On the 19th of January, 2012, the Bangladesh army held an unprecedented press conference in order to reveal details of an alleged coup plot involving senior and mid-level officers supposedly linked to Hizb ut Tahrir. However, the alleged choice of Bangladesh for a coup to establish the Caliphate along with the unorthodox and incredibly incompetent manner in which the plot was orchestrated raises interesting questions as to whether it was planned by Hizb ut Tahrir. If so,it exposes the movement to serious questions of intellectual violation and ineptness. However, it seems more likely that either it was the the work of ‘rogue’ army personnel or it was a clever counter-coup operation staged by the Bangladesh army in order to manipulate an excuse to initiate radical measures aimed at eliminating the influence of Islamists from the armed forces. In any case, as I shall point out below,it becomes clear that no understanding as to planning existed between HT members and the officers and both were clueless on how to proceed once the actions had been initiated and communications between the two established. What ensued was simply a blend of naivety and chaos.
It is an open secret that Hizb ut Tahrir chapter in Bangladesh was started from its chapter in the UK and where its members of British origin remain in control of the work in the country. Arguably it is also where British intelligence has achieved its greatest success in penetrating, monitoring and influencing the movement and its members. This of course adds more complexity to understanding the political and operational issues concerning the alleged coup and whether or not the leadership of HT has control over its members and activism in many countries including Bangladesh. Implicit in the army statement was the role of the British chapter according to which;
"Recently, at the instigation of some non-resident Bangladeshis some retired and serving army officers with fanatical religious views and capitalising on others fanaticism led a failed attempt through their ill motivated activities to thwart the democratic system of Bangladesh by creating disorder in the army"
The activism of the members has generally followed a similar pattern to the UK, using a high profile trajectory but in this instance aimed at antagonising the political and military leadership with little patience or consideration for building a popular base and an intellectual leadership over the society as dictated by its own manuals. The consequences have led to a ban on the movement in 2010, leading to its operations being forced underground descending into a cat and mouse situation with the security services. Although, the HT leadership and its chapters in the Muslim countries have been obsessed with urging the armed forces of Muslim countries to mount ‘coups’, the allegations of an attempt by its own members in Bangladesh in order to establish a Caliphate is far removed from its ideational and operational understandings from two perspectives;
Firstly, Bangladesh fails on many levels to meet the criteria laid down by HT itself for assuming power and establishing the Caliphate. These include:
1. The requirement for the Arabic language
2. The leadership of both the party as well as its ideas in the society
3. The ability of the country to sustain itself economically and defend its realm militarily.
4. The ability to command leadership over the Muslim world.
Bangladesh being an impoverished country, with an incredibly weak army, very little authority in the Muslim world and devoid of the Arabic language is far removed from the conditions enunciated above.
Secondly, the manner in which the plot has been described does not conform to the carefully designed coup strategies adopted by HT throughout its history. It is no secret that HT works to penetrate the armed forces in the Muslim world. However, the strategy is incredibly covert and carefully crafted with no connectivity to the public work of its members whilst religiously guarding the identity of its assets in the military. Contrast this with the accounts of how the coup was supposedly orchestrated in Bangladesh.
According to the narrative, HT had openly revealed the identity of and distributed the grievances of the mastermind of the coup, Major Syed Ziaul Haq, which he had posted on Facebook. According to the army press briefing the attempt to create disorder in the army therefore had already been leaked. The army revealed that;
"Against the backdrop of a leaking of partial information about the conspiracy to create disorder in the army and the arrest of some individuals, fugitive Major Zia sent an e-mail to his acquaintances describing an imaginative an incredibly cooked up story of his so called arrest and torture. Later one Abu Sayeed uploaded the e-mail in a blog, ‘Soldiers Fortune’, on the social network Facebook...the banned fanatic organisation Hizb ut Tahrir on January 8, 2012 circulated provocative leaflets based on fugitive Major Zia’s internet message throughout the countr[y]"
In any coup manual, Major Zia would be regarded as a tainted asset and one not to be approached, especially since the alleged coup plan involving other officers had been unearthed by December 13th, 2011 and by December 22, 2011, Major Zia had himself become a ‘fugitive’ having absconded after being recalled to military headquarters. The army alleges that;
"With the motive of creating disorder in the army a retired Lt Colonel on December 13, 2011 instigated a serving Major to join him in executing his malicious plan. The Major instantly passed on the matter through his chain of command and the retired officer was arrested...Another accomplice of the retired officer Major Syed Ziaul Haq on December 22, 2011, met with a serving officer and instigated him to engage in activities subversive of the state and democracy. The serving officer informed the proper authority of the matter, as a result of which leave and transfer order of Major Zia, who had recently completed his long term training, was cancelled. He was informed over telephone on December 23rd, 2011 and immediately ordered to join army headquarters Log Area in Dhaka. Major Zia who was on leave remained fugitive and has been trying to continue ‘subversive’ activities against the army"
Moreover, Major Zia had started to use open and easily monitored channels in order to foment insurrection. According to the press statement;
"Later, the said officer sent out two e-mails containing imaginary and highly controversial contents styled “Mid- level Officers of Bangladesh Army are Bringing Down Changes Soon” through the internet"
Yet despite his abscondment and the discovery of the plot, Major Zia was still attempting to foment a coup by contacting officers using open means of communication. This is all the more problematic considering that the actions seem to descend into fomenting chaos rather than a coup and that since the military authorities had already become aware of the plot, and his specific role in it, the exposure of these officers as positive assets to himself would be an unnecessary risk. According to the statement;
"Some undisciplined and derailed army officers were actively involved in executing the vile conspiracy of fugitive Major Zia by misusing mobile phones and the internet. A court of enquiry was constituted on December 28, 2011...To execute the anti-state conspiracy...Major Zia on January, 9 and 10, 2012, sent copies of two imaginary operation orders to two different serving officers through e-mail. Besides on January 10, 2012 fugitive major Zia contacting some like minded officers, working in different formations or studying in different institutions over the mobile phone, wanted to know about preparations for the so called military coup"
The army account seems to clearly suggest that the coup attempt had clearly failed and that Major Zia had become ‘rogue’ in his actions and heavily monitored. Therefore any serious coup plotters would be well advised to keep clear of him. Yet, in the case of HT this did not happen. Not only did they actively participate in revealing their link with Major Zia and his ideas but according to the army statement they continued to engage with him whilst he was rogue and with full knowledge that his cover had blown and the coup plot had been detected. As seen above Major Zia continued to contact military personnel 18 days after the first detection of the coup and 17 days after his own detection and abscondment. By any measure this was a complete failure, yet not only did HT remain engaged, but according to the statement Major Zia contacted through open channels and British member of HT of Bangladeshi origin, Ishraq Hossein in order to prepare for a post coup situation by utilising the media in Britain and who was at the time ‘outside of the country’. The army states;
"[o]n January 10, 2012, fugitive Major Zia contacted some like minded officers working in different formations or studying in different institutions over the mobile phone, wanted to know about the preparations for the so-called military coup as per their plan and motivated them to execute the plot...On the same night fugitive Major Zia contacted [expatriate] Bangladeshi (no probably in Hong Kong) Ishraq Hossein several times. During conversation they discussed the progress of the coup and the process of implementing it. Fugitive Major Zia asked him to publish news in the media at home and abroad about the army coup in Bangladesh. Ishraq directed fugitive Major Zia to phone him around 2am on January 11 if the coup was completed by then so that he could reach Bangladesh in the shortest time. It is assumed that Ishraq gave this instruction with the aim of taking advantage of conditions in a post-coup situation"
This communication is the clearest indication in the statement that HT may not have been the ones guiding the alleged coup for the following reasons:
1. According to the statement HT distributed its leaflet on Major Zia on January the 8th, exposing his name. On January 10th Major Zia contacts Ishraq Hossein indicating that HT was not directly guiding the Major.
2. Major Zia contacts Ishraq Hossein who happens to be outside of the country indicating that Major Zia had no internal handler or contact. Hossein is likely to have been in contact with Major Zia in terms of advancing general ideas against the regime and HT’s history of seeking power. For this reason the communication had to be open and insecure by phone. Furthermore, Hossein did not commit to coming back immediately, rather he merely wanted to be informed by January 11 if the coup had been successful.
3. The details of what was discussed between Hossein and Major Zia clearly indicate that such information had been exchanged for the first time and no planning had occurred between the two. If planning had been agreed there would be no need for such a conversation. Communication would only be a last resort either to warn of failure or detection.
4. There is no indication of what Hossein’s position was in relation to HT or that he had any authority to back any coup attempt or post coup scenario.
Based on the army statement alone, the evidence points to either a rogue operation in which officers may have been in touch with HT members and where HT was not the actual planner. It is seems more the case that HT members tried to capitalise on the situation without any clear idea on how to proceed. However, the inept nature of the plot along with the erratic actions of Maj. Zia whereby he exposed not only himself but many other officers through direct contact and insecure communications such as the phone and internet indicates that Maj. Zia might have been part of a counter-coup strategy by the Bangladesh army to root out Islamists including those sympathetic to HT.
Whatever the case, it is not clear what HT aimed to achieve in the temporary chaos that seemed to have ensued in the army. If the alleged coup was authentic and it had succeeded would HT have given its support to any invitation from the coup leaders to establish the Caliphate? In order to do so HT would have had to completely forgo its criteria mentioned above. If not, then the consequences of its high profile actions aimed at the armed forces has demonstrated the potential to not only destabilise the institution but the country as a whole. Its obsession with the military and with coups is a clear sign its failure to demonstrate its commitment to building a popular base. Consequently, the lack of a real leadership over the society merely heightens the prospect of fomenting further chaos and possible civil-military conflict in Bangladesh.
Army Statement source: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=219148