The attack on a bakery-cafe in Dhaka on July 1, 2016 which resulted in the death of 20 hostages, including 18 foreigners, marked a significant change in the nature of terror attacks in Bangladesh. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State (ISIS/IS) and Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) have been claiming responsibility for some of the terror attacks ( including the one on the cafe in Dhaka) which have struck Bangladesh over last several months. This article examines the implications the Dhaka terror attack may hold for India.
While on one hand there is a lack of clarity as to which international terror group (AQIS or IS/ISIS) has inspired or supported the Dhaka attack, the Bangladeshi government insists that the attack was a home grown terror incident involving Bangladeshis and local radical ideology. Though the nature of the group which carried out the attack has its own connotations, for the purpose of this article let us consider the possibilities as open and yet focus on their common outcome, and which is the destabilisation of Bangladesh.
To that end, we must also factor in the sobering realisation that it was some good counter-terrorism field work by the Indian law enforcement agencies ( and providence) that Hyderabad( and India) do not find themselves counted along with the terror hit cities of Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, Jeddah and Medina this Ramadan.
Finally, internationally networked Islamic terrorism is like bad air- it is just a matter of time before it reaches the gates of India and Bangladesh through ideology, returning jihadists or foreign militants. To that end, any cogent assessment of the threats posed by radical jihadists must take into considerations the characteristics and fallout of the presence of such networks or groups.
Implications for India
Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, the head of IS operations in Bangladesh had stated in IS’s Dabiq magazine that, “Bangladesh is strategically important (to IS) for several reasons as it provides a location from which to expand future operations into eastern India and Myanmar”. While the IS may have attempted to ‘forcefully’ announce its arrival in Bangladesh, it is the nature and the likely impact of the terror group’s future designs on the entire Indian subcontinent that would be the cause of concern in India.
The strategic and security implications of India’s north-eastern states with their weak and tenuous connectivity are well understood. Indian security establishment has engaged for decades the divisive and separatist elements in these states, some of whom had found sanctuaries in Bangladesh and Myanmar. With IS attempting to consolidate in Bangladesh along with its rival the AQIS on one hand and Myanmar with its Rohingya issue featuring consistently as a potential Islamist battleground on the other, India could soon have a new and more portent external challenge to its national security.
According to India’s 2001 census data, 5.1 million persons were reported as migrants, of which nearly 3 million were estimated to be from Bangladesh. A subsequent study had put the irregular migration from Bangladesh to India in the range of 5 million to 20 million, most of who work as unskilled or semiskilled labourers. Bangladeshi migrants are settled in most parts of India and are integrated at varying levels and degrees into the Indian society and economy. Some of them visit Bangladesh, but most of them send back money through informal channels exposing them to radicalisation and security risks. Add to these thousands of Rohingya refugees illegally staying in various part of India.
World Bank data (Bilateral Remittance Matrix, 2014) had shown that, of the $7.6 billion of outward remittances from India, (54 per cent or $4.16 billion) was to Bangladesh alone in that year. Almost every year, more than half (50-55 per cent) of India’s total outward remittances are to Bangladesh. Besides geographical proximity, porous borders and historical ties, the large pool of undocumented migrant labour is seen as the reason behind the trend. As, non-banking finance companies are not allowed to facilitate outward remittances from India, all the transactions must be routed through banks this creates an operating space for informal money transfer channels for use by illegal migrants and a difficult-to-choke route for terror financing. To damp the flow of illegal migrants, India needs Bangladesh to prosper economically with a healthy job demand and not lose its secular character in a wave of radicalisation and associated terror strikes.
Scope for Cooperation
In October 2014, a blast in the Khagragarh area of Burdwan district in West Bengal revealed much to India’s concern and embarrassment a growing presence of Bangladeshi militants in India. The two men killed in the blast were identified as members of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which has carried out several terror attacks over the years all over Bangladesh. The point here is that at present the porous border and ethnic similarity along the Indo-Bangla border can provide logistic support and operational ease to terror groups of either country on both sides of the border.
The roadmap for better India-Bangladesh relations involves greater integration of transportation links, trade and services and energy security. Going forward, India plans to increase its use of Bangladesh’s internal transportation links for the development of its north eastern states, integration of the SAARC economic area and finally connecting the South Asia with ASEAN. Hence closing of borders in the not an option but efficient and effective border management is. India has a tremendous stake in a stable and economically vibrant Bangladesh and consequently its security.
In Feb 2015, months after the blast in Burdwan blew the lid off a thriving JMB network on its territory; India had proposed an anti-terror pact with Bangladesh, envisaging a structured mechanism for exchange of terrorism-related information and updates. India also provided Bangladesh a list of 39 camps of Indian insurgent groups still operating out of Bangladeshi territory and concentrated in the Chittagong region.
The proposed Indo-Bangla anti-terror pact sought regular exchange of terror information and intelligence on short-term/long-term threats, joint investigation of terror cases with cross-country linkages, coordinated counter-terror action as well as exchange of training and best counter-terror practices. The pact also aimed to check terror financing and circulation of counterfeit currency.
Cognizant of the imperative of a stable and secure Bangladesh, the Indian Prime Minister during his visit to Dhaka in June 2015 had stressed the need for the effective implementation of Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP) for better border management. He also signed MoUs to curb counterfeit currency and human trafficking.
Geography, demography and geopolitics steadfastly bind the fortunes of India and Bangladesh together. India’s security is threatened by terror groups not just by their use of Bangladeshi soil as a launch pad for terror attacks against India, but by destabilisation of Bangladesh itself.