By S. Binodkumar Singh*
The Awami League (AL)-led government in Bangladesh, which came to power on January 6, 2009, has consolidated its secular commitments through 2016, reining in Islamist extremist groups and targeting the Left Wing Extremist (LWE) movement in the country.
A total of 74 Islamist terrorists were killed and another 1,227 were arrested across Bangladesh in different raids during 2016. Prominent among those killed were the ‘national operations commander’ of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) Abdullah aka Noman (35); ‘Dhaka regional commander’ of JMB Kamal aka Hiran (30); ‘military and IT trainer’ of Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) Shariful aka Arif; Neo-JMB leader and mastermind of Gulshan attack Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury aka Shaykh Abu Ibrahim Al Hanif aka Amir (30); JMB ‘military commander’ for the northern region Khaled Hasan aka Badar Mama (30); Neo-JMB ‘military commander’ Murad aka Jahangir Alam aka Omar; and JMB ‘regional commander’ Tulu Mollah (33). In comparison, 31 Islamist terrorists were killed in 2015 and 22 in 2014.
Eighteen LWE-linked fatalities were recorded, all of terrorists, in 2016. These included four Purbo Banglar Communist Party (PBCP) ‘regional leaders’ Anwar Hossain (40), Al Amin Hossain (35), Asadul Islam Fakir (39) and Mozaffar Sana (40); one Gano Bahini ‘regional leader’ Amirul Islam; nine PBCP cadres; three Gono Mukti Fauj (GMF, ‘People’s Freedom Army’) cadres; and one Biplobi Communist Party (BCP) cadre. Similarly, there were 17 LWE fatalities, all of terrorists, in 2015; and 16, all of terrorists, in 2014.
Meanwhile, a total of 14 LW extremists, including BCP ‘regional leader’ Badsha Mallik (45), eight PBCP cadres, four BCP cadres and one Sarbohara Party cadre, were arrested through 2016. There were 10 such arrests in 2015 and 20 in 2014.
The War Crimes (WC) Trials, which began on March 25, 2010, have thus far indicted 74 leaders, including 44 from Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI); 12 from the Muslim League (ML); five from Nezam-e-Islami (NeI); four from Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP); two each from the Jatiya Party (JP) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP); four former Razakar members; and one former Al-Badr member.
Verdicts have been delivered against 51 accused, including 29 death penalties and 22 life sentences. So far, six of the 29 people who were awarded the death sentence have been hanged. 12 others are absconding and another 11 cases are currently pending with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, out of 22 persons who were awarded life sentences, four persons have already died serving their sentence. Eleven others are absconding and another seven are lodged in various jails of the country.
Disturbingly, however, on December 8, 2016, Lieutenant Colonel Anwar Latif Khan, Additional Director General (Operations) of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), noted: “The terrorist organisations are facing a severe manpower shortage after they lost some high-profile terrorist leaders and trained members during special drives in the previous months. The terrorist outfits want to regain their striking power by hiring new faces, the sources said when they were asked about the recent incidents of going missing by some youths (sic).”
Further, on December 19, 2016, Mohamad Shafiqul Islam, Deputy Inspector of General (DIG), Chittagong Range, warned that “After the attack on Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, the old JMB, which was the follower of Bangla Bhai (Siddique ul-Islam), has become active again. We are keeping an eye on their activities. Most of the JMB members who carried out bomb blasts in 63 Districts are out of jail. We have launched a hunt for the terrorists who were named in the charge-sheet in the bomb blasts case.”
Moreover, there is the threat of increasing radicalisation, as significant numbers of youth appear to be attracted to the movements of global jihad. Research conducted by East West University, Dhaka, concluded, on November 21, 2016, that one in every 10 university students in Bangladesh supports terrorism. The study found that more than half (51.7 percent) of those students who support terrorism were from well-off families. In terms of age groups, 54.7 percent of those who share such radical ideas were aged between 18 and 25 years.
Similarly, Non-Government Organisation (NGO) Shopner Desh, which conducted a preliminary research project on the impact of militancy, disclosed, on December 20, 2016, that most rural students believe terrorist propaganda. Some 20-25 per cent of Districts in Bangladesh were at risk of terrorist activities and the tendency is significant among students of village- and rural-level educational institutes, where some 26 per cent of students have received offers to join terrorist activities, the new study revealed. The study also found that 87 per cent of rural students who received such offers think that terrorist activities are justified.
Worried about the increasing number of women taking up the extremist cause, law enforcement agencies disclosed, on December 25, 2016, that several woman terrorists were active in Bangladesh. Most of them were members of JMB, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and Neo-JMB. Although law enforcement agency members failed to determine the number of women involved in extremist activities, recent operations in different parts of the country expose the increasing number of women terrorists in these groups. At least 20 women have been arrested on terrorism charges from different areas of the country. According to sources, the terrorist groups pair up a female and a male member, who identify themselves as husband and wife, a pattern spoken of as the ‘couple module’.
Remarkably, on July 26, 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina issued a 19-point directive to the Deputy Commissioners (DCs) across the country to discharge their duties more carefully and strictly in maintaining peace, law and order and stability by eliminating militancy, terrorism and communalism, and ensuring that people are not harassed and deprived while receiving government services.
Further, on October 8, 2016, Hasina declared: “Our Government has always taken stern action against terrorism and militancy and would continue to curb the twin demons with an iron hand… There would be no place for terrorism and militancy on Bangladesh’s soil.”
Reaffirming her firm stance against extremism, Hasina noted on December 29, 2016: “All will have to remain alert, mobilise public opinion and wage a social movement against terrorism and extremism so that no one can choose such wrong path anymore. We want peace and there will be no development without peace. Terrorism and extremism are not the path of Islam… Islam is the path of peace and there is no place for terrorism and extremism in it.”
Indeed, the AL-led government’s achievements on the counter-terrorism and internal security fronts through 2016 have been remarkable. Nevertheless, the Gulshan café siege has stung the government and law enforcement agencies to take the issue of extremism even more seriously and to declare an all-out war against terrorism. After the attack, law enforcers conducted pre-emptive strikes at a number of terrorist dens, recovered arms, ammunition and explosives and thus prevented further terror incidents.
However, the menace is far from over, as terrorist recruitment continues, and new strategies are devised to launch further attacks, creating a significant threat to development and social stability. Given the sheer depth of radicalisation in Bangladesh, this is not a problem that is going to go away anytime soon despite the exemplary efforts and determination of the Sheikh Hasina regime.
*S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate at the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]