NINE years have passed since the country witnessed the most serious terrorist action. Although there were not many casualties in the nearly 500 near simultaneous explosions, and that was perhaps not the intention of the perpetrators, it was the first exposure of the existence of well organised extremist group with technical know-how. And after several years of being in a denial mood the government of the day was still dithering to acknowledge that Bangladesh was indeed facing a phenomenon that had up until then been absent or was at a very low key.
And it would not be misplaced to suggest that such a stance, even going to the extent of suggesting that the issue was but a figment of the media's imagination, allowed the extremists to take root, and for which the BNP that was in government then has to face the accusation of patronising these elements.
There was a strong resistance to seeking outside assistance in investigation of the August 21 or the August 17 cases, although I am of the view that the August 21 attack on Sheikh Hasina and the AL leadership was not the work of religious extremists, as all the other two dozens or so cases of bomb explosion in the country since 1999, although some of their cadres may have been used to perpetrate the attack of August 21, 2004. 2006 -2007 witnessed the capture and hanging of some of the JMB and HUJI (B) leadership. And we had warned then that it would be well for the government not to be complacent. The extremist / terrorist groups are hydra-headed and no sooner is one head is cut off does another sprout. We had also impressed on the need to defeat their philosophy through counter narratives that would stymie their recruitment efforts and indeed win the members of the cadres away from the mainstream extremist groups.
Apparently the counter extremism / terrorism efforts have not been pursued through a well formulated strategy or a thorough operational plan. And as per the recent extensive reports in the print and electronic media, and the versions of the well informed about the issue, the threat has by no means receded although for the near term their ability to create any serious trouble has been severely stunted. There are reports that the extremists are regrouping, (that should not come as a surprise) and that they are turning their attention to the Rohingyas as a source of recruitment, (vulnerable groups are easy prey to extremist motivation). That the extremists are not sitting idle has been demonstrated by the ambush and snatching away of their cohorts from police custody in February of this year.
The moot point is what should we do?
Firstly, we must stop playing politics with the issue. Political rhetoric and mutual blame game only helps the extremists. One of the reasons why these groups germinated in the last decade was the space they were afforded because of the divide created by the prevailing antagonism between the two major parties.
Secondly, what and which group should the prime focus be on? The government proscribed 12 extremists groups in 2009. While some of them have also been banned by the West, some have not, as is the case with HUJI (B) and Hizbut Tehrir. While the government actions have primarily focused on HUJI (B) and JMJ (B) and has been successful in combating it to an extent, one feels the threat from Hizbut Tehrir has not been completely addressed even if fully comprehended. This is the only group that has its counterpart in many other parts of the world including the UK, and that is perhaps one of the factors that makes the task of combating them relatively difficult. The group has targeted the affluent and the educated and has made inroads into many universities, particularly the private ones. Reportedly, Hizbut Tehrir has infiltrated more than 70 institutions in the country. It propagates its aim, to establish Khilafat by uniting all Islamic countries, but has abjured the path of violence.
Thirdly, there is a need to take tough measures against those that use educational institutions to preach hatred against others through misinterpretations of religion. While it is true that not all madrasas can be accused of producing extremists or terrorists, there are some that do. And these are the ones that must be rectified.
Last but not the least is the need for political will to take hard decisions on sensitive issues. But before that, the rationale must be explained to the public because no strategy to combat extremism and terrorism that stem from it will succeed without the active participation of the people.
The writer is Editor, Op-Ed and Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.