Since the late 1990s Bangladesh has been witnessing a large scale of militant and terrorist activities and attacks throughout the country. But in recent times, the pattern of these militant and terrorist activities drastically changed revealing a suspicion of having close ties with the global terrorist and militant organizations like ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Subsequently, the militants often targeted and killed a number of bloggers, atheists, non-Muslim preachers and priests since 2013 and the level of such incidents is increasing alarmingly.
These incidents took place on the heels of the Global Terrorism Index’s (GTI, 2015) assessment that the country is ‘vulnerable to high terrorism risk’. The GTI score of the country was already on the rise from an historic low of 4.1 in 2012 to 5.47 in 2013 to 5.92 in 2014. However, this trend and recent increase need to be contextualized within the historical developments of militancy in the country and counter-terrorism efforts pursued since 2006.
As Harrison (2006) in his article, A New Hub of Terrorism? In Bangladesh, an Islamic Movement with Al-Qaeda Ties is on the Rise published in The Washington Post, argued that the strategically located nation of Bangladesh is going to be a new regional hub for terrorist operations after analyzing some case studies of killing and bombing by several militant organizations like JMB, JMJB, HuJI-B and others. Also the recent killings of the Rajshahi University professor AFM Rezaul Karim Siddiquee on 23 April and the killing of Xulhaz Mannan, a gay rights activist, and his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy in the capital Dhaka on 26 April 2016 are showing the growing strength of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh revealing the truth of several security and terrorism analysts’ comments on the Bangladeshi militants’ close links with the global jihadists.
On the basis of primary data, the study examines the growing nature, historical development, causes, consequences, impact, socio-political dimensions, and security challenges of the religious militancy in Bangladesh along with the role of state level institutional arrangements and their limitations in order to combat militancy and terrorism in Bangladesh.
The central argument of the study is that Bangladesh is facing a growing intensity of religious militancy revealing close ties with the global jihadists where banned religious parties and groups are responsible for the recent attacks and killings of the bloggers, atheists, university teachers and non-Muslim priests due to their feeling of alienation from the liberal democratic system; political, economic, social and cultural suppression over the fundamentalists; their goal of establishing own religious ideology within the political system; the weak presence of the main political opposition (BNP) in political affairs; and the limitations of several counter terrorism mechanisms to combat militant activities properly.
A combination of qualitative and quantitative approach is used to attain the objectives of the study. Both primary and secondary sources of data and information are used in carrying out this study. Primary data have been collected through proportionate random sample survey using close-ended structured questionnaire from 50 students of different departments at Dhaka University considering proper representation of sex (50% male and 50% female) and religious views (Islam-80%, Hindu-18% and Buddhist-2%). Secondary data have been acquired through content analysis where related information and data are collected from all relevant books, journal articles, published and unpublished research works, daily newspapers etc. The collected data have been validated through crosschecking with each other and with the secondary sources.
Understanding (Religious) Militancy
The word militancy comes from the 15th Century Latin ‘militare’ meaning “to serve as a solider”. Militancy is the related modern concept described as a defensive organizational ideology grew out of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Fyrd’. Nowadays, the term militancy is synonymously used with the term ‘terrorism’, ‘fundamentalism’ as well as ‘extremism’.
Dimensions of Religious Militancy
Militancy as a social movement has three common elements- goals, collective actors and collective action (Hall, 1995: 5). Freilich et al. (2001: 163-210) argued about the following five dimensions:
Origin and Development Political Islam and Militancy in Bangladesh
Islamist militant groups in Bangladesh which emerged in the 1990s have undergone several transformations. Originally grown out of the volunteers who joined the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, these groups have since then taken different shapes.
Since the 1990s, five ‘generations’ of militant groups appeared on the scene. In some measures, the militant groups have come full circle: they began as a result of a global agenda fighting an ‘atheist’ Communist system (war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan) to now being part of establishing a global ‘khilafat’ (by joining the IS in Syria and Iraq) via pursuing a circumscribed local agenda for a period in the early 2000s (Riaz, 2016: 2).
Five Generations of Bangladeshi Militants
Ali Riaz (2016) in his recent study “Who are the Bangladeshi ‘Islamist Militants’?” divided Bangladeshi militants into five generations.
First Generation: The first generation of militants was the product of the Afghan War (1979-1992). In 1984-88, almost 3000 volunteers along with a group of ‘ulama’ travelled to Afghanistan to participate in the war. Between 1988 and 1992, Shafiqur Rahman, a returnee of the Afghan war, established HuJI-B. Here, the members of the leadership were older, mostly madrassah (particularly Deobandi) educated, and hailed from rural areas.
Second Generation: After 1996, the group moved its bases to the northern and northwestern parts of the country, and adopted the name “Qital fi Sabilililah”. Shaikh Abdur Rahman and Asadullah Ghalib, leader of the AHAB, joined forces in 1998 and established the JMB with the objective of transforming Bangladesh into an ‘Islamic state’. The group and its affiliate JMJB, under the leadership of Shaikh Abdur Rahman, Siddiqur Rahman (Bangla Bhai) and Asadullah Ghalib, established a reign of terror in the northwestern part of Bangladesh.
Third Generation: As the JMB and HuJI-B were gradually transforming, a new organization with international connections and a global agenda appeared on the scene: the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT). The Bangladesh chapter of the HT was founded in 2001 by a university professor who had studied in the United Kingdom as a Commonwealth Scholar. The new generation is characterized by its technical skills, being students of universities, and well versed in global political events.
Fourth Generation: The arrests and execution of the JMB leaders in 2006-2007, followed by strong CT efforts weakened the militant groups. Then the HuJI and the JMB continued to reorganize renewing group named the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). Inspired by Anwar al Awlaki and led by local Mufti Jasimuddin Rahmani, the ABT began to attract new recruits in 2012.The group reflects a young generation of jihadist in Bangladesh, which uses cyberspace extensively in propagating jihadist ideology and training manuals to guide terror attacks.
Fifth Generation: With the announcement of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in September 2014 that the organization was establishing a branch in South Asia, AQIS came into being. In February 2015, Zawahiri called upon the Muslims of Bangladesh to launch a massive public uprising against the enemies of Islam. In early July the law enforcing agencies arrested Maulana Mainul Islam, the alleged AQIS chief coordinator in Bangladesh along with eleven other AQIS activists. The defining feature of the new generation is that they are inspired by, and connected to, the transnational terrorist groups, intend to pursue their objective of establishing an Islamic state in Bangladesh and participate in the global militant Islamist movements.
Trends of Militancy in Bangladesh
Since the mid-1980s Bangladesh has been witnessing a dramatic rise of militant and terrorist activities along with a wider scale of killings, bombing, arson etc. According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD), between March 1986 and December 2014, there have been 1,049 terrorist attacks in Bangladesh. The following graph is showing that the whole 1990s and from 2010-13 Bangladesh witnessed almost 70 percent militant attacks due to political turmoil, lack of consensus among major political forces, verdict regarding war criminals etc.
Factors and Causes of Religious Militancy in Bangladesh
The issue of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh is related to various factors. Riaz (2007) identified four factors with the rise of Islamist militancy as a political ideology:
- Crisis of hegemony of the Bangladeshi ruling class
- Crisis of legitimacy of the post-1975 military regimes
- Politics of expediency of the secularist parties
- Ineffective resistance of civil society
Datta (2007) and Quamruzzaman (2010) identified the following factors and causes of militancy:
- Unemployment, illiteracy, poverty and resource deprivation
- Politicization of Islam, growth of madrassas and upsurge of religious parties
- Perceived official patronage along with the ISIS/Al-Qaeda’s presence
- Economic dislocation, social disorganization and political blame game
- Easy access to arms and Ideological apparatuses
Data Presentation and Analysis: Survey Findings
Perception on ‘Religious Militancy’
This section deals with the perception of the students of Dhaka University on religious militancy as a concept. Here, 36 percent participants perceive religious militancy as ‘religio-centered terrorism’. Then 14 percent respondents consider the concept as ‘campaigns of violence by fundamentalists’ in order to establish their own religious ideology diminishing the liberal democratic order as well as establishing a political system based on religious texts i.e. Khilafat of ISIS based on Sharia law. Indeed, 22 percent participants regard the term as ‘a militia movement having goals, collective actors and collective action’ of religious individuals, groups or parties displaying engaging in violence for ensuring political, ideological, economic, or social interests.
Also 24 percent students support ‘All’-the argued three options- to sketch religious militancy as a religio-centered militia movement demonstrating campaigns of violence by fundamentalists and extremists having goals, collective actors and action in order to establish a religious order. Only 4 percent respondents feel pity to choose the option ‘others’ where they would like to consider religious militancy as a ‘form of violence using religion as shield to acquire political goals’.
Existence of Religious Militancy in Bangladesh
As the question concerning the existence of religious militancy was crucial for the students due to their lack engagement in militant as well as counter-militant activities and the arguments of both parties i.e. the militant organizations are taking responsibility of the terrorist attacks upon the bloggers, atheists, non-Muslim priests and preachers whereas the law and order maintaining authority is taking defense arguing that these activities are not done by militants or terrorists rather criminal activities. Indeed, 60 percent participants select the option ‘yes’ giving their consent in favor of the existence of religious militancy in Bangladesh. They perceive that as the main targets of attackers are bloggers (more specifically who write against religion), atheists, non-Muslim priests and preachers so these activities reveal a religion-motivated fundamentalist nature committed by the people of Islamist militant organizations.
Then 10 percent respondents choose the option ‘no’ arguing that these so called militants activities are nothing but a part of international conspiracy to weaken the harmonious pluralist fabric of Bangladesh by using religion as a fault-line to divide the society between majority and minority. Also 28 percent students answer ‘not sure’ regarding the existence of religious militancy in Bangladesh. Their argument is that the nature of religio-centered violence in Bangladesh is not like the Middle East or Europe, but these terrorist events to some extent have connection with religious militant activities. Only 2 percent students argued in favor of ‘others’ showing confusion regarding the existence of militancy in Bangladesh.
Religious Militancy as a potential threat to National Security of Bangladesh
Theoretically and empirically there exists a negative relationship between religious militancy and national security within both national and global order. A lion’s share of the participants, 70 percent, put their consent in favor of ‘yes’ where they consider the rise and rapid expansion of Islamic militancy as a potential threat to the security order of Bangladesh. Because the attacking strategies of militants can be considered as ghostly terror which poses a continuous threat to national security of Bangladesh. Only 8 percent participants answer in favor of ‘no’ arguing that Islamic militant activities are not posing such threat to the national security of Bangladesh rather these can be explained group activities where one group is committing violence against another to secure its ideological supremacy. Indeed, 22 percent respondents select ‘may be’ as their answer intending that any religious militant activity reveals dilemma for national security order like other criminal activities; but religious militancy can be considered as the most horror episodes to the national security because it also fragments the social fabric of Bangladesh.
Causes of Creating Religious Militant Organizations
One of the core findings of the study maps the major causes of creating religious militant organizations in Bangladesh. Among the 50 students of Dhaka University only 6 percent respondents regard ‘due to the alienation from the liberal democratic system’ as the major cause of the rapid expansion of religious militancy in Bangladesh. Then 24 percent participants consider ‘political, economic, social and cultural suppression over the fundamentalists’ as the root cause of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh where comparatively low level of modernization of the traditional Islamic society hinders the healthy representation of the fundamentalists within the holistic order causing the creation of collective militant psyche among them.
Majority of the respondents, 66 percent, strongly take the position in favor of ‘establishing own religious ideology within the political system’ by the religious groups that reveals its public face by creating Islamic militant organizations in turn. Globally, the militant organizations like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Taliban and others already prove their goals to establish Islamic state based on Sharia law. Connecting this issue with the national perspective they argue that militant organizations like the HuJI-B, JMB, JMJB, Ansarullah Bangla Team etc. are continuously committing terrorist activities to insert their ideology as religious-political forces within the political system. Only 4 percent select their answer as ‘others’ where Islamist militancy is rising due to communal feelings or the provocation of fundamentalists.
Connection of Religious Militancy with the recent attacks on bloggers and non-Muslim preachers and priests
The connection of religious militancy with the recent attacks on bloggers and non-Muslim preachers and priests is one of the major contemporary issues in the realm of academia, media, civil society as well as development partners and donors of Bangladesh. Here 32 percent participants consider these attacks as ‘militant attack’ where Islamic radical psyche of the militants drives them to commit such kind of criminal offences.
Then 28 percent respondents perceive these contemporary attacks on bloggers and non-Muslim preachers and priests as ‘terrorist attack’ where terrorist organizations are occurring such deadly events in the name of religion in order to attain their certain interests. This is also a tactics of them that they would commit but the perception would be against the Islamic militants. Indeed, 32 percent participants think these attacks as ‘fundamentalists’ attack’ arguing that the Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh are committing these deadly attacks for establishing their ideology as well as demonstrating their power and supremacy within this pluralist liberal order. Only 8 percent respondents consider these recent attacks as a ‘rootless act’ due to the sensitive comments against Islam.
Responsibility of Islamic political parties in Bangladesh for religious militancy
This section was little bit critical for the respondents due to the similarity of the violence of militants with the Islamic political parties along with a maximum portion of ideological indifferences. Surprisingly 38 percent students take their position in favor of ‘yes’ which indicates the involvement of the major Islamic parties in the rise and expansion of Islamic militant organizations in Bangladesh. The Jamaat-e-Islami and its affiliates are often found in violent militant activities lonely as well as jointly with the militant organizations like JMB, JMJB, HuJI-B etc. across the country.
Here 24 percent students argue in favor of ‘no’ where their stance shows that since the colonial period the religious political parties are involved in the political, social, economic and cultural development of Bangladesh. Rather the rise of militancy is initiated by the West to retain their influence in the LDCs like Bangladesh after the incident of 9/11 as a part of its ‘war on terror’ strategy. Also their stance reveals the indirect connection of the major and alienated Islamic political parties provoking the militant organizations. Also 34 percent participants choose the option ‘not sure’ due to the ambiguity between the violent activities of the Islamic parties and the terrorist activities of the Islamic militant organizations. As the pattern of the attacks and the similarities in terms of ideology and faith are almost same so the responsibilities of the Islamic parties cannot be denied in the rise and expansion of religious militancy in Bangladesh. Only 4 percent regard the ‘others’ as their answers are that most religious political parties are not responsible rather to some extent in specific acts.
The next question deals with to specify Islamic parties responsible for religious militancy in Bangladesh the respondents are found to continue their rhythm of choosing answers subsequently. Here 18 percent participants consider ‘Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB)’ as the major actor for rise of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. Subsequently, 12 percent respondents choose ‘Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B)’ as the leading terrorist organization which is spreading and strengthening Islamic militant order in Bangladesh. Most importantly 38 percent consider ‘Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and its Affiliates’ as the major forces of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. After the banning by the judiciary, the party takes the militant pathway to prove their existence and their roots in the society. Also some of the JI leaders were found affiliated with the Islamic militant organizations through the reports of media. Indeed 30 percent students regard ‘others’ as their answer where 10 percent consider these all parties responsible; 10 percent indicate the involvement of Ansarullah Bangla Team and ISIS; and 10 percent say don’t know exactly about the involvement of these parties in militancy.
Validity of confession taking the liability of killing or attacking by ISIS or Al-Qaeda
This sub-section entirely deals with the perception of the students regarding the validity of the confession taking liability of the contemporary killing or attacking through internet by ISIS (Ansarullah Bangla Team) or Al-Qaeda (Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent- AQIS).However, 10 percent participants perceive this confession of killing or attacking by ISIS or Al-Qaeda as ‘completely true’ arguing that these terrorist organizations mainly target the Muslim majority countries having fragile governance, weak pluralist social fabric, parochial political culture, lack of compromise and conflict resolution mechanism among the major political forces.
As these organizations spread their access from the Middle East to South East Asia so Bangladesh is considered a hub of geostrategic land connecting the mentioned two major regions. Indeed, 66 percent respondents think the validity of this confession of the liability as ‘to some extent’ indicating that both ISIS and Al-Qaeda have strong affiliation with the local as well as national level Islamic militant organizations in terms of patronizing, training, skilling, making plans for attack, recruitment and so on. So they are just constructing a pathway by smoothing the global-local ties for establishing a religious militant order including Bangladesh.
Surprisingly 20 percent choose the option ‘not true’ which shows their perception in defense of criminal and terrorist activities by the militant organizations rather than implementing the agenda of ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Also the scale and pattern of global jihadist violence largely differs from the militant activities in Bangladesh. Here 4 percent students choose ‘others’ arguing that they do not know anything about the confessions.
Recruitment or targeted to recruit in militant organizations of Bangladesh
Recruitment or targeted to recruit is a central thrust of the militant organizations in Bangladesh. Here 28 percent respondents perceive that ‘students of Madrasha’ are the first and foremost choice to be recruited as the members of the militant organizations due to their lack of modernization, poor access in social as well as printing-electronic media, lack of proper understanding about the Sharia law and the fundamentals of Khilafat, blind irrational belief upon the commanders etc. allowing the most easiest way to conduct militant activities. Indeed, 32 percent participants consider that basically the ‘leaders of banned Islamic political parties’ are joining with these militant organizations in order to retain their political and organizational influence and status posing threat to the power structure. Also the feeling of alienation from the mainstream political fabric bounds them to affiliate with the militants.
Then 18 percent students choose that ‘general people’, who could be motivated easily by using religion, are the important targets of recruitment by the militants. The frustrated young generation, socially and economically alienated people and the people having a strong anti-liberal sentiment are highly targeted by the Bangladeshi Islamic militant organizations. Also 22 percent support the option ‘others’ where 8 percent consider that all are recruited as militants; 4 percent seem that socially frustrated young generation due to unemployment and drug addiction; 10 percent think anyone can be recruited as militants.
Impact of militancy on Bangladesh’s relations with India, the USA and European countries
It is evident that terrorist, militant and extremist activities centering religion are always a matter of concern and pressure within the realm of foreign and diplomatic relations with other countries. 72 percent respondents consider ‘yes’ as their answer indicating that they strongly believe that such kind of militant and terrorist activities would hamper the bilateral as well as multilateral diplomatic and economic relationships with the major allies like India, the USA and other European countries.
Already Bangladesh lost the ‘GSP’ in the US market and many of EU business partners revealing the lack of security and certainty due to the violent militant events. As the rise and expansion of militancy in Bangladesh is also a security issue for India more specifically North East India where secessionist movements are going on. For this reason it is often evident the interference of India within the national political arena of Bangladesh. Then 12 percent consider ‘no’ as the answer arguing that as the rapid growth of economy, well reserved foreign currency, shining garments and industrial sectors and many developmental issues are getting importance to the foreign partners. Religious militancy will not hinder the relationship because no of them is out of militancy and terrorism. Also 16 percent choose the answer ‘not sure’ because they feel that globalization of terrorism and militancy endangered the states like Bangladesh who are in stage of ‘pre-takeoff’. As the development partners put conditions regarding militancy but lack of proper evidences create a grey area for them.
Effectiveness of the Counter Terrorism (CT) mechanism to counter the Militants
Here 18 percent consider the counter terrorism (CT) mechanism ‘completely active’ because of having legal as well as institutional arrangements. The existing Criminal Code and politically driven laws like the Special Powers Act of 1974, the Public Safety Act 2000, Speedy Tribunal Act and the Suppression of Terrorist Offences Act 1992,the Law and Order Disruption Crimes (Speedy Trial/Amendment) Act 2005arethe legal instruments to punish terrorist and militant offenders. Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Counter Terrorism and Intelligence Bureau (CTIB), Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit (a specialized unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police) are the institutional arrangements for combating militant attacks, cybercrimes, terror financing and mobile bank related crimes.
Majority of the students, 56 percent think that the counter terrorism mechanism is ‘medium active’ because the legal and instruments are still in the process of development as the pattern of militant and terrorist violence could not be sketched properly. Also the role of RAB is still in huge question and criticism. Then 20 percent students consider the CT mechanism ‘less active’ arguing that this mechanism is using politically by the government party against the opposition parties. Also the legal and institutional arrangements are not made following the international standards. Only 6 percent participants regard ‘others’ argued that they are not sure about effectiveness of CT mechanisms.
It appears from the above analyses that the scale of religious militancy in Bangladesh is increasing day by day revealing a close tie with the global militant organizations. Here Islamic militancy is threatening the national security of Bangladesh where the militants play a key role in order to exert their own religious doctrine, ideology and supremacy within the political system. The militants are getting stronger and conducting their violent activities in Bangladesh due to the lack of political integration of the religious forces within the liberal fabric; feeling of alienation of the militants; political, economic, social and cultural suppression over fundamentalists etc. However the recent attacks and killings of bloggers, atheists, university teachers, non-Muslim priests and preachers indicate the presence of militancy in Bangladesh revealing the vulnerabilities of the counter terrorism mechanisms as well as ‘Zero Tolerance’ stance of the government.
These violent incidents by the militants also affect negatively the diplomatic as well as economic relations with India, the USA and European countries. In order to uproot the core of Islamic militancy the state should modernize the madrasha system; integrate or assimilate the religious forces within the liberal order; design a technology and strategy based counter terrorism mechanisms etc. In a nutshell, religious militancy in Bangladesh would be a utopia if democratic tradition, norms and values could be institutionalized following a culture of deliberation and compromise.
*Abu Sufian Shamrat, M.S.S. in Political Science, is a researcher in Bangladesh. Shamrat is the highest gold medal awardee in the history of Dhaka University convocations. He writes on political, social, global, as well as strategic issues in the leading national and international dailies and journals. He can be reached at: [email protected]
(This article first appeared in South Asia Journal)
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