Wednesday 30 September 2015

ISIS in Bangladesh

Today, I read that ISIS just killed an Italian aid worker in Bangladesh.

To be honest, this was not entirely unexpected. I have been anticipating for a while that ISIS would set up shop in that nation; in fact I was mildly surprised that they hadn’t already done so.

The reasons aren’t that difficult to see.

The nation of Bangladesh was always an artificial one. Back in 1947, when British India was vivisected into Pakistan and the new independent India, the Indian province of Bengal was messily cut up, broadly but far from entirely along religious lines, into the Indian state of West Bengal and East Pakistan. This, of course, wouldn’t have happened if the Muslim Bengali-speaking people of what became East Pakistan hadn’t demanded it. In the new Pakistan, they thought, they would be free. But, as they very soon found, all they did was exchange an equal status with Hindu Bengalis in undivided India with subservience to the Urdu-speaking Punjabis and Sindhis of West Pakistan, which, despite its smaller population, was the dominant partner in the relationship. By 1970, East Pakistan had developed little if at all, the people were poor, and they blamed all their problems on West Pakistan’s tyranny.

Actually, this was inevitable. East Pakistan was almost entirely agricultural, as all the industrial and commercial centres, as well as the most important transport links, were in the part of Bengal that went to India. But in the 24 years after East Pakistan’s independence from India the new half-nation seemed to have been neglected so much that it developed not at all.

To what extent this is true is debatable. The Indian writer Sarmila Bose, in her book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, suggests that the West Pakistanis tried at least to a certain extent to develop East Pakistan, but it was simply too poor, too isolated, and the difficulties in communication and logistics too great to allow rapid development.

As usual in these cases, the development that did occur helped only the educated urban elite. The poor in the villages remained where they had been a hundred years earlier. Then, in 1970, the new military dictator of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, announced what was definitely the first free and fair election in Pakistan’s history. Predictably, given the demographics, the majority of seats were won by the East Pakistani Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – an ethnic Bengali party. This roused the ire of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s prime minister, who refused to cede power. Mujibur Rahman began to make bellicose public speeches threatening secession. Armed Bengali mobs attacked and massacred ethnic Biharis – who were not even West Pakistani, but migrants from India – and any West Pakistani they could find. Yahya Khan responded by launching a savage military crackdown in March 1971. Tens of thousands of Bengalis fled to India, where the Indian government at once set up training camps for a growing separatist insurgency. By mid-1971, Indian forces were fighting inside East Pakistan, launching hit and run attacks on isolated Pakistani units; and, on 22nd November, India launched a full-scale invasion of the territory.

Why did India do this? Partly, it was the pure desire to weaken Pakistan at any cost whatsoever. Also, the then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, saw an easy way to gain popularity ahead of an upcoming election. After all, the isolated and badly outnumbered Pakistani soldiers in the east could hardly provide serious resistance to India in case of a war. Besides, the horror stories told by the floods of refugees – blown up by themselves, and then again in the media – inflamed public opinion to an extent that “something had to be done”. A lot of these refugees were East Pakistani Hindus – but, as Bose says, the majority of them had been forced out not by the Pakistani army, but by their own Muslim neighbours, who took the opportunity to loot their belongings.

It does not seem to have occurred to anyone in power in India then that East Pakistan was a problem for Pakistan, and the longer the problem continued, the worse things would get for Pakistan; and by cutting off the territory, India was actually relieving the rump state of Pakistan of a major burden.

Now, far from all the East Pakistani Bengalis had been anti-Pakistan. As usual in these cases, the vast majority were neutral, their primary effort being to survive. A fairly small number, mostly of educated urban youth with Marxist leanings, were for the secession movement. And a significant portion was of fundamentalist Muslims, from among whom the West Pakistanis raised a militia force called the Razakars. As the Indian army advanced into East Pakistan and converged on the capital, Dhaka, the Pakistani army was tied up fighting the invasion – and the Razakars let loose a reign of terror, abducting and murdering professionals, intellectuals, and anyone else who might be of use to the new country of Bangladesh.

Razakar victims [Source]

By the middle of December 1971 the war was over. Mujibur Rahman took over as the new ruler of the country. Naturally, the problems that had led to the East Pakistanis growing disillusioned at the West didn’t disappear. If anything, they intensified, because now even the links to the western wing were severed, along with the markets and sources of manufactured products that it provided. As is also the normal human reaction, the Bangladeshis blamed everyone but themselves. An easy target for their ire was India; by January 1972, a bare month after the end of the war, anti-Indian sentiments were already on the rise.

Instead of harming Pakistan, India had freed it of a burden and given it a reason to seek revenge; and, in the bargain, it had gained an increasingly unfriendly neighbour in the east.

Mujibur Rahman was far from a good leader. Soon enough, he had declared his own party as the only one in the nation, and in 1975 he and his family – all but a daughter, about whom we’ll speak in a while – were murdered in a coup. In the original 1972 constitution, Bangladesh (despite being about 90% Muslim) was a secular nation; but in 1977 the new military dictator, Ziaur Rehman, declared Islam the state religion and lifted the ban on Islamic parties. The old Razakars, who had disappeared in the aftermath of the war, came crawling out of the woodwork and soon achieved considerable influence. Ziaur Rehman was himself killed in a coup in 1981, and another military dictator, Hussein Mohammad Ershad, took power. Ershad was ousted in a popular revolt in 1990 led by two women. One of these two was the sole surviving daughter of Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina Wajed. The other was the widow of Ziaur Rehman, Khaleda Zia. Once Ershad was gone, though, these two began bitterly feuding with each other, and their respective political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party, fought each other with their respective goon squads, in and out of power. Today, it’s the Awami League which rules, and the BNP is marginalised. But, of course, the situation of the average Bangladeshi has improved not at all.

I had said the old Razakars were brought back by Ziaur Rehman. The Muslim fundamentalists had flourished under the BNP, and therefore the Awami League were against them. It began arresting some of the more prominent among the Razakars who had been living openly for decades, and has hanged a number on “war crimes” charges. It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that the perpetrators of the massacres of Biharis and ethnic West Pakistani civilians were never charged.

By the early 2000s, a new wave of Islamic fundamentalism was sweeping Bangladesh. A lot of this came from the very large number of Bangladeshis who lived and worked in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Barbaria, and got infected with Wahhabism. Some of it also came from domestic disgust at the corruption of the old Razakars, living in comfort – those of them who weren’t arrested and executed, that is – and the ineptitude of the government. Soon, there was a growing fundamentalist terrorist movement in Bangladesh, which launched spectacular but fairly ineffectual attacks in the towns, while murdering secularists, leftists and other undesirables in the countryside.

One major target was the increasingly vulnerable Hindu community, who, ironically, found that they’d been better off under Pakistan than they were in Bangladesh. Temples were attacked and destroyed, Hindu women abducted and raped, and once again Hindu refugees began streaming across the border into India. This time, though, the Indian government’s reaction was total indifference.

Among the prominent Islamic Holy Warriors was one Siddiqul Islam, popularly known as Bangla Bhai (Bengali Brother). The military commander of a terrorist outfit grandly called the Awakened Muslim People of Bangladesh (JMJB), he was finally captured in 2006, tamely surrendering after being injured in a bomb blast. In a move of incredible stupidity, the government executed him in 2007, along with several other Islamic fundamentalists, thereby not just washing away the stain of his surrender but immediately promoting him to the rank of martyr. The terrorist movement went temporarily underground, but was far from destroyed. And, as time went on, the fundamentalists began asserting themselves again, hacking to death several atheist bloggers in recent times, among other victims. The Awami League government seemed, and seems, more interested in keeping the BNP at bay than defeating the fundamentalists.

Bangla Bhai on capture [Source]

As the state of Bangladesh weakens steadily, therefore, the fundamentalists are gaining influence, feeding off the resentment of the people at the government; a resentment at least partly the result of the very artificial nature of the country, which doomed it to poverty from the start by amputating it from India. The government itself is concerned virtually entirely with its own survival. The BNP is itching for revenge against the Awami League, and not particular how it gets it. Wahhabi influence is rising. And with increasingly uncertain weather patterns, the consequence of global warming, things for Bangladesh – a low lying agriculture-dependent country – can only get worse.

Can you imagine a more fertile ground for ISIS? Can you wonder why I was surprised they hadn’t moved in already, especially since it's not exactly a secret that they have Bangladeshis among them?

Alleged British ISIS member of Bangladeshi origin, Rakib Amin [Source]

Let me make a few predictions here. Please understand that these are only my opinion, and in no way do they pretend to be a cast-iron prophecy for what is to come:

1.As ISIS is pressurised in Syria and Iraq, especially by the recent Russian entry into the war – and Russia does not mess around – it will try and spread into other territories. The technique is the same as a metastasising cancer: even if the original source is totally excised, it will start up again elsewhere.

2. For a new place to expand into, Bangladesh is a sitting duck for ISIS. The JMJB and other fundamentalist terrorists will instantly flood to its banner. Bangladeshi citizens who have been trained by ISIS and have fought for it in Syria and Iraq will come home and train more members (in fact, as I’ll talk about in a moment, they almost certainly already have). They will have, with ISIS’ funds and resources, far better weapons than the tiny bombs and crude guns that the JMJB had. And, most important of all, they’ll have a cause and an idea – something to aspire to, a goal that’s greater than themselves. Whether this is even possible or not is not as important as the idea itself. All revolutions in history ultimately grow out of an idea.

3. By its own actions, the government of Bangladesh has provided the Islamic State with a ready-made collection of martyrs, who can be readily harnessed into the propaganda effort. Also, again by its own actions, it’s created a powerful political enemy thirsting for revenge, which more likely than not will cheerfully ally with ISIS if that means damaging and bringing down the Awami League. Yes, I am saying that Khaleda Zia’s BNP will prefer to side with ISIS against Hasina Wajed. South Asian history has showed that we always side with our greater long term enemy against our smaller, immediate enemy. Always.

4. Therefore, once ISIS secures a foothold – once, not if – the state of Bangladesh is pretty much doomed. Peripheral areas like the Buddhist Chakma tribes of the eastern hills, who fought a failed secessionist war with Indian help, will once again try to break away. The government will react with all the agility of a soggy biscuit. It will soon lose control over large areas of the countryside, and be isolated in the cities. Car bombs and assassinations will become daily news in Dhaka. Attempts to send the army into the villages to conduct sweeps will fail. If these missions are made in force, ISIS will keep its head down until the soldiers leave. If they attempt to secure the area, they’ll be ambushed and attacked in their bases. The more they try to control, the less they’ll end up controlling.

5. What will the government do then? Appeal to India for military aid? That will at once paint it as a traitor to even the neutral Bangladeshis. And it’s hardly clear that India would even send aid. It would certainly not send troops, because that would at once make it into an occupation army in a country where the people already hate it. Any weapons it might provide, as it did to the army of Nepal during the civil war in that country, would more likely than not be swiftly seized by the insurrection. And, quite frankly, I don’t see Bangladesh as being important enough for any other nation to send forces there. It’s got no oil, no mineral wealth, minimal strategic importance, and not much of a voice in world affairs anyway.

Che Guevara wrote that a guerrilla war develops in certain clearly demarcated phases. The first one is ideological indoctrination and recruitment. That, in substance, already exists in Bangladesh. The Razakars and the JMJB have already prepared the way for that, and, in addition, the Gulf Bangladeshis and their Wahhabi ideology can only help. Remember that – again – they don’t have to recruit everyone. The majority of people will be neutral and try just to survive.

The second phase is training. A lot of this, again, already exists, both in terms of what Bangla Bhai and his gang achieved. The groundwork is already there; ISIS merely has to build on it.

The third phase is hit and run attacks, building up to creating “liberated areas” where the government can’t operate freely and where its writ does not run. The fact that ISIS has already launched at least one attack is proof that it’s at least arrived at this stage.

The fourth is the phase of full conventional war, designed to try and defeat the government forces in the field in battle. That is the stage where ISIS is in Syria and Iraq – or where the Taliban are in Afghanistan. If and when it comes to that, India might step in – might, with air strikes, try to turn the tide. But what good that would do is doubtful. And long before that stage, ISIS would most certainly have got active on Indian territory as well, so one can safely assume that India will have more important things on its mind than what happens in Bangladesh.

All this is of particular interest to me, you see, because I am an ethnic Bengali, and because I live not far from the border; just about sixty kilometres from Bangladesh. When they come, they'll come here first. The car bombs will go off in the streets of this town.

Of course, I may be wrong, and this ISIS attack might be only a flash in the pan.

But I’ll wager, against my own hopes and inclinations, that I’m right.


  1. your lack of knowledge is disgusting. the war in 71 was a total war fought by the entire population of bangladesh. if the indians only maintained a blockade and let the 100000+ strong freedom fighters time to operate then the entire pakistani contingent would have been butchered. it would have taken a few more month but the victory would have been a total victory. it is the greed of your vaunted indian elite that saved the pakistany army and your rote regurgitation of theory and assumptions show your lack of intelligence because look at your points is in iraq and syria the sunni arabs-the core support base of isis resides and as it has been seen in afghanistan defeating insurgencies is not that easy.(you think the amricans are playing around in afghanistan). the ussr failed to crush the afghans so the much weaker version has a chance to crushing isis outright only in your dream
    2. how many bangalies of bangladeshi origin are there in isis? 10-15 thousand bangladeshies went to take part in the sovietafghan war-nothing came of it and political and military aspirations of the afghan returnees lead to nothing and this was in a time bangladesh was worse off in term of any and every index. you came to the conclusion that any political leaders of any major political party in bangladesh would side with isis and risk the serious ire of western countries just defies belief and only strengthens my belief about your lack of intelligence.
    4. bangladesh is an extremely small country with a communal society where everyone seems to be aware of each others business and military strategy that you blindly regurgitated will never succeed, especially since isis will never have popular support and sending military in any place within bangladesh will not be that difficult and time consuming.
    5. the country has a population of 150+million with a growing economy so don't equate bangladesh with west bengal-a back water province in india where you recide.

    1. This is hilarious. Thanks for making me laugh.

      In response to your “points”:

      1. The so-called “freedom fighters” were defeated totally by mid-1971. They couldn’t even decide what strategy to adopt – attack Chittagong or run guerrilla campaigns in the countryside. It was because they had been eliminated that India began sending in commandos about August 1971. The so-called “100000 freedom fighters” couldn’t even defeat about 30000 Pakistani soldiers in a territory where the latter were isolated? Do tell.

      2. Total war? What a laugh. Tell me again what the vote percentage was in the 1971 election for the Awami League? 46% in East Pakistan, wasn’t it? And of the millions of East Pakistanis, just how many made any attempt to fight?

      3. I do wish India had left East Pakistan to fend for itself. We got nothing out of it except a failed basket case on our borders which hates us, hosts tribal terrorist training camps, and floods our border areas with illegal immigrants. Also, if we’d left East Pakistan to fend for itself in 1971, we wouldn’t have to put up with vainglorious boasting from Bangladeshis.

      4. ISIS is spreading to Central Asia, Libya and in fact anywhere Wahhabi ideology is spreading.

      5. The Afghanistan jihad was run with CIA money for CIA purposes, and the situation in Bangladesh today is not what it was in 1985 under Ershad.

      6. “Serious ire of Western countries”? Hahahaha. Tell me again what “serious ire” Erdogan has faced, or the Saudi Barbarians, or the Qataris.

      7. Not even the Americans now pretend that America isn’t playing around in Afghanistan.

      8. ISIS doesn’t need to have popular support. Bengalis in general are only good at two things – conspiracy theories (“Everybody is out to get us Bengalis”) and big talk. A few hundred recruits and a few car bombs would be enough to terrify the majority into silence.

      9. I am not from West Bengal, but just tell me why millions of Bangladeshis are illegal immigrants in India, again?

    2. this is my last post regarding this matter
      again your points are full of misinformation. regarding the points
      1.90000 pakistani troops surrendered on the 16th so do tell where the extra 60000 came from. outright lies can only be refuted with absolute truth and the truth of the matter is it is from september onwards the ffs begun proper fight back under a settled bangladeshi military command and instead of hit and run attacks proper set piece battles were being fought all over the country and the freedom fighters begun holding territory and started overrunning small scale military garrisons. why do think yahia launched attacks on the western front? the sole reason was to draw in india so it might force china and usa to join pakistan's side.
      2. awami league won every seat bar two in east pakistan so would have liked to know where did you get that 46% but since this is my last visit it does not matter but it is of course further proof of your retardation that you would think that only supporters off awami league would take part in the freedom struggle-a struggle that essentially became a race war.95%+ of the bangali population supported and joined in the struggle. some fought and the rest offered support by providing intelligence food and shelter.
      3. just rambling by a vainglorious boaster that really means nothing
      4. the wahabi ideas are NOT spreading in bangladesh. in a country of 150 million+ population action of a handful does not equate to groundswell of support or even support within a fringe minority
      5. it is just a statement and did not answer my earlier question
      6. on one hand you are demeaning bangladesh at every opportunity and on the other hand you are comparing bangladesh with one country that is oil rich and where an actual invasion would Actually rally the entire muslim world and another country that has a highly modernized army(2nd biggest among nato?) and an imperial history of its own. yes YOU DEFINITELY MADE YOUR POINT.
      7. you just cannot comprehend how a superpower can lose while doing its best can you? that is sad
      8. as the war in 71 showed it is not the case
      9. do tell me why india lags behind bangladesh in so many of the development index. wrote something regarding west bengle but deleted since you are not representing west bengle but representing yourself- aboastful individual who knows next to nothing about the things he gives opinion on.

    3. and illegal immigration part is concocted by the bjp to fool people like yourself who lack the intelligence because the neurons just somehow refuse to fire so to pierce through the lies

    4. There there. You’re so cute when you get all frothing mouthed with ignorant outrage. Calm down before you blow a blood vessel.

      1. Where did the 90000 Pakistani troops who surrendered come from? Simple: they didn’t exist. Here are the actual figures, as per General AAK Niazi himself:

      In March 1971 there were 12000 West Pakistani troops in East Pakistan. More were brought in during the year, to build up to a total of 34000 regular troops, among whom were:

      23000 infantry
      11000 armour, artillery, signals and engineers.

      Plus 11000 Rangers, scouts, militia and civil police.

      Total: 45000.

      Niazi says if you add naval and air force personnel, and all other armed forces employees (including sweepers, barbers etc) you add another ten thousand: 55000. At no time did he have 90000 or 100000 troops in East Pakistan. The rest, he says, were comprised of civilians in normal civilian occupations, women and children.

      The 90000 prisoners fantasy comes from the same source as the “war began on 3rd December 1971” myth and the “Mukti bahini were heroic freedom fighters” myth.

      2. “95% of the Bangali (sic) population supported and joined in the struggle. some fought and the rest offered support by providing intelligence food and shelter.”

      Remarkable that they achieved, then, pretty much nothing, isn’t it? Also remarkable that they don’t seem to exist in real terms, and that India had to invade the country to “free” it.

      3. “Awami League won all but two seats”. Of course the Awami League won all but two seats. There was hardly any other Bengali opposition! That doesn’t take away from the fact that it was the second lowest voting percentage of any Pakistani area.
      4. If Bangladesh is so high on development indices, why are people running away as fast as they can? The illegal immigration from Bangladesh issue has been a major factor in India since 1979...when the BJP did not even exist. As for denying that there are millions of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India, that’s so cute.

      Thanks for the laugh. Again.

  2. Bill,
    I am not hopeful about what has been happening and continues to happen in Bangladesh. Now with ISIS being there and taking credit for an attack, well, your prediction/possibility, seems to be close to what I'd expect.
    I'd need to do some serious research to argue with you about the people of India and that entire area siding with the greater long term enemy, but I 'll pass to your knowledge. Can you offer reasons(s) why this is so? That is, is it cultural, etc.?
    Hope you will be safe when things get worse as it looks like they will.

  3. Fascinating look at a piece of history and sociology I was not aware of, or only vaguely aware of. Exceptionally well written. I hope that what you predict does not come to pass, for your safety and that of the people of the area. God knows we in the US will not learn of ongoing events there unless people like you tell us.

  4. Wow.......I don't envy you, it feels as if you're in direct line of fire. I'm guessing forewarned is forearmed, which may be gives you a bit of advantage.


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