Although a number of ad hoc de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs have been taken up by the law enforcement agencies and the government, many of them have been discontinued due to a lack of coordination among agencies.
Thirteen years ago, synchronized bomb blasts in 63 districts rocked the whole of Bangladesh, waking the nation up to the menace of rampant radicalization.
The series of detonations on August 17, 2005 targeted every district of the country except Munshiganj, hit 513 places in total, and killed two people while injuring over 200 more.
Around 1,500 suspects were subsequently arrested in 273 cases filed over the blasts, which were orchestrated by the banned outfit Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).
They included a militant named Tariqul Islam Tariq, who served five years in prison before being set free to strike again.
In October 2015, Tariq was re-arrested for the murder of Khijir Khan - a former chairman of the Power Development Board (PDB), a freedom fighter, and a religious preacher in Dhaka.
During interrogation, Tariq said he had become more radicalized in prison because he was in the company of other radicalized people.
The Inspector General (IG) of Prisons, Brig Gen Syed Iftekhar Uddin, said there could be many more reoffenders like Tariq.
“We lack the manpower or expertise required for de-radicalizing militant suspects in custody,” he said. “However, we do keep them separate from other general inmates to keep them away from militant ideologies.”
Responding to the rise in attacks, over 100,000 Islamic scholars, legal experts, and clerics signed a fatwa against militancy in June 2016, declaring terrorism and suicide attacks as “haram” – forbidden under Islamic law.
However, the pressing need to counter radicalization re-entered the limelight in the wake of the Holey Artisan attack in July 2016, when five youths stormed a café in the upmarket Gulshan area of Dhaka and murdered 20 hostages, mostly foreigners, plus two police officers.
Following the attack - the worst in Bangladesh’s history - the government earned praise at home and from abroad for its strong efforts to wipe out homegrown militancy.According to Police Headquarters, as of October 2017 a total of 920 cases had been filed and 3,676 people arrested in connection with militancy, while over 500 suspected militants have been released on bail.
Once they are out, however, these militants either go into hiding or reengage in extremist activities.
Police headquarter officials say that if this worrying trend continues, militancy cannot be wiped out from Bangladesh.
How is Bangladesh countering radicalization?
With the militant groups mostly neutralized, the government is now focusing on de-radicalization and rehabilitation schemes for previously convicted militants.
However, while a number of ad hoc programs have been taken up by the law enforcement agencies and the government, many of them have been discontinued due to a lack of coordination among agencies.
Such initiatives include a 60-second anti-militant television commercial produced by Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has not been broadcast for months after receiving a lot of air-time initially.
In April 2017 the elite force also published a book titled “Misinterpretation of Verses by Militants and the Right Interpretation of the Qur'an and Hadith”. Four thousand copies were distributed to different places including madrasas, but the initiative was discontinued.
Bangladesh Islamic Foundation (BIF) worked with Imams of all mosques to ensure they delivered a pre-sermon speech during Friday congregational prayers but this practice, too, was abandoned.
There are ongoing initiatives yielding positive results in the fight against radicalization.
The Education Ministry has engaged educational institutions in building awareness of extremism and terrorism among teachers, students, and parents. Madrasa textbooks have been revised and the government has directed the ministry to continue its scrutiny of the madrasa curriculum.
For controlling extremism-related messaging on the internet, particularly on social media, initiatives have been taken to further strengthen the National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre (NTMC) to help it detect websites that circulate radicalizing messages.
The Religious Affairs Ministry in July took up a two-year project, with a a budget of Tk46 crore, to create anti-militancy awareness by conducting nationwide publicity campaigns using ICT.
As part of new ways of integrating suspected militants into mainstream society, the government is also planning to engage youths in sports, culture, and other activities.
‘Gaps may hamper sustainability’
Analysts have said Bangladesh can still do more to combat the radicalization of its young people.
Iftekharul Bashar, an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, said the government’s efforts are being hindered by a disjointed approach which focuses only on Dhaka.
“The response to countering violent extremism (CVE) initiatives remains weak in Bangladesh because of lack of coordination and information sharing among the various security agencies,” he said.
“(There is) a lack of framework to assess the implementation and effectiveness of the CVE programs, lack of detection and countering of extremist trends on social media platforms, and lack of holistic plan to rehabilitate violent extremist offenders.”
In his paper titled “Countering Violent Extremism in Bangladesh”, Iftekharul said militants due for release in the next few years will fail to reintegrate into society and will continue to pose a security threat, unless they go through a comprehensive rehabilitation program.
Formal project in the pipeline
One such program is being introduced by the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTC) of police.
They want to rehabilitate militants into mainstream society through a formal de-radicalization program set to begin in January.
“There has been no formal government initiative for de-radicalizing militants in the country, though many informal initiatives were taken earlier,” CTTC Chief and Dhaka Metropolitan Police Additional Commissioner Monirul Islam told the Dhaka Tribune.
“Now, an official project has been approved and will be implemented from January. There are several stakeholders and the government has already allotted some funds to implement the plan.”
Celebrities will help in the process by holding dialogues with affected youths about de-radicalization, psychological disengagement and counter-radicalization.
Will the initiatives last?
Human rights activist Nur Khan Liton told the Dhaka Tribune that the effort to suppress militants through operational drives remains high, with less importance placed on de-radicalization schemes.
“Some programs were undertaken for building awareness, but no follow-up initiative was taken in line with their effectiveness,” he said.
Nur Khan said that the de-radicalization program has to be run not only in prisons but also at different levels of society, especially among youths.
“Schools, college and madrasas have to be linked with this program to create social awareness,” he said.
Islamic scholar Fariduddin Masud said militancy cannot be wiped out only through arresting the suspects.
“What is more important is to convince them and help them return to a normal life, which should begin from prisons,” he said.
“Suspected militants can become more dangerous upon release or securing bail so there is a need to work with them in prisons.
“I propose to the government to form a committee consisting of Islamic scholars, psychologists, and other stakeholders who will work to bring militants back to society in a proper way.”