right to collect such information and take any step under its rules and regulations of 2006 to prevent terrorism and militant activity in Dhaka.

Besides professor Ahsan’s arrest, NSU’s role has come under increasing scrutiny because of the activities of some of its students and faculty members. Nibras Islam, one of the six identified as those attacking the Holey Artisan Bakery and killed by the police in the encounter that followed, was one of its students. One of those taken hostage but released later by the attackers, Hasanat Reza Karim, taught at the university at one stage. His whereabouts are unknown. The police, who had taken him into custody, say that he is no longer with them; nor has he returned to his family. Two of the 10 youths, Mohammad Basharuzzaman and Junnun Shikdar, listed by the police as missing — and suspected to have terrorist links — after the restaurant attack, were students of NSU.

Abir Rahman, one of those who attacked a police post guarding Bangladesh’s largest Eid prayer congregation at Sholakia in Kishoreganj on July, 7, 2016, and was killed, was a student of NSU. The attack, which was repelled, led to three deaths besides Abir’s — two of policemen and one of a woman bystander. The university’s salience in terms of terrorism, however, dates back to 2012 when Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, who, following his confession, was convicted on the charge of attempting to blow up the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and of coming to the United States for waging jihad. He was also a student of NSU before leaving for the US. In Bangladesh, all young men —Sadman Yasir Mamun, Faisal Bin Nayeem Dwip, Ehsan Reza Rumman, Maksudul Hasan Anik, Nayeem Irad and Nafiz Imtiaz —arrested for killing the blogger and Ganajagaran Mancha activist, Ahmed Rajib Haidar, in 2013, were its students.

The University has suspended professor Ahsan after his arrest. Earlier, it had dismissed four teachers for their links with the terrorist outfit, Hizb ut-Tahrir. Its vice chancellor, Professor Atiq ul Islam, has termed militancy as “cancer” and said that the university would root it out from the campus. The authorities, he has said, wanted to work closely with the Government and the law-enforcing agencies; no one was above suspicion and everyone would be under surveillance.

All this notwithstanding, speculation continues as to whether the NSU has become a spawning ground of Islamist terrorism. Bangladesh’s University Grants Commission sent a four-member team to its campus on July 14 as a part of its investigation of the university’s link with terrorism. Much will depend on its findings. But then it is not just the NSU. Recent developments in Bangladesh have brought under the authorities’ scanner, the role of all private universities, numbering 95, of which 85, with over 4, 60,000 students, are conducting academic activities.

The matter is of particular relevance. During the tenure (2001-2006) of the second coalition Government headed by Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the cradle of fundamentalist Islamist terrorism in the country and a coalition partner, had tried systematically to flood the country’s educational institutions with its nominees. One can get an idea of the developments from a report by Ekramul Huq Bulbul and Masud Milad in the Bengali daily Prathom Alo of August 12, 2004. It reads in its English translation by this writer:

“The allegation has been levelled of the jamaatification of the Chittagong University by violating all rules. Most applicants were not appointed as teachers despite getting four first classes in their educational life. Yet there has been the unprecedented occurrence of appointment of the supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami, a partner in the present four-party coalition Government, despite their being without a single first class.”

The report further stated that investigations by Prathom Alo revealed that of the 122 teachers appointed during this period, 57 had been appointed by ignoring the recommendations of the Departmental Planning Committee and the number of posts advertised. It cited a leader of the BNP-supported Democratic Teachers’ Forum, Abdul Moktader, as saying, “We are now in a minority. The university has become devoid of intellectual excellence as a result of wholesale and irregular appointment of Jamaat-supported teachers.”

Besides large-scale appointment of Jamaat supporters in universities, Government assistance led to a proliferation of madrasas, which have often been nurseries of Jihadis. Thus, between 2001 and 2005, the number of general education institutions and madrasas receiving Government funds increased by 9.7 per cent and 22.22 per cent respectively! Jamaat and its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, also set up a number of coaching institutions, libraries, hostel besides giving books and cash assistance to students from disprivileged backgrounds to win them over.

While a number of top leaders of the Jamaat have been executed, sentenced to death or imprisoned on charges of war crimes, the educational and financial infrastructure created by the Jamaat remains largely intact. Fundamentalist Islamist terrorism will continue to dog Bangladesh as long as they continue to flourish.