By Taj Hashmi
February 20, 2014
AYMAN al Zawahiri's voice, tone and heavy Egyptian accent (he prefers to use Egyptian to classical Arabic of the Arabian Peninsula) makes one almost certain about the authenticity of the podcast, “Bangladesh: A Massacre behind a Wall of Silence,” which was released on January 14 and surfaced in the Bangladesh media on February 14. While some people think it is unauthentic, a young pro-Jamaati activist has already been arrested for his uploading of the audio in certain blogs.
Ever since the circulation of the podcast in Bangladesh, the over-polarised and politically hyperactive Bangladeshis have again been stirred up. Rival politicians are blaming each other and their parties for their alleged involvement in the creation and/or circulation of the podcast that contains al Zawahiri's audiotaped vitriol against the Western “Crusaders” and Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi ruling classes for their “designs” against Islam and Muslims.
The media is full of ill-informed gossip and conspiracy theories about the podcast. Some analysts are coming up with new theories --rather, conjectures and wild guesses -- questioning the authenticity of the audio or as to which political groups in Bangladesh are “responsible” for “manufacturing” it to the detriment of democracy in Bangladesh.
Some ruling party leaders are pointing at their political rivals in the BNP-Jamaat camp for “manufacturing” the tape to organise an anti-government movement with the help of Islamist militants. Some BNP-Jamaat leaders, on the other hand, are blaming the AL government for “fabricating” this “unauthentic” tape to draw American support and sympathy for the government, and thus get a stamp of legitimacy for the controversial elections that brought the AL to power. BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia's ridiculously over-simplified assertion that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's son Sajib Wajed Joy “masterminded” the al-Qaeda message is highly irresponsible, provocative, and hence counterproductive.
Sections of Bangladeshi politicians, intellectuals and media are again exposing their lack of objectivity along with their level of ignorance about al-Qaeda, its global terror network and its methods of waging “jihad.” They have no reason to underestimate al-Qaeda as a spent force. The death of Osama bin Laden did not signal the death of al-Qaeda, which is very much alive and active in many parts of the world. Although bin Laden was the most charismatic leader of al-Qaeda, the wily al Zawahiri has been the mastermind of the terror outfit. Then again, bin Laden is a martyr to his followers, who consider him an ever-lasting inspiration and want to avenge his killing.
Most importantly, al-Qaeda is neither just an Islamist terrorist group like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, HUJI or JMB, nor is it an Islamist political organisation like the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat-e-Islami. It is a global movement and a franchise like McDonald's. It can open new branches anywhere. No country, including Bangladesh, is off limits to its operators. It loves to explore new opportunities to recruit fighters from trouble spots, especially from Muslim underdogs within and beyond the Muslim World. From al-Qaeda perspective, politically turbulent and socially fractured Bangladesh is an “attractive” place. The trial of War Criminals (and the execution of Abdul Quader Molla in December 2013), and the killing of several activists (there are contradictory figures of casualty) belonging to the Hefajat-e-Islam by law-enforcers in May 2013, may be mentioned in this regard. Given the opportunity, al-Qaeda would love to exploit the resentment of the aggrieved people who think the government has unjustly victimised them only because of their Islamist ideology.
It is noteworthy that although al Zawahiri has singled out America and its “allies” among the ruling classes of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar as the main enemies of Islam and persecutors of Muslims, his focus is on the “ongoing” killing of “thousands” of Muslims by Bangladeshi law-enforcers. He wants Bangladeshi Muslims to embark on their own Intifada, which stands for rioting, protest and resistance to shake off tyranny. Ominously, even though Intifada is not identical to terrorism or “violent jihad,” this audio reminds us of the video-podcast he issued in February 2012, which was an appeal to Syrian, Turkish, Iraqi and neighbouring Muslims to fight and topple the Assad regime in Syria. And we know what followed the appeal. Al-Qaeda and its Islamist associates have been fighting the Assad regime, Syria is bleeding, and so far more than a hundred thousand Syrians have died in the ongoing civil war.
In the backdrop of what al-Qaeda has been doing in various trouble spots in the Muslim World Bangladeshis have no time for complacence, let alone playing the blame game against each other. Unless the government resolves the political crisis by coming to an understanding with its political opponents to stabilise the country and institutionalise democracy, people having a soft corner for terrorism and anarchy may be drawn to al-Qaeda and similar terror outfits in the coming days.
Pragmatism demands a line be drawn between various Islamist organisations and movements. Instead of painting every Islamist organisation with a broad brush, politicians must stop harping on the old and stale theme that (a) the Jamaat-e-Islami is synonymous with al-Qaeda; and (b) nothing short of proscribing the party will stabilise Bangladesh. As it happened in Egypt, Syria, Gaza and West Bank, members of proscribed and marginalised Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, went underground and joined al-Qaeda and similar terror outfits. And the rest is history. Bangladesh must not follow these bad examples. Last but not least, Bangladeshis should not waste time on debating the credibility of the Zawahiri podcast, and blaming each other for “doctoring” the audio for reason X or reason Y.
Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University at Clarksville, Tennessee, USA.