Dhaka: the rising tide of Islamist violence in Bangladesh

Tuesday, 12 July 2016 07:23
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by Nicolamaria Coppola
EPOS Insights


The terrorist attack on the 1st of July in the diplomatic district of Dhaka, in Bangladesh, in which 20 hostages and two police officers were killed, is just the latest in a string of attacks which are bloodying the South-Asian country. Since February 2015, there have been at least 26 violent, sometimes public, killings of religious minorities, secularists and free-speech advocates in Bangladesh. Before the tragic Dhaka assault, on the 13th of last May a doctor in western Bangladesh was hacked to death. The previous weekend, it was a Buddhist monk, in the southeastern part of the country. The week before, it was a Sufi Muslim leader, up north. Less than two weeks earlier, it was an L.G.B.T. activist. Just days before that, an English professor. Of all these attacks, more than 20 have been claimed by the Islamic State, about half a dozen by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and one each by the indigenous Bangladeshi extremist groups Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansar al-Islam.

But the July 1 attack was different, both in terms of scale, and the perpetrators. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Dhaka attack, but Bangladeshi officials have said it was carried out by homegrown militants and hinted towards JMB. The attackers did not fit the typical profile for religious radicals coming from economically deprived backgrounds and latching onto extremist groups that promised a new future. Most had come from privileged backgrounds, and were educated in top schools, where they used to raise questions about the influence of extremism. The parents of these boys are normal and have secular credentials”, Bangladesh Information and Broadcasting Minister Hassanul Haq Inna told Indian broadcaster NDTV.

It is not yet clear when, where and how the attackers were radicalized, and the police is still investigating the possibility they might actually have had Islamic State ties.

Bangladesh’s 160 million people are almost all Sunni Muslims, including a demographic bulge under the age of 25: this makes it valuable as a recruiting ground for the Islamic State, now under pressure in its core territory of Iraq and Syria. But there is also a rising tide of political violence in Bangladesh, and the recent string of vicious killings in the country is less a terrorism issue than a governance issue: it is the ruling Awami League’s onslaught against its political opponents, which began in earnest after the last election in January 2014, that has unleashed extremists in Bangladesh.

The political violence has a complicated history. Since Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971, two political parties have dominated the political arena: the secular-leaning Awami League (AL), led by prime minister Sheikh Hasina currently in power, and their arch-rivals, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a center-right party led by three time former prime minister Khaleda Zia. The main ally of BNP is Jamaat-e-Islami (JEL), the largest Bangladesh Islamist party, which has been declared illegal by the Dahka Supreme Court. Most of its militants, in fact, who were leaders of pro-Pakistan paramilitaries during the 1971 war with Pakistan, have been accused of war crime. The sentencing of these leaders has brought a firestorm of contention and polarized the political scene even further.

Jamaat-e-Islami has also links with a group known as Hefazat-e-Islami, an alliance of teachers and students associated with radical madrasas, and it is believed to have ties with the extremist groups Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. The Dhaka authorities have always stated that at least one-fourth of banned militant outfit Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh members are former Jamaat-e-Islami members.

Following the controversial 2014 Bangladeshi general election, which Human Rights Watch has called “the most violent in the country’s history”,  the BNP raised several demands for a second election under a neutral caretaker government but their claims were not met. The Awami government refused to step down, thus the BNP, together with its main ally JEL, launched a hartal or violent strike, where protestors blocked traffic, threw petrol bombs at buses and cars, and clashed with police. Protestors also targeted minority Hindu and Christian communities, traditionally seen as constituents of the Awami League. The AL branded the BNP as terrorists, and the leader Khaleda Zia was forcefully confined to her office. The BNP then called the international community for support, but most countries were reluctant to intervene as the BNP's reputation was damaged by the violence, and the international community reiterated that the disputes should be handled peacefully.

Since 2014, the Awami government has been trying to contain Islamist extremist forces. A total of 1.888 extremists and terrorists, including 1.729 cadres of JEL and its students’ wing Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), 83 of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, and other who were engaged in ISIS propaganda and recruitment, were arrested.

Bangladesh has a long history of fringe extremist groups. Some of those are a legacy of the war in Afghanistan, in which some Bangladeshis fought; others are byproducts of the Wahhabi influence that Bangladeshi workers in the Persian Gulf brought back when they returned home; still others are ISIS-addicted. The Islamic State is recruiting supporters among that part of the population dissatisfied with the government's handling, and perhaps the attackers in Dhaka were some of them. Whatever its exact nature, however, it seems that terrorism is largely the result of the government’s repression against mainstream dissent. The Awami League’s relentless campaign against the political opposition and civil society has allowed violent radicals of all stripes to let loose. Concentrating the state’s limited judicial and police powers on the BNP and its supporters reduces the resources that can be devoted to preventing terrorism and crime. Using illegal means to quiet perceived opponents undermines the rule of law, creating an atmosphere of impunity that emboldens extremists.

By the way, in an effort to shore up capacities against terrorism, the “Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime” unit, a 600-men Police Force specializing in technology, was formed on December 31, 2015, under the Dhaka Metropolitan Police. It is obvious that the Awami League-led government’s achievements on the counter-terrorism and internal security fronts have been remarkable. But, the frequent attacks and periodic discovery of terrorist cells and hideouts, with stockpiles of weapons and explosives, indicate continuous efforts by terrorists to reorganize in spaces created by the polarized politics of the country. Moreover, the latest horrific attack in Dhaka in which 22 people were killed seems to evoke that the rising tide of Islamist violence in Bangladesh could be a bellwether for terrorism in South Asia.


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s editorial policy

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 July 2016 07:35
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