With this being a general election year in Bangladesh, there is concern whether violent extremists may try and take advantage of the situation as law enforcement agencies focus elsewhere.
The chief of the counter terrorism unit of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, Monirul Islam, recently said in an interview on television that law enforcement agencies stand ready to counter violent extremist forces as there are specialized units and that they are dedicated to this cause.
Reassuring, of course. But is it only the job of law enforcement agencies to counter violent extremism?
A standard discourse on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) would take a two-fold approach. In the short-term, the focus would be to counter the malicious actors with force to make sure they are unable to harm anyone or damage property. The long-term approach would need to involve identifying the root causes of CVE in the local context and addressing them using a range of coordinated initiatives -- including raising awareness and confidence building.
Bangladesh, in all fairness, has had success in the last decade in dealing with militants who are active locally. But there haven’t been too many visible efforts to identify and address the root causes of extremism.
Key stake-holders have often been ignored when there is a serious need to come together. We have seen how effective stake-holder cooperation between governments, businesses, brands, international partners, and trade unions has improved the working conditions within the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh after the Rana Plaza disaster. So, we know it can be done.
However, it is, of course, far more complicated within the CVE arena as there are many external factors that may be beyond the control of major stake-holders.
Cooperation, coordination, collaboration
The main stake-holder in CVE is the state, represented by the government. The government of Bangladesh has taken measures to improve the capacity and skills of the law enforcement agencies in combating violent extremism in recent years. It has also increased coordination amongst different agencies and established a specialized counter-terrorism unit within the police.
The government has also passed and amended laws to make terrorism-related legislation stronger. Its relative success in combating front line extremism, however, has been somewhat offset by the inability to effectively engage with other key stake-holders including civil society, local communities, media, and international partners.
There haven’t been too many visible efforts to identify and address the root causes of extremism
The government has not been able to propagate a counter-narrative at the grassroots. But in any case, we have seen internationally that government propagated campaigns against violent extremism do not necessarily have the intended result and can often be counterproductive. For example, the US State Department’s “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign, which publishes counter-extremist material and engages with high profile jihadist accounts, appears to have significantly backfired.
This is where the civil society or the non-government sector can play an effective role. It can create the much-needed access to communities which is crucial in fighting violent extremism. It can also help policy-makers with accurate open-source data and intelligence.
Additionally, civil society has experience of addressing many of the underlying social and economic reasons for the growth of violent extremism. It can continue to help democratic institutions get stronger and can help formulate effective policies. However, the operating space for non-government organizations have shrunk considerably in recent years and many are struggling for survival.
Think global, act local
A subset of the above category is community-based groups. These groups include teachers and religious leaders who entail public respect and trust, and therefore are in a good position to shape people’s opinions. They are also major influencers among young people, who are the primary target of extremists.
A study by the government of Canada in 2016 showed that messages and counter-narratives that are constructed by local communities had much higher value over a “one size fits all” counter-narrative, which is often unattractive or even irrelevant at times. Of course, community groups need to be supported with training, development programs, and other resources so they can gain the capacity to build such narratives.
Two very specific group of stake-holders, who are also perhaps the most under-represented in the CVE discussions, are young people and women. Neither get a seat at the table when a topic is being discussed at a strategic or policy level.
A World Bank report recently suggested that inclusion of women in the CVE framework would make it more comprehensive in the South Asian setting. However, it would be wrong to simply focus on women as victims or potential forces of de-radicalisation within their communities. Reports published by the US Institute of Peace and the UN acknowledge the importance of mainstreaming women in all aspects of CVE and recognize that women do also become extremists themselves.
The media, both mainstream and social, are also important stake-holders in CVE as they have the necessary reach for strategic counter narrative dissemination to a mass audience. Satellite channels and mobile internet have penetrated into the most rural Bangladeshi areas and can be used to raise public awareness.
Interestingly, a 2017 research by the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute states that mainstream media has the potential to be exploited by extremists as it tends to sensationalize violent extremism news to make it more attractive, which can help spread extremist propaganda.
On the other hand, many local extremists are known to have first come in to touch with radical content through social media. A number of international research reports have pointed out that social media analysis can be useful for identifying individuals and groups that are vulnerable to extremism at an early stage and may subsequently be diverted away with the right intervention strategy.
Finally, many of Bangladesh’s international development partner countries are at a much-advanced stage in CVE and on many occasions have expressed willingness to cooperate with Bangladesh. Despite some joint initiatives, there is a fundamental difference between with international partners over the nature and source of threat that Bangladesh faces currently. These differences need to be reconciled to share expertise and form effective partnerships that can lead to stronger CVE policies.
Although there is a leadership crisis among extremist groups in Bangladesh, they have not ceased to operate and continue to try to re-strengthen. This is an opportune moment for all relevant stake-holders to come together and coordinate efforts to ensure that these malicious actors are unable to grow further. The obligation is on the government to involve all relevant stake-holders and take measures to incorporate their contribution in the endeavour to create a safer and more secure Bangladesh.
Nazmul Haque is a political and security (open source) analyst.