Bangladesh: An Islamist Military Coup?

7 MINS READJan 30, 2012 | 12:28 GMT
A Bangladeshi military spokesman on Jan. 19 discusses the failed coup attempt against the government

In late December 2011, the Bangladeshi military foiled a coup plot by junior officers. Coups are nothing new in Bangladesh, where military overthrows have been a recurring part of national life since the country was founded in 1971. However, this plot was different. Instead of the military's top brass, it involved low-ranking officers with ties to the banned Islamist organization Hizb al-Tahrir. Recent years have seen the growth of Islamism in Bangladesh, and coupled with public dissatisfaction with the country's two main political parties, this coup attempt could be an ominous sign for the Bangladeshi political establishment.

The Bangladeshi military announced Jan. 19 that it had foiled a coup plot in December 2011 by several lower- and midranking officers. The exact number of would-be coup participants has not yet been determined — unnamed military sources have said the investigation is expanding — but several of the up to 16 current and former officers under investigation have already been taken into custody, including a retired lieutenant colonel and major. The suspected ringleader of the plot, Maj. Mohammad Ziaul Haq, went AWOL after the other officers were arrested and is still at large.

Though Bangladesh has a long history of military coups and this particular plot does not appear to have been very sophisticated, it is notable for other reasons. First, it was led by relatively low-ranking officers, while past coups have been led by the military's top leadership. Second, the officers in question reportedly have close ties to the banned Islamist group Hizb al-Tahrir. Bangladesh has a burgeoning Islamist movement as well as a sclerotic political system in which two parties — viewed as equally corrupt by the public — alternate in power.

Hizb al-Tahrir's role in the plot has not been established, but it has been known to court elements in the militaries of several Muslim-majority countries to overthrow incumbent governments in order to establish an Islamic caliphate. The foiled plot in Bangladesh highlights underlying societal shifts and Islamism's growing influence, apparently within the military as well as society at large, a trend that country's two main political parties likely view with deep concern. 

A History of Coups

It is not unusual for countries to experience political instability in the years immediately after their founding, but Bangladesh's formative years were exceptionally turbulent, and its own military was the biggest source of instability. The Bangladeshi armed forces had been hurriedly created by reorganizing the troops that were either part of the Bengali rank-and-file Pakistani army stationed in East Pakistan during the war for independence in 1971 or the Indian-backed armed secessionist forces popularly known as Mukti Bahini. Thus the nascent institution lacked coherence and discipline, which explains the fractures within the armed forces that rattled the nation in its early years.

In August 1975, four years after the country broke away from Pakistan, its founder, president and leader of the Awami League party, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and several of his family members were killed by a group of military officers. The officers behind his assassination, along with that of his successor, Syed Nazrul Islam, were ousted from power three months later in a counter-coup led by prominent military commander Maj. Gen. Khaled Mosharraf. Mosharraf forced the head of the prior junta, army chief Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman (no relation to the country's assassinated president), to resign and then imprisoned him.

Four days later, leftist-leaning officers and soldiers led by socialist ex-army officer Abu Taher organized a putsch in which Mosharraf was killed. Abu Taher released Ziaur Rahman and reappointed him army chief. Within months, however, Rahman had Taher arrested and began to consolidate power. In April 1977, Rahman assumed the presidency and appointed Hossain Mohammad Ershad as army chief.

Ziaur Rahman's regime remained in power for another four years, during which multiparty democracy was reintroduced. He founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which, along with the Awami League, remains one of the country's two main political parties.

In May 1981, Ziaur Rahman was assassinated by a group of army officers led by Maj. Gen. Abul Manzoor. There was speculation that the real force behind the assassination was army chief Lt. Gen. Hossain Mohammad Ershad, but Ershad remained loyal to the government and had Manzoor and his associates killed or purged from the military. A year later, Ershad assumed the presidency in what was the last coup in the country. Since then, the army has become more professionalized as an institution and has made no attempt to seize control of the government; instead it has worked behind the scenes to influence civilian leaders.

An Islamist-Inspired Plot?

Given the rise of Islamist radicalism in the country in recent years, the latest plot is not surprising. In addition to Bangladesh's Islamist political party, Jamaat-i-Islami, which has participated in mainstream electoral politics, a number of more radical groups have surfaced. These include banned jihadist groups like Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, which has carried out numerous attacks, including the Aug. 17, 2005, countrywide bomb blasts, as well as Hizb al-Tahrir, which is a nonviolent but radical Islamist transnational party seeking to establish a caliphate. Hizb al-Tahrir's past activities lend credence to the government's claims that it was involved in the latest plot.

While Hizb al-Tahrir does not engage in violence as a means of seeking political power, it also rejects democracy and the process of electoral politics. Instead, it has followed a two-tiered approach. At one level it seeks to expand its support base among the masses and hopes to gather enough followers to trigger a popular revolution. Concurrent with those efforts, it also seeks the support of militaries in Muslim-majority countries to oust the existing order via a coup and replace it with a caliphate. It also seeks to infiltrate or win adherents within the Bangladeshi armed forces to the point that it has enough support among the officers and commanders to remove the incumbent regime and hand over power to the party. It could then impose its will on the country and ostensibly turn it into the seat of a new caliphate.

Founded in Jerusalem in 1952, Hizb al-Tahrir was involved in failed coup attempts in a number of Arab countries from the late 1960s through the 1990s. In recent decades, it has grown rapidly in South and Central Asian countries, mirroring the wider resurgence of Islamism in the region. It was banned in Bangladesh in 2009 and has also been banned in Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany and Pakistan, where a brigadier was arrested in May 2011 for connections with the group.

The party has called on senior members of the Bangladeshi military to support a coup against the current Awami League-led government, but given the ability of the military to detect and foil the recent plot, Hizb al-Tahrir clearly has not yet reached the point where it is able to attract senior officers and commanders in large numbers. In fact, even in the junior and mid-level officer corps, it has not proved able to recruit more than a handful of individuals. Even a coup plotted from within by a general or two can fail because the institution is against it. Such a plot is very unlikely to go unnoticed within the army given that Bangladesh's Directorate General of Forces Intelligence is explicitly tasked with monitoring for signs of coups or the behavior of potentially subversive elements within the military.

It is possible the recent coup plotters were not connected to Hizb al-Tahrir proper but rather a splinter group, many of which have formed stemming from frustration over the lack of action taken by the group against the Bangladeshi government. Some of these elements follow Hizb al-Tahrir's nonviolent ideology while others have taken certain ideas and mixed them with jihadist views and opted for an armed struggle. This would explain reports that Hizb al-Tahrir was working with other Islamist groups in an effort to overthrow the government through a coup — Hizb al-Tahrir has a strict policy of not working with other groups, and therefore the reports were likely failing to distinguish between the actual group and former members who formed their own factions and were involved in this latest plot.

In any case, the incident is the first sign of the country's growing Islamist movement taking hold within the army. Bangladesh's two main political parties — the Awami League, which leads the current government (and is headed by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), and the opposition BNP (headed by Khaleda Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman) — are held in increasing public disfavor over perceived corruption. Though the Islamist movement is not yet to the point where it could conceivably seize power, the political climate in Bangladesh is shifting. Neither main party wishes to deal with an Islamist-inspired coup by the military, the same institution that for years challenged the civilian government for control of the country.

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