This is perhaps a daft question to ask. As if this the first time, through the video massage, purported to be the comments of the terror organisation's chief Zawahiri, that Bangladesh has come into the reckoning of al Qaeda. There has been a link, albeit indirectly, with the group. But to say that we are in the cross-hair of the terror group is perhaps crediting it with more capability than it deserves, or we should accord it, given that it there are questions about the central leadership's ability to extend its tentacles farther.
Not very long ago, in the eighties, when the western world led by the US was engaged in preventing the modern Great Game coming to a head with the likely completion of complete Soviet control of Afghanistan, the bulwark of that opposition was offered by al Qaeda led by bin Laden. A large number of fighters from many Muslim countries had participated in that war including Bangladesh. And when the Russians were ejected, the foreign fighters went home, with very clear directives from bin Laden to replicate Afghanistan in their own countries. The Bangladeshi fighters were also similarly indoctrinated. But their efforts to create an Afghanistan in Bangladesh failed as we see in the aborted attempt of HUJI (B) and JMJB. What, however, we should be concerned about is whether there are extant groups organically linked to al Qaeda, or there are sleepers cell of the terror organisation waiting for an opportune moment.
Coming to the VDO, or more specifically the audio with a Zawahiri picture and 5 May Hefajat footage back projected, several questions can be asked, and one is sure the agencies will be seeking answers to those too. Firstly, the authenticity of the video, or, particularly, whether it originated from al Qaeda. The fact that it was not posted by As-Sahab, the media house of the organisation, creates the scope to question the veracity of it. The projection of the tape has not followed the normal method adopted by the terror group. It has not owned up the message either which it normally does. The fact that there was a three weeks gap between the time it was posted and the time it surfaced to us is also a matter for cogitation. And if one goes by the title of the video, “A Massacre behind a Wall of Silence” it was certainly referring to the Shapla Chattar incident. One wonders what took them nine months to react.
The timing of the message, which was more than 4200 words, is also interesting coming very soon after the second round of the AL rule was formally launched with the holding of the first session of the parliament on 29 January, 2014. It was quite interesting to see that the statement went as far back as our war of liberation. The derogatory reference to our history is quite unlike the group's practice. It seemed more like a political incantation.
However, the most important thing is how do we handle this issue? The best way to proceed is to take this as authentic and indeed the voice of the Al Qaeda chief who has called for a popular uprising against what he calls the crusader onslaught against Islam and proceed from there.
Regrettably, the brazen politicisation of the matter is likely to not only dilute the issue but also divert our focus which should be on unearthing the source and establishing the authenticity or otherwise of the tape.
The reaction of the government and the opposition is predictable, but rather partisan. While the state minister for foreign affairs said that the government was ascertaining the genuineness of the tape, he hastened, most injudiciously, to add that if it was true than surely the BNP and Jamaat were involved in it. The opposition reaction on the other hand is that this is the product of the government who was exploiting the al Qaeda issue to 'win US favour'. Some critics aver that this has been done to divert the attention of the public from important political issues.
The two major political parties must realise that the issue of religious extremism cuts across party line, and unless the matter is addressed basing on a national consensus the political flux and the hiatus therefrom will surely be exploited by these elements. Although Bangladesh has not faced challenges in this front like Pakistan or Afghanistan, one cannot vouch that we do not have in our midst al Qaeda sympathizers who may not have organic links with the al Qaeda but are either busy in a very inobtrusive manner to indoctrinate credulous people or lying low but waiting for an opportune moment to act. And that is where our counter terrorism strategy, if there is one, must be honed in order to defeat al Qaeda propaganda.
The writer is Editor, Op-ed and Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.