There has been no major terrorist incident since the militant attack on Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan, Dhaka, which took place four years ago, but that does not mean that the militant groups have been uprooted. IS-backed groups are still alive, albeit on a smaller scale. They have been driven away from Syria, but have not been uprooted. They are active in various ways around the world and are even seeing a degree of success. In Bangladesh too, various militant groups may be subdued for the time being, but they still exist. There are apprehensions that, being driven out of Syria, they will spread out all over the world. They have already staged attacks in the Maldives, Male, Mozambique and other places.
These observations were made by security expert Major General ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS), in a recent interview with Prothom Alo.
Commenting on the measures taken against militancy after the Holey Artisan attack, ANM Muniruzzaman said that there has been considerable success. However, this success has been restricted to measures taken by the law enforcement agencies. Their operational measures have kept the militant groups in control. The weaknesses, however, lie in the fact that we have failed to effectively block the paths leading to the spread of extremism. We have already seen how they have reached out to influence young people, women and entire families. They have even succeeded to an extent.
Muniruzzaman said he agreed with an observation of Michael S Smith, a lecturer of Johns Hopkins University, that the IS will take advantage of the existing societal divisions which are likely to deepen as the state authorities are focused on the pandemic. In the US, he observed, the discrimination faced by the black people came out into the open during the COVID-19 situation. Such discrimination will increase anger and frustration among the people. He feared that the militants will easily put this to use.
“Bangladesh must be alert about this,” said security expert Muniruzzaman, “Specific measures should be taken to remove discrimination.” Certain realities have been created due to corona, which can incite the spread of extremist ideology, he said.
The IS has been propagating the idea that the coronavirus broke out in Wuhan as a divine intervention against Chinese communists, in Iran against Shiites, in Europe against the ‘crusaders’.
In this locked down life, we have all become dependent on the internet, he observed. The youth particularly are giving more time to the internet and various analyses and studies indicate beyond doubt that the militant groups are endeavoring to use this situation to spread their extremist ideology.
ANM Muniruzzaman agreed with SITE Intelligence’s Rita Katz that the IS militants are likely to take advantage of the law enforcement being preoccupied with COVID-19 all over the world. He said this observation was very much relevant in the case of Bangladesh too.
In Bangladesh the state agencies were busy tackling coronavirus. In various places of the world the militants have carried out attacks already. A militant of Libyan descent carried out an attack in London, and in Edinburgh before that. Recently there was an attack on the Karachi Stock Exchange.
He highlighted the added dangers of the militants taking up bioterrorism. Many of the militants liked to say that corona was sent by God, equipping them with new strategies. Rita Katz recently tweeted on Twitter that IS militants who had contracted coronavirus may enter a Jewish synagogue and spread germs by coughing and sneezing around the place. IS has issued directives to its supporters to turn up at Trump’s public gatherings and spread the virus. They are thinking of using the germ as a weapon. If they manage to acquire this strategy, they won’t have to use explosives as in the past. They can create huge havoc in a small space. This is a matter of alarm for every state and society.
When asked if the attacks on Maldives and Mozambique indicated new strategies of the militants, the BIPSS president replied that the militants were always seeking new strategies to perpetrate their activities. He said that the ocean-based attack was a lesson to be noted as we had several marine establishments. These recent attacks were therefore a matter of further concern. They may try to replicate these as the Indian Ocean and Bangladesh’s strategic position were very important. After the Maldives attack, Muniruzzaman stressed, it was imperative that security measures be adopted immediately so that we are not victims of such terror.
If the anti-militancy activities are restricted to the law enforcement agencies, the terrorist groups may be cornered for some time, but they will re-emerge with their militant activities at the slightest chance. It is most important to take a holistic approach to counter terrorism.
The IS has been propagating the idea that the coronavirus broke out in Wuhan as a divine intervention against Chinese communists, in Iran against Shiites, in Europe against the ‘crusaders’. Their mouthpiece Naba recently stated that even Muslims may be affected.
Muniruzzaman said that there was an absence of counter-narrative required in response to such contentions of the extremists. He said, “We simply have no preparation to counter these religious interpretations they are coming up with. This weakness existed before and is still there. The states are so caught up in tackling COVID-19, that they are not paying attention to the fact that a plausible religious explanation must be put in place.” The extremists have a free rein in their one-sided interpretations online and some people may even accept this. When people are mentally vulnerable, they may unknowingly be prepared to accept misinterpretations, he said.
Asked about the intelligence, administrative, judicial and political developments since the militant incident four years ago, Muniruzzaman said that the operational side had been more successful, but such terrorist acts did not end in just the incident. There are many stages involved and the militant attack in the final stage. Unless the active fields to spread extremist ideology were clamped down upon, there was no guarantee that such terrorist incidents would not occur again.
He said that though the militant groups may be restricted, they were making their presence known. He said Bangladesh required certain state polices which have not been prepared. The matter is being restricted to the law enforcement agencies. There is need for a national strategic policy to thwart the spread of such extremism. The role of the law enforcement is certainly essential, but various quarters of society must certainly play a role too. These roles must be clearly delineated so there is scope for everyone to work to this end. No such preparation has been visible so far.
A national strategic policy must be drawn up with, defining the role of religious leaders, civil society, the media and those of us involved in think-tanks, he said. If the anti-militancy activities are restricted to the law enforcement agencies, the terrorist groups may be cornered for some time, but they will re-emerge with their militant activities at the slightest chance. It is most important to take a holistic approach to counter terrorism, he contended. He concluded, “If we can do that, then we won’t just control terrorism, we will move towards uprooting it.”
*This interview, appearing in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English, in report form, by Ayesha Kabir.