Today, 1 July, is a black day in the history of terrorism in Bangladesh, and a very significant day. On this day in 2016, a brutal and heinous terrorist attack took place at the Holey Artisan Bakery, leaving 17 foreign nationals and 5 Bangladeshis dead. Five years have passed since 2016, but the impact of the event remains. And so there is a need to analyse the state of militancy in Bangladesh and how it stands.
As in other countries of the world, religious terrorism emerged in Bangladesh in the nineties. If we want to briefly picture this emergence, then we see that from 1979 till 1992, the first-generation Bangladeshi religious extremists had joined up in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. In 1996, the second generation extremists created an organisation called ‘Qital Fi Sabbillah’. In 1998 this transformed into Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). In 2001, the third generation extremists began their activities in the shape of Hizbut-Tahrir.
The fourth generation extremists proceeded with Jamaatul Muslemin in 2007 and later from this organisation, Ansarullah Bangla Team began operating. They are followers of Anwar al-Awlaki’s ideology and they claim to operate as a branch of Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh. The fifth generation began with some educated extremists who were influenced by IS. They want to establish Bangladesh as an Islamic state. In 2015, neo-JMB claimed to be the Bangladeshi branch of IS.
After the Holey Artisan Bakery attack, the Bangladesh government and various law enforcement agencies took up initiatives to eliminate terrorism. By means of their strong and diversified activities, it was possible to bring terrorism under control to a great extent. But these anti-terrorism activities were basically kinetic, leading the terrorist outfits to suspend their activities temporarily. In no way does that mean terrorism has been uprooted from Bangladesh. We still find the law enforcement agencies regularly arresting persons conditioned in militant ideology, involved in various stages of planning and implementation. Secret dens of various terrorist groups are being unearthed and arms, ammunition and explosives recovered. It is clear that even though no incidents of terrorism have taken place, they have not stopped adopting new strategies, recruiting members and making preparations.
At present Bangladesh and the rest of the world is going through hard times due to the pandemic. This naturally had an effect on terrorist activities. In recent times there have been no major activities of terrorist outfits in Bangladesh. But a situation had emerged, conducive to spreading their ideology and gathering new members. In this prevailing pandemic reality, we spend much of our time in front of the computer screen. This ‘screen time’ has increased by an average of 60 per cent. This may be even higher in the case of youth.
The terrorism groups are taking full advantage of this situation to spread their extremist views. They are carrying out their drives to collect members online. Records show Bangladesh has over 90 million internet users. According to police observations, 82 per cent of 250 religious terrorists initially became drawn to extremist ideology by means of social media and later got involved in various terrorist activities. In the times ahead we may get to see the fallout of the advantage being taken of the prevailing Covid times to instill terrorism learning by means of the internet.
Of the four leaders who had signed the 30-page Al-Qaeda fatwa, ‘Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,’ one signatory was from Bagladesh -- HuJi leader Fazlur Rahman
The US has announced it will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and has already begun to do so. The problem is, the Afghan security forces at the same time are becoming instable. The Taliban forces have stepped up their operations extensively and various parts of the country are rapidly going under their control. According to statistics, around two-thirds of Afghanistan territory is under direct and indirect control of the Talibans. We know that the roots of Bangladesh terrorism had links with anti-Soviet Afghan jihad. The Bangladeshis who had gone to Afghanistan to join the jihad, returned and sowed the seeds of militancy in the country. It was through them that various militant groups emerged in Bangladesh and the fighters retuning from Afghanistan took up leadership position in this groups.
Many of these fighters had fought alongside the Taliban and they even had leadership roles at the outset of Al-Qaeda. Of the four leaders who had signed the 30-page Al-Qaeda fatwa, ‘Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,’ one signatory was from Bagladesh -- HuJi leader Fazlur Rahman. As the result of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, a situation has emerged for the Talibans to rise up again and this may encourage those of extremist ideological beliefs in Bangladesh and the militants may arise once more. Already the police have arrested four young men of Ansarullah Bangla team as they were preparing to go to join the new Afghan war.
Driven away from Iraq and Syria, Daesh or IS were looking for new bases. Many of the IS militants had their eyes on Afghanistan. IS activities have been noted in various places of Afghanistan. They are trying to consolidate their positions in this present and new unstable situation. We are aware that at various points of time, IS has tried to strengthen its position in Bangladesh. If they can consolidate their position in Afghanistan anew, that will be a threat to Bangladesh.
While terrorist activities of religious militants have apparently come to a halt in Bangladesh, there is no room for complacency. Quite to the contrary, we are seeing new threats and risks emerging. Cyber extremism, neo-extremism, female extremism and such dangers are increasing. There is a new style of spreading extremist ideology by the militants in jail. Then again, there is also the fear of a new wave of bio-terrorism in the prevailing Covid situation.
In recent times various activities have been noticed in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. Militant groups can take advantage of the helplessness of this population. An adverse reaction to the unrest and civil war type of situation brewing in Myanmar at the moment can affect this population. In fact, there are growing apprehensions that extremist ideology may spread among the Rohingyas and they may become involved in regional terrorist activities.
Simply undertaking kinetic operations is not enough to bring militancy in Bangladesh under control. We have a lack of long-term planning. There is need to take up counter-extremism strategies at a national level right now. The entire society and various groups must be included in this and the government must be prepared to use its capacity to tackle extremism.
Specialised national strategic policies such as deradicalisation must be taken up. Programmes to rehabilitate militants must be drawn up. Programmes are required to ensure jails do not become breeding grounds for militancy. With the young generation in mind, we need to take up counter-extremism strategies. Rather than ad hoc arrangements, the issue must be viewed holistically. Then, rather than temporary control, we will be able to move towards uprooting terrorism at a national level for once and for all.
* Major General ANM Muniruzzaman is president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies