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Mixing aid with terror

Mixing aid with terror
written by: Sudha Ramachandran, 24-Sep-05

AP photo
A police officer looks at a small explosive device lying on the road in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 17, 2005.

BANGALORE – The serial bomb blasts that rocked Bangladesh in mid-August have drawn attention to the role of Islamist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in funding extremism in the country. Intelligence agencies have identified at least 10 Islamist NGOs that are channeling funds to various Islamist extremist outfits in the country.

On August 17, hundreds of bombs exploded almost simultaneously across Bangladesh, killing three and injuring scores of others. While the bombs did not signal any great technical expertise – they were crude, homemade bombs – the geographic spread of the operation (the blasts occurred in 63 of the country Zs 64 districts) signaled that a well-established terror network was behind the violence. The Jama Zatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a banned terror group, claimed responsibility for the blasts. The serial blasts forced the Bangladesh government, which has for years been denying that Islamist extremists are present and active in the country, to admit the involvement of Islamists in the violence.

Meanwhile, a report prepared by Bangladeshi intelligence agencies has confirmed long-suspected links between Islamic NGOs and the mounting extremist violence in the country. The report, which was prepared after a six-month investigation into the working of Islamic NGOs, named 10 NGOs with links to extremist activity. The NGOs are the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS), Rabita Al-Alam Al-Islami, Society of Social Reforms, Qatar Charitable Society, Al-Muntada Al-Islami, Islamic Relief Agency, Al-Forkan Foundation, International Relief Organization, Kuwait Joint Relief Committee and the Muslim Aid Bangladesh.

The report found that more than 100 foreigners from different West Asian and African countries were working with these NGOs and were in the country illegally. They had come to Bangladesh on tourist visas and did not have work permits. All 10 NGOs are based in West Asia but have been active in Bangladesh for several years.

The RIHS tops the list of NGOs that are now under the scanner. In 2002, the US State Department had blacklisted some of the RIHS offices because of links with al-Qaeda. Following the blasts in August, the Bangladesh government deported some RIHS officials. The deportees included Sudanese, Libyan and Algerian nationals. The Bangladeshi media have reported that they were deported “following specific allegations of their involvement in instigation of Islamist militancy and extremism”. It appears that four of the deported officials were earlier working in Bangladesh for Al-Haramine, which is banned worldwide. In 2004, when Al-Haramine was banned in Bangladesh, all 14 of its foreign officials left the country but four of them returned some months later to join the RIHS. Bangladeshi intelligence agencies apparently were in the dark about their return.

According to the report submitted by intelligence agencies, the Kuwait-headquartered RIHS has been channeling funds to Asadullah al-Ghalib, leader of the JMB, and Ahle Hadith Andolon who was arrested in February for violent attacks on NGO offices and cultural programs. RIHS and Ghalib Zs organization have reportedly constructed across Bangladesh more than 1,000 mosques and madrassas, which are Muslim seminaries allegedly used for the recruitment and motivation of fighters. Ghalib has also used the RIHS-channeled funds to finance the JMB Zs operations, purchase weapons and finance training.

Bangladesh has a huge NGO presence, probably more than any other country. Most of the NGOs are engaged in development work, poverty alleviation, healthcare, gender equity and so on, and a majority receive foreign funding for their work.

There are several Islamist NGOs in the country. Many of these Islamist NGOs too are engaged in development work among the poor, building mosques and madrassas, running orphanages and preaching Islam. Some among them, however, are functioning as front organizations for terror outfits, channeling funds from abroad to fuel terrorist activity in the country.

In some cases, it appears funds from abroad meant for religious work and construction of mosques and madrassas in Bangladesh were diverted for the jihadi cause. “People like Ghalib used these funds to recruit and train jihadi fighters,” an Indian Intelligence official said. Local NGOs that were working among orphans and the poor were denied funds meant for their work. Abul Kalam Azad writes in the Bangladesh Zs English daily The New Age that the RIHS started funding madrassas in 1993 but stopped doing so in July 2001. Seven madrassas located in Bogra, Rajshahi, Bagerhat and Satkhira districts were receiving funds until then, and the sudden stoppage of funds affected their capacity to provide food and housing to the orphans in their care.

The RIHS had diverted its funds to Ghalib to finance terrorist activity. While the RIHS is an important link in the Islamist extremist chain in Bangladesh and the Middle East, there are scores of other “welfare organizations” based in United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that are ostensibly funding the building of mosques but in fact are into the business of funding extremism. Besides, there are NGOs that are not even registered with the government that are vital parts of the funding/recruiting/training network.

Banks are another link in the extremist funding network. The online Public Affairs Magazine observes: “Bangladesh has a suspiciously large number of banks – 54 – for its failed economy, and their mainstay is to launder terrorist funds received and further transmitted through hawala (informal money transfer) networks. The banks also heavily subsidize madrassas education, fund construction of mosques and contribute to the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) … Not just Bangladeshi NGOs, but even the state prefers Saudi and general Islamic funding to multilateral lending. Japan is Bangladesh Zs largest donor followed by the US and EU, but diplomats said Bangladesh is unkeen on their aid, because post-utilization certificates have to be submitted. Saudi funding, on the other hand, is direct to individuals, which permits huge leaks.”

Bangladeshi intelligence officials who spoke to Asia Times Online said they were in the dark until recently about the links with terror and Islamist NGOs and banks. They blamed their professed ignorance on the NGOs “skillfully hiding” of their real agenda of funding extremism behind a veil of development activity.

While the Islamist NGOs that have funded terror might have hidden their illegal activities well, a more important reason for these outfits being able to carry on their work is that such funding has the backing of powerful sections within Bangladesh Zs coalition government. The ruling coalition, which is led by the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), includes the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote.

Several leaders of the Jamaat and the Islami Oikya Jote are known to have links with terror groups such as the JMB and the Jagrata Muslim Janata, Bangladesh (JMJB).

“The BNP itself might not be supporting the terror outfits but by appeasing its allies and ignoring the activity of their terrorist friends, it has indirectly allowed extremists to function easily,” the Indian intelligence official said. He points out that “it was not that Bangladeshi security agencies were not aware of the links between the Islamist NGOs and the terror outfits but that they were under orders to ignore it.” He added that “there are close links between local police and the extremists.”

While foreign funds channeled through Islamist NGOs are an important part of jihadi financing, increasingly terror organizations are becoming self-reliant. They are said to be running business ventures and have invested in transport, pharmaceutical companies, financial institutions and real estate, writes Zayadul Ahsan in the Daily Star, a Dhaka-based English daily.

Abul Barkat, an economist and general secretary of the Bangladesh Economic Association, told the Indian fortnightly news magazine Frontline that beside the regular inflow of funds from abroad, extremist outfits now earn an annual net income of Taka 1.2 billion. (US$1.82 million). Barkat said 27% of the income came from banking, insurance, leasing and various other financial companies, about 20% from NGOs, about 10% from wholesalers, retailers and department stores, another 10% from the health sector, including pharmaceutical companies and diagnostic centers, about 9% from educational institutions and some 8% from the real estate business.

Also, the JMB and its leaders are involved in money-laundering, which ensures a steady flow of finances. Investigators would appear to be seeing only the tip of the jihadi funding iceberg in Bangladesh.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

Published in: Asia Times

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