Authors: Ahsan Habib
Local Coordinator Strong Cities Network
Bio: Read here
Associate, Strong Cities Network
Bio: read here
24 November 2021
The roots of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh can be traced back to British Colonial rule, during which the social, economic and religious differences between Hindus and Muslims were exploited and exacerbated. In the tumult that followed the partition of India in 1947, new conflicts emerged based on language, culture and economic inequalities, resulting in the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971.
Throughout these upheavals, Islamist movements such as Jamat-e-Islami and Nejam-e-Islam played, and would continue to play, a pivotal role in the nascent country’s development. The influx of petrodollars from wealthy Gulf states and the Soviet–Afghan War in the 1980s were a boon to Islamist extremist recruitment, allowing for the formation of militant Islamist groups like Harkat-ul Jihad- al Islam (HuJI) and Jamatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB).
Since the 1980s, terrorist violence has claimed over 1,200 lives in Bangladesh, highlighting the country's domestic challenge with extremism and terrorism. Between 1999 and 2006, Bangladesh witnessed unprecedented violence, primarily by militant Islamists, which triggered widespread concerns that the Bangladeshi state was on the brink of collapse and becoming a stronghold for extremist movements linked to Al-Qaeda and other global jihadist movements.
"Both home-grown and transnational violent extremist groups have become increasingly assertive in their efforts to influence politics and the public sphere."
The years between 2006 and 2012 offered brief respite, only to be shattered by the violence of 2013 to 2016. Since 2013, violent extremism in Bangladesh has been rising, with targeted extremist attacks taking place across the country, creating an atmosphere of fear and apprehension. It has included killing a number of atheist bloggers, religious minorities, LGBTQ activists, social workers, and foreign nationals, such as an Italian aid worker, who was shot dead in Dhaka's diplomatic zone in September 2015.
In July 2016, shooters entered the Holey Artisan Bakery, an upscale bakery in Dhaka, and killed 20 hostages, of which 18 were foreigners in what remains Bangladesh's worst terror attack to date. Most of these incidents post-2012 were claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). However, perpetrators were reportedly locals representing diverse socio-economic and educational backgrounds and geographic regions, organised under local militant organisations such as JMB and Ansarul Islam.
Almost all governments that have come to power since Bangladesh's independence have engaged in favouritism of certain religious groups over others to counter their political opposition. This process has enabled the gradual strengthening of religiously-motivated extremist groups, who have become more organised and better placed to bargain with the government and other political and non-political actors. This process has been accelerated in recent times by weakening democratic dialogue in the country and a failure within politics to challenge extremist organisations and the Islamist groups who provide ideological support. As a result, both home-grown and transnational violent extremist groups have become increasingly assertive in their efforts to influence politics and the public sphere.
"Despite various government initiatives to curb militancy, more integrated initiatives, policies and strategies are needed to address the complexity of violent extremism."
Since 2010, the political space for Islamist political forces like Jamat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist group, has been curtailed after the criminalisation of several leaders of the organisation by the War Crimes Tribunal. Furthermore, Islamist groups more broadly have been de-legitimised through the campaign successes of the Shahbag movement. Consequently, the Islamist forces have appeared to be more vulnerable to violent extremism.
After the attack on the Holey Artisan in 2016, the government and various law enforcement agencies have drastically suppressed militant activity, with law enforcement from different parts of the country arresting many of those suspected of being involved in militancy, forcing them underground.
Likewise, other factors have created further vulnerabilities that are adding to the complexity of how violent extremism and extremist ideologies are spreading in the country. Bangladesh continues to struggle with the ongoing humanitarian crisis caused by the displacement of millions of Rohingya refugees, who have fled oppression in Myanmar . They present a potential soft target for radicalisation by Bangladeshi Islamist groups as well as external groups like Arakan Salvation Army.
This crisis also fuels new narratives that can be leveraged to promote Islamist extremism, as well as polarisation among host communities driven by anti-immigrant narratives. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping through the country, millions are now faced with economic deprivation and starvation, creating new vulnerabilities that are typically co-opted and exploited by violent extremists.
Educational institutions have been closed for almost two years due to the pandemic. Unemployment is rising and the younger generation sit idle and frustrated, vulnerable to extremist messaging both on- and offline. Although violent militancy is not visible at present, ideological fundamentalism is being widely cultivated through social media and online fora. Many of the younger generations for instance express their satisfaction in response to the Taliban's seizure of power in Afghanistan.
Considering the context of militancy in Bangladesh, the rise of Islamic fundamentalist forces and the geopolitical and international realities, religious extremism in Bangladesh remains a highly complex problem. Despite various government initiatives to curb militancy, more integrated initiatives, policies and strategies are needed to address the complexity of violent extremism. Although various national and international organisations, ministries, and departments of the government have made some progress to prevent violent extremism in Bangladesh separately, the country is yet to develop a comprehensive ‘whole-of-society’ approach for prevention in the long term. A clear mandate for national and local government and civil society to work together is needed for effective coordinated prevention.
"Bangladesh’s City Corporations can be harnessed to unify national and subnational P/CVE initiatives. Existing city-led Standing Committees, dedicated to law and order, youth engagement, crime prevention and, in the case of Narayanganj City Corporation, terrorism prevention, could be leveraged in this effort."
While Bangladesh adopts a multi-disciplinary model to P/CVE, this remains limited to the national policy level. City Corporations have primarily fulfilled the function of service delivery to their local populations and remained distanced from P/CVE efforts at both the national and grassroots levels, while a current lack of coordination between relevant local services and stakeholders undermines nascent P/CVE efforts.
However, the structure of Bangladesh’s City Corporations can be harnessed to unify national and subnational P/CVE initiatives. Existing city-led Standing Committees, dedicated to law and order, youth engagement, crime prevention and, in the case of Narayanganj City Corporation, terrorism prevention, could be leveraged in this effort.
As frontline actors, municipalities are ideally placed to identify and coordinate relevant services to address the complexity of both the drivers of violent extremism and the existing P/CVE policy landscape in Bangladesh. Nations can, and should, be doing more to recognise their value.