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A crisis we can’t ignore

  • Published at 12:02 am September 16th, 2016
  • Last updated at 03:37 pm September 17th, 2016
A crisis we can’t ignore

They say that all Bangladeshis are separated by a maximum of two degrees of separation. On July 1, this reality was tragically proven true.

Holey Artisan Bakery is the kind of place where expats can cure homesickness by indulging in a range of epicurean delights, while locals (especially kids) can grab themselves a treat before fasting hours began.

It’s the type of establishment my cousins loved to frequent; dragging my uncles and aunts until they too became lifelong addicts of French pastries and Italian gelatos. I actually ate an out-of-this-world cake from there at a birthday party when I last visited Bangladesh in 2011. On July 1, during the waning days of Ramadan, seven heavily armed terrorists decided it was a suitable venue to rob 24 innocent people of their lives, and to shock and terrorise a nation of 170 million in the process.

We have family who often visit restaurants in Gulshan for iftar, and we worried intensely about their safety all night -- not knowing if our unanswered calls were simply them sleeping soundly or something more heartbreaking.

In a pressure-cooker situation of suppression, sub-groups of sub-groups find motivation to commit increased levels of violence. These individuals can gradually transform into radicalised and ultra-violent foot soldiers of hardcore terrorist groups

Although they were safe, we learned that three young students, studying in the US, were murdered in the attack, and that the two Emory students were family friends. Two degrees of separation indeed.

Unprecedented savagery

Security forces have recently killed the suspected Canadian-Bangladeshi plotter of the country’s worst terrorist attack. Yet, the tragic saga of violent extremism and political violence is likely to continue.

Indeed, Bangladesh has been suffering waves of extremist political violence for several years. From bloggers, journalists, leaders of a range of vulnerable communities including Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, as well as Shia and LGBT Muslims, to even a Muslim professor whose only crime was engaging in cultural activities.

All of these innocent citizens found themselves targets for cold-blooded murder, many of which were committed publicly in broad daylight. Yet, attacks against foreign expats in Bangladesh have been exceedingly rare, and the Holey Bakery attack was the first time in the young country’s history that expats were targeted on such a large scale.

Equally alarming was the fact that these perpetrators were highly educated and came from relatively privileged backgrounds. Whether any of these perpetrators were actually IS or al-Qaeda operatives, or were simply members of domestic terror organisations, one stark reality emerges: Violent extremism is a crisis that Bangladesh can no longer ignore.

A pressure-cooker model

Violence was never a stranger to a country that was born out of immense bloodshed and suffered decades of post-independence instability under a series of authoritarian regimes.

Even in the post-democratic era, political violence has reared its hideous head multiple times. Most of the violence witnessed in the past decade stem from about half or more of the population being extremely frustrated with the fact that the current government has been in power for so long, especially after they were re-elected in 2014 through an election boycotted by the opposition and where voters were given few genuine choices.

The flawed war crimes trials and the subsequent banning and crackdown of the historically tainted Jamaat-e-Islami party has led to increased agitation by the party cadres and other like-minded extremist groups, of which a subsection is willing to commit acts of violence, targeting both the state and vulnerable minority communities alike.

Overreactions from security forces -- along with the opportunistic harassment and broad suppression of opposition members -- have led to increased polarisation and hardening of mentalities and tactics.

An even smaller subsection of these individuals gradually became radicalised from feelings of political subjugation, and flocked to ultra-hardline militant outfits waging war on the state.

In such a pressure-cooker situation of government suppression, sub-groups of sub-groups find motivation to commit increased levels of violence.

These individuals, who were once simply passionate members of legal political parties, can gradually transform into radicalised and ultra-violent foot soldiers of hardcore domestic and even international terrorist groups.

This phenomenon was seen in Algeria’s brutal civil war, and is a folly being repeated by the ultra-repressive Sisi regime in Egypt. It seems that process may well be repeating itself in Bangladesh.

The concluding part of this long form will be published tomorrow.

Atif A Choudhury is a LLM candidate in Queen Mary University of London’s Public International Law program. This article is an adaptation of a policy paper published in William and Mary Law School’s The Comparative Jurist.