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Bangladesh: under militant siege

Bangladesh: under militant siege

Dr Amit Ranjan is a research fellow of the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi. Here, he considers the reasons behind the upsurge in militant violence in Bangladesh.

Over the last decade, Bangladesh has turned into a militant hotspot where home grown militants have killed thousands of people. Their main tactics have included petrol bomb attacks on groups or targeted individual killings, but on 1 July 2016 they, on the lines of operations carried out by the terrorists in Mumbai in 2008 (as well as Paris in 2015 and in Istanbul in 2016), carried out a much fuller operation.  Raising a slogan ‘Allah O Akbar’, and armed with crude bombs and swords, seven militants stormed into a popular eatery, Holey Artisan Bakery, in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave. There they held about sixty hostages, including many foreign citizens. To meet such an unprecedented situation Operation Thunderbolt was carried out by the commandos from the Bangladesh Army, Navy, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, the elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and paramilitary Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB).

The area was cleared in the small hours of 2 July 2016. In the incident (during which hostages were taken) twenty people were found dead including nine Italians, seven Japanese, three Bangladeshis and one Indian. In addition, the six militants were killed and one was captured by the security forces. According to a rescued hostage “They (the gunmen) did not behave rough with the Bangladesh nationals,” “Rather they provided night meals for all Bangladeshis.” He added “The gunmen were doing a background check on religion by asking everyone to recite from the Quran. Those who could recite a verse or two were spared. The others were tortured.” After the incident Bangladeshi security officials informed that the two local militant groups, Ansar-al-Islam and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, were behind the violence. It is understood that Ansar pledges allegiance to Al-Qaeda (AQ), while Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen claims it represents Islamic State (IS/Da’esh).

In the aftermath of the incidents two significant questions arise: first, was this an isolated incident, and secondly, who is responsible for it? This incident was not an isolated one; signs indicating something like this might happen were tangible but the security agencies could not decipher them. Targeting and killings of minorities, liberals and dissenters had occurring for a long time but had increased since 2013. The first person to lose his life in recent years was Rajib Haider in 2013. He was killed for calling on people to join in a protest at Shabag to demand the death penalty for the perpetrators of 1971 war. Then on 27 February 2015, Avijit Roy, an atheist blogger, was hacked to death in Dhaka. He was a Bangladeshi-born US citizen and the founder of a blog, Mukto Mano. According to reports, Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an Islamist extremist group based in Bangladesh, claimed responsibility for the murder. On 30 March 2015, a blogger, Washiqur Rahman was stabbed to death for his progressive blogs. Niladri Chattopadhyay, who was a Gonojagron Manch (platform for popular uprising) activist, was another blogger who had been hacked to death in Dhaka in August 2015.  Besides them Italian citizen Cesare Tavella, was killed in Dhaka in September 2015 and a Japanese national, Hoshi Kunio,  was gunned down in Rangpur on 3rd October 2015.

In recent times, a few significant developments may have prompted the militants to do something on a larger scale to show their presence and strength. Firstly, Bangladesh has joined the thirty-four nation coalition led by Saudi Arabia to fight against the terrorists in the West Asia (the Middle East). It is also planning to send its army to join the coalition against the IS in the region. This may have angered the militants who claim themselves as representative of the IS or AQ in Bangladesh, and provided them a reason for the attack. Secondly in May 2016, after the killing of wife of Superintendent of Police (SP) Babul Akter the police department began a weeklong clampdown on militants across the country. In that operation many were arrested and a few even were shot dead in encounters. The attack may be to balance such action. Thirdly, there was speculation in Bangladeshi media about the combined effort by India and the USA to tackle militancy in Bangladesh. Fourthly, a section of Bangladeshi expatriates have been found guilty in militant activities. Recently, a Singapore court convicted four Bangladeshi workers, detained in Singapore under the Internal Security Act (ISA), of financing terrorism. They were planning attacks in Bangladesh in hopes of toppling the government. Many like them are active in West Asia and other Islamic countries. The support from such groups and inspiration from the IS and Al-Qaida may have encouraged the militants to carry out the attack on 1 July 2016. Finally, the execution of the perpetrators of the 1971 war crimes in Bangladesh has created a situation where one group has turned violently against the other.

On the second question, the allegation that there was an IS or AQ role in carrying out the attack in Dhaka is nothing but an effective means for the government to run away from its responsibilities. The attack had been carried out by the home grown militants who nevertheless may have be inspired and encouraged by and have expressed their allegiance towards the globally notorious IS and AQ. At present historical reasons and political alienation have certainly made a group of people in society angry against the government. Their sentiments are being exploited by the militants to carry out their nefarious acts.

To conclude, in a polarized Bangladesh the government and civil society have to act in unison to de-radicalise individuals and groups. This process begins with addressing their issues instead of suppressing their voices.

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