Preventing and countering extremism in Bangladesh the right way
The first of July marked the second anniversary of the Holey Artisan cafe attack in the affluent neighbourhood of Gulshan in Dhaka. However, the shadow of that attack still looms large over the country.
Many still find it difficult to come to terms with the unfathomable and monstrous act undertaken by young men, who without any hesitation, massacred 24 innocent individuals from home and abroad.
During these past two years, it may be useful to review how Bangladesh has done with regards to combating the growing global menace of radicalization and violent extremism.
For instance, where does Bangladesh now stand with regard to the threat from violent extremist groups? What have the governmental and non-governmental communities done to counter the threat?
Have sufficient measures been taken, especially after the mass exodus of Rohingya refugees who have poured into Bangladesh from Myanmar since August 2017, and today number nearly 1.2 million refugees?
Since the Holey attack
Since the Holey cafe attack, the government has been proactive in its strategic communication by often highlighting the importance of citizens taking a firm stand against any kind of extremism.
This message has been continuously emphasized by none other than the prime minister herself, who has spoken repeatedly about a “zero tolerance” approach to extremism and terrorism.
For instance, the government has undertaken commendable steps such as directing religious leaders to deliver sermons highlighting the peaceful and tolerant nature of Islam, and on the ills of violent extremism.
In 2016, over 100,000 Bangladeshi religious leaders signed a fatwa against terrorism.
In April, the prime minister inaugurated the development of nine “model mosques” in a plan which would see the government build 560 such mosques.
The idea of a model mosque is a novel idea for Bangladesh, where a traditional mosque would also have a cultural centre, and women would also be permitted to visit such mosques.
The challenge for the government is to try and monitor an estimated 300,000 mosques throughout the country to ensure that the Imams of the mosques are giving sermons on the ills of extremism and highlighting the peaceful nature of Islam.
During the past two years, Bangladesh’s security agencies have been relentless in the pursuit of extremist suspects belonging to mostly neo-JMB or Ansar al-Islam, with the former having suspected links to IS and the latter with al-Qaeda in South Asia.
One senior counter-terrorism official told this writer that, since the Holey Cafe attack, the police had conducted well over 50 counter-terrorism operations, arrested nearly 260 militants, killed 61, and filed cases against nearly 80 suspected militants on terrorism charges.
Checking social media radicalization
The enormous volume of extremist propaganda circulating openly on cyberspace has become a growing problem. There are today well over 2.6 billion users worldwide of such platforms, with the total number expected to increase to over 3 billion by 2021.
While major social media platforms have, in the recent past, been very adept at pulling down extremist content, every minute there is a member of an extremist group or sympathizer uploading material aimed at radicalizing another young mind.
A recent study undertaken to determine what percentage of men and women accessed extremist content on Facebook in four Asian countries showed that 11% of women in Bangladesh were seen to be viewing extremist content.
It may be considered a fairly low number compared to material accessed by men, but in recent years, Bangladesh has witnessed more cases of female radicalization.
Terrorist ideologues live on
The affiliates and sympathizers of al-Qaeda and IS continue to unleash terror around the globe, and in the past year have increased their activity.
In addition, late terrorist ideologues such as Anwar Al-Awaki, Osama bin Laden, and Sheikh Al-Adnani continue to reach out from their graves to legions of devotees and curious individuals via their multiple video sermons and writings still widely available on the Internet.
Meanwhile, modern-day ideologues for some would-be extremist are televangelist Zakir Naik and British-Pakistani Anjem Choudary, currently imprisoned in the UK for calling on Muslims to support IS.
In addition, the existing chieftains of IS and al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahi respectively, both presumed alive, continue to release periodic statements calling on Muslims everywhere to unleash acts of terror.
Crafting a national plan of action
While security agencies have played a vital role in cracking down on extremists and foiling plots, they have been forced to play a largely reactive role. They are conscious that there is an urgent need to focus on long-term measures.
Counter-terrorism experts, too, are becoming increasingly concerned about recruitment and radicalization of the youth, from various economic backgrounds, as extremist groups find these are the individuals whose thinking can be easily moulded to their liking.
It would, therefore, make perfect sense to formulate a comprehensive national plan of action on preventing and countering radicalization and violent extremism (PCRVE).
Finding a balanced approach
The litmus test for any country in countering radicalization and extremism will be the ability to find a nuanced and balanced approach. While this is easier said than done, it can be assumed that every law-abiding Bangladeshi citizen, regardless of his or her social, economic, religious, or ethnic background, would have a collective interest in banding together to extinguish the conflagration of extremism.
But practitioners and experts need to delve deeper into how and why someone becomes radicalized and, conversely, how they can be helped to return to a state of normalcy. In examining the root causes, it is necessary to explore the local and international dynamics resulting in an individual’s path from being radicalized to ending up as a violent extremist.
A pragmatic and cohesive approach
Many of the aspects required to improve preventing and countering violent extremism are being addressed, but a great deal more work remains. The central pillars of a successful action plan have to rest on a pragmatic and cohesive approach which includes good governance, respect for human rights, an effective judiciary, promotion of pluralism, respect for other faiths, addressing socio-economic deficits, and more inclusive policies.
All concerned stake-holders have a vital role to play. From the various organs of the government, to local communities and government, media, educational institutions including schools and universities, religious scholars, psychologists and sociologists, academics, think tanks, and other relevant civil society organizations.
On the security side, law enforcement and intelligence agencies must continue to strengthen their capacity-building, training, technical capabilities, improved intelligence with stronger vertical and horizontal coordination and collaboration.
There are no easy solutions or quick fixes in preventing or countering extremism. For now, Bangladesh will have to settle in for the long haul and prepare for the colossal task of finding a lasting solution to a long-term contagion.
Faiz Sobhan is Research Director, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.