Bangladesh has experienced two kinds of violent extremism since its birth, which indeed espoused opposing ideologies. The Socialist movement launched immediately after the birth of Bangladesh, under the banner of red revolution, which caused the loss of more than 22,000 lives.
A new kind of violent extremism appeared in the 90s over the political horizon. HUJI-B, an organization formed in 1992 by returnees from the Afghanistan battle, hurled bombs in 1999 on ‘Udichi’- a secular cultural platform, in the guise of jihad. Under the leadership of Mufti Abdul Hannan, a number of attacks were launched, causing death of innocent civilians. The bombing on the Bengali New Year celebration at Ramna Botomul in 2001 carried special significance. The grisly attack by hurling military grenades on Sheikh Hasina on 21st August in 2004 was the worst attack ever seen in Bangladesh.
A horrendous terror attack on Holey Artisan Restaurant on 1st July during the holy month of Ramadan causing the death of 17 foreigners, 3 Bangladeshis and 2 police officers has shaken the tolerant social fabrics of Bangladesh and added a new dimension to violent extremism. It was followed by a second attack on Sholakia Eid congregation in Kishoreganj District.
The very nature of the ongoing extremism in Bangladesh is religious terrorism made to appear as Jihad, manifested to influence domestic political dynamics. Although Islam has been used as the cardinal driving philosophy to establish a Sharia state or Islamic Khilafa, targetting innocent civilians has raised a few questions in the mind of the people. Why kill innocent people? What are the objectives of the attacks, and who are perpretrating such attacks?
Of late Islamic State – a global terrorist organization, has claimed the responsibilities of a number of succesful attacks and AQIS a few others. Does it mean that Bangladesh terrorism has become an integral part of the global terrorism or is it still an isolated movement?
Having studied the nature and trend of terrorism in Bangladesh, it appears to be a violent and cheap tool of domestic political manifestation. It has a political master, artificial but appealing ideology, and economic and political patronization with schematic radicalization. Often political parties aim to secure political interest rather than individual interest or embolden mutual objectives of alliances formed based on convergence of interest, irrespective of their manifesto. It is inherently homegrown and has shown eagerness to be a part of global jihadism by showing theological allegience to Al-Qaeda or Islamic State.
Islam has historically been used by many invading empires to establish a just cause for illegal invasion and causing unabated genocide, rape and enslavement of other nations or tribes. It was the same during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 where genocide, rape and arson were rampantly perpetrated by the Pakistani occupation forces and domestic cohorts, Islamist political parties, in the guise of manifesting jihad. Extreme violence was used as a political tool. Being vanquished, these political parties and their chronies had no repent but made multiple orchestrated attempts at reemergence in the newly born state, with the aid of their former political master and other actors who intended to retain control over this land for their geopolitical interests.
After the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, these forces reappeared, rejuvenated under the umbrella of the political parties in power. The undemocratic government made full use of the Islam card to establish the justness of their clinging to power, and continued to destroy the secular fabric of the Bengali nation.
The first terrorist outfit appeared in 1992 under the name of Harkat ul Jihad al Bangladesh. This unlawful violent force started attacking secular elements of the nation and we first experienced an orchestrated and planned attack on Udichi, a secular cultural body in 1999.
One of the remarkable facts is that Islamist terrorist outfits have never targeted Islamist parties or their allies, like Jamaat e Islami Bangladesh or Bangladesh Nationalist Party, although these violent radicals vowed to fight against democracy. This discrimination led many to conclude that these quarters were immune to such attacks thanks to their patronizing of the terrorist outfits in Bangladesh. The political objective of the terror organizations often converges with these parties.
Over time, the terrorist outfits have changed their organizational structures, often to avoid being on the intelligence radar. After HUJI, in 1998 a new outfit called Jamaat-ul Mujaheedin (JMB) appeared, 5 among the 7 top leaders of which came from Jamaat e Islami. The first band of terror organizations had a tendency of mirroring Al Qaeda and the Taliban, while the second generation copied Al Qaeda and the third generation like ABT or Ansar al Islam follow the Islamic State.
Besides organizing terrorist outfits, a well orchestrated, carefully planned and divergently supported radicalization scheme has been put in place, firstly to change the social life of Bengal and secondly to recruit terrorists or jihadists to maintain their momentum.
International competition over the control of Indian Ocean and Bangladesh’s geo-strategic location and its inherent impact have generated a “chosen regime” theme and have fuelled the violent extremism in the region.
Diversified terror tactics have been applied to compel the ruling party to create a sustainable space for the so-called Islamists in the political and social arena, and to abandon the ongoing trial of war crimes, mostly perpetrated by the top level leadership of Jamaat and BNP.
To hasten a change of regime, terror tactics have been integrated with other manipulating tools. Most of the captured terrorists in home and abroad revealed the same.
Terrorism in Bangladesh is not a consequence of poverty, inequality or social deprivation. Rather its seeds are artificilly sown and nurtured by the vanquished political elements of the Liberation War. To screen the actual patronizing, the causes have been often attributed to the absence of democracy, lack of rule of law and good governance, despite the country’s rapid growth, workable democracy and sustainable governance.
Sustainable development of the country is indeed rejecting the appeal for extremism, violence and jihad. Terror tactics are also aimed at isolating Bangladesh from global and regional discourse.
The current trend of terrorism in Bangladesh was set off by the killing of blogger Rajib Haider who was an activist of Gono Jagoron Mancho. Since 2013 about 70 terror attacks have taken place, with about 52 in the last 18 months, on diversified targets including bloggers, preachers, academics, social and religious minorities, and foreigners.
The Gulshan attack reveals desperation amongst the terror outfits and employment of critical assets over attacking high payoff targets for the first time in Bangladesh. Similiar symptoms are also seen among the Islamist political parties and its allies, stemming from existential fear.
Diversified radicalizaton tactics of have posed a new challenge to the nation. The indulgence of the elite society – student, teachers and businessmen – in terrorism, has uncovered a new dimension of threat. Identification of friend and foe has become more difficult than ever before.
The nature and trend of violent extremism in Bangaldesh is oten misperceived. Incorrect perception leads to fruitless narratives and ineffective strategy. Political linkage to terrorism has compounded the complexity of the threat. It is indeed homegrown, oriented to domestic political agenda, patronized by domestic political actors, and often heaved by former parental state.
Bangladesh should use their own knowledge, experience and judgement to counter violent extremism, at the same time placing due assertions to development cooperation and support.
The article is the text of a speech delivered by the writer at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) recently.