Fighting Radicalisation in Bangladesh: A Work in Progress
The Joint Forces comprising Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) personnel, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the Detective Branch (DB) of the Police and the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), on July 26, 2016, killed nine militants in ‘Operation Storm 26’ in capital Dhaka’s Kalyanpur area. One militant identified as Rakibul Hassan aka Reagan, purportedly a member of Daesh [Islamic State], was arrested from the area with bullet injuries.
On July 27, 2016, Police identified seven of the nine militants killed as Abdul Hakim Naym (33), Taj-ul-Haque Rashiq (25), Akifuzzaman Khan (24), Shazad Rouf (24), Motier Rahman (24), Abdullah (23) and Jobayer Hossain (20) after matching their fingerprints with those on their National Identification Cards. Most of them were from well to do families and were missing since January 2016. On July 28, 2016, the identity of the eight slain militant was established as Raihan Kabir aka Tarek, the Dhaka ‘region coordinator’ of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) who trained the militants who attacked the Holey Artisan café in Gulshan area on July 2, 2016.
On July 2, 2016, in the first ever hostage crisis in the country, 22 civilians including 18 foreigners and six Bangladeshis were slaughtered at Holey Artisan café, a Spanish restaurant at the Gulshan area in Dhaka city. The attack was also claimed by Daesh. On July 4, 2016, Police identified the five terrorists killed in the incident as Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz, Meer Saameh Mubasher, Shafiqul Islam Ujjal and Khairul Islam Payel, all less than 30 years of age. All five men had gone missing between three and six months before they reappeared at the site of the terror attack. Three of them came from affluent families in Dhaka and studied at top schools or universities, while two were from lower income families. On July 20, 2016, officers investigating the restaurant attack identified the coordinator of the operation as Rajib aka Shanta aka Adil, a mid-level JMB leader.
Disturbingly, on May 17, 2016, Golam Farukh, the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of the Rangpur Range disclosed that two JMB militant groups – one based in Rangpur District and the other in Dinajpur District – were working in smaller units of seven to eight members and were currently active in the eight Districts of Rangpur Division. Further, the Detective Branch of Police stated, on June 14, 2016, that JMB had around 100-150 trained madrassa students working for them in 16 Districts of north-western Bangladesh with a highly educated 16-member cell supervising them. Separately, law enforcement agencies interrogating militants who were arrested in various operations on July 27, 2016, disclosed that at least two dozen hideouts in Dhaka and surrounding areas were being used to attempt more attacks by setting up small dens. A senior law enforcement official requesting anonymity confirmed that militants were now renting flats in areas where low income populations and garment workers live. Small groups of militants, usually numbering seven to nine, are living in these flats and, some cases, were using family members to rent flats.
Advising all to be more watchful, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, on July 13, 2016, warned, “we have intelligence reports that the terrorists have planned to launch more attacks. We have to keep in mind that this will not stop here. There are many kinds of plots. We are collecting reports of various intelligence agencies at home and abroad.” In a second warning in less than two weeks, during a Cabinet meeting on July 25, 2016, Prime Minister Hasina stated, “They [terrorists] will try to create unrest in August. They are planning something big… Ministers may also be targeted… Everyone must remain alert. Their goal is to free Mir Quasem”. Mir Quasem Ali (63), a Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) central executive committee member, is a war crime convict sentenced to death by the International Crimes Tribunal-2 (ICT-2) on November 2, 2014, for the killing of young freedom-fighter Jashim Uddin Ahmed and eight others during the Liberation War of 1971.
No doubt, the Hasina-led government has succeeded in minimizing the threat from Islamist terrorism since assuming power in 2009. Since then, 231 terrorists belonging to JMB, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), Hizbut Towhid (HT) and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and other Islamic extremist groups have been killed across the country (data till July 31, 2016). Further, urging all parents to be vigilant about the movements of their children to prevent them from being radicalized, Prime Minister Hasina on July 12, 2016, asserted “The people of the country are pious, but not bigots. I simply cannot understand why their children who are receiving education in reputed schools and colleges and English medium institutions are turning into bigots. We don’t want these students to lay down their valuable lives indiscriminately after getting derailed from the right path. We won’t allow emergence of militancy in the country. We don’t want Bangladesh to be the land of militancy… we’ll have to take some measurers keeping this view in mind.”
Remarkably, Bangladesh Jamiyatul Ulama (BJU), a national body of Islamic scholars, issued an anti-militancy fatwa (religious edict) on June 18, 2016, through a press conference at Dhaka Reporters Unity, declaring that those killing people in the name of religion were heading for hell. Signatures of 101,850 Islamic clerics, including 9,320 women, have been collected in support of the fatwa, prepared in light of the Quran and Hadith. Explaining the initiative, Farid Uddin Masoud, BJU chairman, observed that law enforcement agencies alone cannot resist the criminals who are ready to kill themselves in the name of religion. The first thing needed is to dispel the militants’ misconceptions about Islam. Fatwas, he added, are more powerful than one lakh weapons and they will largely be able to curb terrorism. Separately, on July 14, 2016, Bangladesh Islamic Foundation authorities issued circular requesting imams (prayer leaders) of all mosques across the country to recite a common khutba (sermon) during the Jumma (Friday) prayers to create awareness among people against terrorism and militancy.
Separately, the University Grants Commission (UGC) of Bangladesh on July 31, 2016, formed a three-member committee to monitor all public and private colleges and universities across the country whether there is any militant activity. Dr Mohamad Akhter Hossain, convener of the UGC will lead the committee. The two others are UGC members Jesmine Parveen and Mohamad Shaheed Siraj. The team, if necessary, will visit college and universities or colleges and libraries any time without any prior permission of the authorities. After visiting the campuses, if the committee senses any militant activities on the campus, it will prepare and submit a report to the Education Ministry and law enforcing agencies for taking necessary action.
Indeed, the Holey Artisan café attack was meant to strike terror in the hearts of Bangladeshis and foreigners with the intention to harm the country’s economy and international relations. However, the Sheikh Hasina government’s response was immediate, vigorous and calibrated across a wide range of variables, beyond a knee-jerk security clampdown.
Nevertheless, Bangladesh has developed large reserves of radicalization over decades of earlier mischief by complicit governments, and the threat of extremist violence remains real and significant, demanding extreme vigilance and continuous efforts of containment.