Dr. Shafi Md Mostofa, an Associate Professor of World Religions and Culture, with special interests in Political Islam in Bangladesh, at Dhaka University’s Faculty of Arts and an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of New England in Australia, where he obtained his PhD.
In September 2022, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police revealed the emergence of a new militant organization, Jama’atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya. Police also confirmed that this group was formed in 2019. Its members came from the ranks and files of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Ansar al-Islam (AAI), and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B). Since then, they have been operating underground to expand their network and raise funding.
These statements reconfirm what I predicted in 2020. First, I anticipated that since 2018, militancy in Bangladesh was in a dormant phase of recruitment and fundraising. The reason I put forward was that the kinetic responses after the Holey Artsan Cafe attack in 2016, which killed around 100 militants and arrested another 500 hundred, was a blow to the group’s operative capacity. It could not, however, demotivate them from joining radical groups.
The second thing I anticipated that was that the Islamic State (IS) lost its ideological basis of attracting youths due to demise of Caliph Baghdadi and the Caliphate — a physical land in Iraq and Syria. So, Al-Qaeda will replace IS in Bangladesh due to their tailor-made ideology for Indian subcontinent youths interested in gazwatul hind or holy war in Hindustan. The BJP government’s anti-Muslim policy has also rationalized AQ’s ideology for Muslim youths.
The emergence of the Jama’atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya and the arrest of nearly 50 militants associated with this organization suggests that they have utilized their five dormant years to equip themselves with a solid base to expand their network. Reports also suggest that it has AQ affiliation. This is why the counterterrorism strategies adopted by the government fall flat to address issues of radicalization in Bangladesh.
Confused National Identity
Bangladesh as a modern nation state has long been struggling since its independence in 1971 to settle on a national identity oscillating between secularism and Islam. This debate has clearly divided the nation into two camps. One argues for Islam, while the other camp still focuses on secularism. This oscillation is evident when looking at the country’s constitution, which relegates secularism as a state policy, but keeps Islam as the state religion. This confused national identity contributes to the divide.
A group of bloggers demanded capital punishment for Islamist leaders who were accused of war crimes, and also demanded ban of religion-based politics. This movement was supported by a huge population of the country and, at some point, the parliament also agreed with their demands. This resulted in backlash among Islamist groups; and as such they also flocked to Dhaka in huge numbers to demand a 13-point charter including capital punishment for atheist bloggers. This division has fostered intolerance in society.
Partisan politics and political revenge between Bangladesh Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have become a common phenomenon. The ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy to achieve partisan objectives are prioritized over national concerns. This partisan politics has politicized not only social and political institutions but also the whole governmental machinery by appointing loyalists over merit. Bad governance, corruption, and human rights violations are commonplace in Bangladesh, which seriously causes youth dissatisfaction.
Three Generations of Militants
Three wars in Middle East produced three generations of militants in Bangladesh. The first generation of militants was inspired by the Palestinian struggle for independence, who ultimately formed the Muslim Millat Bahini in 1986. Reports suggest that over 8,000 Bangladeshi fighters traveled to Lebanon to fight for Palestinians. Nearly 100 died, some traveled to Europe, and others chose to stay in Middle East. However, how many returned home is still unknown.
The second generation is obviously influenced by the Taliban ideology fought against the Soviet in 1990, who formed a myriad of militant outfits in Bangladesh in the late 1990s, including the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B). Over there a thousand Afghan veterans returned home with radical Taliban ideology and connections.
The third generation of militants is deeply influenced by events in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, which fostered the growth of the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated Neo-JMB, and al-Qaida-affiliated Ansar Al Islam in Bangladesh. This generation of militants are mostly radicalized online. They are mostly from affluent families with urban secular backgrounds.
Thus, it appears that the ideology of Muslim victimization, supporting the cause of ummah or Muslim Brotherhood, Caliphate, and jihad works as a catalyst for Muslim radicalization in Bangladesh.
The Holey Artisan Cafe attack in 2016 was a notorious and eye-opening chapter in the history of Bangladesh, which killed over 20 civilians including foreigners in the diplomatic zone of Bangladesh. The pre-2016 or Holey Artisan era did not have PVE or CVE strategies apart from formulation of Anti-Terrorism Act of 2009 and formations of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit under Dhaka Metropolitan Police in February 2016 headed by a Deputy Inspector General (DIG).
The Anti-terrorism Act 2009 was designed to prosecute terror activities and to specifically target terrorist acts and financial institutions used by terrorists. The Anti-Terrorism Act was further amended in 2012 and 2013. Capital punishment was introduced for certain crimes and evidence law was revisited. Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Whatsapp or online messaging or communication was treated as evidence to the court.
In doing so, pictures and videos were considered as evidence. The amendment also fixed a time limit for investigation. Now, any case filed under this act, investigated by any police officer, is to be completed within 60 days of the date on which information is received or recorded under section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
The CTTC unit was designed to assist other units providing intelligence, terror suspect surveillance, and related matters necessitated for countering extremism. Other tasks of this unit include preventing terrorist attacks through intel-led policing, preventing individuals from becoming or supporting terrorists, and ensuring professional investigation of terrorist incidents, cybercrime and transnational organized crimes. Its then chief, Monirul Islam, told the media that “the unit will work mainly to combat cybercrimes, terror financing, and mobile banking related crimes.”
Terrorism Prevention Schemes
That said, post Holey Artisan Cafe attack CVE strategies are more ad hoc basis and highly based on kinetic responses. Upon considering the severity of pertinent challenges from Muslim militants, the government approved a project worth around $35 million named “Countering Terrorism and Prevention of International Crime Center Construction” for five years in 2018.
Under this project, apart from constructing a 13-storey building in the capital city of Sher-e-Bangla for the prevention center, and buying logistics for countering terrorism, the Dhaka Metro Politan (DMP) Police initiated a four phases CVE strategy.
In the first tier, DMP has adopted a community approach, which they call ‘preventing radicalization’. This targets all members of the community and focuses on awareness building. According to a source interviewee, under this public awareness program, CTTC has already held seminars in 45 out of 64 districts and has engaged local faith leaders, members of different security forces, teachers, and other professionals. The Religious Affairs Ministry also took up a two-year project worth $4.4 million to create anti-militancy awareness by conducting nationwide publicity campaigns using ICT. Side by side, some NGOs also initiated some PVE awareness programmes engaging youths. But the fact is that most of these works were limited in the years from 2017-2019.
Some other initiatives were also taken by different agencies of the government to increase anti-militancy awareness, but these were done as one-off work.
In 2017, Bangladesh Islamic Foundation (BIF), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Religious Affairs prepared pre-sermon speech to deliver during weekly Friday congregational prayers. BIF engaged 70,000 imams to do this job, but this practice was abandoned too. Media houses were also instructed to broadcast programs against militancy. Media houses did so in the pre-covid era but are not doing it now.
Police introduced the Hello City App to improve terrorism messaging, and the Bangladeshi government also produced a number of documentary films aimed at encouraging people against militancy.
The Ministry of Education engaged educational institutions to help raise awareness against extremism among teachers, students, and parents in 2018. The Ministry of Youth also planned to engage youths in sports, culture, and other activities in 2017. It is worth mentioning that 100,000 Muslim clerics in Bangladesh issued a fatwa (religious edict) condemning extremism as “Haraam,” or ‘forbidden’ in Islam.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) published a book titled “Misinterpretation of Verses by Militants and the Right Interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith” in 2017 and 4,000 copies were distributed to different places including madrasas, but the initiative was discontinued. The National Telecommunication Monitoring Center (NTMC) was also assigned to develop the capacity to detect extremist websites.
That second stage of PVE programs, which were designed to provide guidance or counselling to the vulnerable, has not seen the light yet. The third phase, which is countering terrorism, has been so far the only effective strategy to curb the growth of militancy. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared a zero-tolerance policy against militants and reiterated that Bangladesh doesn’t allow its territory to be used by any terrorist group. Thus, security forces carried out a series of aggressive operations, which killed over 100 militants and arrested over 600 hundred militants.
The fourth stage, the de-radicalization stage, is designed to reintegrate extremists into society. A source interviewee said that police have begun the counselling and re-education of extremists. So far, the police have rehabilitated a few extremists and helped them to reintegrate into society, with local police stations monitoring them. He also added that the de-radicalization programs yet to have manuals, but police have been working closely with academics to produce some.
The CVE strategy approach adopted by the police looks like an impressive strategy to prevent extremism, but the fact is that it failed to curb the growth of militancy and even led to the emergence of new militant outfit in 2022.
First of all, aggressive responses which killed over 100 militants since July 2016 could not stop their growth, as it is evident from a myriad of research that their emergence is closely tied with ideological commitment. This ideological commitment cannot be rooted out with an aggressive approach.
Even though some attempts have been made to preach the ‘true Islam’, these attempts were one-off and did not continue. Moreover, the kind of Islamic scholars engaged in these projects are, at times, not accepted by other groups of Muslims. In this case, its continuity needs to be ensured and popular Islamic clerics from all groups have to be engaged to disseminate proper knowledge.
Second, some of the members of the new militant organization had been in prison and after their release became involved with new militant organizations. This means that police rehabilitation programs have fallen flat. In last 5 years, after the approval of the project, they failed to produce a manual for de-radicalizing militants in prisons.
Third, this wave of militants is mostly radicalized online. Even though NTMC should be monitoring online content, the fact is that online content is still available. Additionally, online surveillance systems are too complex and time-consuming for police.
Fourth, disgruntled youths are more prone to militant ideology. The country has serious issues with identity formation and partisan politics. These wider socio-political issues deserve proper political commitment to encourage youths to love their country and be proud citizens.
Fifth, whatever the police have been doing since 2017 to prevent radicalization is part of a five-year-long project, which was supposed to have ended in 2022, but it was extended for another two years until 2024.
As radicalization is deeply-rooted problem, these ad hoc or project based strategies are not enough to deal with the problem. A social mass movement against militancy incorporating faith leaders from all groups of Muslims should be initiated and school curriculums should also address the issue.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.