By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
Amid sharp political polarisation, Bangladesh is presently witnessing resurgence of radical Islamism. Some of the recent developments in the country, for example, the arrest of several militant leaders and activists, revelation of their terror plans and killings of bloggers, amply demonstrate that the religious extremists and Islamic terrorists are desperately trying to make inroads into the volatile polity. The activities of the new radical Islamic groups like Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Islam and some other obscure outfits constitute one of the biggest internal security challenges for the government.
The rapid expansion of home grown and jihadi-affiliated militant groups has raised fears of radical Islamisation of the Bangladeshi society. The youths coming from rural background are mostly attracted to madrassas owing allegiance to Wahabi and Salaafi schools of thought. The religious teaching imparted by them is different from the Sufi-inspired Islam which has been followed by the vast majority of the population for centuries. Some private universities have also become hotbeds of religious extremism. It is a matter of serious concern that such educational institutions are fast turning into primary recruitment centres for the militant outfits.
On May 26, the Bangladesh government banned the ABT for its alleged involvement in the murders of three bloggers. The ABT was the sixth militant outfit to be outlawed. Earlier, the government declared five militant groups, namely, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jama’tul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkatul Jihad Bangladesh, Jagrata Muslim Janata of Bangladesh and Shahadat-e Al-Hikma, as proscribed organisations. The law enforcers want the government to forbid some more extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tawhid, Kaleema-e-Jamaat, Hizbul Mahadi, Jamaat-ul-Muslemin and Islami Dawati Kafela. Reports suggest that nearly 14 radical Islamic outfits are presently under watch.
Among the new radical Islamic outfits, the ABT has emerged as a potent threat to the civil society. It is an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group that began its activities in 2007 as “Jama’tul Muslemin”. Reports say the ABT, which was initially funded by various NGOs, became inoperative when its financial resources dried up. But it managed to resurface in 2013 as ABT.
It came under the scanner about three years back after the security forces launched a countrywide crackdown on extremist elements. In its bid to hog the media limelight, the ABT took credit for the blogger killings on Twitter. It is also reportedly planning to attack Bangladesh-origin bloggers living abroad like the UK and Germany.
The outfit’s growing activities is a matter of concern as its radical agenda includes establishment of a Sharia state in Bangladesh by subverting the democratic system. The security forces intensified operations against the ABT after it issued letters threatening to liquidate 10 prominent personalities, including Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and prime minister’s adviser H.T. Imam.
Some Bangladeshi youths were motivated by the September 2014 video message released by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. The dreaded international outfit launched its wing called al-Qaeda in Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS) to wage jihad in South Asia. The Bangladesh branch of AQIS, Ansar al-Islam, which had been active in recent months, claimed responsibility for killing three bloggers.
In a major breakthrough, the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested chief coordinator of AQIS in Bangladesh, Maulana Maniul Islam, his adviser Maulana Jafar Amin and ten other activists from Dhaka in early July. The RAB also recovered huge cache of arms, explosives and incriminating documents from their possession and claimed that they were making frenetic efforts for a terror strike in the capital city.
The interrogation of arrested operatives revealed that they had planned to float outfits in the names of “Dawat-e-Tabliq” and subsequently, “313 Badar Sainik”. The RAB said the militant leaders’ larger objective was to “join AQIS after al-Qaeda’s full expansion in Bangladesh”.
The security forces’ offensive against the Islamic terrorists continued, and on July 27, acting chief of JMB Abu Talha was arrested along with seven activists. In the wake of massive counter-militancy operations, the JMB was trying to regroup by developing links with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. The law enforcement agencies are worried about JMB’s nefarious designs to attack the country’s high-profile personalities and major infrastructure facilities.
During the last one year, police nabbed at least 15 ISIS operatives. Its detective branch also detained one person named Abdullah Al Galib on May 31 claiming he had floated a new radical outfit called “Jund At-Tawheed Wal Khalifah”. Inspired by ISIS’ initial success, Galib and his associates were recruiting members and collecting funds for jihadi activities. The security forces are apprehensive about the potential of the militant outfits to destabilise law and order as they frequently indulge in crimes like bank robbery and extortion to sustain themselves.
Another disturbing trend has been Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba’s (LeT) training of Rohingya refugees in the use of weapons. Intelligence inputs say LeT’s two front organisations, Jamaat-ud-Daawa and Fala-I-Insaniyat Foundation, are quite active among the Rohingya youths under the cover of relief and rehabilitation. The security experts caution that Myanmar, Bangladesh and India’s eastern states may experience a sudden spurt in Islamic militancy unless the sinister schemes of LeT are nipped in the bud.
Containing Islamic terrorism has remained a key challenge of governance for the Awami League (AL) government. Despite introducing stringent anti-terror laws and pursuing relentless crackdown on Islamic militants since coming to power in 2009, the menace of terrorism could not be completely uprooted from Bangladesh’s soil. The government tried several militant leaders and executed some of them as part of its policy of zero-tolerance towards terrorism. However, the militants imbibed with jihadi ideology overcome occasional setbacks and reappear under different banners.
Bangladesh’s civil society is seriously concerned over the growing jihadi activities in the country. The AL government has been facing strong criticism for its failure to rein in radical Islamic forces especially after the killing of four secular-rationalist bloggers in the last six months. The Bangladeshi intelligentsia says such killings clearly indicate the government’s inability to contain growing religious intolerance in the society. Its lacklusture response to bloggers’ security concerns gives the impression that the government lacks political will to address the larger problem of religious fundamentalism.
The AL government refrained from publicly condemning violent attacks on bloggers who peacefully expressed their views against religious fanaticism. The government deplored the killing of blogger Niladri Chakraborty on August 7 for the first time under pressure. The AL leaders say religious extremists are orchestrating the killings to destabilise the country. The home minister assured that efforts are on to identify the killers of Niladri and bring them to justice. But the online activists are skeptical as the investigating agencies have not made much headway in any of the bloggers’ murder cases.
The resurgence of religious extremism is to be viewed against the backdrop of Bangladesh’s current political dynamics. The seemingly unending political feud between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia has offered much-needed reprieve and opportunity for the radical Islamists to make forays into the polity.
The AL government must initiate comprehensive measures to arrest the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism and reinstate the secular fabric of the constitution. The government, which often boasts of its secular credentials, has to protect the liberal and independent thinkers from the onslaught of dogmatic and oppressive religious leaders. The threatened online activists insist that they constitute a small minority group which neither has power nor influence to “claim justice from the government”. The Hasina government should immediately act against the radical Islamists because the barbaric killing of bloggers may tarnish Bangladesh’s image as a moderate Muslim nation before the international community.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]