ISIS threats in Bangladesh - Denials and Delusions

Army personnel take a family to safety after evacuating residents from a building during the recent raid in Sylhet. Photo: Sheikh Nasir

It has happened again! In the wake of the latest round of terror attacks in Bangladesh, with ISIS claiming credit for it, authorities in the country have again started resorting to the old response. Rejecting any ISIS involvement in terror attacks in Bangladesh as "propaganda", Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal poses the question: "Why will the ISIS come here?" One wonders if leaders in any terror-infested country would ever ask a similar question! We know ISIS is a global terrorist outfit waging a total war against everyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. 

It's noteworthy that politicians and law-enforcers in Bangladesh either cry wolf about "impending terror attacks" in the country or they cry hoarse denying the existence of any international terrorist group.

After the well-publicised July attack at the Holey Artisan in Dhaka, which killed 29 people — including the five gunmen — the Government flatly denied any ISIS involvement in the attack. Interestingly, the ISIS owned the attack, and published pictures of several dead victims while the gunmen were still holding hostages inside the café, in its propaganda news website Amaq al-Akhbariyah. And despite ISIS claims, the Government again denied any ISIS involvement in the recent terror attacks in the country since March 17. 

Two days after two militants had blown themselves up to evade arrest at Sitakunda in Chittagong, a suicide bomber — believed to be an ISIS activist — on March 17, blew himself up near a camp of the Rapid Action Battalion at Ashkona in Dhaka. On March 24, another suicide bomber attacked a police box and blew himself up in Uttara, near Dhaka Airport. On the same day, the army, police, and RAB began an operation at a suspected den of banned Islamist militant Jama'atul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB) at a house in Shibbari area of Sylhet city in northeastern Bangladesh. By March 26, six people, including two policemen, were killed in terrorist bomb blasts and grenade attacks in Sylhet; and later two terrorists blew themselves up. The ISIS has owned all these attacks.

Meanwhile, the RAB had done what members of this elite force do quite frequently. RAB claims it arrested one Hanif Mridha, near the Ashkona camp soon after the suicide attack on March 17, and he died in custody the next day. But his family members claim, he was an innocent victim of extortion, picked up by RAB on February 27, three weeks before he died in custody ["'Hanif picked up on Feb 27': Claims Family", The Daily Star].

Contrary to popular assumptions, neither the police nor armed forces are the most effective antidotes to terrorism. Since the police are mainly trained to maintain law and order, and prevent crime; and the military to defend the country from internal and external enemies, they have very limited understanding and role in counterterrorism (CT) operations. Even insurgencies, which are apparently war-like, are different from conventional warfare.

Law-enforcers can neither be the main CT operators, nor can they decide whether particular genres of terrorists are homegrown, or in cahoots with transnational terror groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. The Inspector General of Police (IGP) AKM Shahidul Haque believes any claim about ISIS presence in Bangladesh is "baseless propaganda". "What we call militants are actually homegrown who might have been embodied with IS philosophy and ideology. But they don't have any link with the IS," he insists. Rejecting security analyst Rohan Gunaratna's claim that the ISIS was behind the Gulshan café attack last year, the IGP asserts: "Rohan is not a police officer, nor a military officer. He does not deal with any security issue. He is an academician, a professor of a university…. does not have experience of the real issue of Bangladesh" [The Daily Star, March 14].

However, we know security analysts and academics can be CT and COIN (counterinsurgency) experts as well; and at times, they know as much if not more about terrorism and insurgency as the brightest police or military officer. While the police deal with crime and criminals, the armed forces deal with war and war-like situations. Neither is terrorism similar to violent crimes — armed robbery, arson, or killing of victims for some personal reasons — nor is it synonymous with warfare. The so-called "War on Terror" is a grotesque, grossly misleading concept developed by George W Bush and his surrogates. And terrorism is an ideology-driven political problem, which can only be resolved politically, not merely by police or military action.

There is enough evidence to conclude that the JMB is in league with the so-called Islamic State, which is a transnational terrorist group, mainly based in war-torn Syria and Iraq. By now the ISIS has spread its tentacles in all the continents. Khalid Masood, the 52-year-old British terrorist who on March 22 killed several people in London and was killed by police, is widely believed to be an ISIS recruit. Unlike Bangladeshi politicians and law-enforcers, their British counterparts didn't challenge the ISIS claim. BNP's State Minister for Home Lutfozzaman Babar rejected the presence of any Islamist terror group in Bangladesh soon after the JMB had detonated 500 bombs at 300 locations in Bangladesh in 2005. He, however, later apologised for his misstatement.

Of late, various sources have revealed the strength of the JMB, which by 2007 had more than 10,000 members across Bangladesh [Adam Stahl, "Challenges Facing Bangladesh", International Institute for Counter-Terrorism]. The JMB is also closely linked with the ISIS; its support is there and, according to a Bangladeshi intelligence report, is also capable of making improvised explosive device (IED) as has been seen in Sylhet and elsewhere. In this backdrop, one wonders, if we could be as complacent as the Home Minister seems to be. He claims: "The militants are under our control" [Bangla Tribune, March 27].

We can't be fully secure without the elimination of the root causes of terrorism. Unaccountable governance, corruption, and massive youth unemployment — around 40 percent of Bangladeshi youths don't have any regular employment — lead to social unrest, which is the mother of terrorism. In sum, living with terrorism is the "new normal" globally and Bangladesh will have to live with this reality. While some Bangladeshi youths, including girls, have joined the ISIS in Syria and Iraq — on March 16 one Neaz Morshed Raja of Bangladesh died as a suicide bomber in Tikrit, Iraq — denying any ISIS threat in Bangladesh is denial of the truth that is proving increasingly expensive.

The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). E-mail: [email protected]



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