Deadly Cargo

13 minute read

As it headed for port through the midwinter dusk, there was little about the M.V. Mecca that stood out from the other boats plying the waters off southern Bangladesh. Portworkers and fishermen noted the same squat deckhouse and plump hold that for centuries have sheltered fishermen from the cyclones of the Bay of Bengal. The Mecca had the usual rusted rigging and smoke-blackened stern. And the crew too was like most others working off Chittagong: pure Rohingyasstocky Muslim refugees from western Burma. Only the thick salt marks high on the Mecca’s bow hinted that it was ending a voyage longer than most fishing trips. But this was Chittagong, South Asia’s premier hub for pirates, gunrunners and smugglers. When the dockworkers saw the Mecca anchoring on a sandbank three kilometers out to sea on the night of Dec. 21, it was a signal to all not to ask questions.

For nine months the exact nature of the Mecca’s cargo or the shipment’s eventual destination remained unknown. But there were clues. Portworkers that night said they saw five motor launches ferry in large groups of men from the boat wearing black turbans, long beards and traditional Islamic salwar kameez. Their towering height suggested these travelers were foreigners, and the boxes of ammunition and the AK-47s slung across their shoulders helped sketch a sinister picture. Then in July, a senior member of Bangladesh’s largest terrorist group, the 2,000-strong al-Qaeda-allied Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), told TIME the 150 men who entered Bangladesh that night were Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan. Three senior Bangladeshi military sources also confirmed this was the case. And on Oct. 7, Indian police arrested Burmese-born HUJI fighter and weapons courier Fazle Karim (alias Abu Fuzi) as he arrived in Calcutta by train from Kashmir. A veteran of al-Qaeda’s camps in eastern Afghanistan who told his interrogators he had twice met Osama bin Laden, Karim said he recognized two people he had trained with in Afghanistan while visiting HUJI hideouts in Bangladesh in August. The pair told him they were part of a group of “more than 100 Arabs and Afghans belonging to al-Qaeda and the Taliban who had arrived by ship at Chittagong in winter,” Karim said, according to transcripts of his interview with Indian police.

Asano: Japan’s On-Screen Id
October 21, 2002 Issue
Past Issues China’s Most Wanted Oct. 14, 2002 —————– Headache Prevention Oct. 7, 2002 —————– Asia’s AIDS Crisis Sep. 30, 2002 —————– China’s New Rich Sep. 23, 2002 —————– Ready for War? Sep. 16, 2002 —————– 9/11 Remembered Sep. 9, 2002 —————– Green Century Sep. 2, 2002 —————– Asian Journey Aug. 19-26, 2002 —————– 9/11: A History Aug. 12, 2002 —————– Plastic Surgery Aug. 5, 2002

Al-Qaeda: Deadly Cargo

Afghanistan: Drug Drought

South Asia: Ballots over Bullets

India: Mother Teresa’s Miracle

China: P-chip Puzzle

Tibet: First-Ever Beauty Pageant

Health: Dengue Fever Returns

Port Strike Squeezes Asia

Another American Al-Qaeda?

Taiwan: The Mob and the Media


Java: Beyond Borobudur Top Headlines

The arrival of a large al-Qaeda group in the capital Dhaka that night raises pressing concerns that Bangladesh may have become a dangerous new front in America’s war on terror. Indeed, one Bangladeshi newspaper last month even quoted an unnamed foreign embassy in Dhaka as saying Osama bin Laden’s No. 2, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been hiding out in the country for months after arriving in Chittagong. (Last week, in an audio message that authorities have tentatively authenticated, al-Zawahiri warned of further attacks against the U.S., vowing that it will not go “unpunished for its crimes.”) According to a source inside a Bangladeshi Islamic group with close ties to al-Qaeda, al-Zawahiri arrived in Dhaka in early March and stayed briefly in the compound of a local fundamentalist leader. It’s unclear how al-Zawahiri came to be in Bangladesh, or whether he’s still there. However, a source in the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (dgfi), a Bangladeshi military intelligence agency, told TIME that al-Zawahiri is believed to have left Bangladesh this summer, crossing over the eastern border into Burma with Rohingya rebels. U.S. intelligence, however, has no evidence this report is true.

As for the Mecca, its passengers’ plans remained a mystery. One military source says most of the men stayed in Bangladesh rather than merely transiting, although he adds it was not clear whether the group sought only refuge or planned to establish a new base of operations. On Sept. 24, a fuller picture finally began to emerge when Bangladesh’s domestic intelligence agency arrested four Yemenis, an Algerian, a Libyan and a Sudanese at three houses in the upper-crust district of Uttara in Dhaka. Bangladeshi intelligence sources said they received information from “several” foreign agencies that the menAbu Nujaid of Libya, Sadek Al Nassami, Abu Sallam, Abu Umaiya and Abul Abbas of Yemen, Abul Ashem of Algeria and Hassan Adam of Sudanwere involved in militant arms training at a madrasah in the capital run by a Saudi-backed charity, al-Haramain. In September, Indonesia’s al-Qaeda supersnitch Omar al-Faruq told the CIA that al-Haramain was the foundation used to channel bin Laden’s money to him from the Middle East. An American expert in the region concurs that branches of the ultraconservative foundation have funded terrorism around the worlda fact that earned two al-Haramain foreign offices a blacklisting by Washington in Marchalthough probably without the knowledge of al-Haramain’s headquarters in Riyadh. “Disreputable folks have penetrated al-Haramain and used its offices, funds and personnel for nefarious purposes,” he says.

The seven al-Haramain members were questioned by interrogators from domestic intelligence, police and the DGFI. Bangladeshi agents also fanned out across the country to investigate al-Haramain’s 37 other branches, which promptly ceased operations. Although Bangladeshi intelligence sources confirmed the suspects were being questioned about links to al-Qaeda, they cautioned that no relationship with bin Laden’s terror network had been discovered, nor any evidence of training. They added that the men had been in Bangladesh for three years and were also being interrogated over allegations of child trafficking. Sources within Bangladesh’s intelligence community, however, told TIME the authorities had been embarrassed not to find any evidence at al-Haramain’s five-story offices in Dhaka and were trying to play down the raid. They said the passports and entry stamps indicating that the seven arrested men entered Bangladesh in 1999 were most likely fakes. Whatever the case, after being held for five days at a secret location, the men were driven to court and released on Sept. 29. No charges or proceedings were brought. After they were freed from custody, the seven were driven to Dhaka’s Sheraton hotel where they spent the night, and then disappeared. TIME’s HUJI source claimed the trafficking story was merely an official smoke screen. “These are the same guys from the Mecca,” he said. “These are bin Laden’s people. They’ve been hiding here for several months.”

Bangladesh, it is true, is no Afghanistan, or even Pakistan. For centuries, Bengalis have been united by a culture of tolerance that defies the familiar South Asian divide between Hindu and Muslim. After Sept. 11, the CIA did set up a new five-man base in Dhaka, but merely as part of a global policy of establishing a presence in all Muslim countries. The American intelligence community’s view is summed up by one U.S. source who told TIME that Bangladesh is “not a real hot account.” But Bangladesh also has its fundamentalists. And its southern coastal hills and northern borders with India are lawless and bristling with Islamic militants armed by gunrunners en route from Cambodia and southern Thailand to Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Central Asia and the Middle East.

Today, southern Bangladesh has become a haven for hundreds of jihadis on the lam. They find natural allies in Muslim guerrillas from India hiding out across the border, and in Muslim Rohingyas, tens of thousands of whom fled the ethnic and religious suppression of the Burmese military junta in the late 1970s and 1980s. Many Rohingyas are long-term refugees, but some are trained to cause trouble back home in camps tolerated by a succession of Bangladeshi governments. The original facilities date back to 1975, making them Asia’s oldest jihadi training camps. And one former Burmese guerrilla who visits the camps regularly describes three near Ukhia, south of the town of Cox’s Bazar, as able to accommodate a force of 2,500 between them. The biggest, he claims, has 26 interconnected bunkers complete with kitchens, lecture halls, telephones and televisions concealed beneath a three-meter-high false forest floor that stretches between two hills. Weapons available for training there include AK-47s, heavy machine guns, rifles, pistols, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Mantraps and mines, which can be triggered by spotters hiding in tree houses, protect approaches to the camp.

Over the years, the former guerrilla says, Ukhia has hosted militant visitors from the southern Philippines, Indonesia, southern Thailand, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, even Uzbekistan and Chechnya. Videotapes showing al-Qaeda in training that were unearthed by CNN in August include footage from 1990 that feature Rohingya rebels. And one of the five signatories to bin Laden’s Feb. 23, 1998 call for a jihad against America was Fazjul Rahman, who signed in the name of “the Jihad movement of Bangladesh.” Fighters trained and given new identities in Bangladesh also regularly find their way to conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Indian intelligence says the Islamic hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane with 189 passengers and crew on board, which they forced to fly from Kathmandu to Kandahar in December 1999, had traveled to Nepal from Bangladesh. “With the right amount of money, whoever you are, you can do anything,” says one Western diplomat based in Dhaka. “If 150 militants want to come in here and buy themselves new passports and new identities, stock up on any weapons they might want and maybe do a little refresher training before heading off again, there’s nothing to stop them.” Indeed, December was a repeat visit for the Mecca, according to the HUJI source. In June 2001, he says the boat sailed from Karachi to Chittagong with 50 other militants who had completed their training in bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan.

The Bangladeshi government typically reacts with fury to reports of jihadi camps or fundamentalism within its borders. The reason isn’t hard to fathom. In October 2001 two Islamic fundamentalist parties with a history of links to terror groups were elected as part of a four-way electoral alliance led by Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The accession of Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Oikya Jote to power in Bangladesh rang alarm bells. Islamic Oikya Jote is open about its sympathies: it is well known for its support of Islamic fundamentalism, the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The party’s membership largely duplicates that of the HUJI, which was founded in 1992 by Bangladeshi mujahedin returning from Afghanistan with orders from bin Laden to turn the moderate Islamic state into a nation of true believers. The HUJI has been involved in scores of bombings, including two attempted assassinations of then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in July 2000. And while Jamaat now projects a moderate face, its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir has been behind a string of bomb attacks and killings. At gatherings during the campaign, Jamaat leaders spoke of breathing the “Islamic spirit of jihad” into the armed forces while supporters rallied around posters of bin Laden and the HUJI slogan: AMRA SOBAI HOBO TALIBAN, BANGLA HOBE AFGHANISTAN. (“We will all be Taliban and Bangladesh will be Afghanistan.”)

Jamaat is also the main force behind the phenomenal growth of unlicensed madrasahs, known as qaumi madrasahs, in the past decade. There are now an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 in Bangladesh, of which 30 to 40, run by mujahedin veterans, are known to shelter militants and recruit fresh fighters. Such militants sometimes receive explicit encouragement from Bangladesh’s spiritual leaders. Mullah Obaidul Haque, head of the national mosque in Dhaka and a Jamaat associate, told a gathering of thousands in the capital last December: “America and Bush must be destroyed. The Americans will be washed away if Bangladesh’s 120 million Muslims spit on them.” So controversial were the BNP’s partners in government and so infuriating did they find reports of rising fundamentalism that earlier this year Zia twice denied that there were any “Taliban” in her government, or even in Bangladesh. But a Bangladeshi government official tells TIME that while Zia’s administration is aware of the fundamentalist threat inside the country, tackling it head-on might trigger a violent backlash. Foreign Minister Morshed Khan took the same line, telling TIME that it was better to have such groups inside the government, looking out.

Al-Qaeda’s links to the leadership of Jamaat or Islamic Oikya Jote may be largely rhetorical. But the DGFI, Bangladesh’s military intelligence service, may have more to hide. Its agents maintain contact with their counterparts in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and have a long history of supporting rebels fighting Indian rule across the border, including providing safe houses in Dhaka for the leaders of the United Liberation Front for Assam (ULFA). The HUJI source and the portworkers who saw the Mecca arrive claim that the man who greeted the new arrivals was a major in the DGFI. The major checked the visitors in by name and led them to a fleet of suvs lined up on the docks, add the portworkers. A spokesman for the DGFI denied knowing that members of al-Qaeda had ever set foot in Bangladesh. He even denied that the major existed, although diplomatic registration records show the officer is a long-standing member of the service and was stationed in Calcutta in the mid-1990s. The HUJI source and a Bangladeshi military source maintain the major was the last link in an operation that began in Afghanistan. After leaving the Taliban’s headquarters in Kandahar as the city fell in early December and crossing into Pakistan, the fugitives traveled to Karachi, hired the Mecca and made the sail around India.

The emergence of al-Qaeda in Dhaka is merely the latest sign that Bangladesh’s more radical Islamic groups are coming out from the forests. The former Burmese rebel says three of the camps near Cox’s Bazar have closed since Octobernot because of the kind of governmental pressure being applied in Pakistan, but because the militants feel safe enough to transfer their operations to like-minded madrasahs, some of them in the capital. On May 9 and 10, 63 representatives of nine Islamic groupsincluding Rohingya forces, the Islamic Oikya Jote and the ULFAmet in Ukhia to form the Bangladesh Islamic Manch, a united council under HUJI’s leadership. So far, the Manch has restricted itself to circulating speeches by bin Laden and Mullah Masood Azhar, a Pakistani militant leader. But it has big plans, says the HUJI source: “The dream is to create a larger Islamic land than the territorial limits of Bangladesh to include Muslim areas of Assam, north Bengal and Burma’s Arakan province.” That dream, if Islamic terrorists are allowed to continue their operations in Bangladesh, could be a nightmare for the rest of the region.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at