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Bangladesh: Probe Terror’s Money Links

By Sankar Ray

Jul 13, 2016

There is a commonality among different obscurant and religious militants. But the inclination to grab state power is perhaps meticulously planned by Islamic fundamentalists by expansion through the setting up of ‘Ijtemas’.

The jihadist attack in Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery, a posh café and restaurant next to a tranquil lake frequented mostly by expats looking for French croissants and Manhattan-style brunches, where at least 28 people were butchered on July 1-2, left intelligence experts and many others stupefied, flummoxed over the cruelty shown by a small group of youngsters armed with semi-automatic weapons and improvised grenades. Former CIA officer-turned-academic Paul R. Pillar has observed that terrorists everywhere almost always target non-combatants: “people who cannot defend themselves with violence in return”.

It has a symbolic semblance with the Tet offensive almost half a century ago (named for the lunar new year holiday called Tet) of January 31, 1968, when 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated series of fierce attacks on 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. London’s Economist termed it as “New Terrorism”, which was probably true. Dr Abul Barkat, an economics professor at Dhaka University, said in an interview with a Bengali daily that this terrorism had been growing for the past four decades (long before Al Qaeda’s birth), and incurred Rs 40,000 crores in arms training and set up “Ijtema” (an Arab word meaning a global congregation of people, especially Muslims, throwing light on the Holy Quran and its significance for salvation) in 400 villages.

Dr Barkat, a reputed development economist well known for his pioneering research on the economics and politics of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh, fears this terrorist outfit plans “Ijtemas” in 20,000 villages in all, and through the “tactical line of economic power-based political process, wants to capture state political power”. Terrorism in Bangladesh is, according to him, a profit-making adventure as “the net profit earned by them in 2014 is estimated at Rs 2,464 crores — 27 per cent of which is from investment in banks and insurance firms, 18.8 per cent from private firms, trusts and foundations; 10.8 per cent from educational institutions; 9.8 per cent from real estate; 8.5 per cent from media and information technology and 7.5 per cent from transport and communications”. This strongly indicates that over the past 41 years (after the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and almost his entire family), the central terrorist outfit has spread its tentacles into every major area of society and economy. “During the last 40 years, if one adds net annual profits, it will be around Rs 300,000 crores, more than the national budgetary spend, and 20 per cent of this was used in terrorist activities, including training of militants,” he added.

It isn’t as if this academic raised these points only after the pogrom on day one of the Id holiday week, coinciding with the end of Ramzan. His first paper, Economics of Fundamentalism and the Growth of Political Islam in Bangladesh, was published in Social Science Review, the Dhaka University Studies (Part D, Volume 23, Number 2) in December 2006, where he revealed the essence of what he said in the interview. It’s not that the Awami League government and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina were in the dark. Rather, they took it casually and are now paying the price. Dr Barkat and his colleagues published some other related books and papers in the past six years jointly with others too. These include Political Economy of Madrasa Education in Bangladesh; Genesis, Growth, and Impact in 2011, and Deprivation of Hindu Minority in Bangladesh: Living with Vested Property in 2009. In 2013, Delhi’s Mainstream carried his lengthy paper Political Economy of Fundamentalism in Bangladesh, in which he gave a detailed picture on how fundamentalists had created “an economy within the economy”, and “a state within the state”.

At an international workshop in London in September last year, hosted by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Dr Barkat presented a paper in which he noted that in the Bangladesh economy, “although the feudal relationship of production has come to an end, the traditional feudal psychology, coupled with deep-rooted patriarchy, has not been abolished”, and that “the worst form of vulture capitalism has evolved...” which “does not play a conducive role towards productive investment”.

The so-called political and strategic analysts on Bangladesh and India’s other neighbours don’t seem to have examined this factor seriously, and appear obsessed with propaganda-like fervour that secular and democratic forces should unquestioningly support Ms Hasina, and refrain from even mild criticism. One commentator said foreign scholars and experts understood very little of the Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh. But he too did not study the financial analyses by Bangladeshi academics.

It is, moreover, naïve to say there is no similarity between the Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh and that in Pakistan, Afghanistan and even Western Europe while perusing a seminal work Terrorist Financing and Resourcing by Jodi Vittori, a quote by former Texas Senator Phil Gramm stood out, where he said “ready money is the mother’s milk of politics”. The Italy-born author states: “What is true for legitimate political campaigns is just as true for terrorist groups, who seek to use violence towards political goals.” Even the Palestine Liberation Organisation amassed substantial wealth in the 1980s through “clever investments — both within its own population and internationally — to acquire $5 billion in assets. In turn, these yielded an annual income of $1.25 billion, used to maintain popular support, pay for leaders’ affluent lifestyles, and conduct worldwide guerrilla and terrorist operations”. So there is a commonality among different obscurant and religious militants. But the inclination to grab state power is perhaps meticulously planned by Islamic fundamentalists by expansion through the setting up of “Ijtemas”.

We should, of course, express solidarity with the peace-loving people of Bangladesh, India’s most trusted neighbour, and back the determination of “Hasina apa” to weed out enemies of development, but it’s wrong, if not tendentious, to infer that to remind Ms Hasina that her government might have nipped the terrorists in the bud if she had acted firmly at least three years ago is to send the wrong message. The same message is being sent out by the rationalists, peaceniks and libertarians of Bangladesh, who more than anyone else are agonised over the bloody events of the first week of this month in their homeland.

Sankar Ray is a Kolkata-based journalist specialising in Left politics and history and the politico-economics of India’s neighbours