Prof Rohan Gunaratna, an international security expert, fears the terrorism and militancy threat to Bangladesh would linger although many militants have been arrested and killed during drives by law enforcement agencies.
“The threat is now at the growth level… It has not declined,” he told The Daily Star in an interview on Monday.
To fight the scourge of militancy and terrorism effectively, he suggested that Bangladesh continues the fight “day and night and 365 days in the year both in the physical and cyber spaces”.
At a regional conference in Dhaka on Sunday, Prof Gunaratna said Islamic State has presence in Bangladesh and that it carried out the Gulshan attack last year.
On Monday, AKM Shahidul Hoque, inspector general of police, reiterated the government's claim that there is no presence of IS in the country and that the attack was carried out by homegrown militants.
Talking to The Daily Star, Prof Gunaratna, head of International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, gave two reasons for his belief that the terrorism threat to Bangladesh would persist for a long time.
With IS gradually losing battles in Iraq and Syria, its members are being driven out of their captured territories and forced to take shelter in other countries.
“So, in the next five to 10 years, we are going to see a global expansion of IS -- particularly in Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. Especially, the Muslim countries will be affected,” he said, adding that Bangladesh was one of the targets.
Secondly, the Bangladeshis who joined the global terror outfit going directly to Iraq and Syria or from the Bangladeshi diaspora are recruiting fellow Bangladeshis online.
Those Bangladeshis are raising funds, building up networks and motivating each other to carry out attacks. “And of course, the networks active in Bangladesh are also communicating with each other.
“So, this is a continuous and persistent threat,” said the professor, who authored 17 books, including “Inside al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror” published by the Columbia University Press.
Talking to this newspaper recently, Monirul Islam, chief of Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, said at least 20 Bangladeshis went to Iraq and Syria to join IS. Some of them have already been killed and a few have returned.
Prof Gunaratna, who is also a trainer for national security agencies, law enforcement authorities and military counter-terrorism units, said it was important for the government to acknowledge IS presence in Bangladesh. It's because, he said, the Holey Artisan attack might not be the last terrorist attack in the country.
On July 1 last year, militants attacked Holey Artisan Bakery, an upscale eatery in Gulshan's high-security diplomatic zone, killing 20 hostages, mostly foreigners. Two police officials were also killed.
All the five militants and a restaurant chef were killed in a commando operation launched to end the siege.
IS reportedly claimed credit for the café attack while authorities termed it an act of “Neo JMB”, an offshoot of local banned outfit Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).
“Even though the government of Bangladesh is very effective in the fight [against terrorism and extremism], the nature of terrorism must be understood because it's a persistent threat,” Gunaratna said.
He suggested Bangladesh government makes sure extremism and terrorism are fought simultaneously in the physical space through community engagement and in the cyber space.
“…they [the government] need to have a very strong security system both in the physical and cyber spaces to secure and protect Bangladesh and its citizens.”
Bangladesh is a country with secular principles and its government should continue its efforts to protect the beautiful spirit of its people. The people with such a spirit and culture will not allow extremism to take root in the country, he said.
However, Bangladesh now has to move beyond the operational counter terrorism response to create a more strategic process to handle the issue, Gunaratna, also a professor of security studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, said at the Hotel Sonargaon where he participated in a three-day international conference.
The operational counter terrorism response means to catch and kill terrorists and disrupt the activities of their organisations.
While strategic response means building community engagement programmes to counter extremism and promote moderate views and rehabilitation in prisons, custodies with a view to deradicalise the inmates.
“If you don't rehabilitate and deradicalise them, they will pose a security threat after leaving the prisons and infect others with their ideology,” he warned.
So, to prevent this from happening, the government should immediately
launch a programme inside the prisons. As part of the programme, religious clerics would be engaged to deradicalise the radicalised inmates.
Gunaratna said teachers should also be engaged in the programme to educate the inmates and reestablish their social and family connection to bring them back to normal life.
Then, they would need psychological rehabilitation to deal with their anxieties, depressions and hatred, he added.
Gunaratna also suggested ensuring the participation of the country's leading musicians and sportsmen in the programme inside the prisons and detention centres for the deradicalisation of the inmates.
He also underscored the need for vocational trainings of the deradicalised ones in the fight against the curse.
About the ways to curb radicalisation through the social media platforms, he said the Bangladesh government in partnership with private sectors, NGOs and other institutions such as religious and educational institutions, media organisations and internet service providers should work together to open and run websites and other internet platforms to counter extremist activities online.
According to him, the religious leaders in Bangladesh can play a very effective role in this regard by opening up their own website where they would come up with the genuine interpretations of religion to counter the extremist views.
“Every cleric must protect and defend his religion and his nation,” he said, adding they have to use the Quran and the Hadith to counter the misinterpretation of religion by the terrorists and extremists.
Saying that extremists and terrorists are not driven by any religion, he said the clerics must be protected so that they can send powerful anti-militancy message all over Bangladesh and beyond.
On militant outfit Ansar al Islam or Ansarullah Bangla Team, Gunaratna said the terrorist group also poses threat to the security of Bangladesh, but not to the same extent as the IS does.
“Certainly, both these groups are being fought by the government of Bangladesh very effectively and that the fight must continue,” he added.
He also suggested that the government should work with its diplomatic missions overseas to have an anti-militancy programme for the expatriate Bangladeshi workers. The programme would aim at protecting Bangladeshis from being radicalised, he added.