By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
The current Awami League (AL) government in Bangladesh pursues a “zero tolerant” policy against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. The AL government has attached top priority to the task of containing domestic and international terrorism immediately after assuming power in January 2009. At the national level, the government has initiated several legal, policy and administrative steps to combat terrorism, including its financing. The AL government knows fully well that the country requires robust legal and institutional mechanism to fight terrorism, financing of terrorism and other transnational crimes.
In the recent years, Bangladesh has been making consistent efforts to create an effective legal, regulatory and institutional regime to fight terrorism and violent religious extremism. Bangladesh promulgated Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) in 2009. The legislation was updated in 2011. Among other provisions, the act empowers the government to form special tribunals for speedy trial of terrorists. The ATA provides the legal foundation for comprehensive counter-terrorism measures. The law forbids membership and support of proscribed organisations which are engaged in terrorist activities, including the terrorist outfits listed under various United Nations Security Council Resolutions.
On February 16, 2012, Bangladesh’s parliament had unanimously passed an amendment to the act that legalised capital punishment for domestic acts of terrorism. Besides, the 2012 ATA authorised death penalty for terrorists targeting another country from Bangladesh. Earlier in 2009, the AL government established a 17-member “National Committee on Militancy Resistance and Prevention” headed by the State Minister for Home Affairs to contain religious extremism and terrorism and mobilise public opinion against such activities.
The ATA was further complemented by the Money Laundering Prevention Act (MLPA), 2012. This was the first legal framework of Bangladesh to address the problems related to terror financing and money-laundering. The Bangladesh Bank, the country’s central bank, has devised strategies and formulated guidelines directing all state owned and private banks to strictly adhere to the provisions of the MLPA, 2012.
The Bangladesh government brought two private banks—Islami Bank Bangladesh Limited and Social Islami Bank Limited, both managed by the country’s largest fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami, under the newly-enforced regulatory mechanism after the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation in its July 2012 report had implicated them for involvement in terror financing. The report clearly mentioned that these two Shariah-controlled banks had been linked to a number of terrorist and jihadi groups active in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government has also tried to monitor and regulate the activities of the foreign NGO’s – some of which were found to be involved in terror financing. The NGO Affairs Bureau, a government body, coordinates with the Bangladesh Bank, the country’s central bank, in auditing accounts of the NGO’s. The government closed the operation of Saudi Arabia based charity al-Haramin Foundation and the Kuwait-based charity Revival of Islamic Heritage Society for their alleged involvement in terror financing.
The Bangladesh government in its bid to contain terrorism has banned a number of domestic Islamic militant outfits, including Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-BD), Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen- Bangladesh, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jagrata Muslims Janata -Bangladesh, Shahdat-e-al Hikma. On May 26, 2015, the AL government declared Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an al Quida affiliate, as proscribed organisation for its alleged involvement in the brutal killing of three secular-rationalist Bangladeshi bloggers. The ABT was the sixth militant outfit to be outlawed. The law enforcement agencies want the government to forbid some more extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tawhid, Kalema-e-Jamaat, Hizbul Mahadi and Islami Dawati Kafela. Reports suggest that as many as 14 radical Islamic groups are now under the scanner.
To boost police capability in combating militancy and terrorism, a new police division named “Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime” unit under the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, consisting of 600 men was formed in December 2015. This police unit, which also deals with terror financing, and mobile bank related and cyber crimes, started functioning from mid-February 2016.
In the last two years, the Bangladesh Police has been persistently demanding for a separate unit to tackle the tech-savvy operatives of the jihadi outfits. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina proposed the creation of a special anti-terror police unit in March 2009—two months after taking over the reins of the government. The formation of this police unit assumes significance as Bangladesh has been witnessing a sudden spurt in Islamist violence targeting bloggers, writers, publishers, various Muslim minority sects, foreign development workers and religious minority groups over the last few years.
In its efforts to contain terrorism at the domestic level, the AL government has streamlined inter-agency coordination as well. Bangladesh Border Guards, Coast Guards and government’s Passport and Immigration Department, and Custom and Port Authorities work in harmony with the law enforcing and intelligence agencies in a systemic and organised manner to detect and deter illegal entry and exit of potential terrorist, illicit transfer of cash or arms/explosives. Such inter-agency cooperation has immensely contributed towards the recent recovery of arms and ammunition along the porous India-Bangladesh borders.
In addition to legal and law enforcement measures, the Bangladesh government has adopted innovative “Motivational Campaign” to stop misuse of religion as a pretext for carrying out subversive activities. The government often prepares advocacy materials such as posters and leaflets denouncing violent religious extremism in consultation with the country’s eminent Islamic scholars. These are disseminated through electronic and print media. During Friday congregation, the Imams in their addresses to the devotees condemn terrorist acts quoting from the Holy Quran and try to counter the arguments that the militants put forward for misguiding the people.
The Bangladesh government is currently implementing a national counter radicalisation strategy through imparting education, women’s empowerment and propagation of secular and moderate cultural values and creating a “mindset of tolerance”, “friendliness” and “love” in line with its “culture of peace” resolution which the country presents every year at the United Nations General Assembly. The Information Ministry has been making documentaries, short-films, dramas, advertisements and video clips against terrorism and putting those on the media to create awareness against radical ideas.
In its attempts to uproot terrorism from the country’s territory, the government has undertaken steps at the grass-roots level. The government has engaged the religious scholars to “de-motivate terrorist sympathisers having belief on their self-made cause”. As part of the policy, the Religious Affairs Ministry has been arranging religious gatherings highlighting the adverse implications of militancy. The government is also working on further capacity-building of the relevant law enforcement and prosecution agencies to effectively counter transnational organised crimes, including proliferation of illegal arms and fake currencies.
In its efforts to reform the Madrassa Education System, the AL government has revised and modernised the Madrassa curriculum along with the mainstream education focusing on employment generation. The government is also gradually bringing all Madrassas under its control. Furthermore, the government is following a strict policy in granting affiliation to new Madrassas. There is a common perception that the Madrassa students are more vulnerable to terrorist recruitment and could easily be motivated for jihadi cause. These reform measures have been initiated to forestall the attempt of the radical groups to use Islamic seminaries for terror activities.
The AL leadership is aware that menaces like violent religious extremism and terrorism pose the biggest internal security threat to Bangladesh and the country needs a multi-pronged strategy to ensure peace, stability and democracy. The government is presently engaged in the formulation of a “Comprehensive Counter Terrorism Strategy Paper”. The measures the government has undertaken so far to fight terrorism and its financing have been commendable. The ruling AL appears to be politically committed to protect Bangladesh’s secular fabric in the face of growing radicalisation in the country and sustain the current efforts to uproot terrorism from its territory.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent policy analyst writing on issues related to Bangladesh. He can be reached at: [email protected]