The latest article by Mr. Faiz Sobhan, Research Director, BEI, entitled, ‘Confronting the new terrorist threat in Bangladesh’, was published in the Nikkei Asian Review on 14 July 2016


Faiz Sobhan — Confronting the new terrorist threat in Bangladesh

People place flowers at a makeshift memorial to pay tribute to the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O’Kitchen Restaurant, in Dhaka on July 5. © Reuters

With the spectacular resurgence of Islamic State in 2014, one thing is clear: the terrorist group has a larger game plan. A plan that seeks to spread its tentacles beyond the Middle East and Africa to other parts of the Muslim world, including South Asia and, in particular, Bangladesh.

Over the past few years, Bangladesh has witnessed a series of barbaric attacks on a wide group of individuals, including foreign nationals, religious figures, bloggers, professors, Christian converts, Hindus, LGBT activists and the police. The July 1 attack at Holey Artisan Bakery cafe in central Dhaka, where 22 Bangladeshis and foreign nationals died after being tortured, shot and hacked, was a suicide mission by the six young terrorists. On July 7, another attack took the lives of two policemen and a woman at the country’s largest Eid gathering – held to mark the end of Ramadan, the holy fasting month — in Dhaka’s Kishoreganj district.

These acts purportedly have been claimed primarily by two groups, Ansaral-Islam, the local chapter of al-Qaida in South Asia and the Islamic State, with attacks undertaken by its assumed local affiliate, the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh.The attacks have sent the country reeling and once again highlight the specter of violent extremism in Bangladesh.

A few days after the Holey Artisan Bakery attack, IS social-media channels released a video of three Bangladeshi fighters, apparently speaking from Syria. “What you witnessed in Bangladesh … was a glimpse,” one of the fighters said, adding: “This will repeat, repeat and repeat until you lose and we win, and the sharia is established throughout the world.”

The video, released so soon after the attack, has been taken as a declaration of war by IS — and a signal to other IS members and sympathizers in Bangladesh to undertake terrorist operations — as well as a recruitment tool. Some analysts believe that the spread of IS around the world is gaining pace due to the group’s recent territorial losses in its heartland of Iraq and Syria, where it has reportedly lost more than a third of the land it had conquered.

Many observers, however, question why IS or al-Qaida would want to set their sights on South Asia and, in particular, Bangladesh. In fact, South Asia is an important arena for global Islamist extremist groups who see Bangladesh as ideally situated because of its proximity to other countries in the region, such as India and Myanmar. Further, there are many times more Muslims in South Asia than there are in the Middle East, as the largest Muslim populations in the world, beyond Indonesia, reside in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

However, the government and some analysts in Bangladesh reject the notion of an actual connection with IS and insist the recent terrorist attacks were the handiwork of certain political parties. Some Bangladesh government officials imply that opposition parties would relish seeing the government suffer the humiliation of being unable to prevent these attacks or allay concerns at home and abroad. In addition, some contend there is the possibility that individuals and groups sympathetic to IS and al-Qaida would gain from using their names since they are known global “brands.” Further, if there was any connection at all with IS, it is because local extremist forces have reached out to the group to help bolster their image at home.

These groups have a vested interest in spreading fear among locals, foreigners and religious and ethnic minorities. Such anxiety in turn would have major consequences, such as frightening away existing and potential foreign investors, causing tension between the government and its allies, and driving a deeper wedge between the secularists and non-secularists, as well as more broadly destabilizing the government.

Action plan

While the government has, in the past few years, achieved considerable success at disrupting extremist groups and keeping them on the run, the reality is that these groups have spent the past few years regrouping and have continued their activities unabated, constantly finding new ways and means to thrive and survive.The factors that enable these groups to function revolve around a local network of supporters and trainers, their particular brand of ideology, religious and political, and sources of funding.

The government along with relevant stakeholders — including civil society, the media, the private sector, religious clerics, public and private schools, state-run madrassas, colleges, universities and the youth — must, without delay, take steps to counter the threat of extremism.

Among the key measures should be:

  1. Developing, first and foremost, a mass awareness campaign about the dangers of extremism and how it goes against the basic tenets of Islam. In order to gain traction, this drive must target all sectors of society.
  2. Developing a dedicated National Counter Terrorism Agency — a supranational body under which various counter-terrorism bureaus and agencies would operate.
  3. Strengthening the training and capacity of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including improving human intelligence and real-time intelligence sharing between agencies.
  4. Drafting a national strategy to counter violent extremism, with a strong emphasis on recognizing and curbing early signs of radicalization by focusing on the role of families, in particular, mothers and women in general, as well as civil society at all levels, the private sector, clerics, educational institutions and the media. Such a strategy should enlist cooperation through educational campaigns, culture and sports events, and even by utilizing well-known personalities such as athletes and celebrities.
  5. Designing a “deradicalization” program for the rehabilitation and reintegration of extremists into society, as well as addressing the problem of radicalization in prisons. The model for such a program could come from various successful international deradicalization programs such as those in Denmark, Germany, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, among other countries, but within the context and resources available to Bangladesh.
  6. Adopting more sophisticated measures to monitor and curb the flow of funds to extremist groups, and further strengthening the role of the Financial Intelligence Unit of the Bangladesh Bank.
  7. Closer monitoring and countering online activities of extremist groups, such as creating a dedicated National Cyber Security Center.
  8. Enlisting and encouraging more religious scholars and clerics to speak out forcefully against religious extremism — not just in mosques, but in schools, colleges, universities and in public forums.
  9. Engaging and seeking the support of all political parties to build a unified front against extremism.
  10. Developing more robust legal measures to counter the threat of violent extremism.
  11. Placing greater emphasis on the rule of law and human rights in acting against extremism.

A cornerstone of the government’s success on these fronts, however, must be a comprehensive national strategy to address the problem head on. This strategy would supplement public efforts to shape and strengthen overall initiatives in countering violent and nonviolent extremism, both in the short and long term.

The major lesson to learn from the history of modern terrorism and violent extremism is that countries often wait until the problem takes on unmanageable proportions before designing and developing counter-extremism strategies. Rather than spending many years and large amounts of money combating extremism as it arises, it needs to be tackled at its genesis. In other words, there is an urgent need to focus on the preventive aspects of extremism.

While the tradition of secularism and culture permeates society at every level, the fact remains that Bangladesh has faced such extremism in the past, due in part to interest groups that aim to destabilize the state and build a more traditional Islamist state. Historically, however, Bangladesh as a nation has a long tradition of inter-faith harmony, pluralism and respect for other religious groups, and the country takes immense pride in its language, history and cultural heritage.

While over the years, bouts of violent extremism have attempted to disrupt tolerance among various faith groups, ultimately, the vast majority of Bangladeshis have no desire to see their country become a state which rejects its time-honored secular values and traditions. To continue on the path of communal harmony, all Bangladeshis must be more proactive in combating attempts to damage the social fabric. They must actively confront this very real and grave danger.

Faiz Sobhan is research director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh.