Prothom Alo: It has been three years since the militant attack on Holey Artisan Bakery and things seem to be under control. How do you view this?
Monirul Islam: It is common knowledge that militant activities are more or less under control, but that does not make us complacent. This is a global problem and people of this mindset exist and are active on an international level and in our society as well. We are aware that they will rise up if they get a chance.
The people of this country must be given due credit that militancy is more or less under control. The people hate such activities and this has weakened the moral stance of the militants. We received full cooperation from the people.
Credit, above all, must go to the prime minister. In 2009 she declared zero tolerance against militancy and reiterated this after the Holey Artisan incident, instructing us to work accordingly.
Prothom Alo: You all have carried out the administrative aspect of tackling militancy, but this is difficult to implement without political policy and support. Is there are shortcoming in this aspect? Can the government do more?
Monirul Islam: There is no shortcoming whatsoever in the government’s directives issued to us. The government is extending all sorts of assistance to enhance our competence. However, laxity has cropped up in the initial initiative that had been taken up by government and private quarters as well as civil society after the Holey Artisan incident. Countering terrorism is a long term and complex process. The role of all quarters is important. The people not be lax, but remain active, then it will be easier to tackle militancy.
Prothom Alo: Has your work slowed down at all? There were two minor attacks recently and IS took responsibility. The CC camera in front of the Special Branch office was not functioning. And no conclusions have even been drawn up about the incidents.
Monirul Islam: It is not that there is any shortfall in our security system. As for the CCTV camera to which you referred, actually that had to be removed because of the flyover being constructed. And all roads are not under CCTV surveillance as yet. The camera inside is fine and we have some evidence there. No matter what people may be saying, we are attaching due importance to these incidents. There is no laxity in our performance. We have not solved these incidents as yet, but are working in full swing.
Prothom Alo: Alongside preventing militancy, it is important to prevent radicalisation. Many militants are in jail after being caught and they radicalise the other prisoners. Prisons are proven to be fertile grounds for radicalisation. Is there nothing for you all to do in this regard?
Monirul Islam: The prison authorities are completely separate from the police. Generally speaking, the police cannot even enter the prison. Legally speaking, there really is nothing we can do about what goes on inside the prison. However, the situation within the prisons has improved. There is less scope now for the general prisoners to mix with those arrested under the anti-terrorism act.
Prothom Alo: Have you brought this matter to the attention of the government or tried to explain this to the jail authorities?
Monirul Islam: I am in contact with the jail authorities on an official and an informal level. We tried to make them aware of these issues. The other agencies dealing with the anti-terrorism issue are very much alert about radicalisation within the prisons. The jail authorities are also aware about this. We are now taking initiative for special training of the prison guards who are in charge of such prisoners. It is not only in Bangladesh, but internationally too, prisons are regarded to be fertile breeding grounds for militants. We are making an effort to reduce that risk.
Prothom Alo: Many of those involved in militant activities are released on bail or released after serving their sentence. Do you monitor their activities?
Monirul Islam: Everyone has the right to bail. It is up to the court whether to grant bail or not. However, we have not been able to start up the process of deradicalisation in an organised manner as yet. When a suspected militant or terrorist is arrested, the process to draw him away from his radical ways should begin in jail. He should be reformed in prison. Psychiatrists and religious scholars can be consulted in this regard. We haven’t been able to start this as yet.
Among those arrested, not all are criminals of the same degree. When those facing serious charges are released on bail, we monitor them. We identify a few of those who were punished for militant activities and whose prison sentences have ended. We are taking initiative to provide them with financial assistance and to rehabilitate them socially. This will be implemented soon.
Prothom Alo: In a country like Pakistan, there is a deradicalisation centre for Islamic militants, to guide them away from radicalisation and rehabilitate them financially and socially. Does the government in Bangladesh have any such initiative or do you all have any recommendations in this regard?
Monirul Islam: We have approval for similar work, but this will require certain legal amendments. This will be needed if we want to keep anyone separate anywhere after they are granted bail or released after serving sentence. Even if we want to send a psychiatrist or a religious scholar into the prison to meet with the inmates, this will require changes in the prison code. We are discussing such suggestions and hope to be able to do something effective in this regard in the future.
Prothom Alo: There have been discussions from time to time about the education curriculum. There are things in the curriculum that can serve to provoke religious intolerance. It will be difficult to control the spread of militant ideology if such matters persist in society. What is your role in this regard or do you have any recommendations for the government?
Monirul Islam: Tackling militancy is a lengthy and complex process. We are working with various quarters in this regard. Guardians, teachers, youth, Islamic academics, lawyers, cultural activities and those who can mobilise public opinion are being consulted to identify the weak points and problems.
We will do all that is possible. We will advise the government about matters out of our control. Our research cell is working on ‘preventing violent extremism’. They are discussing with relevant quarters, recording recommendations and opinions and drawing up guidelines. We will highlight these guidelines. The main objective is to uphold appropriate education, values and ethics so that extremist thoughts do not take root in people’s minds. The young generation is to be mobilised towards tolerance for different views, to develop cultural awareness, patriotism and a sense of responsibility.
Prothom Alo: You monitor social media, but social media is rife with ‘waaz’ or sermons that are very instigative. These play a role in provoking intolerance and religious hatred in society. Why do you not take action against these?
Monirul Islam: It is neither possible nor correct to tackle everything through the law. We have already taken down many sermons which incite hatred or which are vulgar. We have identified a few persons and are preparing to take legal action against them. We have advised some of them to refrain from making such statements. But it is very important to mobilise public opinion in this regard. Many of those who deliver such sermons are booked in advance, even taken by helicopter to deliver their sermons. They demean women in their sermons, spread religious hatred and make derogatory remarks about other religions. Importance must be attached to generating public opinion against such elements.
Prothom Alo: You take the militant activities in Bangladesh to be completely home grown. JMB used to be an active organisation. Now you call them neo-JMB. Do they use this name or did you all coin it? You all claim that they have no links with international outfits. Or is this just a strategy you all have adopted?
Monirul Islam: When dealing with militancy, there is no scope to view Al Qaeda, IS, Hizbut Tahrir, JMB, neo-JMB or any other militant outfit any differently. You must see whether we are committed and competent in our work. We are.
We can categorise the groups practicing Islamic extremism around the world into three divisions. One is the international organisation Hizbut Tahrir. Established in 1953, it has 50 branches around the world. They practice the same strategy all over the world, including in Bangladesh
Harkatul Jihad was founded in 1992, based on the ideology of Al Qaeda. JMB, which emerged in 1998, also followed Al Qaeda. They worked towards Sunni supremacy and a sharia-based system. Their strategies may have been different, but ideology was the same.
After that Ansarullah Bangla team was formed followed by Ansar al Islam, both with the same ideology. These two organisations followed the ideology of Al Qaeda, or more specifically, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, but we have not found any direct organisational link or contact between them.
Similarly, when IS emerged, there were individuals and groups who believed in their ideology in Bangladesh too. Those who went from Bangladesh to Syria to fight on behalf of IS, did not go through any organisation in Bangladesh. They joined directly. There is no proof at all that the attacks that took place in Bangladesh were carried out on IS decision.
Prothom Alo: Some Bangladeshis who went to right for IS in Syria, were killed. Many were arrested after the fall of IS. Some are trying to run away from there. What is Bangladesh’s stand about bringing them back?
Monirul Islam: There is nothing for us to do outside of the existing laws of the land, or the constitution. It is one thing if any Bangladeshi citizen went there, and another thing if any persons of Bangladeshi-origin went there. Each case is different and must be considered accordingly. We will look into the matter of citizenship and then take action.
Prothom Alo: What does our law say? What is to be done if any such person is a Bangladeshi citizen?
Monirul Islam: If a Bangladeshi citizen goes abroad and commits a crime that is punishable according to our laws, we will take action accordingly. If any country wants to send back anyone to Bangladesh, then this must be done in keeping with international law. Travel documents will be needed. There has to be proof that they are Bangladeshi citizens.
Prothom Alo: On Wednesday the prime minister said that Rohingyas are a threat to Bangladesh’s security. Rohingyas are a repressed Muslim community forced to leave their home. It is very easy to radicalise such groups. How far are you watching the Rohingyas? Do you all have the preparation and competence to tackle such a threat?
Monirul Islam: The Rohingyas have all the classical elements required to become involved in terrorism or to be radicalised. However, it is a matter of relief at the moment that most of the refugees are women, children and the elderly. They are less likely to be radicalised. But if they remain in Bangladesh for a few more years, then the child who is 10 years old today, will be 15. That is when the risk increases. They are tempting targets for terrorists or militant groups. The organisational clout of the militant outfits in Bangladesh is so weak at present that it will be hard for them to do anything in the Rohingya camps. But we have to be alert that no one does anything about this in the future.
Prothom Alo: The political or democratic space in the country at present is limited. Such situations create scope for extremism to arise in politics. If anger and protest cannot be expressed democratically, then other paths are chosen. Jamaat-e-Islami may not be banned, but its back has been pushed up against the wall. Is there a risk of its workers and supporters resorting to extremism?
Monirul Islam: In old writings about terrorism it would be said that shrinking political spaces lead to extremism. But after the rise of IS, such theories are no longer relevant. And there is no bar on expressing views. Everyone is expressing their views, both in the mainstream media and in the social media.
In 1998 when Jamaatul Mujahideen was formed, elements from Jamaat joined them. So there is nothing new about Jamaat people becoming radicalised. They already are incited towards extremism. Present political circumstances in Bangladesh are not increasing the threat of militancy.
Prothom Alo: Many agencies are involved in anti-militancy activities, other than your one. It is said that these organisations lack coordination and are in fact competing with each other. This is harmful. What do you say?
Monirul Islam: Those working against militancy or terrorism include NSI, DGFI and the Special Branch. They gather intelligence, they do not investigate. That is not their work. It is basically the police that investigates and carries out operations. The police includes us, RAB, plainclothesmen. When sensational cases crop up, the police makes an effort, RAB makes an effort, everyone makes an effort. That is the competition.
Prothom Alo: But what about coordination?
Monirul Islam: Depending on the importance of the event, everyone makes an effort. Anyone who is successful, goes ahead with the matter. The agencies help each other. For example, as an investigating agency, we may have caught a few persons in a certain case. RAB may have also nabbed a few. After a briefing, they hand over the persons to us. There is no serious lack of coordination in this regard. There is healthy competition.
Prothom Alo: You have a research cell. You all determine strategies of dealing with criminals based on the manner in which they commit the crimes. But militants and terrorists are always coming up with new and improvised strategies. Does your cell look into ways and means that the militants may be functioning, outside the existing methods?
Monirul Islam: Our work comprises intelligence and assessment. Intelligence involves gathering information in incidents that take place and trying to understand this. Assessment is what we determine on the basis of this. It may not always be correct. There are things that happen outside of this. This is what we call lack of imagination. We take into consideration the new and different methods adopted by the militants and we try to think outside of the box. We have that competence.
Prothom Alo: Thank you
Monirul Islam: Thank you
* This interview appeared in Bangla in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir