At one time, the terror outfit Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami (Movement of the Islamic Holy War) was one of the strongest extremist outfits in Bangladesh and its aspiration was the implementation of Shariat rule both in Bangladesh and Myanmar. It was headed by Mufti Hannan, who has now been executed for his involvement in a number of terror activities. His hanging is likely to give a serious blow to the outfit, although this may not necessarily mean its end. Nevertheless, this is an important development in a country which has been battling Islamist extremism and trying to put it under check.
Mufti Hannan had an Islamist background. At the time of Bangladesh’s Liberation War, his father, Noor Uddin Munshi, was a leader of the Muslim League in Gopalganj’s Kotalipara sub-district. Noor was shot dead for committing atrocities against Bangladeshi people during the Liberation War. His house had hoisted a Pakistani flag even after Bangladesh was created.
After his initial madrasa education in Bangladesh, Mufti Hannan went to both India and Pakistan for higher Islamic studies. In India, he studied at a Deoband madrasa and was later a student of the Islamic Studies Department at Aligarh University from where he obtained a Master's degree in 1987. In 1988, he got enrolled at Jamiya Yusuf Bin Nuriya Madrasa in Karachi from where, during the during the Ramadan break in 1990, he moved to Afghanistan to fight the Afghan jihad. It is believed that his indoctrination into militancy took place while studying Fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence in Karachi. Before joining the Afghan jihad, he was given 15 days training in Afghanistan in bomb-making and carrying out military assaults. He also provided other recruits to the Afghan jihad and got injured while participating in it.
It was also around this time that the notorious outfit HuJI Bangladesh was born, though its origins are somewhat obscure. Some claim that Moulana Abdur Rahman Faruki from Manirampur in Jessore, along with other Bangladeshi mujahids, founded HuJI in 1989 while they were still fighting in Afghanistan. Faruki was killed in the Afghan jihad while trying to defuse a mine in Khost. Hannan returned to Bangladesh in 1993 and started leading a group of Afghan jihad returnees.
Others say that the Afghan jihad returnees formally launched HuJI at a press conference held in Dhaka on April 30, 1992, after the end of the Afghan jihad. According to them, Moulana Abdus Salam was made its chief. He is presently in jail for his role in the August 21, 2004 grenade attack. Mufti Hannan had also participated in this attack and the prime target was the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Though Sheikh Hasina suffered only some serious injuries, 23 members of the Awami League including Ivy Rahman, the then women's affairs secretary of the party, were killed and nearly 150 others injured.
Soon after its formation, HuJI Bangladesh had split into several factions over the method to be adopted in waging armed jihad. Mufti Hannan became chief of one such faction. He developed a close relationship with some leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh. His proximity also grew with other militant groups including the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Rohingya-based outfits active in the Chittagong region.
Hannan was the face of terror in Bangladesh and his outfit HuJI introduced militancy in the country through a bomb attack on a programme of Udichi Shilpigosthi in Jessore in 1999. He created terror across Bangladesh by launching over a dozen grenade attacks on Awami League rallies in his failed attempts to assassinate Sheikh Hasina and other top leaders. He also targeted the former British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury at Hazrat Shahjalal Shrine in Sylhet, religious institutions and cultural programmes including Pohela Boishakh celebrations.
Mufti Hannan was arrested along with his wife and children from a house in Dhaka on October 1, 2005. Subsequently, HuJI(B) claimed responsibility for nearly a dozen attacks between 1999 and October 17, 2005, after which the BNP-Jamaat government was forced to ban the outfit. Speaking to the media after his arrest, an indignant Mufti Hannan had claimed that law enforcers were not supposed to arrest him since some influential ministers of the BNP-led government had assured him that he would be exempted from the August 21, 2004 grenade attack case.
There are at least 17 cases filed against Mufti Hannan for masterminding various terror attacks. Of these, he has been sentenced to death for killing three people and injuring then UK envoy Anwar Choudhury at Shahjalal shrine in 2004. He was hanged after his death sentence was cleared by the apex court and his request for presidential clemency was rejected on April 8, 2017.
Mufti Hannan’s appeal against another death sentence handed down in the Ramna Batamul blast case is currently pending with the High Court. He also faced trial for the failed August 21, 2004 grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina who was then the opposition leader. He was given life-term imprisonment in 2003 for plotting to kill Hasina at Kotalipara in 2000 when she was the prime minister.
At one time, HuJI was quite active in India and its involvement was suspected in a number of terror incidents. The US had branded HuJI as an international terror outfit and banned it. But in recent times, the outfit has been less active in Bangladesh after a number of other terror outfits emerged in that country. The most prominent among them has been Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB). A faction of JMB, now called neo-JMB, has even proclaimed its allegiance to the ISIS.
Mufti Hannan was hanged few days before the Pohela Boishakh, the Bengali New Year festival. This festival is celebrated with a great deal of fervour in Bangladesh and in West Bengal. But this festival is also opposed by the Islamists of Bangladesh who see in it a reflection of their Hindu past. The hanging of Mufti Hannan on the eve of Pohela Boishakh might send an important message to the terror outfit that the government of the day in Bangladesh is committed to protect the country’s cultural traditions. It would also boost its confidence in the fight against radical Islamists who have expanded their grip in recent years by targeting and killing atheist bloggers, writers, foreigners and minority groups. But the attempt made by his sympathisers to free Mufti Hannan from a prison van on March 6, 2017 while he was being brought back to Gazipur's Kashimpur prison from the court indicates that there are still some free and active people who are either part of HuJI or support its ideology. Thus, his hanging may not mean the end of the terror outfit and definitely not the end of radical ideology in Bangladesh.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.