The Evolving Threat of religious extremism
The month of August is particularly poignant and tragic in the Bangali psyche. On August 15 1975, the nation witnessed the gruesome murder of Bangabandhu, the Father of the Nation, along with most of his family members. It was a terrorist attack that was cowardly enacted, but meticulously planned. Since then, this nation saw a revival of forces that had opposed the birth of Bangladesh and fought to return to a religious state quite in contravention to the provisions of the constitution and spirit of our Liberation War. The Constitution of Bangladesh as adopted in 1972 was amended to pave the way for the rebirth of religion-based parties. For the next two decades the military rulers, devoid of mass support, used the religious card to seek political legitimacy. The aim of the military dictators was to deter progressive forces by mustering the support of Islamic religious forces. When the military autocracy was ousted in the face of popular uprising in 1990, the religious forces had by then made deep inroads in domestic politics. By the turn of the century, the Islamist forces started a violent campaign of bombing and killing across the country. The political power at that time nurtured the extremist forces with an aim to crush the liberals and the left. Despite a series of violent acts of terror, the government was in denial mode. Even on August 21 2004, when a deadly grenade attack was carried out targeting the then opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, government agencies termed it as an insider job. Finally, on August 17 2005, when nearly 100 bomb blasts went off across the country, the government under intense international pressure, acknowledged the existence of terrorist organisations in the country.
A new anti-terrorist force called Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was formed primarily to tackle the terrorist outfits. The terrorist organisations that had sprung up in Bangladesh by that time, such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) and an extension of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), were strongly dealt with. Although these organisations lost most of their leadership by 2006, new leadership continued to evolve and all indicators suggest that they are in the process of re-grouping and rearming. A decade has passed since then, but the government is still grappling with militant ideologies. The society, meanwhile, is witnessing a gradual erosion of liberal, progressive values in the face of the radical onslaught; what in popular parlance is called 'Saudisation'.
We have witnessed a gradual evolution of extremist outfits. While the first generation of militants were either uneducated or madrassa educated youths hailing from poor households, in recent years there have been new recruits who hail from urban middle and high income families and are educated in the mainstream or English-medium educational institutions. Although the present AL-led government repeatedly declared zero tolerance to all kinds of religious extremism and terrorism, new terrorist groups have, meanwhile, appeared that have international and global links and are working with a long-range view. Al-Qaeda Chief Ayman Al Zawahiri declared in September 2014, his new affiliate for South Asia, including Bangladesh. The spate of blogger killings and government's failure to track down the perpetrators in most cases have left people terrified and frustrated. Most of the blogger killings have been claimed by a domestic terror organisation called Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). It has been reported in the press that the ABT Chief Mufti Rahmani, now in jail, continues to direct the activities of the organisation through his sympathisers in the administration. Recent arrests of the suspected killers of bloggers Avijit and Ananta showed that ABT and its Chief Mufti Jasim Uddin Rahmani had been actively directing the killing operations from behind bars. While the arrests of the suspects raise new hope, questions have been raised about prison security. The ease with which extremists from outside were able to establish contact with their leaders inside the prison shows the weaknesses of our prison system. Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), another urban-based Islamist organisation that calls for the establishment of a global Khilafat, continues to remain active in Bangladesh, despite the official ban. HuT views Muslim majority countries such as Bangladesh or Pakistan as Daar-ul Kuffar or the land of the infidel. According to their ideology, all Daar-ul Kuffars will have to be turned into Daar-ul Islam (Land of Islam), by violent means, if necessary. Finally, countries with non-Muslim majority which they term as Daar-ul Harb (Land of War) will be converted to Daar-ul Islam through a global Jihad. Thus, according to them, the world will come under one God, one nation as promised in the Holy Scriptures.
The recent arrests of three lawyers of the Supreme Court have stunned the nation. Nearly Tk 120 million is reported to have been transferred by the lawyers to a terrorist organisation called Shaheed Hamza Brigade. Despite speculations, I believe that investigative agencies must have had solid evidence to support their charges. If the charges of terrorist financing by the lawyers are proved to be true, it would force us to look harder into every stratum of the society to seek out and destroy the roots of terrorism.
Recent arrests of terror suspects show that by and large youths who got mixed up with religious extremism and violence are ill-educated, jobless, frustrated and often disassociated from their families. It is, therefore, important that we develop a healthy, educated youth force who looks forward to a fulfilling life here in this world, rather than get involved in militant activities. The government along with academics, researchers, and civil-military leaders, should prepare a comprehensive counter terrorism strategy. The objectives of the strategy would be to pursue all measures to stop the terrorist attacks in the first place. It should prevent our people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism in any form. The strategy should lay down detailed measures to protect people from terrorist threats. Finally, it should guide us to prepare so as to mitigate the impact should a terrorist attack take place. Once the strategy is in place, the government must take all possible measures to ensure that the ugly head of terrorism never raises its head and the peaceful lives of millions are not disturbed. Terrorism is a global threat and we, in Bangladesh, need to face it together with the rest of the world.
The writer is Registrar, East West University.