Islamist militancy on the rise in Bangladesh

Author: Iftekharul Bashar, RSIS

Islamist militant groups in Bangladesh are showing signs of revival. According to Bangladeshi authorities, militants from at least two banned outfits — Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) — are preparing for attacks in the country, including targeted assassinations involving individuals whom they consider apostates or obstacles to establishing an Islamic State in Bangladesh. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the launch of Al Qaeda’s South Asia chapter, known as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), have led to increasing militant activism in Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi activists campaigning for capital punishment, Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, April 11, 2015. (Photo: AAP)

Since ISIS declared the establishment of the caliphate in June 2014, Bangladesh has witnessed the emergence of pro-ISIS outfits, pledges of allegiances to ISIS and ISIS recruitment drives both online and on the ground. Many members of the existing local militant groups support ISIS and are recruiting fighters into the Syrian theatres.

A newly-emerged group called Jund al-Tawheed wal Khilafah (JTK) has stated that they were seeking recruits from Bangladesh and expressed its intentions to raise funds for militant activities in South Asia for establishing a new ‘caliphate’ called ‘Hind’. The group declared that it is making preparations for the ‘Final Battle of Hind’ in the Indian subcontinent, with an eye to establishing an ‘Islamic State’ encompassing Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Bangladeshi authorities suspect that JTK is the key platform for recruiting Bangladeshi militants bound for the Syrian battlefield.

Existing local militant groups include returnees of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad. A majority of ISIS’ recruits in Bangladesh are from mainstream educational backgrounds, often coming from educated and relatively wealthy families. Many are university graduates. In contrast, prior to 2014, Islamist militants mostly recruited students who were less educated and mostly from more radical madrasas.

Bangladeshi authorities believe that there are also ongoing recruitment efforts by ISIS-linked radicals from among the Bangladeshi diaspora communities in Britain. Although there are no accurate figures available, a handful of Bangladeshis — mostly from these communities — have joined ISIS.

With its brutal and spectacular attacks, ISIS has been able to project itself as a potent transnational terrorist movement worldwide and in Bangladesh. ISIS has evinced itself as capable of upstaging even Al Qaeda and its South Asia wing, AQIS. But AQIS still poses a threat that is more deeply entrenched, due to Al Qaeda’s longstanding and extensive regional networks across South Asia. Unlike ISIS, Al Qaeda has had a long history of engagement in South Asia dating back to the 1980s, when Al Qaeda and South Asian militants fought together in Afghanistan.

The formal announcement of AQIS’ launch in September 2014 by Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Zawahiri, is believed to be a strategic move to keep its traditional ties relevant in South Asia at a time when ISIS is gaining traction in the region. AQIS has explicitly stated its aim to emerge as a common platform for Islamist militant movements in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

While ISIS focuses on holding and expanding territories in Syria and Iraq, and recruiting fighters for these theatres, AQIS takes a keen interest in exploiting local grievances in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Since September 2014, Bangladeshi authorities have arrested a significant number of militants from groups linked to Al Qaeda. These include militants from JMB, ABT and Harkatul Jihad al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) as well as other smaller outfits.

On 15 May 2015, Ansar al Islam Bangladesh, believed to be a new AQIS affiliate outfit in Bangladesh, posted a Bengali message containing a full listing of potential targets for assassination. The seven categories include: any male or female academic, actor, blogger, doctor, engineer, judge, politician or writer who insults the Prophet Muhammad and distorts Islam. Ansar al Islam Bangladesh emphasised that it does not have an issue with atheist bloggers or bloggers from religions other than Islam who do not insult the Prophet.

ABT’s chief ideologue Jashimuddin Rahmani, who was arrested in 2013, is currently being tried for the murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider. Given their similar agendas, it is highly likely that the rise of AQIS will embolden other militant organisations such as JMB and HuJI-B to carry out attacks in the country.

Both ISIS and AQIS threaten the security of Bangladesh. ISIS has the potential to empower existing Islamist militant movements with the ideology, network capabilities, financing and, most importantly, with its brand image. And despite ISIS’ growing influence, AQIS’s local focus means it will likely continue to have its own niche of support.

Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism response is currently at a critical juncture and its preparedness to counter emerging threats remains under scrutiny. Operational responses alone are proving inadequate. The government must scale up capacity in the cyber and digital domain, particularly on social media networks, and build up technical capabilities and expertise for monitoring and countering violent extremism online.

Bangladesh still lacks a dedicated counter-terrorism agency that can cover various critical areas like the investigation, prosecution and rehabilitation of terrorists, as well as promoting public awareness on counter-terrorism issues. It is essential for the government to partner closely with the community and media organisations to overcome the appeal of global terrorist movements and to strengthen the country’s overall social resilience.

Iftekharul Bashar is an Associate Research Fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

An extended version of this article first appeared here in Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis.

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