By Anis Ahmed
DHAKA, July 2 (Reuters) - Violent militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan get more attention, but militant groups also challenge South Asia’s other Muslim nation, Bangladesh, worrying neighbours and countries with Bangladeshi workers or immigrants.
Militants in the low-lying nation of some 150 million people threaten its young democratic government’s efforts to achieve stability, and raise fears the groups will connect with and strengthen extremist international networks.
The violent Islamists’ presence also discourages much needed aid and investment.
Nearby India has expressed its concern, and last weekend Britain’s security minister Lord West visited Dhaka to strengthen bilateral efforts on the issue.
"The governments must cooperate with each other against terrorism as the terrorists of different countries are gaining strength through mutual assistance," he told reporters.
Harkatul Jihad Islami (HUJI) Bangladesh, one of more than a dozen outlawed Islamist groups seeking to turn Bangladesh into a sharia-based Islamic state, was blamed for attempting to kill then British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury in May 2005.
Police also linked Huji to a 2004 attempt to kill Sheikh Hasina, then the opposition leader. She narrowly escaped but 23 others died when grenades exploded at a rally she was addressing.
Authorities say another group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), was behind deadly bombings in late 2005. Victims included judges, lawyers, police and others.
After what was criticised as initial neglect of the issue, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government arrested six JMB leaders in 2006. They were executed in March 2007 by an army-backed interim authority that had taken over power.
During interrogation the six said they were trained outside the country and fought alongside Islamic forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the Palestinian territories.
Attacks declined after the executions but did not stop, and officials and analysts say the militants are regrouping.
"There is no denying that the militants are a big threat to Bangladesh," said Abul Barakat, economics professor at Dhaka University and a political analyst, who has studied the movement.
He told Reuters that Islamists had expanded under patronage of the country’s biggest religion-based party, Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaat), which has developed a banking and business network, and through funds received from Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia.
As happened in countries like Pakistan, some in Bangladesh’s establishment thought they could use militant groups to their advantage, only to have them later turn against the government.
For example, the 2001-2006 coalition government of the BNP and Jamaat was accused of using a JMB faction to confront the Sarbahara, a troublemaking group in the northwest.
Jamaat and the BNP deny aiding violent militants. BNP senior leader Nazrul islam Khan says such militancy "is not just a problem of Bangladesh, it exists worldwide".
Suranjit Sengupta, a top lawyer and Awami League leader, says the Islamists are a growing threat to democracy and development.
"They thrived in Bangladesh during the BNP-Jamaat rule. Now the time has come to track them down and root them out forever," he told Reuters.
A government led by Hasina and the Awami League took office in January and vowed to get tough with the militants. Security forces have since raided alleged militant hideouts, seizing arms and bombmaking material and arresting dozens.
"We are pledge-bound to the nation to make sure that none of them escape justice," said state minister for law Oamrul Islam.
Intelligence officials say the Islamists lately have changed tactics, as did a JMB operative who talked to a Reuters contact in the northwest on condition of anonymity.
"Now we are recruiting a large number of women and giving them training in use of weapons, carrying explosives, hitting targets and spreading our message that no rule or laws except those of Allah will exist or be tolerated," the operative said.
He said male and female members were encouraged to marry one another "to integrate them more to our work and prevent information leaks".
Militants are now better equipped, getting explosives and weapons regularly from outside the country, the operative said without detailing the nations involved.
The group wants to refine its attacks, he added, making less use of grenades and bombs which kill indiscriminately and more of guns aimed at specific targets. "That would save lives of the people who are not our enemies," he said.
Whether security force efforts will be enough to crush the militants remains to be seen.
Bangladesh has social issues that can make people receptive to anti-government messages and promises of an Islamic utopia. For example, nearly half the population is illiterate and a similar number live in poverty.
Bangladesh politics have meanwhile been characterised by weak civilian governments, with out-of-power parties all too ready to take to the streets, and the military stepping in to bring order at the price of clamping down on civil liberties.
"Both confrontational politics and socio-economic conditions are responsible for the rise and spread of militancy," said Asif Nazrul, professor of law at Dhaka University.
In a chicken and egg relationship, the other issues distract authorities from effectively tackling militancy, while militant violence is one reason Bangladesh has trouble getting investment and aid to help mitigate poverty and dry up militant support. (Additional reporting by Hasibur Rahman Bilu in northern Bangladesh and Azad Majumder in Dhaka; Editing by Jerry Norton)