For nine months the exact nature of the Mecca's cargo or the shipment's eventual destination remained unknown. But there were clues. Portworkers that night said they saw five motor launches ferry in large groups of men from the boat wearing black turbans, long beards and traditional Islamic salwar kameez. Their towering height suggested these travelers were foreigners, and the boxes of ammunition and the AK-47s slung across their shoulders helped sketch a sinister picture. Then in July, a senior member of Bangladesh's largest terrorist group, the 2,000-strong al-Qaeda-allied Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), told TIME the 150 men who entered Bangladesh that night were Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan. Three senior Bangladeshi military sources also confirmed this was the case. And on Oct. 7, Indian police arrested Burmese-born HUJI fighter and weapons courier Fazle Karim (alias Abu Fuzi) as he arrived in Calcutta by train from Kashmir. A veteran of al-Qaeda's camps in eastern Afghanistan who told his interrogators he had twice met Osama bin Laden, Karim said he recognized two people he had trained with in Afghanistan while visiting HUJI hideouts in Bangladesh in August. The pair told him they were part of a group of "more than 100 Arabs and Afghans belonging to al-Qaeda and the Taliban who had arrived by ship at Chittagong in winter," Karim said, according to transcripts of his interview with Indian police.
As for the Mecca, its passengers' plans remained a mystery. One military source says most of the men stayed in Bangladesh rather than merely transiting, although he adds it was not clear whether the group sought only refuge or planned to establish a new base of operations. On Sept. 24, a fuller picture finally began to emerge when Bangladesh's domestic intelligence agency arrested four Yemenis, an Algerian, a Libyan and a Sudanese at three houses in the upper-crust district of Uttara in Dhaka. Bangladeshi intelligence sources said they received information from "several" foreign agencies that the men—Abu Nujaid of Libya, Sadek Al Nassami, Abu Sallam, Abu Umaiya and Abul Abbas of Yemen, Abul Ashem of Algeria and Hassan Adam of Sudan—were involved in militant arms training at a madrasah in the capital run by a Saudi-backed charity, al-Haramain. In September, Indonesia's al-Qaeda supersnitch Omar al-Faruq told the CIA that al-Haramain was the foundation used to channel bin Laden's money to him from the Middle East. An American expert in the region concurs that branches of the ultraconservative foundation have funded terrorism around the world—a fact that earned two al-Haramain foreign offices a blacklisting by Washington in March—although probably without the knowledge of al-Haramain's headquarters in Riyadh. "Disreputable folks have penetrated al-Haramain and used its offices, funds and personnel for nefarious purposes," he says.
The seven al-Haramain members were questioned by interrogators from domestic intelligence, police and the DGFI. Bangladeshi agents also fanned out across the country to investigate al-Haramain's 37 other branches, which promptly ceased operations. Although Bangladeshi intelligence sources confirmed the suspects were being questioned about links to al-Qaeda, they cautioned that no relationship with bin Laden's terror network had been discovered, nor any evidence of training. They added that the men had been in Bangladesh for three years and were also being interrogated over allegations of child trafficking. Sources within Bangladesh's intelligence community, however, told TIME the authorities had been embarrassed not to find any evidence at al-Haramain's five-story offices in Dhaka and were trying to play down the raid. They said the passports and entry stamps indicating that the seven arrested men entered Bangladesh in 1999 were most likely fakes. Whatever the case, after being held for five days at a secret location, the men were driven to court and released on Sept. 29. No charges or proceedings were brought. After they were freed from custody, the seven were driven to Dhaka's Sheraton hotel where they spent the night, and then disappeared. TIME's HUJI source claimed the trafficking story was merely an official smoke screen. "These are the same guys from the Mecca," he said. "These are bin Laden's people. They've been hiding here for several months."
Bangladesh, it is true, is no Afghanistan, or even Pakistan. For centuries, Bengalis have been united by a culture of tolerance that defies the familiar South Asian divide between Hindu and Muslim. After Sept. 11, the CIA did set up a new five-man base in Dhaka, but merely as part of a global policy of establishing a presence in all Muslim countries. The American intelligence community's view is summed up by one U.S. source who told TIME that Bangladesh is "not a real hot account." But Bangladesh also has its fundamentalists. And its southern coastal hills and northern borders with India are lawless and bristling with Islamic militants armed by gunrunners en route from Cambodia and southern Thailand to Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Central Asia and the Middle East.
Today, southern Bangladesh has become a haven for hundreds of jihadis on the lam. They find natural allies in Muslim guerrillas from India hiding out across the border, and in Muslim Rohingyas, tens of thousands of whom fled the ethnic and religious suppression of the Burmese military junta in the late 1970s and 1980s. Many Rohingyas are long-term refugees, but some are trained to cause trouble back home in camps tolerated by a succession of Bangladeshi governments. The original facilities date back to 1975, making them Asia's oldest jihadi training camps. And one former Burmese guerrilla who visits the camps regularly describes three near Ukhia, south of the town of Cox's Bazar, as able to accommodate a force of 2,500 between them. The biggest, he claims, has 26 interconnected bunkers complete with kitchens, lecture halls, telephones and televisions concealed beneath a three-meter-high false forest floor that stretches between two hills. Weapons available for training there include AK-47s, heavy machine guns, rifles, pistols, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Mantraps and mines, which can be triggered by spotters hiding in tree houses, protect approaches to the camp.
Over the years, the former guerrilla says, Ukhia has hosted militant visitors from the southern Philippines, Indonesia, southern Thailand, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, even Uzbekistan and Chechnya. Videotapes showing al-Qaeda in training that were unearthed by CNN in August include footage from 1990 that feature Rohingya rebels. And one of the five signatories to bin Laden's Feb. 23, 1998 call for a jihad against America was Fazjul Rahman, who signed in the name of "the Jihad movement of Bangladesh." Fighters trained and given new identities in Bangladesh also regularly find their way to conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Indian intelligence says the Islamic hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane with 189 passengers and crew on board, which they forced to fly from Kathmandu to Kandahar in December 1999, had traveled to Nepal from Bangladesh.