Tuesday, June 13, 2006

G2 Bullitin - South Asia

Unholy alliance of Reds, jihadists
South Asia proving ground of link between al-Qaida, Maoists

Publishing Date: 11.06.06 18:25
King Gyanendra

By Dr. Richard L. Benkin

An alliance between Asian Maoists and Islamists might seem far-fetched.

Al-Qaida and its ilk, after all, won their stripes fighting communists. Moreover, its fundamental religiosity is diametrically opposed to the enforced atheism of the leftists.

But evidence reaching Indian intelligence and others confirms such an alliance. Whether a mere marriage of convenience, or the basis for a new world order and separate spheres of influence, the two groups are united in their mutual quest to stamp out free choice and anyone remotely supportive of U.S. and Western values.

In late 2001, the U.S. military expelled al-Qaida forces from Afghanistan and destroyed the terror group’s infrastructure and base of operations. From there, they moved to Pakistan’s tribal belt where troops loyal to strongman General Pervez Musharaf disrupted its comfortable network of hiding places. While Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization responded in part by de-centralizing, the group still needed a safe base of operations. But with Afghanistan crawling with coalition forces, Pakistan no longer a safe haven, and the U.S. in the Middle East with its eyes, at least, on Islamist Iran where might that be?

Besides the U.S. presence in the Arab world, other -- tactical and strategic -- reasons made that area less appealing for their base of operations. The Middle East is visible, and these terrorists operate most effectively when democratic forces lose sight of them. Nor is it remote enough; the flat plains and open desert makes it difficult for them to hide.

South Asia, on the other hand, had offered them the cover of mountains, rough terrain, and inaccessible villages. Finally, South Asia stands at the gateway of Muslim Asia. The Arab street is sufficiently radicalized and its social institutions thoroughly corrupted by Islamist ideology. But Muslim Asia -- not counting the Arab world or Iran -- is not as thoroughly in the Islamist camp and represents both a challenge and opportunity for the Islamists. It is also where almost four of every five Muslims live.

The terrorists seem to have found the answer in an unholy alliance with South Asian ultra-leftists.

As early as 2004, a U.S. official in the Himalayan nation of Nepal commented, “Al-Qaida's nest in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been destroyed. The birds are looking for a new home,” and suggested that Nepal might be that home. The official’s muses were based in part on a growing state of turmoil in the tiny nation, which he believed made Nepal an easy mark for the Islamists. The official’s concern focused on the ongoing war against the constitutional monarchy waged by Nepalese Maoists, which had claimed over 13,000 lives.

Nepal is on a straight line from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal belt then through a mountainous Kashmir and across a small section of the India-China frontier. While the rugged terrain and remoteness of the areas provided the al-Qaeda operatives with most of the protection they needed, Indian intelligence claims that they also received needed help from sympathetic Pakistanis. The Kashmiri region in question is controlled in large part by one of three major terror groups all aligned spiritually and politically with al-Qaida. The Nepal chaos worsened.

On Feb. 1, 2005, King Gyanendra seized absolute power, dissolving the parliament and sacking the prime minister, claiming the action was necessary for effectively fighting the Maoist rebels. But his action ended up diverting government efforts from the rebels to extensive social unrest in the capital of Katmandu. Following the seizure, the social unrest intensified with over a year of street clashes involving a plethora of different groups from human rights activists to leftists seeking to replace the monarchy with a communist dictatorship. With continuous street violence and the government fighting to maintain its power base, border control was non-existent, and the warnings of that U.S. official seemed prophetic.

On April 20, 2006, the king ceded the powers he grabbed; but by early 2006, the Indian intelligence service reported that al-Qaida terrorists were operating in several Nepalese towns. “Faced with grave internal crisis,” it reported in the Indian paper Pioneer, “Nepal provides the kind of environment that suits a terrorist outfit like the al-Qaeda.”

The result, however, is not an eventual showdown between the strengthened Maoists and the Islamists, for whom Nepal was only a way station. Nepal’s population is 89 percent Hindu with most of the rest Buddhist. This hardly makes that nation a ripe target to become the next Islamist state. But extending the line that began in Afghanistan and brought the Islamists to Nepal brings them to a very ripe target, Bangladesh, the world’s third largest Muslim nation.

Uncomfortably conducive to an Islamist takeover, Bangladesh is a democracy, and the Islamists intend to use the democratic process to assume power and then destroy it. National elections are scheduled for January and while Bangladesh ambassador to the United States, Shamsher M. Chowdhury, hews the government line that “the Islamists are weak,” facts predict a far different outcome. Despite some progress in alleviating poverty, large numbers of Bangladeshis remain poor with little confidence that either the ruling Bangladesh National Party or opposition Awami League offer them much hope of anything better. Infrastructure is inconsistent at best even in the capital, primitive in many cases; and the nation is always judged the first or second most corrupt country in the world by every international survey.

Current squabbling between the BNP and BAL over the upcoming elections is eroding popular support for the major parties further. Day by day, the Islamist option becomes more attractive to voters. In the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections, voters chose to ignore Hamas’s hate-platform to grasp what they hoped was a lifeline to save them from a corrupt and chaotic regime. Bangladeshis might be ready to do the same -- and even if they are not, al-Qaida’s new proximity to Bangladeshi more remote polls suggest that the terrorists might send in their own votes to stuff the ballot box. Islamist terror bombings rocked the country in late 2005.

Leftists have fomented extensive labor unrest in 2006. May violence forced the government to deploy the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles with well over 100 casualties. Islamists have long coveted Bangladesh and prepared the ground for a takeover. They appear willing to abandon Nepal to their erstwhile leftist allies, whom Indian intelligence fears might ally with Indian leftists in the northeastern part of that country.

Dr. Richard Benkin is the U.S. correspondent for Dhaka's Weekly Blitz and specializes in the Islamist threat in South Asia.

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