Mr. Faiz Sobhan, Senior Research Director, BEI, was interviewed by Dhaka Tribune on the ongoing threat of extremism and terrorism nationally and internationally by Al Qaeda and ISIS and The full-length interview was published on 10 September 2019

Date: 10 September 2019

Faiz Sobhan speaks to Dhaka Tribune about terror, terrorist organizations, their presence within Bangladesh, and if our country is ready to tackle future acts of extremism

Bangladesh has seen two attempts and three successful improvised explosive device (IED) attacks targeting police personnel since the end of April. Who is behind this?

It is difficult to ascertain who exactly is behind these attacks, but the three attacks and two attempts (the bombs were discovered by police) have been claimed by the Islamic State group (IS).

If we are to assume that this was the work of the so-called local chapter of IS then, as discovered by law enforcement authorities, there is a strong likelihood that the attackers belong to Neo-JMB, who follow the IS ideology.

So, do the attackers belong to local or foreign organizations?

The attackers, via their claims, are said to be IS of the “Bengal” branch. Again, one can assume that they are members of Neo-JMB who are claiming to be the local chapter of IS.

Do you think Al-Baghdadi’s recent video has set off a new wave of DIY jihadism?

Al-Baghdadi’s video would have certainly spurred on all the IS branches and Islamist extremist groups worldwide that are either linked to or inspired by IS.

Is it a coincidence that attacks in Bangladesh commenced a month after the fall of Baghouz? Or is this a local phenomenon with opportunistic time-tabling?

I think the timing of the attacks is significant. On April 29, a poster with the image of the five Holey Artisan Bakery attackers was released in Hindi, Bangla, and English, warning of more attacks.

April 29 is also when Al-Baghdadi’s video was released. And then the first IED attack on police took place on April 30 in Gulistan, injuring three police officers.

Was this purely coincidence? I do not know, but it certainly raises questions.

It’s been three years since the Holey Artisan Bakery massacre. What are the chances that an attack of that kind could happen again?

I do not envision another attack such as Holey since that type of attack requires a large network of individuals in recruiting, planning, and training, and all this requires sufficient resources.

If the existing network of extremists grows larger and develops greater tactical expertise and capability, down the road they may attempt a larger attack.

Do the recent IED attacks bear resemblances to previous attacks?

IEDs have been used in attacks which IS has taken credit for, going back to 2015. IEDs were used on a Shia shrine in October 2015 which killed one person and injured nearly 100 others. There was an IED attack in Sylhet in March 2017 which killed six people, including RAB’s Director of Intelligence, and injured 40 others.

I think the main reason for using IEDs is simply because they can cause much damage, are not difficult to make, and are easy to use and can easily be hidden or disguised as everyday objects. In the most recent attacks, they have been hurled at or planted in police check-posts.

How will violent extremism morph in the aftermath of the caliphate?

We are already witnessing the evolution of the post-caliphate phase which consists of a very decentralized IS active in various parts of the globe. It is important to bear in mind that for a long time, IS had begun using a model of planning and instigating attacks virtually. 

The IS leadership was starkly aware that that it would not be possible to hold on to their “caliphate” indefinitely and alluded to this in various statements. They had made preparations for their territorial defeat and had begun moving into a second phase of their operations by conducting attacks remotely. 

In other words, an IS member could be sitting in Iraq, Syria, or any other country, directing and coordinating attacks online anywhere in the world.  This particular model of “virtual planning” by IS has proved very successful if you think about the number of lone wolf attacks worldwide.

The attackers are being operated remotely as killing machines by their IS handler sitting thousands of miles away. In a sense, this particular model of IS has revolutionized how terrorism is conducted in this day and age. 

Are Islamic State PoWs in Syria a threat to international security?

The world is being confronted by the monumental challenge of IS Prisoners of War and family members held in camps such as Al-Hawl — the largest camp in Syria which houses over 70,000 people.

There is a danger that Al-Hawl will become another Camp Bucca [in Iraq], where thousands of Iraqi prisoners, including Al-Baghdadi and others who later became senior members of IS, were held.

It was after their release from Camp Bucca that these individuals got together, separated from Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2013 (which had been set up in 2003 by Jordanian extremist Abu Musa al Zarqawi), and laid the foundations of what later became the Islamic State.

Are former IS ‘citizens’ repentant? Or have they become permanently radicalized?

A number of former IS citizens have repented, including several foreign fighters in media interviews. But it is difficult to say how genuinely repentant. They could well be playing to the gallery in order to obtain a lighter prison sentence or even avoid a death sentence. 

Certainly a very large number of them have become radicalized, having been a part of the caliphate for the past few years as well as going through a process of indoctrination. Many fighters’ family members being held in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq are highly radicalized and still believe in a “caliphate.”

Of great concern are young children, who in a few years will become teenagers and young adults. Are they likely to become the next batch of IS fighters? I think we are already seeing signs of that. In the past few days, a 15-year-old boy reportedly beheaded a man in one of the detention camps.

Only a few countries have taken back their nationals. The vast majority of fighters and their families have not been taken back. How long will they remain and what will eventually become of them?

Now that IS has lost its territorial base, is Al-Baghdadi still important?

Al-Baghdadi remains important for IS — he is the group’s “Emir.” The fact that he is alive despite claims that he had been killed will likely boost his followers’ morale.

If Al-Baghdadi were to be killed tomorrow it would not really matter because IS is already running on auto-pilot mode and in a virtual capacity as I mentioned earlier.

There are reports that Baghdadi is suffering from poor health due to injuries from shrapnel, and has recently appointed a former Iraqi officer as head of military operations.

Did the deaths of Bin Laden or Al-Awlaki significantly change Al-Qaeda’s situation?

Osama Bin Laden’s and Anwar Al-Awlaki’s deaths did not really affect Al-Qaeda operations nor cause the group to disintegrate. The main event that occurred was that a faction of Al-Qaeda in Iraq broke away to form IS in 2013.

As we later learned, Bin Laden spent his last years hiding in Pakistan and reportedly did not have much control over the organization. By then, Al-Qaeda already had several branches globally with their own operational chiefs, while Ayman al Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy, would be the acting head.

Al-Awlaki was always more of a spiritual ideologue for Al-Qaeda. His sermons continue to resonate with individuals around the world. These figures speak from the grave and technologically live on forever thanks to their video lectures and writings which proliferate on the internet. 

You can dub this Bin Ladism or Awlakism. It is a deep-rooted ideology and one that provides a rallying call to thousands of individuals across the globe. 

It has been 18 years since 9/11 and the beginning of the US war in Afghanistan. Is the world a safer place?

In the post-9/11 era, the world in some sense appears more dangerous. There is now a far greater presence of Al-Qaeda worldwide than at any time before 9/11 — seven branches in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. They’ve popped up across the world like Starbucks.

Now IS is following suit.

The war in Afghanistan is still going on. It has become the longest war the United States has engaged in overseas. The Taliban and US government were close to reaching a peace deal but in the last few days, that has collapsed as President Trump cancelled a secret meeting planned between US and Taliban members at Camp David. 

Thus it remains to be seen if there is a deal in the end and even if there was, what is the likelihood that it will last. Further complicating matters is the fact that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are close allies. Also, we cannot forget that IS-Khorasan has a substantial presence in Afghanistan, reportedly numbering around 5,000 fighters.

Does this mean we have to accept that violent extremism (VE) is not going away?

With so many terrorist groups and regular incidents of terrorism in many parts of the world, in a sense, VE has become the norm. Al-Qaeda and IS are global brands and won’t disappear anytime soon and even if they did, there would always be another group ready to step in and fill that gap.

It is worth noting, however, that the rise of far-right extremism in the West and Islamophobia around the world has spiked in recent years. This is certainly disconcerting.

The Islamic shatter belt seems in worse shape than ever before. What does this mean for violent extremism here and abroad?

In short, the threat of VE will remain and continue to prevail in the Middle East, parts of Africa, and South Asia as well, especially Afghanistan. 

Some of the above-mentioned cases have added a few more gallons of fuel to the already raging VE bonfire.

Are Rita Katz and the SITE website reliable sources of VE monitoring activity?

All I know about Rita Katz is that she is the person behind the SITE intelligence website which is regularly used by many researchers and policymakers to get immediate news and information on extremist propaganda.

What does the ‘defeat’ of IS mean for Al-Qaeda and locally focused extremists like Boko Haram and the Taliban?

Al-Qaeda is still active but is no longer considered the premier terrorist group in the world. That crown has been held by IS since 2014 despite the loss of their “caliphate.”

But in recent months, several reports indicate that IS are attempting a strong comeback in parts of both Iraq and Syria, undertaking hundreds of attacks on Kurdish fighters, Iraqi coalition forces, and others. 

An indication of this resurgence is highlighted by the number of sorties the United States Air Force and its coalition partners undertook between January and July of this year, totaling over 7,600 sorties as opposed to nearly 7,800 sorties for the whole of 2018. 

Regardless of a “defeated” IS, local outfits such as Boko Haram or the Taliban will continue to pose a long term threat within their national boundaries.

Social media remains a major site of contention, activism, and recruitment — where do you see this heading?

Social media is two sides of a coin. It will continue to aid VE groups such as IS who very cleverly use social media platforms to churn out propaganda in real time and globally.

Social media titans such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others have joined hands, albeit a little late, to take down a vast amount of extremist propaganda in recent years. But one can still find a lot of extremist material just on the surface web.

CVE efforts online are being carried out far more now by governments and non-government actors but it is not clear how impactful they have been.

We know extremist propaganda still has a very large audience. Extremist group fans and members publish propaganda in several languages such as English, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, French, Russian, Turkish, Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, Tamil, and more.

What are the main push and pull factors in recruiting individuals to VE and terrorism?

There is a vast array of push and pull factors that can cause someone to become radicalized. Personal vulnerabilities often play a major role.

Coping with depression or a personal tragedy, or the struggle to find meaning and one’s place in society, can all affect one’s vulnerability to recruitment. Social Psychologist Arie Kruglanski calls it the quest for significance.

We know that personal relationships and networks of family and friends also play a significant role in recruitment. They can help vulnerable individuals have a sense of purpose and belonging — of being part of a grand project, if you like.

In many countries it boils down to basic factors such as a sense of exclusion and discrimination. For many however, it is purely ideological. It is their particular interpretation of an ideology which they use as a platform to undertake acts of terrorism.

If the propensity towards Islamist violent extremism is primarily about vulnerability and a desire for meaning, how is it any different from white supremacist violence?

Right. We have seen extremist ideologies and terrorist attacks of many stripes. Earlier this year, you had a white supremacist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

In the US, there have been a few such cases during the past few years, including an attack on a black church in South Carolina in 2015, the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, which targeted Latinos, killing 21 people, and an attack on a mosque in Norway last month.

It may come as a surprise to some, but last year, all race-based domestic terrorism in the US was perpetrated by suspected white supremacists. But it is not just about white supremacist violence. 

Modern day terrorism has also been carried out by other religious groups including Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews. In 2007, there was an attack in Ajmer, India outside the shrine of the famous Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, killing two people and injuring many, reportedly carried out by RSS activists. 

Since the BJP came to power in India in 2014, there has been a sharp rise in Hindu extremist groups targeting Muslim and Dalit communities across the country.

Last year, Buddhist extremists attacked Muslims in Sri Lanka, and some Myanmar monks have used hate speech against the Muslim minority there and justified the eviction of the Rohingya.

Is media coverage on this topic balanced?

In most cases, you will not hear mainstream media outlets state the above-mentioned attacks are clear acts of terrorism which should be reported as such.

I think this type of mislabeling boils down to the particular mindset of mainstream media organizations everywhere. Their thinking has become very one-dimensional, so as soon as an attack occurs involving a Muslim or Muslims, he or she automatically gets branded a “terrorist.”

But if a non-Muslim carries out a VE attack it gets labeled a hate crime or a deranged individual going on a mass shooting spree — but both are clearly acts of terrorism. There is no ambiguity here.

I think media has a grave responsibility in how they report on cases of extremism and terrorism and the amount of time they allot to such cases.

I still recall that during the entire episode of the Holey attack, CNN covered the incident from beginning to end. Local media outlets, under orders from our authorities, stopped live telecasting on the attack.

Margaret Thatcher once said that for terrorists, the media is their “oxygen of publicity.” Many people agreed with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision to not use the name or broadcast the image of the Christchurch terrorist.

So are we any closer to defeating terrorism?

Terrorism will unfortunately go on for many years to come as long as individuals and groups believe they have a legitimate reason or follow a particular type of ideology which justifies the use of violence to achieve their political or religious goals. The current phase of terrorism is a generational fight and many children of extremists may decide to continue the fight like their parents. 

Therefore, the approach for governments and non-government actors is to come up with a comprehensive program (tailor-made according to the country’s political, economic, and social landscape) of tolerance, empathy, understanding, interfaith dialogue and alternative narratives to those espoused by extremist groups. But there is no magic formula to defeating terrorism. 

Each country has to attempt their own formula and see what works and doesn’t work.

Is Bangladesh prepared?

I would say, yes, we are generally prepared in Bangladesh. Our security agencies have greatly improved in terms of intelligence, technical know-how, resources, capacity, and capability. Significantly, the vast majority of Bangladeshis abhor extremism and terrorism of all kinds. We must remember that in many cases, the reason behind VE in Bangladesh is largely due to external factors beyond our control — such as what is happening beyond our borders in the Middle East with the Syrian war, and elsewhere, where Muslims are seen to be under attack.

It is worth remembering that Islam in Bengal has been greatly influenced by Sufism for eight centuries, compared with which Wahhabi and Salafi doctrines are recent and have shallow roots.

This is a major reason why Bangladesh has never had a long history of terrorism. Whenever it has faced episodes of terrorism the process has always been short-lived, not lasting beyond a few years. 

Abu Sayeed Asiful Islam has been a contributing editor and editor for planning and strategy at Dhaka Tribune. Faiz Sobhan is Research Director, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.