About Oliver Scanlan
Oliver Scanlan lives in Parbatipur, Bangladesh where he works for a local NGO which advocates for indigenous peoplesâÛª rights. He has studied Chinese and spent a year studying in Beijing, which inspired his twin passions for global affairs and tricky languages. He is an intern for oD's terrorism and security section.
Articles by Oliver Scanlan
The government of Bangladesh is currently investigating links between a UK-based NGO and a madrassa housing a substantial cache of arms. Security officials in Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which raided the Green Crescent seminary and orphanage on Tuesday, have stated that they have detained four alleged militants and are still hunting for a British citizen, known by the nickname "Faisal". "Faisal" is believed to be the owner of the British charity that established the seminary on the remote southern island of Bhola four years ago.
Major Mamun, who led the team that raided the madrassa, said that the arms seized included pistols, shotguns, substantial quantities of ammunition and bomb-making equipment. A number of jihadist books were also recovered. He said that the militants were preparing for a "major operation". RAB commander KM Manumur Rashid has said that the madrassa was being used as a militant training complex, and that the charity had plans to establish two more such seminaries on the remote island.
The RAB raid is part of a general crackdown on militant groups and NGOs that support them across Bangladesh ordered by the Sheikh Hasina government in the wake of last month's mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles border guards.
Yunus calls for courage in the face of recession
Muhammad Yunus, founder of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Peace, has said that "if we take up necessary preparations to combat the great crisis, we shall overcome [the global recession]." Yunus' comments were made to reporters at a meeting of the 27-strong government taskforce to tackle the impact of the global economic crisis on Tuesday. The taskforce includes members of the Treasury, MPs from both the governing party and the opposition, business leaders and academics.
The Grameen Bank, founded in 1983 on the basis of Yunus' earlier research, is a pioneer in microfinance, making small loans to Bangladesh's rural poor without the need for collateral. By 2005 it had loaned over $4.7 billion to the poor. Its success has inspired similar programmes in more than 40 other countries around the world.
Land and water bodies commission to be formed
On Monday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met with a number of key experts to discuss the implementation of a National Commission for Land and Water Bodies. The Awami League Grand Alliance pledged to create the Commission in its election manifesto. With a population of over 140 million people and a population density of 2,639 people per square mile, Bangladesh has seen enormous pressure exerted on its limited land resources. This pressure remains one of the principal obstacles to Bangladesh's development.
The six experts included three members of Bangladesh's first planning commission, created in the immediate aftermath of the 1971 Liberation War and chaired by Sheikh Mujib Rahman, father of current prime minister. Also present were Shamsul Huda, Executive Director of the Association for Land Reform and Development, and Kushi Kabir, Executive Director of the authoritative NGO Nijera Kori. The final expert invited to the meeting was Professor Abul Barakat, a prominent economist at the University of Dhaka, who has argued repeatedly that the cause of poverty in Bangladesh is the fact that those who labour on the land do not own it.
It is a cliché in Bangladeshi politics that every new government attempts to create a land commission during its first three months in power. In this instance, the experts are believed to have urged the prime minister to make sure that this newest effort succeeds and doesn't whither under the pressure of powerful vested interests both within and without Bangladesh's parliament.
Bashundhara fire mystery deepens as government probe blocked
On Monday, the committee established to investigate the devastating fire that overran the top six floors of the Bashundhara shopping complex on 13 March conceded that it had failed to discover the fire's cause. In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, which claimed seven lives, there was speculation that it had been started by an electrical fault on the building's eighteenth floor. In Monday's statement, however, state minister for Home Affairs Tanjim Ahmed stated that "the specialists said no fire could spark at the building from an electrical short-circuit."
Although the investigation failed to come to any conclusion, it has brought the mysterious circumstances surrounding the fire into sharp relief. It was already known that the failure of Bashundhara City's fire defences were a key reason the blaze caused so much damage, with the internal water reservoir that fed internal hydrants being inexplicably empty at the time. However, the probe has revealed that the fire brigade was not called until more than an hour after the fire started and that, immediately prior to the fire breaking out, security guards were "withdrawn". The probe committee has been blocked by Bashundhara officials, who have not co-operated in turning over CCTV footage that could give the vital clue to the cause of the fire.Asked directly as to whether the Bashundhara authorities themselves set the fire, the state minister said that, in the absence of a follow-up investigation, nothing could be said with certainty.
The week in Bangladesh began dramatically when a fire broke out on the seventeenth floor of Dhaka's Bashundhara City complex on Friday afternoon, killing seven and injuring fifty. The complex itself was severely damaged, with the top six floors completely gutted by the fire. Bashundhara City, which opened its doors in 2004, cost over $100 million when it was built and daily attracts over 25,000 shoppers. The devastation of this Dhaka landmark, which is the largest of its kind in Bangladesh and the twelfth largest in the world, has brought fire safety in Dhaka under fresh scrutiny.
The Dhaka fire brigade proved woefully under equipped for the task of fighting the blaze, and one fireman was killed in the eight hour battle to bring it under control. A key problem was that the fire brigade's aerial ladder could only reach the thirteenth floor of the twenty-one-storey building. The fire fighters also proved unable to control the crowds that quickly swelled around the building to view the ongoing drama. In the end, the army had to be called in to restore order to the streets and facilitate the rescue effort.
It was not just the fire brigade
that proved ill-prepared however. Other failings that have become apparent in the wake
of the blaze include those of the building's own defences. The lack
of water in the building's reservoir rendered the internal system
of hydrants utterly useless. The general failure of fire-fighting equipment
within the complex also points to the lack of regular fire drills.
In response to the disaster, a three-person committee was established to investigate its causes. Chaired by joint secretary (police) of the Home Ministry Abdul Hanif, the committee had identified by Thursday the precise point of origin but the fire's cause has still not been disclosed. There is speculation that an electrical fault was to blame. The committee is due to present its report on Saturday.
"Militants" behind Bangladesh Rifles mutiny
Speculation continued this
week regarding the forces behind the bloody mutiny of the Bangladesh
Rifles that broke out on 25 February. Commerce Minister Lt Col (retd)
Faruk Khan told reporters at a seminar held at the
Bangladesh Institute of Engineering that "militants" were
responsible for the carnage which left at least 74 people dead. Aside
from referring to "extremists", the minister, who is leading
the inquiry into the incident, did not elucidate further.
In an additional move, Prime
Minister Sheikh Hasina has instructed Bangladesh's intelligence services
to be vigilant against the threat posed by militant groups. Speaking
at a regular cabinet meeting, the prime minister directed Bangladesh's
five intelligence agencies to act with greater synergy in countering
threats to the country. Citing the lack of interagency co-operation
as a major cause of intelligence failures surrounding such events as
the multiple bomb attacks that struck the country on 17 August last
year, Sheikh Hasina urged law enforcement agencies to be on guard against
the threat posed by "militant outfits" and for citizens to
co-operate fully with police to this end.
These militants are understood
to include Islamists sympathetic to the hardline religious party Jamaat-i-Islami,
perpetrators of war crimes during the 1971 Liberation War, and other
elements hostile to the goals of Sheikh Hasina's Awami League Grand
Alliance which swept to power last December. Speculation in some quarters
goes as far to suggest that these extremists groups may have ties to
Pakistan's secretive intelligence agency, the ISI.
Ex-prime minister's son faces indictment
On Tuesday, the son of former
prime minister and current head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party
(BNP) Begum Khaleda Zia was indicted by the Independent Anti-Corruption
Commission (IACC) on money-laundering charges. Arafat "Koko"
Rahman is accused of receiving bribes amounting to millions of dollars
from AG Siemens and China Harbour Engineering Company.
The bribes are primarily associated
with the China Harbour project to construct a new terminal at Chittagong
port. This indictment follows a legal action filed by the US Department of Justice seeking
forfeiture of three million dollars in connection with the same alleged
conspiracy. The bribes, paid in US dollars, were moved through US financial
institutions before finally being deposited in the Singaporean accounts.
Foreign Minister intervenes in Malaysian visa row
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said that that she will urge the Malaysian government to reinstate the right to work of 55,000 Bangladeshi expatriate workers. Citing economic hardships inflicted by the global financial crisis, the Malaysian government cancelled the workers' visas on 10 March, deciding also to bar Bangladeshi workers from entering the country after that date. The Foreign Minister is due to visit Malaysia on 26 March.
There are currently still 348 Bangladeshis stranded at Kuala Lumpar International Airport. Having arrived in Malaysia on 8 and 9 March, the workers were either forbidden from entering the country by Malaysian immigration or were simply not picked up by their employers. Malaysia employs over 450,000 Bangladeshi expatriates, with only Saudi Arabia hosting a higher number. Remittances from expatriate workers play a vital role in the Bangladeshi economy, amounting to $8 billion in 2008.
Both Israeli and Palestinian political landscapes seemed trapped in a malaise yesterday as both reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah and Israeli Prime Minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu's efforts to build a coalition government failed to bear fruit. Today, Netanyahu was given two more weeks to build a credible government after discussions with Shimon Peres, Israel's president. In Cairo, where the Egyptian government has been mediating talks between Fatah and Hamas regarding the creation of a Palestinian national unity government, negotiators were told to "go home", with a comprehensive deal still not concluded. Key obstacles include the approach that should be adopted to existing agreements with Israel, as well as the exact composition of a prospective unity government.
At the same time, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories said yesterday that Israel's 22-day assault on Gaza constituted "a war crime of the greatest magnitude under international law". Richard Falk went on to criticise the bombardment as having inflicted an "inhumane" form of warfare on Gaza's civilian population.
The toD verdict: When in February he told reporters that the EU expected a "rough start" if Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's prime minister, Czech deputy prime minister Alexandr Vondra articulated a concern felt in chancelleries across the world. Netanyahu's current negotiations, which have already seen a provisional deal made between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultra-right party led by the controversial Avigdor Lieberman, will have done nothing to dispel those concerns. The fact that, as part of this deal, the two parties have sworn to topple Hamas does not augur well for continued peace talks, regardless of Netanyahu's courtship of both Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni.
From Hamas' side, it seems unlikely in view of the overwhelming popular legitimacy it enjoys within Gaza, as well as in the wider Arab and Islamic world, that it will cave to international demands to recognise Israel and agree to recognise all past agreements made between Israel and the Palestinian authority. With international donors adamant that none of the $5.2 billion dollars currently pledged for Gaza's reconstruction should pass through Hamas' hands as long as it does not renounce violence and recognise Israel, the suffering of ordinary inhabitants of the Strip will continue unabated.
In addition, these negotiations are happening against a background of steadily worsening perceptions of Israel in the wake of its assault on Gaza. Yesterday's searing criticism of Israel's human rights abuses from the UN's Richard Falk has been followed today by reports in the western press of Israeli soldiers admitting to killing civilians during the 22-day onslaught.
With positions hardening on both sides of the Green Line, the stage seems set for a continued diplomatic impasse and, potentially, a resumption of armed conflict. The only question at this stage is whether the Obama administration, in light of revelations concerning the IDF's conduct during the Gaza conflict, might choose to reign in whatever government eventually comes to power in Jerusalem.
US reinforcements ‘too late'
Afghan president Harmid Karzai yesterday referred to the planned deployment of 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan as coming "seven years too late". Karzai said that he welcomed any additional efforts from the members of the US-led coalition, but that he had been requesting additional support since 2002. At this point he has yet to confirm whether he will run in Afghanistan's presidential elections in five months, elections which the UN fears may be "flawed and unfair", adding further to the instability in the country.
Only hours after Karzai's comments, British foreign secretary David Miliband admitted that the Taliban had achieved "strategic stalemate" in certain regions of the country. He said that it was now generally understood that success in Afghanistan was inextricably linked to the situation in Pakistan and that there can be no regional solution achieved through military means alone.
In news that will be more encouraging to US military planners, thirty insurgents have been reported killed today in clashes between Afghan government troops operating alongside coalition allies, and Taliban forces. The clashes, which occurred over two days in southern Helmand, have ended in "yet another blow to the militants" according to a US military statement.
Obama issues video appeal for "constructive ties" with Iran
Today, in a video broadcast aired by several Middle Eastern television networks, US President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning" in the relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a speech addressing the people and leaders of Iran directly, broadcast tellingly on Nooruz, the Iranian new year, Obama spoke of America's desire for engagement based on "honesty and mutual respect".
It is unclear exactly what may come of this offer, and the lack of substance behind Obama's charm offensive has led to a lukewarm reaction from Tehran, with a senior adviser to Ahmedinajad, Akbar Javankir, saying that Iran could not forget the previous "hostile attitude" of the United States. However, there is speculation that any future negotiations may revisit the so-called "Grand Bargain" proposed to US policy makers by Tehran in 2003.
This proposal was made during the tenure of President Mohammad Khatami, a political moderate who today announced his withdrawal from the Iranian presidential elections due to be held on 12 June. It included suspension of support for militant Islamist parties Hamas and Hizbollah, Iran's active participation in the stabilisation of Iraq and the possible freezing of its ongoing nuclear programme. The rejection of this offer by the Bush administration is considered by many experts to have been a missed opportunity and strategic misstep.
African Union suspends Madagascar
Following the replacement of Marc Ravalomanana by Andry Rajoelina as president of Madagascar at the hands of the country's military earlier this week, the African Union has suspended the country's membership on the grounds that the transfer of power was not constitutional. Although Madagascar's Constitutional Court has approved the take over, the AU has stated that, as the correct legal process for replacing the head of state after the resignation of a sitting president was not followed, recent events could be considered a "coup". Shortly after this move, it was reported that the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) security organ, comprising Angola, Mozambique and Swaziland, will call for sanctions against Madagascar, a fellow member state of the community. The SADC security group had already stated on Thursday that they would not recognise Madagascar's new leader.
Somali pirates seize Greek container ship
Late on Thursday evening, the Greek cargo ship Titan was seized by Somali pirates according to an official of the Greek merchant marine ministry who declined to be named. The vessel, which has a crew of 24, was sailing from the Black Sea to Korea under the flag of St Vincent and Grenada and was captured in the Gulf of Aden. According to the International Maritime Bureau, Somali pirates attacked more than 130 ships in 2008, which represents a 200 percent increase compared with 2007. The resulting ransoms amounted to over $150 million. Over twenty warships from various nations are currently engaged in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
On Thursday, three international aid workers from the Belgian arm of Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) were reportedly kidnapped in Saraf Omra in north Darfur. The aid workers have been identified as Italian doctor Mauro D'ascanio, Canadian nurse Laura Archer, and Raphael Meonier, a co-ordinator from France. Osman Youssef Kebir, governor of North Darfur State, has said that the kidnappers had demanded a ransom, were not interested in violence and that negotiations are progressing well. MSF have announced the withdrawal of all international staff in reaction to the incident, despite guarantees of additional security from both Kebir and the head of Sudan's Humanitarian Aid Commission, Hassabo Mohamed Abd el-Rahman.
The toD verdict: The kidnapping comes in the wake of both the International Criminal Court's decision to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes and the subsequent retaliatory move by the Sudanese government to expel sixteen aid agencies. The Sudanese government alleges that the aid agencies were giving information to the ICC, a charge which they strongly deny.
With some 4.7 million people reliant on aid in the Darfur region alone, the UN has said that this wave of expulsions will leave 1.1 million Sudanese without food, 1.5 million without medical care and more than one million without drinking water. After Bashir referred to aid workers as "spies and thieves" in a recent speech, this sudden collapse of aid efforts could mark the beginning of a renewed humanitarian crisis in Sudan. Although there are signs that public opinion in Africa and the Arab world may be turning against Bashir, it is unclear at this point as to how such a dip will translate into action on behalf of Darfur's stricken population.
US strikes Taliban training camp in Pakistan
An attack on a Taliban camp in Kurram in northwest Pakistan by a suspected US unmanned drone has resulted in the deaths of at least eighteen people, with some reports placing the death toll as high as 24. The attack, which was carried out on Thursday night, is the fifth such missile strike apparently carried out by unmanned drones since Barack Obama's inauguration. The dead included at least twelve Taliban militants and "foreign" fighters; the latter are understood to be members of al-Qaeda. Baitullah Mehsud and Sirauddin Haqqani, both high-level insurgent commanders wanted by the Pakistani government, are known to be influential in Kurram.
Tanks move into capital as Madagascan political stability deteriorates
Colonel Noel Rakotonandrasa, spokesman for dissident elements in Madagascar's military, announced on Friday that tanks have been deployed to the capital Antantanarivo "to intercept any mercenaries who come here." The move comes during escalating tensions between Madagascar's president Marc Ravalomanana and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina in the aftermath of the disputed election held eight months ago. Although the mutineers have stated that they are not taking orders from Rajoelina, if fighting were to break out between their forces and those of the police and presidential guard (both at least nominally loyal to Ravalomanana) regional experts believe that a civil war would be almost inevitable.
Obama renews sanctions against Iran
President Barack Obama has renewed sanctions against Iran for another year, saying in a message to Congress that "the policies...of Iran are contrary to the interests of the United States in the region". The sanctions, which prevent US companies from trading with or investing in Iran, were first implemented in 1995. Although Obama came to power speaking of a desire to engage with Iran, the new administration has still emphasised the need to freeze the Islamic Republic's alleged nuclear ambitions, with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen recently telling CNN that "Iran having a nuclear weapon...is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world."
US National Guard to counter Mexico drug violence
On Thursday, Vice Admiral (ret'd) Roger Rufe testified to a panel of the US House of Representatives that it may be necessary to employ military force to halt drug-related violence spilling over the Mexican border. Rufe, the Department for Homeland Security's head of operations, identified violence linked to Mexican-based drug cartels as the greatest organised crime threat to the United States. He added that measures such as calling up the National Guard were strictly a last resort, but did not specify under what circumstances such actions would be taken. In 2008 in Mexico 6,290 people were killed in drug related violence, with the toll after the first eight weeks of 2009 standing at over one thousand.
Terrorist plot thwarted in the Netherlands
A relative of a suspected Madrid train bomber was among seven people arrested by Dutch police on Thursday for allegedly plotting to bomb major retail outlets in Amsterdam, including an Ikea store. Amsterdam's mayor, Job Cohen, said that an anonymous tip from a caller in Brussels led to the arrest of the alleged plotters, who all hold dual Dutch-Moroccan citizenship. The district attorney Herman Bolhaar has stated that none of suspects has a known history of terrorism. However, one of those arrested is a relative of one of the four Madrid train bombing suspects who blew themselves up three weeks after the atrocity to prevent being captured by the police.