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Dhaka’s jihadi crisis

POSTED ON 11 JULY 2016

wasbir hussain
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CDPS & VISITING FELLOW, IPCS

Despite claims by the Islamic State that it has brought Bangladesh under its stranglehold, the upsurge of jihadi terror in that country actually appears to be the result of vicious domestic politics practiced by the Awami League, now in power, and the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The clash of ideology led to the emergence of two diametrically opposite narratives on the very idea of Bangladesh: a secular democratic republic for the Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and for the BNP a nation with Islam in a predominant role.

In fact, it is difficult to delink electoral politics and home-grown terror in Bangladesh. For long, the electoral space has been shared by the Awami League and the BNP. But Sheikh Hasina, ever since the Awami League’s massive victory at the 2008 elections, has come to dominate the administration in the over-populous nation. The 2008 verdict, with the Awami League winning 263 of 300 seats in Parliament, emboldened Sheikh Hasina to go all out against her rivals, mainly the BNP and its key ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami.

The trend continued, and ahead of the next national election in 2014, the trial against some top Jamaat leaders gained momentum. This led to the execution of Abdul Quader Mollah, a veteran Jamaat-e-Islami leader, who became the first to face the gallows for war crimes during the 1971 liberation struggle. The battle had begun with radical Islamist groups baying for Sheikh Hasina’s blood. The fallout was predictable: the BNP decided to boycott the election and enforced nationwide general strikes. In the end, 154 of 300 parliamentary seats went uncontested, and the Awami League won again in an election that was naturally mired in controversy.

What is significant is that from 2013 onwards, mystery machete attacks started in Dhaka, and the targets were secular bloggers, liberal university professors, LGBT activists and all prominent freethinkers who raised their voice for a secular Bangladesh. The timing was important: the national elections were approaching. At least 40 people have been killed between 2013 and now, including a Japanese aid worker. The ISIS, too, took “credit” for some of these killings. Dhaka appeared to focus attention on jihadi terror group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), an outfit whose aim is to convert secular Bangladesh to a “caliphate”.

Not much action appeared visible against some other Islamist groups like the Ansar-al-Islam, Hefazat-e-Islam and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In fact, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir chief, a university professor under house arrest, is said to be regularly drawing his salary. Failing to solve the murderous machete attacks and attracting global condemnation and concern, Dhaka launched a search and sweep operation across the nation in June this year. Some estimates claimed up to 12,000 people were arrested. But the move has drawn criticism as it is alleged the majority of them are either supporters of the Opposition BNP or ordinary Muslims.

Was the operation an eyewash aimed at pushing the BNP and its Jamaat-e-Islami ally to the wall, rather than to combat terror? The charge that most of the 12,000 people arrested were BNP or Jamaat supporters can’t be brushed aside as the number of actual Islamists among those nabbed is not known. Dhaka, obviously, cannot claim that each of the 12,000 people arrested are Islamist radicals or terrorists. The Hasina government, of course, would like to reject these charges and stick to its stand that the arrests are a clear indication of its crackdown on jihadi terror. And Dhaka’s insistence that the ISIS claim of its hand in July 1 Gulshan eatery attack is false is understandable. It is largely aimed at instilling confidence among international investors, mainly those in the country’s lucrative garment industry.

Another key question that has been raised is whether the jihadi upsurge in Bangladesh is an outcome of the Awami League government’s occasional attempts at curbing press freedom or coming down heavily on all those who oppose it. That may or may not be the case, but Sheikh Hasina can’t hope to deal with the problem by denying that ISIS has established its presence in the country and that the nation’s biggest terror raid that led to the brutal killing of 20 hostages were carried out by “home-grown jihadis” like JMB. It is important to wait and see if Dhaka is really able to tackle jihadi terror. What must also be borne in mind is that ISIS could have adopted a strategy of letting jihadis of any variety use its name after carrying out a terror raid. That helps the outfit as it does not require the physical presence of its cadres in different areas of the world.

If Bangladesh has to be spared the possibility of being totally engulfed by jihadi terror, the two main parties — Awami League and BNP — must see reason. The Hasina government must stop political witchhunts and the BNP must rein in its cadres and those of its Jamaat ally from trying to corner the government from every possible direction. Dhaka has real reason for worry as it now clear that the July 1 attackers were Bangladeshi nationals who had been to elite schools and universities.

That the attackers belonged to upper middle class families and were part of the same so-called secular elite who throng upscale eateries like Holey Artisan Bakery goes to suggest that jihadi terror has succeeded in attracting the rich and those who could rather easily navigate the course of modern cosmopolitan city life, where people of various faiths and nationalities live.

For India, it’s a cause for real alarm as it is clear that ISIS and its allies are active in our backyard. New Delhi must, therefore, further boost its counter-terror efforts and try to build a global coalition to identify the nations financing or backing groups like ISIS and choke their source of funds. It is important to push hard for immediate adoption of the long-pending Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. This would help make accountable states that support terrorists, provide safe havens and finance them. At the recent G-20 summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin had presented a list of 40 countries that directly back groups like ISIS. India can take things forward from Mr Putin’s list. (courtesy: The Asian Age)