Bangladeshis are a talkative lot. Mention suicide bombers on a Dhaka college campus or near a mosque and there is no stopping them. They fall over one another to give their views on a topic that is a source of both fascination and dread. 'Allah knows how scared we are today. When human beings start exploding like bombs unleashing death and destruction, only God can save our nation,' said a mathematics teacher in his 40s after the special Friday prayers at Baitul Mukarram, the capital's biggest mosque. 'Our shopping malls and food courts were overcrowded before the suicide bombers struck. Now people generally prefer the safety of their homes in the evenings,' he said, refusing to give his name. Suicide bombers killed 20 people in less than a fortnight in November and December in what is being seen as an escalating terrorist campaign to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on democratic Bangladesh, which has the fourth largest Muslim population after Indonesia, Pakistan and India. Some security experts and counterterrorist agencies have estimated there are more than 2,000 would-be bombers waiting to become the next martyr for jihad, or holy war. Responding to the new tide of terror, Washington and London have warned their nationals to steer clear of Bangladesh. According to Bangladesh's state minister for home, Lutfozzaman Babar, two banned outfits - Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) - are behind the suicide attacks. Diplomats, academics and political analysts in Dhaka say the advent of suicide bombers underlines the existence of the al-Qaeda terror network in Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries. 'Besides al-Qaeda, there is emerging evidence of Bangladeshi militants' close ties with radicals in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines,' said a western diplomat. 'The scenario is particularly alarming because Bangladesh is the bridge between Southeast and South Asia. Developments here have international ramifications.' Retired Major-General Ghulam Quader said the bombers were exploiting the poverty, with the average annual income being a paltry US$370. 'What we are seeing today is the outcome of years of planning. It couldn't have happened overnight,' he said. General Quader, ex-chief of National Security Intelligence, Bangladesh's domestic intelligence agency, is now the executive director of Dhaka's influential Centre for Strategic and Peace Studies. 'Bangladeshis are so poor, illiterate and gullible that recruiting suicide bombers is not a problem at all,' he said. 'In our country, the rich commit murder or rape and then hire a poor man who tells the police he committed the crime. He is paid to go to jail. Sometimes proxy prisoners are even hanged,' he said. 'Poverty is the biggest recruiting agent. There is no dearth of people willing to answer the call if the incentive is cash. It's easy to brainwash people you have literally purchased.' The nation's first-ever suicide attacks on November 29 left 11 dead and shook Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's government, which includes two powerful Islamic parties. A suicide bomber, disguised as a lawyer in a black robe, sneaked into a crowded court library in Gazipur, 20km north of Dhaka, and blew himself up, killing six, including him. That same day, another radical strapped with explosives claimed four lives in the port city of Chittagong. Nine days later, on December 8, a suicide bomber entered a crowded area of Netrokona, 360km from Dhaka, riding a bicycle. A witness saw the cyclist pull a cord tied to his body, triggering an explosion which killed nine. Then on December 14 two judges were killed when bombs were hurled at a minibus carrying them to the court. One of the captured attackers told interrogators that he belonged to a suicide squad of JMB. The outfit is suspected of having close links with Jamaat-e-Islami, a key constituent of Begum Zia's ruling coalition, although the Jamaat publicly disowns JMB. 'I was assigned to kill and die,' the man reportedly revealed in a confession leaked to the press. 'I wanted to be a martyr in my efforts to establish sharia-based Islamic rule in Bangladesh.' Experts say militants had made their intentions clear as early as August when Bangladesh was hit by 434 almost simultaneous blasts across the country. 'The meticulously planned nationwide blasts of August 17 killed only two but the message the extremists successfully sent was they could strike at will anywhere in the country and that no corner was beyond their reach or influence,' the western diplomat said. Official statistics show suicide bombings and blasts have now killed at least 30 people and wounded 150. Apparently lawyers and judges are special targets because militants want to usher in sharia law, replacing Bangladeshi laws based on British common law first introduced in the subcontinent during colonial rule . A few self-styled commanders of terrorist outfits have been captured but there is still no trace of Sheikh Abdur Rahman and Bangla Bhai, the leaders of JMB and JMJB respectively.