AFTER a tumultuous year marked by massive protest rallies and violent confrontations between moderate secularists and Islamic radical forces, Bangladesh's tryst with religious and political turmoil seems enduring. The detoriating situation has led to fear of the revival of Islamic militancy. While outlawed but dormant militant extremist groups like Harakat ul-Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B), Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Hizbut Tahirir are now attempting to resurge and consolidate, many newly-founded groups like Ansarullah Bangla Team, linked with al- Qaeda, have found the opportunity and resources to raise ugly heads.
Arguably, the religiously charged environment has drawn global Jihadists' attention towards the country. With ever-dwindling manpower and resources, transnational terror groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban of Khursan (a historic reference to Greater Afghanistan) are looking for opportune moment to infiltrate into the country with the fourth largest Muslim population in the world. Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has already urged the Bangladeshis for a popular uprising against the present Awami League government and against anti-Islamic forces. Released by as- Sahab, the media arm of al- Qaeda, Zawahiri's latest audiovisual message titled “Bangladesh: Massacre Behind a Wall of Silence” talks about many issues, including the ongoing anti-Islamic atheist movement and atrocities committed by the security forces against pro-Islamic protesters. He has also called for a Sharia-based Caliphate in Bangladesh.
This author has closely studied the 30-minute-long message released in mid-January this year and found it very graphic with gory details in first few minutes depicting violence against Muslims followed by the speech in Arabic (also featuring file messages from Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and by Imam Abdulla Azam, which besides being crafted very well include depiction of violence against Muslims. It carries carefully chosen footage that shows police brutality and torture. A direct reference to the Shahabag movement can be established as Zawahiri lamented: “my dear Muslim brothers, thousands of people are being killed in the streets of Bangladesh without any guilt, except they have come out to protect against the collusion of anti-Islam secular government with a bunch of transgressing secularists who are heaping insults and vulgar abuses on Islam and the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam.” The message categorically cites Bangladeshi writers Tasleema Nasreen and Ali Rajeeb Haider (the slain blogger) who had 'insulted Islam'. While calling to have patience and fight, he urges Islamic scholars and clerics of Bangladesh to lead the protesters from the front and asks them to teach how to defend the religion and how to instill love for martyrdom. He exhorted religious leaders in these words: “You must teach your Ummah that the one who wants freedom must pay its price, and that the price of freedom is death.” Quite in tandem with Zawahiri's general guidelines for Jihad message released earlier, which called Muslims of the Ummah to adhere to a two pronged strategy of 'Jihad and Dawa', where he professes to create awareness within the masses about the ongoing Jihad, to incite them, and to exert efforts to mobilize for two goals: to revolt against the rulers and to join the side of Islam. His message turned emphatic when he said “I invite you to adhere to the laws of Islam, its ruling and ethics. Live up to the Shariah, and bring up your sons and daughters on its firm adherence. I invite you to gather around the true scholars of Islam, support them and protect them. I invite you to back them and support them and guard them.” It should be noted that this message came at a time when Bangladeshi radical clerics affiliated with Hefajat Islam and Jammat-e Islami are spearheading an Islamist upsurge and radical clerics like Mufti Jasim Uddin Rahmani and Maulana Habibur Rahman are fuelling extremist fervor.
The latest message is the first of its kind from al-Qaeda for Bangladesh. Even though Zawahiri's message was targeted at Bangladesh and Myanmar (with reference to Rohingya conflict), intermittently it also urged Muslims of the subcontinent to take up jihad against the 'democratic' and 'oppressive' governments, especially in the neighboring (Hindu) India. This exhortation seems focused on recruitment and fund raising that would help to further consolidate the Islamic jihad in the country and elsewhere, e.g. Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. The desperation is visible on the part of jihadist brethrens who are now trying to exploit the fertile grounds in the subcontinent for their benefit. The propaganda and Jihadi rhetoric would find more takers amongst the Bangladeshi migrants or Diasporas as they are in no way immune to the calls. Past cases of Rajib Karim, Ehsanul Islam and Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis tells us an alarming story of how the so-called 'Qaidatul Jihad' has influenced them to take up jihad in foreign lands.
Surprisingly, not only the latest audiovisual message from al-Qaeda or from Zawahiri, but the numerous graphic messages and jihadists' interactions available on the internet, especially in the Bangladesh specific forums ( e.g. Islamer Alo and Al Qital Bangla Media on You Tube), and the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Mujahideen English language forum and 'Bab-ul-islam.net' have caught the Bangladesh security and intelligence agencies unaware. Even though Zawahiri's message came a little late, internet forums are full of incendiary speeches with carefully chosen graphic details of atrocities, scenes of torture and bloodsheds by people like Jasim Uddin Rahmani, both in Bengali with sporadic Arabic verses from Quran and Haidth (e.g. see 'The Bloody Path' and 'Bangla Bayan on Myanmar' available also on the You Tube).
These jihadist discourses help to directly motivate young minds of Bangladesh and are instrumental in bringing groups like the ABT to the fore. Indeed, people like Rahamani, Maulana Habibur Rahman and Mufti Izharul Islam Chowdhury are largely responsible for the present situation in Bangladesh along with the sectarian Jamat-Shibir gangs, of course with active political patronage. And in all likelihood these subversive forces are in contact with al-Qaeda and Taliban leaderships in Afghanistan and Pakistan for their guidance on future course of actions.
The writer is Executive Director at Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, (www.sspconline.org) a New Delhi-based policy research think-tank.