The growing radicalisation in Bangladesh not just threatens the country’s current secular-democratic dispensation and development endeavours, it has serious implications for the region’s peace and security. In addition to the domestic factors, the recent terror strikes in Bangladesh are to be seen in the light of the present trend of Islamist militancy in the Indian sub-continent, the country’s complicated relationship with Pakistan, the nexus between Pakistan’s infamous spy agency Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and some Bangladeshi extremist forces, radicalisation of a section of Bangladeshi expatriates, key sources of terror financing. and Islamic State’s (IS) increasing footprints in the country.
Local militants’ external linkages
There is no denying the fact that several Bangladeshi militant outfits, including Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen-Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) share a common agenda with international jihadi groups like al-Quida and IS. The Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) is a transnational terror group that seeks to unite all the Muslim nations under the IS flag. Like many other countries, Bangladesh has banned HuT. The possibility of HuT’s involvement in the Gulshan attack can not be ruled out completely. Rapid Action Battalion officials claimed that Hasnat Karim, who was detained for alleged links to the attackers, had been associated with HuT.
This pan-Islamic group has been operating in the country with the aim of overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Hasina. In 2012, the HuT tried to stage a military coup with the help of Major Zia-ul-Huq, a disgruntled Bangladesh Army officer. Thanks to the timely intelligence input, the Bangladesh government foiled the coup attempt.
But Major Zia managed to escape and subsequently became de-facto chief of ABT. This new militant outfit has been recruiting young Bangladeshis for arms training and organising specific attacks on secular rationalists and liberal intellectuals. The ABT is a part of Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS). The outfit is politically affiliated to Islami Chhatra Shibir – the student wing of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami. Interestingly, the outfit prefers more educated and elite recruits.
The threats posed by the IS
Bangladesh may face more jihadi strikes in the days ahead because in IS’ perspective, it is an apostate state and eligible for attacks. Local chief of IS al-Hanif has called for the overthrow of the secular government of Hasina and establishment of a state based on Shariah law. He is also critical of the major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its alliance partner Jamaat for not implementing “Islamic law” when in power.
The IS considers Bangladesh as the launching pad for jihad in South Asia and adjoining areas. The country is strategically important as it offers a location from where IS could expand future operations in eastern India and Myanmar. Neighbouring India and its majority Hindu population is regarded by the IS as enemies of Islam and extending the Caliphate in Bangladesh. IS’ local chief al-Hanif has also assured that the Rohingyas, who have long been oppressed in Myanmar by the majority Buddhist population, would be given support after the group expand its capabilities beyond Bangladesh.
Expatriates getting attracted towards jihad
The radicalisation of a segment of Bangladesh’s expatriates is another key concern for the country. Hundreds of Bangladeshi workers living in European, West and Southeast Asian countries have come under the influence of jihadi ideologies and programmes. In a significant development in the second week of July 2016, four Bangladeshi workers were convicted in Singapore for financing terrorism back home. Calling themselves the Islamic State in Bangladesh (ISB), the four had been planning attacks in Bangladesh to topple the Awami League (AL) government. Their objectives were to form an Islamic state in Bangladesh and make it part of the so-called Caliphate of the IS.
Reports indicate that the ISB had already selected some targets, including higher officials in the government and military in Bangladesh. The ISB members also explored the possibility of joining the IS as foreign fighters. One of the convicts, Mizanur Rahman, who has been working in a construction company of Singapore since 2007, is the leader of the ISB.
This is not the first case wherein Bangladeshi expatriates are being accused of indulging in terrorist activities. In April this year, five other Bangladeshis were sent home for alleged links with jihadi modules and arrested immediately after their return. Bangladesh police suspected that they had been linked to the banned militant outfit ABT. Earlier in January 2015, Singapore police arrested 27 Bangladeshi construction workers for having connections with Al-Qaeda and IS. Following their deportation, 14 of them were jailed on terror charges.
Major sources of terror financing
Bangladesh’s radical Islamist groups and jihadi elements have been procuring funds from multiple sources, including expatriates’ remittance, illicit money transfers and state and non-state actors of Pakistan. The remittance of the expatriate Bangladeshis is an area of concern, as it happens to be a prime source of terrorism financing. It is estimated that about $7 billion comes to the country every year via “hundi” system – an alternative transfer method akin to the “hawala” network that persists in West Asia. Bangladesh’s economy has been affected by illicit transfers for years. Investigations into the financial operations of the terrorist groups such as JMB and Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islam-Bangladesh clearly proved that a sizeable portion of their funding had come from Pakistan through the “hawala” route. Pakistan’s ISI and terrorist group Laskar-e-Toiba, which a presence in Bangladesh, are among the major financers of militancy in the country.
Moreover, the state actors of Pakistan have recently been found transferring money to a Bangladeshi jihadi outfit. In December 2015, Bangladesh expelled a Pakistani diplomat Farina Arshad for financing Islamist militancy in the country. The Detective Branch of Bangladesh Police claimed she had developed links with a JMB militant named Idris Sheikh. Bangladesh’s troubled relationship with Pakistan is a matter of worry as Islamabad has been desperately trying to destabilise the Bengali nation through dubious means ever since Hasina assumed power in 2009. The AL government took serious note of the JMB militant’s case and cautioned Pakistan against exporting terrorism to Bangladesh.
In January 2015, one more Pakistani official of the Dhaka mission was declared persona non grata after Bangladesh’s intelligence agencies blamed him of financing radical Islamists and peddling fake Indian currency notes (FICN). The Indian intelligence organisations too believe that Pakistan has been using its diplomatic missions to circulate FICN for funding terrorist activities in Bangladesh. Intelligence reports say several operatives are managing circulation of FICN from Pakistan and its diplomats based in Bangladesh, Thailand and Nepal conniving with the racketeers. The AL government launched a fairly large operation against the ISI, dismantling several big FICN networks.
India’s concerns over cross-border terrorism
India, which shares a 4,096 km-long international boundary with Bangladesh, is worried about the cross-border ramifications of the violent attacks unleashed by the jihadi forces in the neighbouring country. Immediately after the Dhaka terror attack, the Border Security Force (BSF) personnel guarding the India-Bangladesh borders in the North-East were put on high alert. In Assam, the security forces had been alerted to thwart any such terror strike. According to an Indian intelligence input, five suspected terrorists from Bangladesh entered Assam through Meghalaya after the Dhaka attack. The higher echelons of Assam police say these alleged terrorists may target Guwahati and that they have a map of the city.
The Indian security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations fear that the sudden rise of Islamist violence in Bangladesh could endanger the communal harmony in the sensitive border districts of Assam. This key North-Eastern state has also been facing a low level of Islamist militancy for more than a decade, and the disturbing developments across the borders may further complicate security scenario. Senior Assam police officials have noted that Bangladesh-based JMB’s terror modules are still active in the state even though many of their cadres had been arrested from lower Assam after the 2014 Burdwan blast. The IS-affiliated JMB had made inroads into a number of Indian states, including Assam and Bengal in the last few years. Reports say this jihadi outfit has committed cadres and an organisation which is capable of mobilising fund and supplying arms.
There has also been a rise in infiltration attempts from Bangladesh into India in the wake of continuous killing of religious minorities in the neighbouring country. In the last week of June 2016, about 250 Hindu minorities from Chunarughat in eastern Bangladesh had gathered at the India-Bangladesh border gate in West Tripura district seeking shelter in India after attacks against them. Again on July 3, thirteen Bangladeshi nationals from Netrokona district, twelve of them Hindus, were detained by BSF in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills district for trying to cross the border illegally.
The illegal immigration from Bangladesh is an emotive issue in Assam and the recent developments have implications for the state politics. Anticipating an exodus of minority Hindus from Bangladesh to North East especially Assam, some local political leaders have expressed concerns. Former Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta, who led the anti-foreigners movement during 1979-85, clearly said that the state is over-burdened with the influx of Bangladeshis and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre should formulate a proper policy to settle and rehabilitate the minorities from the neighbouring country elsewhere in India, excluding Assam. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was elected to power in Assam in May 2016, wants to grant citizenship to Hindu refugees from Bangladesh.
Regional and international cooperation on counter-terrorism
In its efforts to combat terrorism, Bangladesh has broadened cooperation both at the regional and international levels. The country is working closely with neighbouring India to fight the menace of cross-border terrorism. In the wake of media reports saying a key conspirator of the Dhaka carnage had infiltrated into Bengal seven months before the attack, the AL government has expressed its willingness to share with India information on “missing youths” who are estimated to be more than 100. New Delhi has assured Dhaka of all possible counter-terrorism assistance and decided to send National Security Group (NSG) bomb experts to Bangladesh to help investigate the Gulshan and Sholakia attacks.
The Bangladesh government has reportedly been trying to identify the links that key conspirator of the 2012 abortive coup Major Zia maintains with a Bangladeshi national named Mohammad Ishraq Ahmed, who allegedly has links with Pakistani and Chinese intelligence agencies and is providing funds for toppling the AL government. Bangladesh’s intelligence agencies are seeking cooperation from Western intelligence organisations to trace both Major Zia and Ishraq, and their financial networks and locations. The government says it is difficult to trace these persons as they frequently travel between Pakistan and Hong Kong with the active help from establishments in both the countries. The US, Bangladesh’s another close counter-terrorism ally, has agreed to assist the Bangladesh government in tracing the two fugitives.
Bangladesh’s efforts to contain Islamist violence had been top of the agenda at the annual high-level bilateral talks in Washington recently. The two sides agreed that violent religious extremism poses a global threat, and tried to explore the ways for enhancing cooperation through intelligence sharing and programmes to combat radicalisation. Reports indicate that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is presently based in Bangladesh providing support in identifying people who are vulnerable to radicalisation.
The US government took the gruesome killing of foreign hostages seriously and Secretary of State John Kerry urged the Bangladesh government to conduct its investigation with the highest international standards and offered its full assistance in the process. This was followed by Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal’s visit to Dhaka on July10-11. She met Prime Minister Hasina and other leaders and discussed the modalities of US’ support to boost Bangladesh’s capacities in countering terrorism. Reports say Japan and Italy, whose nationals were killed by terrorists on July 1, have also decided to carry out coordinated diplomatic and intelligence operations in Bangladesh.
The seemingly unending violent attacks targeting secular activists, foreigners and religious minorities, and the recent Dhaka attack had drawn the attention of the international community. The World Bank is worried that unabated militancy could jeopardise Bangladesh’s endeavours to become a middle-income country by 2021. It is imperative that the Bangladesh authorities conduct an impartial, clinical and comprehensive investigation revealing the true identity of the attackers and their motivation and supplier of weapons.