By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
On March 19, 2016, Counter-Terrorism and Trans National Crime Unit (CTTC) Chief Monirul Islam stated that Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) had set up eight hideouts in Dhaka city to carry out killings of secular people. A group of 20 militants, dubbed “the killing squad” by investigators, are reportedly engaged in ‘managing’ these hideouts. Explaining the modus operandi, investigators disclosed that, prior to killing secular targets, ABT terrorists rent houses from where they monitor their victims before making the final move.“Last month, they planned to kill a blogger named Niloy who lives in Dhaka’s Azimpur,” Monirul Islam stated, adding that the Security Forces (SFs) had foiled the attempt.
CTTC garnered the information about the “the killing squad” from two ABT militants, identified as Shahin alias Jamal alias Kamal (26) and Salahuddin alias Hiron alias Shah Alam (30), who were arrested on February 19, 2016, from the Badda area of capital city, Dhaka. So far, three out of eight such hideouts have been neutralised by the SFs.
Of late, Bangladesh has become a dangerous place for people who are opposing extremists. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 15 such persons have been killed since the first murder of writer and publisher Ahmed Rajib Haider in the Mirpur area of Dhaka on February 15, 2013. The most recent of these has been the death of Mashiur Rahman Utsho (reporter working with Bengali newspaper Juger Alo) killed on December 24, 2015, in Rangpur District. 2015 proved very lethal with six such people killed, including Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rehman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Neel, Faisal Arifin and Mashiur Rahman.
On May 12, 2013, ABT had issued a list of 84 “atheist bloggers” on the grounds that “All of them are enemy of the Islam (sic).” ABT operatives with information technology (IT) skills were managing fake Facebook pages and using accounts to hunt down “atheists” so that the group’s armed cadres could attack them. Moreover, in 2015, al Qaeda in Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) also joined ABT in threatening rational and secular minds. In a message posted on justpaste.it, AQIS declared in the wake of the Ananta Bijoy Das’ killing: “We want to say to atheist bloggers! We don’t forget and we will not forget others who insult our beloved Prophet Muhammad and Allah. Another file closed! Stay tuned for next target.”
Religious minorities are also facing the brunt of this extremist violence. According to partial data collated by Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), since 2013, six people belonging to religious minorities have been confirmed killed, but this is likely a gross underestimate. Data on the plight of minorities in Bangladesh is extremely deficient, with fitful reportage. The latest of such killings took place on March 14, 2016, when a homeopathic doctor/ preacher, identified as Abdur Razzak, belonging to the minority Shia sect was killed in Jhenidah District. “The Government needs to be more aware about our security and ensure justice, so that we can live without fear of more attacks,” Mir Julfikar, President of the Husseni Welfare Association, a leading Shia organization stated.
The threat to independent voices from Islamist extremists persists despite the fact that the present Bangladesh Government under Sheikh Hasina Wajed -led Awami League (AL) party has taken tremendous initiatives to curb the menace of religious extremism, including the creation of a legal body to tackle terrorism and religious extremism. In the year 2009, Bangladesh promulgated the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), which forbids membership of and support to proscribed organisations which are engaged in terrorist activities, including the terrorist outfits listed under various United Nations Security Council Resolutions. In addition, on February 16, 2012, Bangladesh’s Parliament unanimously passed an amendment to the Act, which legalised capital punishment for domestic acts of terrorism. Further, the 2012 ATA authorised the death penalty for terrorists targeting another country. Further, Bangladesh has devised the Anti Terrorism Rules 2013 to strengthen the official position vis-a-vis terrorism and violent extremist activities. The Rules contain stringent provisions to check the flow of terror finances, including criminal liability on the basis of a “reasonable suspicion” that the money will be used to fund any terrorist act.
The Government has also sought to curb the menace of terrorist finance in Bangladesh, monitoring banks and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). The Government brought two private banks, Islami Bank Bangladesh Limited (IBBL) and Social Islami Bank Limited (SIBL), both managed by Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), under its regulatory mechanisms after the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation in its July 17, 2012, report titled U.S. Vulnerabilities to Money Laundering, Drugs and Terrorist Financing: HSBC Case History, had implicated these Banks for involvement in terror financing. Also, the Government closed the operation of the Saudi Arabia based charity al Haramain Foundation and the Kuwait based charity Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, for their alleged involvement in terror financing.
In 2015 Bangladesh also experienced a spate of bank robberiesby religious extremists to fund terrorist activities. In the month of February 2015, the country’s central bank, Bangladesh Bank, had put banks in Bangladesh on maximum alert so that they could protect against being exploited to finance terrorism, following Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s directive.
Further, the Government is working for the mitigation of extremism and intolerance by implementing a national counter-radicalisation strategy through education, women’s empowerment and propagation of secular and moderate cultural values. The Government has also adopted an innovative “Motivational Campaign” to stop misuse of religion as a pretext for carrying out subversive activities.
Bangladesh has raised a strong direct challenge to extremist forces.On May 26, 2015, the AL Government banned ABT. Earlier, a number of other such outfits had also been banned, including Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) (October, 2005); Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (February, 2005); Hizb ut-Tahrir (October, 2009); Shahdat-e-al Hikma (February, 2003).
Similarly, the Government constituted the International Crimes Tribunal-1 (ICT-1) on March 25, 2010, and subsequently, ICT-2 on March 22, 2012, with the objective of bringing the perpetrators of War Crimes of 1971 to justice. There is a critical overlap between the leadership involved in the 1971 War Crimes and the radical Islamist leadership of the country today. So far, the two ICTs have indicted 53 leaders, including 36 from Jama’at-e-Islami (JeI), six from the Muslim League (ML), five from Nezam-e-Islami (NeI), four from BNP and two from the Jatiya Party (JP). Verdicts against 26 of these indicted leaders have already been delivered – 19 were awarded the death sentence while the remaining seven received life sentences. Four of the 19 who received the death sentence have already been executed, while 13 others cases are currently pending with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.
Unsurprisingly, these initiatives have sparked major turmoil and violence in the country. According to partial data compiled by ICM, since the formation of ICT-1 (as mentioned above), at least 511 people, including 286 civilians, 29 SF personnel and 196 extremists have been killed, principally in acts of terror targeting civilians, or in street violence (data till April 3, 2016). However, the Government has decided not to give up and has reiterated that the trials will continue. On December 14, 2015, Sheikh Hasina stated, “There is no power in the world which will be able to halt the continuous war crimes trial…The conspiracy of the cohorts of the Pakistani occupation forces is going on in the country and it would continue.”
Bangladesh is not only a country for Sunni Muslims. It is also homeland to Shias, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics. The very foundation of the country was built on the edifice of cultural protest, justice and secular thinking. Bangladesh’s 1971 Constitution originally declared that all religions were equal in the eyes of the state.
However, military ruler Hussain Mohammad Ershad, with the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution in 1988, pronounced Islam the state religion, against the original and secular nature of the Constitution. The Amendment not only made Islam the state religion but also allowed religion-based politics, which enabled the JeI and other religious parties to return to the position of power that had been denied to them under the 1972 Constitution.
In June 2011, following the 15th Constitutional Amendment, Sheikh Hasina’s incumbent Government reinstated the principle of secularism. However, in a volte face on her declared position, she also reaffirmed Islam as the state religion, and thus preserved the changes made to the Constitution in 2007 by the Provisional Government led by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed.
In the meantime, in a major step in order to increase Police capability to combat militancy and terrorism, a new Police Division, the CTTC unit under the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, consisting of 600 personnel, was formed in December 2015. This Police unit, which also deals with terror financing, and mobile bank related and cyber crimes, started functioning from February 2016. Earlier, on December 15, 2015, State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shahriar Alam stated that Bangladesh has decided to join a Saudi Arabian initiative to set up “Counter-Terrorism Centre” along with other Muslim countries to fight terrorism and extremist ideology.
Nevertheless, secular thinking remains under constant threat from ultra-rightist religious fanatics in Bangladesh. Though, legal action to drop Islam as Bangladesh’s state religion has been revived and the Dhaka High Court agreed to hear the case on March 27, 2016, the petition was rejected. The three-member panel of judges said in its ruling that the petitioners had “no locus standi” and could not demonstrate that they had been harmed by the law they were seeking to challenge. Islamists, including JeI and Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI) cadres, had called for a general strike on March 28, 2016, to protest the legal challenge, but withdrew the call after the High Court dismissed the petition following a brief hearing.
Bangladesh has been proactive in curbing terror in whole, demonstrating the commitment of Sheikh Hasina and her Government in correcting past wrongs. Despite strong opposition and disruptive activities of rightist elements, the state has maintained its goal of uprooting violence and terrorism. The threat of extremism persists, of course, and the decades of unchallenged radicalization have left behind a very large pool of extremists within the population. Enormous and enduring efforts will be required to reverse the impact of this long and perverse process – but the reassertion of reason is certainly well begun.
* Sanchita Bhattacharya
Visiting Scholar, Institute for Conflict Management