The Maryland Democratic Party had a close call in the recent primaries for state delegate. Democrats might have found themselves nominating a candidate with strong connections to a foreign Islamist political party—which the U.S. and Canada both consider to be a terror organization. While they avoided that outcome this time around, Democrats need to do a better job vetting their candidates for links to extremism.
Among the candidates running in the District 15 primary was one Anis Ahmed, a Bangladeshi-American activist living in Gaithersburg who has run for office several times before. (He should not be confused with K. Anis Ahmed, a renowned Bangladeshi author who is an implacable foe of Islamism.) Mr. Ahmed has a relatively high profile; he served as the director and then general secretary of the Montgomery Muslim Council, was appointed by Governor Martin O'Malley to a state commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, and was invited to a White House holiday party in 2013 and held a briefing there on immigration policy in 2016. In most respects, Ahmed seems the model of an engaged citizen advocating for his community.
However, it is not merely American politics that Ahmed is active in; he is also a leader of the Bangladeshi National Party (BNP), which has been strongly linked to terrorism and political violence. Ahmed has make statements in the U.S. on behalf of the BNP, and has shared BNP propaganda on social media. Moreover, one prominent fundraiser for Ahmed, Sharafat Hussain-Babu, is a BNP leader himself and the editor of the BNP's international weekly newspaper.
BNP was founded in 1978 by military dictator Ziaur Rahman, who diligently dismantled Bangladesh's previous regime of secularism. The BNP rejected secular nationalism in favor of one that is "explicitly Islamic in character," and its long-term goal is the Islamizing the country of Bangladesh—provoking fear among Bangladeshi Hindus, who make up some 9% of the population. Ziaur also legalized Islamist political parties which had been previously banned, including the extremist Jamaat-e-Islami—which has since been a frequent political ally to the BNP.
Though the BNP is one of the two major parties within the Bangladeshi political system, it is hardly a moderateparty. Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly argued that the BNP is a terrorist organization, because of its consistent support for violent attacks on opposition parties in which hundreds of people are killed. American Immigration judges who ruled otherwise did not dispute the BNP members' violent attacks, only whether BNP officials' endorsements of them were clear enough to be legally significant.
Canadian immigration courts have been more decisive, ruling that the BNP qualified as a terror organization because of its repeated use of "hartals," or violent general strikes, as a tool of political pressure. For example, the BNP and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami launched a hartal in 2013 (in which dozens of civilians were killed) to disrupt the government's ongoing war crimes trials, which addressed crimes carried out during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence from Pakistan; the trials had implicated several BNP leaders in pro-Pakistani massacres. Another BNP hartal in 2015 caused the deaths of hundreds, most of whom were burned to death.
BNP's violence goes back further. In 2001, following an election in which Hindus overwhelmingly backed the opposition Awami League, BNP members across the country attacked Hindu communities, engaging in widespread rape and sometimes murder. And in 2004, Islamist terror groups attacked an Awami-League rally with over a dozen grenades, killing 24 people and injuring the future prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. The BNP government impeded the official investigation, and the current Awami-League government has accused the BNP of colluding with the perpetrators. And in 2005, as reported in a Wikileaks cable, an American diplomat was told that BNP officials were protecting the terror group Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh(JMB) and had lobbied for the release of its arrested leaders.
Anis Ahmed himself sometimes hints at extreme beliefs in social media. In one contentious Facebook thread, a commenter accused Ahmed of being a radical Islamist, and Ahmed responded by threatening to "take legitimate steps against you." Ahmed also criticized the man for not responding to "anti religion activities, such as comments and cartoon [sic] meant to demean any religion." Ahmed has also shared videos by Pakistani commentator Zaid Hamid, known for his conspiracy theories about the Mossad and "Hindu Zionists."
More seriously, in December 2015 the Committee for the Bangladeshi Community in Maryland wrote to Maryland governor Larry Hogan, reproducing an email Ahmed had written which strongly implied a threat to Prime Minister Hasina's life. (They further accused Ahmed of involvement with a plot to abduct Hasina's son in the United States, which resulted in several U.S. convictions; but the letter presents no evidence linking Ahmed to the case, beyond the authors' suspicions.)
The Maryland Democratic Party did not respond to our request for comment before the election, which is disappointing. Fortunately for them, Mr. Ahmed ended up losing his primary, and the Party dodged a bullet. But the thought of a representative of a violent, terroristic foreign political party winning an American election is alarming. Democrats should ensure that their candidates are more closely vetted, with more attention paid to radical connections. Otherwise, the next time someone tries to import foreign radical politics into the United States under the Democratic brand, the Democratic Party may not be so lucky as it was with Mr. Ahmed.
Oren Litwin is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum