Anti-Terrorism and Counter-Extremism in Bangladesh: From Policy to Grassroots Activism

By Atif A. Choudhury 

Holey Artisan Bakery is the kind of place where expats cure homesickness by indulging in a range of epicurean delights, while locals (especially kids) grab themselves a treat before fasting hours began. On July 1, during the waning days of Ramadan, seven heavily armed terrorists decided it was a suitable venue to rob 24 innocent people of their lives and to shock a nation of 170 million in the process.

Security forces may have killed the suspected Canadian-Bangladeshi plotter of Bangladesh’s worst terrorist attack. Yet the tragic saga of violent extremism and political violence is likely to continue.

Unprecedented Savagery

Indeed Bangladesh has been suffering waves of extremist political violence. Bloggers, activists, journalists. Leaders of a range of vulnerable communities including Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, as well as Shia and LGBT Muslims. Even a Muslim professor whose only crime was engaging in cultural activities. All of these innocent citizens found themselves targets for cold-blooded murder, many of which were committed publicly in broad daylight.

Yet attacks against foreign expats in Bangladesh have been exceedingly rare, and the Holey Bakery attack was the first time in the young country’s history that expats were targeted on such a large scale.  Equally as alarming was the fact that these perpetrators were highly educated and came from relatively privileged backgrounds.[1]  Whether any of these perpetrators were actually Daesh or Al Qaeda operatives or were simply members of domestic terror organizations, one stark reality emerges:  Violent extremism is a crisis that Bangladesh can no longer ignore.

Radicalization and Political Violence:  A Pressure-Cooker Model

Violence was never a stranger to a country that was born out of immense bloodshed and suffered decades of post-independence instability under a series of authoritarian regimes. Even in the post-democratic era, political violence has reared its head multiple times[2].  Most of the violence witnessed in the past decade stems from about half or more of the population being extremely frustrated with the fact that the current government has been in power for so long, especially after they were re-elected in 2014 through an election boycotted by the opposition and where voters were given few genuine choices.

The flawed war crimes trials and the subsequent banning and crackdown of the historically tainted Jamaat e-Islami (“JeI”) party has led to increased agitation by party cadres from JeI and other like-minded extremist groups, of which a subsection is willing to commit acts of violence targeting both the state and vulnerable minority communities alike. Overreactions from security forces—along with the opportunistic harassment and broad suppression of opposition members—have led to increased polarization and hardening of mentalities and tactics.  An even smaller subsection of these individuals gradually became radicalized from feelings of political subjugation and flocked to ultra-hardline militant outfits waging war on the state.

In such a pressure cooker situation of government suppression, subgroups of subgroups find motivation to commit increased levels of violence.  These individuals, who were once simply passionate members of legal political parties, can gradually transform into radicalized and ultra-violent foot soldiers of hardcore domestic and even international terrorist groups.

This phenomenon was seen in Algeria in the 1990s[3], and is a folly repeated by the Sisi regime in Egypt[4].  It seems that process may well be repeating itself in Bangladesh.

Three-Prong Policy Recommendations

In the aftermath of these attacks, many will likely advocate for removing Islam as Bangladesh’s official religion.[5] Yet de-listing Islam as the national religion is more likely to sharply exacerbate polarization in Bangladeshi society, thus creating more tensions instead of resolving them. This would also be a superficial solution.  It would be far more useful to craft specific solutions in the following areas:  Security; Social and Political Rehabilitation; and Civil Society and Grassroots Activism.

Security

In the aftermath of such a devastating attack, a natural government response is to increase the power of and boost spending for the nation’s myriad security forces.  Yet Bangladesh is already a heavily militarized and securitized state, complete with a liberal use of law enforcement authority.

Instead, the solution is to reform and augment the existing security structure through four key recommendations:

  1. Increase inter-agency cooperation within different military and civilian security and intelligence forces.  Steps may include setting up a joint task force composed of elite members of the national police, army, and intelligence communities to infiltrate, monitor, and take down violent extremist groups.  Permanent regional-based rapid response teams capable of responding to any similar crises anywhere in the country within two hours should also be established.
  1. Fully professionalize and de-politicize the security and intelligence forces. Anti-terrorism and counter-extremism programs must be protected from any attempts to abuse them by turning them into instruments of political repression and the stifling of dissent. It is vital to strike the appropriate regulatory balance, as too much civilian control leads to politicization, while too much military and security autonomy can lead to “states within a state” capable of corroding and even supplanting civilian democracy.  This balance can be accomplished by creating independent hybrid civilian-military regulatory bodies, which are capable of monitoring, guiding, and advising security and intelligence forces while also correcting and punishing any abuses.[6]
  1. Establish regional centers of security cooperation where intelligence is shared and counter-terrorism best practices are promulgated among security forces and intelligence agencies. Participation from countries outside South Asia should also be encouraged[7].  Joint Emergency Response teams encompassing specialized forces capable of participating in major anti-terrorism operations should also be established.

This is likely the most difficult and ambitious security recommendation given all of the political barriers to increased cooperation.  Yet South Asian publics must demand their governments to stop treating insurgencies and terrorism as fronts in never-ending regional proxy wars. Ultimately, all of these nations must either end the scourge of terrorism together-or fail separately.

  1. Uphold due process for all detained suspects, including freedom from torture and habeas corpus rights. Legal rights should not be curtailed and must be treated as non-derogable except in extreme circumstances in which the life of the state is at stake[8].  Arrested members of violent extremist groups should be brought to justice without violating their due process rights and other human rights norms, as this will not only undermine the democratic credentials of the country but will also result in more radicalization and fuel more extremism by remaining militants. Overreactions from security forces are just as detrimental to countering violent extremism as under-reactions, and government actors must commit themselves to serving as rule-of-law-based institutions which are accountable to citizens.[9]

Social and Political Rehabilitation

The backgrounds of the Gulshan attackers demonstrate that radicalization can affect individuals of all educational levels and socio-economic backgrounds.  Thus an important short and medium-term solution is to establish de-radicalization programs capable of providing psychiatric care, theological engagement, education support, jobs training, and other social services to help re-integrate radicalized individuals back into society.

A dedicated de-radicalization program will serve as a crucial alternative to the vastly overburdened and overused criminal justice system, and provides an incentive to surrender for both potential and active militants.  They also give concerned family members and friends a specialized avenue for referring troubled individuals without fear of their loved ones enduring strenuous interrogations, torture, or imprisonment.  There are precedents for such programs in a range of countries including Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Indonesia, and Malaysia.  The government should carefully study and audit these programs to see which models (or which aspects from multiple models) would work best in a Bangladeshi context.

A more long-term solution involves greater political engagement, including creating spaces for lawful political activism and participation by youth.[10]  All of the existing political parties should be incentivized to increase the role of youth at every level, including both political posts and professional positions.  The government should also rescind the ban on JeI.  As painful as a rescinding of the JeI ban may be given the party’s noxious legacy from the Liberation War (especially for surviving victims and their families), the toxic tonic of extreme social polarization and extremist radicalization from political suppression is no longer possible to ignore. Mature democracies must fully commit to establishing a robust marketplace of ideas, and vigorously protect their citizens’ rights to express themselves and participate in social and political life in a peaceful manner.

The government should also initiate mechanisms by which banned militant groups could join the political process.  Giving the members of these groups an opportunity to participate in political and social discourse will create an outlet to abandon violence.  It may even result in the entire group becoming less radicalized and ultimately disbanding their military wings.[11]  The government should thus allow  militant outfits to join or create political parties and advocacy groups in return for disbanding their military wings and surrendering weapons and ammunition.  Such a process, in tandem with a national de-radicalization program, can help rehabilitate and reintegrate entire segments of society.

It would be simplistic to attribute all acts of fundamentalist violence in Bangladesh to government political suppression.  After all, outlawed groups like the Jama’at ul Muhajihdeen Bangladesh (“JMB”)[12] have been operating for a full decade before the war crimes trials and have conducted a range of violent attacks during both Awami League and BNP administrations. Yet at least some of the uptick in political violence can be attributed to government suppression of JeI and the opposition in general.  It is clear that the way forward is political and social engagement and reconciliation, not polarization and broad police actions.

Civil Society and Grassroots Activism

Bangladesh has long been considered one of the NGO capitals of the world, with a vibrant NGO sector responsible for delivering wide range of social services which not only uplifts the condition of the country’s citizens, but also offsets the noxious forces of radicalization.  Thus it is vital to allow NGOs to continue operating with minimal hindrance or interference which can reduce their capacity to effectively function and deliver these services.[13] Bangladesh must avoid the pitfalls of undue restrictions and political interference in civil society, or jeopardize the remarkable progress the nation has made in all areas of economic and social development.

In addition to NGOs, the government should also incentivize the private sector to create maximum opportunities for the youth.  For international corporations, the government should prioritize foreign direct investment opportunities which can demonstrate increases in local job creation.[14]  The government should ultimately treat youth unemployment as not only an economic issue, but also a matter of national security.  As such, the government, private sector, and civil society should work together to create specialized agencies and think tanks to closely monitor its levels, study its effects, and enact recommendations to reduce it.

Finally, there is a critical role for the general public in the form of grassroots activism.  Ceaseless advocacy and non-violent mobilization by both the Bangladeshi public as well as the global Bangladeshi diaspora can demonstrate the public’s immense concern for all of these issues, and put pressure on the government to pursue concrete policies to address them.  The  Shahbag movement decisively proved that concerted grassroots activism could result in government action in the realm of post-conflict justice and address past wrongs.  That same energy should be dedicated to confronting the corrosive presence of violent extremism and political violence in Bangladeshi society–and save countless lives in the present and future.

A Manageable Ailment

There are no silver-bullet solutions to the pestilence of violent extremism and political violence, and it can’t be accomplished overnight.  Indeed all of the recommendations featured here are intended to serve as a means of continuing a national dialogue, and it is the guidance of the experts on the ground which should be heeded.

Yet working towards enacting concrete solutions on both an institutional and grassroots level is the right step.  Violent extremism and political violence are not insurmountable crises.  South Asia has endured centuries of foreign subjugation, the horrors of Partition, and sectarian and ethnic carnage.  Muslim civilization has overcome seven Crusades, Genghis Khan’s ravaging hordes, and the Bubonic Plague. The recent string of attacks in from Turkey to Malaysia—and especially the attack in Mecca—have galvanized the world against violent extremism in an unprecedented way.  We can and will overcome Daesh, al Qaeda, and all of these anti-Muslim and unIslamic terrorists.

Dedicated to the victims of the Gulshan attacks, and victims of terrorism and political violence everywhere.

[1] Conventional paradigms of the madrassa-educated and economically deprived underclass being driven to extremism seem to have yet again been upended.

[2] Political violence was so intense during the 2006-08 political crisis that a military-backed  administration ruled the country for over a year.  In the months leading up to the 2012 election, the country resembled a civil war as partisan thugs were willing to burn innocent commuters alive in violent strikes while Hindu and other minority communities were targeted.

[3] After the military regime overturned the results of democratic elections and banned the Islamist party who won, ushering in a cataclysmic decade-long civil war.

[4] With the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the jailing of its members, which has brought about an unprecedented level of polarization among the Egyptian populace and has fueled a virtual civil war in the Sinai.

[5] A measure which was recently quashed by the Supreme Court.

[6] These bodies should also be able to implement recommendations without undue political influence.

[7] Particularly utilizing counter-terrorism expertise from the Middle East, US, Canada, Europe, and Australia.

[8] As per Article 4 of the ICCPR, of which Bangladesh has been a state party since 2000.

[9] Efforts to bolster due process protections for detained suspects may include improving training for security forces, supporting nationwide community policing initiatives, upgrading court infrastructure and jail facilities, and empowering watchdog groups to monitor performance and address abuses.

[10] The fact that a son of a senior leader of the ruling party was one of the attackers illustrates the urgent need to ensure that youth have a genuine voice and can effectively participate in the political process,

[11] There is precedent for this in Colombia, where a 52 year long civil war was recently brought to a close thanks to political engagement and national reconciliation.

[12] A domestic terrorist group which the government has blamed for orchestrating the Gulshan attacks instead of Daesh, Al Qaeda, or any other international terror organization.

[13] For instance, the Egyptian government’s recent restrictions on many NGOs in Egypt under the guise of national security seems to have at least partially fueled radicalization among disaffected segments of Egyptian society, resulting in greater levels of militancy and political violence.

[14] Especially with regards to awarding government contracts.

atif-choudhurys-photo_Resized
Atif was born in Bangladesh and raised in Columbia, South Carolina.  He received his bachelors in political science and public health from Vanderbilt University, and his JD from William and Mary Law School in 2015.  While at William and Mary, Atif helped to found Comparative Legal Studies Scholars. Atif is the 2016-17 Drapers Scholar at Queen Mary University of London where he is a LLM candidate in QMUL’s Public International Law program.
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