By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
Eleven terrorists belonging to different Islamist formations [Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), nine; and Neo-JMB, two] were killed and 504 Islamist terrorists were arrested through 2018. Those arrested included 307 cadres of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI)-Islami Chhatra Shibir (JeI-ICS), followed by 122 cadres of the JMB, 19 of Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), 16 of Ansar-ul-Islam, 12 of Neo-JMB, 11 of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), 10 of Allah’r Dal and seven of Jama’at ul Muslemin.
In 2017, 52 Islamist terrorists were killed and another 905 were arrested. 74 Islamist terrorists were killed in 2016, 31 in 2015, 22 in 2014, and 133, the highest number in a year, in 2013.
Unsurprisingly, Islamist terrorists have failed to act as brazenly as they did earlier, inflicting just three fatalities (all civilians) in 2018; as against 13 (nine civilians and four SF personnel) in 2017; 47 (43 civilians and four SF personnel) in 2016; 25 (23 civilians and two SF personnel) in 2015; 38 (29 civilians and nine SF personnel) in 2014; and 246 (228 civilians and 18 SF personnel) in 2013.
Apart from taking on the Islamist terrorists in SF operations, the Government continued with its efforts to fight extremist elements on other fronts. Specifically, the process of the War Crimes trails continued through 2018, with at least another 29 war criminals indicted and 18 convicted during the year. Till date, 117 people have been indicted, 77 convicted, and of the latter, 44 were awarded death sentences, of which six were hanged. The remaining 38 deaths sentences are yet to be executed. Another 25 convicts were awarded life sentences, while eight died during the course of investigation. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)-1 was formed by the Government on March 25, 2010, to try alleged war criminals. A second tribunal, ICT-2, formed in March 2012, has been inoperative since September 2015 ‘’until further notice’, as a result of the reduction in the number of cases before the Tribunals. The Tribunals have so far delivered 42 judgments.
On March 28, 2019, ICT-1 pronounced the death sentence against five war criminals (in absentia) in several cases related to their role during the 1971 Liberation War. During the war, these cadres, linked to Razakar Bahini committed serious offences such as abduction, torture, confinement, killing and rape in Phubodhala upazila in the Netrakona district. ICT-1 also ordered the Home Secretary and Inspector General of Police to arrest the fugitives and execute their verdict.
The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) Government has done commendable work to rein in terrorism in the country since it came to power in January 2009, and continuation into a third term subsequent to the victory in the General Elections held on December 30, 2018.
The Hasina Government has also strengthened its political hold over the country as a result of its overwhelming win in the general elections. The AL-led 14-party-alliance attained a huge majority of 288 seats in the 300 member Jatiyo Shangshad (National Parliament). While the Opposition parties contested the 2018 elections as an alliance (in contrast to the 2014 election, which they boycotted, but performed poorly. There were some allegations of violence and vote rigging, but the Opposition’s poor performance is substantially linked to the state of affairs within the principal opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP is in a state of disarray with its chief, Khaleda Zia, sentenced to 17 years’ rigorous imprisonment for corruption in the Orphanage and Charitable Trust cases.
The state’s continuing assault against a faltering, though long-drawn, Left Wing Extremist (LWE) movement also continued, with major successes accruing to SFs. 596 militants belonging to four different LWE groups surrendered before Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan at Shaheed Aminuddin Stadium in Pabna on April 9, 2019. The surrendered militants belonged to the Red Flag faction of the Purba Banglar Communist Party (PBCP-Red Faction, Lal Pataka), Purba Banglar Sarbahara Party, New Biplobi Communist Party and Joypurhat-based Kadamati Party.
These militants were active in Pabna, Natore, Sirajganj, Bogura, Naogaon, Joypurhat, Rangpur, Kushtia, Jashore, Jhenidah, Rajbari, Satkhira, Narail and Tangail Districts. The surrendered militants also handed over 68 firearms and 575 sharp weapons.
Never in the past has Bangladesh witnessed the surrender of such a large number of LWEs in a single incident, establishing Dhaka’s clear dominance against LWEs, a fringe movement in the country, though it had acquired significant scale at one time, with related fatalities rising to 177 at peak, in 2005, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP).
The last surrender incident took place on December 1, 2007, when at least 104 cadres of PBCP surrendered to the police at Katagari Hat in the Deshigram village of Tarash sub-district in Sirajganj District.
The Security Forces (SFs) arrested five LWEs in 2018; 14 in 2017; 10 in 2016’ nine in 2015; 11 in 2014; and 24 in 2013. No arrests have been made in 2019, thus far.
Eight LWEs were killed 2018, in addition to 15 in 2017; 18 in 2016; 17 in 2015; 16 in 2014; and 21 in 2013.
Mounting SF pressure has forced LWEs to stop all their violent activities. Indeed, the last incident of killing by LWEs was recorded on December 9, 2013, when suspected LWEs killed a local trader in the Santhia sub-District of Pabna District.
Meanwhile, the activities of Islamist extremist groups have also been largely curtailed, as SFs have acted consistently and effectively against these elements over the last several years.
Despite visible stabilization across the country, several issues of concern remain, including the poor implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) Peace Accord. According to Rangmati Police and intelligence sources, yearly fatalities in CHT due to clashes between many of the splinter groups of the Parbatya Chattogram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), which had spearheaded the insurgency in the region in the 1990s, were 22 in 2018. The insurgency terminated with the signing of 1997 CHT Peace Accord between the Government and the undivided PCJSS. In 2017 and 2016 the fatalities in CHT due to such clashes stood at 18 and 23, respectively. On March 18, 2019, seven people, including two election officials and four Ansar (paramilitary auxiliary force) personnel, were killed in a gun attack targeting a poll party at Noymile in the Rangamati District. The party was attacked when it was returning after holding elections at three polling centres for the Baghaichhari upazila (sub-district) seat in the Rangamati District in the CHT area.
Hardline Islamist groups also continue with their efforts to recover influence. On February 12, 2019, at least 21 people were injured in the violence that followed protests by followers of several hardline Islamic formations, including the Khatm-e-Nubuwwat Shongrokkhon Parishad, backed by the hardline Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), in the streets of Ahmadnagar in Panchagarh District. The Islamic hardliners were opposed to the 3-day Ahmadiyya religious congregation, scheduled to begin on February 22, 2019. The religious congregation was called off due the protests. In between, on February 20, 2019, HeI chief Shah Ahmed Shafi demanded that the Ahmadiyya Muslim community immediately be declared ‘non-Muslim’.
More worryingly, even as the Government has dealt a heavy blow to Islamist terrorists and war criminals, observers have raised concerns over the ruling party’s growing closeness to the HeI. On November 4, 2018, HeI ‘chief’ Shah Ahmed Shafi conferred the title of “Qawmi Janani” (Mother of the Nation) on Prime Minister Hasina at a function organised by the Al-Hiyatul Ulya Lil-Zami’atil Qawmiya Bangladesh, the highest organization of the Dawra-e-Hadith of the Qawmi Madrasa (Madrasas that are run on private donations, unlike Alia Madrasas, registered with and supervised by the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board). It is useful to recall that, on May 25-26, 2017, the statue of Justice had been removed from Supreme Court complex after HeI protested its installation as un-Islamic. Some poems and stories (written by non-Muslims) in Bangla school textbooks were also removed due to pressure from HeI, which had termed these portions ‘communal’.
Another concern relates to the presence and repatriation of nearly one million Myanmarese Rohingya refugees in the country. Referring to the problem on February 28, 2019 at the United Nation Security Council, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque observed, “I regret to inform the council that Bangladesh would no longer be in a position to accommodate more people from Myanmar.” While a humanitarian crisis of gigantic proportions exists, these refugees are not thought to constitute a threat in terms of radicalization or terrorist mobilization, despite past efforts by Pakistan-based terrorist formations to exploit their vulnerabilities. United Nation’s Senior Humanitarian Coordinator Sumbul Rizvi, when asked about radicalisation in Rohingya camps, noted,
|…since we work in the camps, I can tell you there is no sign of any such groups inside the camps. Bangladesh is a responsible country and capable of taking measures to counter such a threat…|
Online radicalization, nevertheless, remains a challenge for law enforcement agencies. In a column published on March 7, 2018, Monirul Islam, the Chief of the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, observed,
|One of the things we have learnt is that the cyberspace is the largest platform for radicalisation and the youth (irrespective of their educational background, status) are the target, especially those who are particularly vulnerable… There is no single cause of radicalisation…|
Difficulties increase as a result of gross institutional deficits, and there is need to augment capacities of the judiciary as well as the Police to deal with pendencies, especially in the War Crimes trials, and also to counter online radicalisation, and to sort out the Rohingya issue. If greater stability is to be consolidated, moreover, caution must be exercised while harnessing religious conservatism with a view to political expediency, as this can only legitimize fundamentalist and extremist groups, creating future risks.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management