'Contours changing but terrorism remains'

BIPSS-Dhaka Tribune roundtable on 'The Changing Contours of Terrorism - A Threat Assessment', held on Thursday at Westin Hotel

The threat of terrorism remains in various shapes and forms and technology now poses new threats.

Just as there is need to address the root cause of radicalisation, there is also need to deradicalise, rehabilitate and reintegrate the militants upon their release from detention.

These observations were made by a panel of experts at a roundtable on 'The Changing Contours of Terrorism - A Threat Assessment' held on Thursday at The Westin Dhaka in the capital city.

Organised jointly by the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) and Dhaka Tribune as part of their regular series on current affairs, the event was attended by retired civil and military officials, foreign diplomats, academics, journalists, security experts, students and more.

Introducing and expanding on the theme of the roundtable, the moderator of the event and president of BIPSS, Maj Gen ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), said that terrorism is a hydra-headed monster. You cut off one head and another crops up. There are the religious terrorists referred to as Islamists, the saffronists in India, the white supremacists in the West and so on. Terrorism is also being greatly influenced by technology, posing new threats to the world in the coming days.

About countering this trend in terrorism, Maj Gen Muniruzzaman said, "We have to be proactive, not reactive. Bangladesh lacks a comprehensive counter terrorism architecture. There is a lack of understanding bio-terrorism. There is a gap in aviation security. There is a lack of realisation how utility services can be weaponised. We must keep non-weapon attacks in mind, just as mass ramming with vehicles. Techniques and tactics are constantly evolving."

Shafqat Munir, security expert, Senior Research Fellow at BIPSS and head of BCTR, said that post 9/11, the focus had been on Al Qaeda and so on, but now the situation is different. It is no longer just religio-political militancy, but different ideologies too. Since the 2016 Holey Artisan militant attack, Bangladesh had made much progress. Now, coming to 2022, the number of successful militant attacks is almost down to zero. But the absence of a successful terrorist attack doesn't denote absence of terrorism.

"The countering violent extremism community must take a long view. During Covid, terrorists were not able to operate, but they were not sitting idle," continued Shafqat Munir, adding that they used this time to step up their cyber activities.

He pointed out that in the past, JMB's biggest technological feat was to release a video, but now the militants communicate through the Net, social media, gaming platforms and more.

We have taken our eyes off the ball as far as terrorism is concerned. New issues emerged, Covid, recent geopolitical tensions, but the threat hasn't gone away
Shafqat Munir, research fellow at BIPSS and head of BCTR

"Tactics have changed," said the security expert, "The onus is on us to adapt too. We have to look into their operational and strategic moves. For example, Lone Wolf terrorism will become more of a norm." Then there was family as a terror unit, he pointed out, with examples in Indonesia, Bangladesh and other places.

There is a convergence of crime and terror. Terror needs money, crime needs protection
Dr ASM Ali Ashraf, Professor of International Relations, Dhaka University

Stressing on the need to remain alert, he said, "Internationally we have taken our eyes off the ball as far as terrorism is concerned. New issues emerged, Covid, recent geopolitical tensions, but the threat hasn't gone away. The contours are changing but the threat remains. We must be prepared. We have to understand the changing tactics of militant groups."

He highlighted the need for seamless cooperation with international partners to help build the capacity and understand the threat. There is need for counter-terrorism capacity building for the government and the society as a whole.

The next panelist, Dr ASM Ali Ashraf, professor of International Relations at Dhaka University, spoke of the crime and terror nexus. General speaking, he pointed out, criminals and terrorists were separate, with criminals being money-driven and terrorists ideology-driven. "But now there is a convergence of crime and terror," he said, "Terror needs money, crime needs protection." ISIS used the oil fields, the IRA used criminal proceeds, as an example of this nexus. For terrorists, the prime reason for crime was fund raising. They cooperate with fake currency producers and small arms suppliers. 'Hundi' networks are also getting involved.

Instead of rehabilitation, our prisons are becoming dens of radicalisation
Maj Gen ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), President, BIPSS

Then there was also a transformation among some terrorists, said Dr Ali Ashraf, where low ranking militants who were involved in petty crimes like snatching money from BKash agents, were losing ideological motives and moved on to money making.

Coming to the topic of communications, he said the terrorists had basically three kinds of communication strategies where around 59 per cent of the operations rely on person to person communication, 9 per cent on virtual communication and 32 per cent on hybrid communication. Online communication had increased since 2015.

The matter of rehabilitation and reintegrating violent extreme terrorists was also a matter that called for attention, the professor said.

"There was sometimes the need for lethal brute force, as in the case of tackling the Holey Artisan attack, but we need soft power as well," he said.

Singapore is a good example where they are given a second chance in prison, with facilities for rehabilitation. However, this task requires skilled  psycho-social understanding and a risk assessment as not everyone can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

He stressed, "There is need for a well-articulated counter terrorism strategy."

We need to look into deradicalisation otherwise the militancy will ultimately come back
Zafar Sobhan, Editor, Dhaka Tribune

Summing up the roundtable, ANM Muniruzzaman said, "We have no counter-terrorism strategy, individual organisations are acting on their own and often nullify each other. Terror financing money is still coming in. Radicalisation of migrant workers is also quite high. Instead of rehabilitation, our prisons are becoming dens of radicalisation. This needs carefully defined strategies by experts as incoherent strategies are more harmful than no strategies."

In his closing remarks, Zafar Sobhan, editor of Dhaka Tribune, said, "On the surface it seems we are in a very different place from 2015-17. The threat seems low. But while the threat is low, it is always present with us. There is less focus on radicalisation, but we need to look into deradicalisation otherwise the militancy will ultimately come back."

He said it was important to look into the root causes of terrorism, at the injustices all around. While there may be legitimate grievances, violence can never be the solution.

During a lively interactive session, further details on the issue of terrorism, militancy, governance and geopolitics were deliberated upon.