Written by Ajit Kumar Singh.
According to the Global Terrorism Index released by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP) Bangladesh was ranked 22nd out of 163 countries. The report noted: “2015 was also a difficult year for Bangladesh, resulting in the most attacks and deaths since at least 2000, although the lethality rate per attack was low. There were 459 attacks which resulted in 75 deaths. Historically, terrorism in Bangladesh has been carried out by local groups such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (JMB), a group which was allegedly involved in the July 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka. However, for the first time, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and a local ISIL affiliate engaged in attacks, resulting in 11 deaths in 2015.”
More recently, a U.S. Department of State report on overseas crime and safety, concluded: “Dhaka [is] a high-threat location for terrorist activity directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests… Some elements within Bangladeshi groups may be associated with transnational terrorist groups (al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL/Da’esh)). There is a real, credible threat from terrorism, as multiple transnational terrorist groups claim credit for a series of assaults against various targets.”
Indeed, the Holey Artisan Bakery attack on July 1, 2016, which resulted in 28 deaths, including 20 civilians (mostly foreigners), two Security Force personnel, and six militants, was the worst ever terror attack in Bangladesh in terms of fatalities recorded in a single incident. In terms of magnitude, however, the country’s worst terrorist attack occurred on August 17, 2005, when the JMB organized 459 coordinated bomb blasts within a single hour, across 63 of the country’s 64 districts.
The statistics and surge in terrorist attacks suggest that since assuming power in January 2009 the Awami League (AL)-led 14-party alliance government under the premiership of Sheikh Hasina has not been effective in its duty to secure the nation from the Islamist threat. However, this would be misleading. Since assuming power in January 2009 Prime Minister Hasina has introduced several notable counter-terrorism initiatives which have helped Bangladesh to restore a semblance of peace across the country.
To begin with, on March 16, 2009, the then-Home Secretary Abdus Sobhan Sikder filed a report that identified 12 ‘militant’ outfits – the JMB, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Hizb-ut-Tawhid, Ulama Anjuman al Bainat, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Islami Democratic Party, Islami Samaj, Touhid Trust, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Shahadat-e-al-Hikma Party Bangladesh, Tamir-ud-Deen (Hizb-e-Abu Omar) and Allahr Dal. At that time, the main targets of law enforcement were JMB, HuJI-B, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Hizb-ut-Tawhid.
Remarkably, the Security Forces-backed by a decisive leadership-neutralized (e.g., killed or arrested) the top leadership of these major Islamist terror groups responsible for serious turbulence in Bangladesh. While the JMB chief Maulana Saidur Rahman (alias Zafar) and three other top leaders of the outfit were arrested on May 25, 2010, HuJI-B was forced to close its over-ground activities soon after Home Secretary Sikder’s March 2009 report. Other groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Hizb-ut-Tawhid were banned or placed on a government ‘watch list’; new initiatives were taken to target terror financing alongside an emphasis on strengthening and improving the quality of the counter-terror forces.
These efforts resulted in significant improvement in the Bangladeshi security situation. However, the Government argued that terror could not be completely wiped out without punishing the people responsible for war crimes during the Liberation War of 1971 – these individuals served as an ‘ideological nursery’ for almost all the terror outfits operating in the country ever since. Consequently, the Hasina-led government commenced the War Crime Trials (WCTs) in 2010. Apprehensive of the consequences, the Jel (a radical/fundamentalist organisation with links to Pakistan) and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Jel’s partner in crime, sought to violently oppose the WCTs. However, given the robust security environment, neither Jel, BNP, nor their proxies were able to achieve much. Later, in 2013 when the top leaders of JeI and BNP were awarded death sentences by the two International Crimes Tribunals (ICTs), the agency conducting the WCTs, the two ‘partners in crime’ realized that their very existence was under threat. Not surprisingly, with the support of other radical groups, the JeI-BNP combined, launching widespread street violence in 2013 which resulted in over 350 deaths. The violence, though reduced, continued through 2014. The street violence in these two years created an environment where the old terror groups found an opportunity to regroup while the new and more deadly terror outfits – neo-JMB and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) – emerged and have since continued to vitiate the domestic security environment of Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, Dhaka intensified its onslaught against the terror groups operating within the country. Security Forces killed 74 Islamist terrorists and arrested another 1,227 across Bangladesh in 2016 alone, according to partial data collated by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM). Those killed included top leaders of the ABT, JMB, and neo-JMB. On the political front, despite facing all odds Prime Minister Hasina was resolute in her decision to continue with the WCTs.
Hasina in her very first question-answer session in the ninth parliament on January 28, 2009, unequivocally stated that “whenever action is taken against militants, it is described as an attack on Islam. But it is not right. The militants have no religion and operate beyond boundaries. Tough actions must be taken against militants as they act against humanity and religion.” Her firm approach has continued to date. Consequently, it is expected that the recent surge in acts of terrorism will not last; normalcy will be restored sooner rather than later so long as the Government avoids a lackadaisical approach. On the contrary, any compromise at this juncture will prove detrimental to Bangladesh’s long-term security environment.
Dr. Ajit Kumar Singh is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Conflict Movement in New Delhi. He has researched and written extensively on issues relating to conflict in South Asia. He has also been approached by various foreign embassies (including US, Russia, UK, Germany, Canada, Singapore, Poland, Japan) to discuss regional security scenarios. He has presented papers and delivered lectures at Indian and Foreign Government institutions and has been interviewed by most of the foreign and Indian media, including BBC, AFP News Agency, Al Jazeera, and CNN. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia.