On 27 February 2018, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added ‘ISIS-Bangladesh’ to its sanctions list for global terrorism. Following months of denial from Dhaka about the presence of the Islamic State (IS) in Bangladesh, this sanction creates a new, contravening understanding. Although the terrorist groups that were active in the country in the recent past are now struggling to regain ground due to the Sheikh Hasina government’s aggressive counter-terrorist response, the intensifying political polarisation between the ruling and the opposition factions will create fertile conditions for the resurgence of IS.
Terrorism in Bangladesh: Past to Present
Terrorism in Bangladesh dates back to the 1980s when close to three thousand Bangladeshis joined the US and Saudi-sponsored anti-Soviet offensives in Afghanistan. Three war veterans from these Afghan wars formed the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) in 1992, which sought to establish an Islamic state in Bangladesh through its subversive activities till 2001. After 9/11, HuJI-B and similar groups became more active. Three groups remain, which are variously active and inactive: al Qaeda-affiliated Ansarul-Islam; IS-affiliated Neo-Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (neo-JMB), and as per current understanding, an independent strain of IS.
These groups have emerged and re-emerged under different circumstances, largely taking advantage of political uncertainty or unrest. Between 2006-08, the military-backed caretaker government increased the state’s counter-terrorism response by, amongst others, providing training to law enforcers and propagating anti-militancy messages in the mainstream media. All of these pushed the terrorist presence back significantly.
After assuming power in 2009, the ruling Awami League (AL) began prosecuting the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamat-e-Islami (JeI) leaders for war crimes committed during the 1971 Liberation War. Eventually, the Supreme Cour tbanned the JeI from contesting parliamentary elections in 2015 on the grounds that an Islamist party running in the polls would violate the secular constitution. With the law enforcement agencies directing their resources towards indicting AL’s political opponents, the terrorists began to regain lost ground.
In addition, 50 to 250 military officers have been sacked since 2009 due to their involvement in terrorist activities, attempted coups, or mutinies. A Bangladeshi army major, Syed Mohammad Ziaul Haque, became the military commander of a terrorist group. In 2015, several young men were arrested from a former army officer’s house for alleged connections with IS. Official military training manuals and military-issued uniforms and ammunition were found in terrorist hideouts in Chittagong during the raid.
Since the Dhaka Holey Bakery attack in 2016, law enforcement agencies have raided numerous terrorist hideouts in different parts of the country. Most of these operations have focused on killing suspected members of extremist groups rather than bringing them to trial.This was done mostly because the judicial processcan be time-consuming and often, not feasible due to lack of witnesses.
The recent Rohingya crisis also has re-ignited the issue of terrorism in the state’s discourse. A brutal military crackdown by the Myanmar military on the Rohingya community in August 2017, following an attack by local militants on security outposts, has created conditions conducive for terrorist recruitment. This is largely because the majority of the Rohingya population is Muslim and likely open to offering their sympathy to these groups.
Today, there is an increasing polarisation of the narrative around the counter-terrorism agenda, wherein the ruling party continues to blame the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its affiliate, JeI, for lending support to terrorism. In some cases, this claim is true. For example, theJeI’s student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, was once a key source of recruits for JMB. The group’s founder, Shaikh Abdur Rahman, was himself a Shibir member.
However, these groups have their own recruitment methods now. Today, for most militant groups, the internet serves as an effective medium for radicalisation and recruitment. The paltry salaries and low-level training of law enforcement members are creating further challenges to disrupting terrorist recruitment. In addition, the ruling party’s political crackdowns, the Rohingya influx, strong transitional and regional networks of terrorists, and unemployment may lead to fresh recruitment drives for these groups.
Due to the allegedly politically motivated corruption trials of major party leaders – including party chief, Khaleda Zia – the BNP has been marginalised. On the other hand, the JeI has been paralysed by the war crimes tribunal through a ban on electoral participation. Both of them are major political parties with grassroots support. In addition, AL is now the courting Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI)- a conservative faction more hardline than the JeI – to counter JeI. HeI is opposed to women in workplaces, secular democracies, and non-Muslim officials in major government posts.
It is important for the current government to reconcile with the mainstream opposition factions since bipolarity dominates Bangladesh’s political arena. BNP’s marginalisation will create a political vacuum which may be taken advantage of by terrorist groups, leading to the rise of a new generation of potentially more dangerous elements with apparent links to groups such as IS. This is alarming for a secular country like Bangladesh, and above all, the entire South Asian region.