In October 2012, radicals took to the streets in Dhaka to protest a minister’s comment on annual pilgrimage to Makkah. The senior minister, Abdul Latif Siddique who made the remarks in New York in casual conversation, eventually resigned from the Cabinet and ended up in prison.
Beg wasn’t the only one. Mairuna Farhin, a 19-year old student from a well-off Dhaka family, was deported at her own family’s request from Turkey before she could take off for Syria to be part of IS.
Like Beg and Farhin, the police have identified more than 50 young men and women who wanted to go to Syria or Iraq to fight for IS, according to Monirul Islam, Chief of Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Division. Islam says many have already joined IS in battle. Some of them have died. Many more are being inspired and arrested.
That number could be hundreds or more or several thousand or less, but it’s all speculation. Bangladeshi security agencies have little idea about the real numbers. They haven’t even tried to find out how many nor why so many want to fight for the IS in a distant land.
Not that it’s an unexpected phenomenon. Bangladesh hasn’t been immune from the waves of global Jihadi terrorism. Al-Qaeda had a presence via HuJI-B (Harkatul Jihad – Bangladesh) from the late 1990s until the late 2000s. Since 2013, Islamic State has been trying to get a toehold here, too. Recently Prime Minister Hasina admitted this trend, adding, “Unfortunately, we’ve been hit by terrorist activities around the world.” No one, it seems, is immune.
Young Bangladeshis going overseas to fight alongside fellow Muslims also isn’t something new. Thousands went off to fight in Palestine, Kashmir and Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. The use of Islam as a political mobilisation tool by General Ziaur Rahman and later General Hussein Muhammad Ershad possibly served as the foundations for such activities. Zia initiated a return of religion-based politics in Bangladesh, while Ershad constitutionally adopted Islam as the state religion, a policy continued by subsequent regimes.
Bangladesh’s jihadist landscape was impacted most by the returnee fighters from Afghanistan. On 30 April 1992, a group of Bangladeshi Mujahideen returnees from Afghanistan held a press conference at the National Press Club in Dhaka. Attired in military fatigues, they declared the establishment of Harkat-ul Jihad, Bangladesh or HUJI-B. They demanded that the Bangladesh state acknowledge their fallen Mujahideen compatriots as shaheeds (martyrs). The next day, they brought out a huge procession. No one was arrested. No one was even questioned.
Over the next two decades, HuJI-B became closely linked to senior leaders of the Pakistani outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the most dangerous and well-resourced militancy groups in the world. Pakistan’s spook agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI in common parlance, helped HuJI-B link up with LeT in making Bangladesh as a centre to shift its members to India and operate its currency counterfeiting ring. They have been accused of being directly involved in assassination attempts on Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and carrying out attacks on the country’s cultural symbols and sites, including Pahela Boishakh (Bengali New Year) celebrations, monuments and cinema theatres.
But today’s Jihadist profile is more complex and wider, cutting across gender, economy and social geography. The emergence of affluent, urban jihadis has also helped debunk the myth that the problem lay mainly with the madrassas (Islamic seminaries or religious schools). A huge chunk of the JMB and HUJI leadership were from state-run secular institutions.
The emergence of the HUJI-B in Bangladesh was directly linked to the arrival of Rohingya refugees escaping a repressive regime in neighbouring Myanmar in the early 1990s. It was mentored by Pakistan’s ISI. Initially, the main objective was to strengthen the military wing of the Rohingya groups fighting the Myanmar regime. But over time, as governments changed and influence shifted, many HUJI-B members migrated to the JMB. A police Criminal Investigation Department (CID) report noted in 1999 that there were over 200 Afghan veterans and many had joined the HUJI-B before moving on to the JMB.
The ISI also helped shelter and arm several anti-Indian insurgent groups in Bangladesh. Two officials of the Pakistan High Commission (embassy), Mazhar Khan in 2014 and Fareena Arshad in 2015, were asked to leave the country after police reported their links with Islamist militant links.
And yet it cannot be denied that these Islamist militants could not have emerged without local help or neglect, factors that created the conditions for their rise. A major factor was the lacklustre competence level in containing the threat.
Between 2001 and 2006, the then BNP government failed to stem the rising jihadist tide. In 2003, according to a classified report, the Special Branch of the police sought a ban on four outfits, HuJI-B, JMB, Shahadat al-Hiqma, and Hizbut Tahrir. But the junior home minister then in office, Lutfuzzaman Babar, dismissed the report as “manufactured by the media”. However, by 2005, his ministry was compelled to clamp a ban on these groups after the charges were proved.
Ironically, the present government is also into partial denial about the threat. Despite a series of murders and threats by the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), the government refused to ban the organisation for over a year. Junior home minister (who was later elevated to Cabinet rank) Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told the media that the government was under the impression that ABT had been wiped out after the arrest of several of its members, including the presumed leader of the group. The assumption turned out to be an incorrect assessment.
Security agencies are still not clear about the ABT profile, the size of its network or operations, let alone its membership and sources of funds. When minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal firmly stated that “there is no sign of the terrorist group Islamist State,” he was simply stating the government’s position. A decade back everybody would deny this, but it is obvious now that the Jihadi network exists and continues to grow.
The IS magazine, Dabiq, carried a major profile on Bangladesh and many like Farhin and Aminul are trying to find their way to Syria now. The American and British envoys have said that although IS does not have a branch in Bangladesh, it does pose a threat to Bangladesh.
But strategies to counter this threat are weak, despite the government’s declared zero tolerance of terrorism. In August last year, Prime Minister Hasina stated her resolve to defeat terrorism: “We have to try to build the secular Bangladesh envisioned by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. We can’t let blood be spilt in the name of religion. In Saudi Arabia, Muslims are bombed at Jummah prayers. Here, bloggers are being killed in the name of religion.”
Yet the government’s counter terrorism policy remains trapped in ambiguity at best. After the blogger Rajib Haider was murdered by Islamist fanatics in 2013, the Prime Minister went to his home to commiserate with his parents. But her advisers then persuaded her that continued sympathy for Haider would anger many devout Muslims.
So when writer and scientist Avijit Roy was killed by the same terrorist group, Prime Minister Hasina only made a discreet phone call to Roy’s famous father, a respected academic. Later, the government, especially the home minister and the police chief, repeatedly warned ‘bloggers’ not to cross ‘limits’. A senior police official, speaking anonymously, said that the policy message they interpreted from the repeated statements of the home minister and police chief was that it was best not to proceed with the investigation of the blogger’s murder. The number of killings, of bloggers, then grew. But no arrests were made.
Counter-terrorism measures do not seem to be a priority in Bangladesh. The Indians, Sri Lanka and Pakistanis all have special intelligence and operational counter-terrorism units but not Bangladesh. On 6 December 2012, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of a “National Police Bureau of Counter Terrorism Unit”. Four years later, on 27 January 2016, she repeated the announcement, but little has moved. The unit’s birth is likely to occur later than sooner as the civil bureaucracy, military intelligence and police have remained mired in debate about its modalities and structure.
The high-level money-laundering task force, meant to target terrorism finances, has barely moved forward despite being endowed with sweeping legal and intelligence powers. Another high-level counter-terrorism committee led by Industries Minister Amir Hossain Amu, set up in 2009, also remains largely moribund – the committee did not even meet once in its first few years. After a rare meeting on 14 August 2014, the committee made a few important recommendations.
The education ministry was instructed to include counter-radicalisation materials in textbooks. The religious affairs ministry and the Islamic Foundation were instructed to explain the meaning of Quranic verses properly. The information and culture ministries were told to make infomercials, documentaries and films to disseminate the counter-terrorism message. The security agencies, both police and military, were directed to intensify the surveillance of Islamic social, cultural and educational institutions.
The committee resolved to check on the progress of these recommendations at the next meeting, but only the police and the Islamic Foundation submitted any progress report.
A weak judiciary does not help either. Cases dealing with Islamists move at a glacial pace. No terrorists on death row have been executed since the six JMB leaders were hanged in 2007 mostly due to Western pressure. Even the 39 appeal cases have been stuck for almost a decade. More broadly, around 30 percent of the 2,543 suspected terrorists arrested between 2004 and 2015 were released on bail. They were bailed out despite a committee being set up in 2014 just to monitor bail-granting conditions of terrorists. Industries minister Amir Hossain Amu, who heads the Cabinet committee on law and order, had also promised to block terrorists from getting bail. But whether it is Amu or the PM, it is clear that execution of the counter-terrorism plans remains a huge problem.
Sympathy with broader Islamisation goals within the bureaucracy is a major problem. Islamisation is no longer a silent movement but one enjoying greater support, particularly the idea of governance through Islamic ideals. That idea, to an extent, germinates into support for Jihadis.
The rapid rise of Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI) is a sign of this trend. Although established in 2011, their show of force in 2013 was emphatic. The BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami and Jatiya Party openly support them. Even the government had promised (but later reneged on its assurance) to accept their demands.
But it is just not the Islamist parties. The major mainstream parties have increased their proximity to Islam. Since 1979, around 36 political parties’ manifestoes have included the demand for the establishment of Islamic law, an Islamic state or an Islamic society. Twelve of the 40 parties registered by the Election Commission are Islam-based parties. And most of the so-called progressive parties have acquiesced to the more extreme groups by agreeing to reject any law that is perceived to be against the Quran or Sunnah.
There are two parts of the fight against Jihadi terrorism, one ideological and the other operational. While Islamic ideas now find greater resonance in society, which can create fertile ground for terrorism to sprout in certain cases, the government’s weakness in managing counter-terrorism is a matter of concern too. What stands out as an obstacle is not just the rise of global jihadist tendencies but the inability to counter them in the moment of reckoning. There may not be much that can be done by Bangladesh in containing global jihadist terror, but it can certainly do a lot better in making its counter-terrorism strategy more effective.