South Asia

Should the Bangladeshi Government Be Blamed for the Country’s Current Militant Problem?

Islamic militant groups have re-organised themselves in the context of the new realities of social media, deep political divisions within the country and the demands of global jihadist organisations.

File photo of the funeral of secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in Dhaka, 2015. Credit: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

File photo of the funeral of secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in Dhaka, 2015. Credit: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

Two recent articles have presented alternative perspectives on the causes of Bangladesh’s current spasm of militant violence – involving 11 killings claimed by Ansar al-Islam (considered to be the Bangladesh division of Al Qaeda) and 16 others claimed by Islamic State – in the last 15 months.

Former US ambassador to Bangladesh, William Milam, in an article for The New York Times titled, ‘The real source of terror in Bangladesh,’ argued that it is the Awami League’s governance of the country that is the cause of the violence.

“The recent string of vicious killings in Bangladesh is less a terrorism issue than a governance issue,” he writes. “It is the ruling Awami League’s onslaught against its political opponents, which began in earnest after the last election in January 2014, that has unleashed extremists in Bangladesh.”

In the second article, Ikhtisad Ahmed, however, claimed that such an argument was “fallacious … and effectively serves as an alibi for the crimes of Islamists”.

Instead he argues that “the real fuel for dangerous extremism in Bangladesh” is the “BNP-Jamaat’s decades-old anti-secular ideology and the consequent rise of more vicious and secretive Islamist outfits”.

Where does the truth lie?

Political repression and Islamic militancy

One of the difficulties with Milam’s argument is that Bangladesh’s recent past does not provide much evidence for a relationship between levels of political repression and a rise in Islamic militancy.

During the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islami rule from 2001-2006, generally considered a less politically repressive period than now, the militant organisation Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) flourished.

The growth of militancy was not linked at that time to repression but rather to the initial permissiveness of the government, or at least some members within it, towards extreme Islamic groups.

And in 2007-2009, when there was a state of emergency and political parties were not permitted to function – a period many perceived as more repressive than now – Islamic militancy was dormant. The absence of militancy at this time is perhaps because the emergency period started immediately after the previous BNP-Jammat government had finally arrested the leaders of the JMB in 2006 and the remaining JMB militants were deterred by the military’s control of the government at that time.

However, the lack of a consistent relationship between militancy and governance in the past does not necessarily exclude it as an explanation for the current killings.

Arguably – and this is perhaps Milam’s point – the nature of the political repression, and circumstances in which it has taken place, in the last few years is of a different and particularly dangerous nature.

The current repression of the opposition

The current Awami League government has sought to use the law enforcing authorities to suppress the country’s political opposition, which includes not just the BNP but also the Jammat, the biggest Islamist political party.

In response to political unrest and opposition-instigated violence in 2013 and in 2015, law enforcement authorities have arrested thousands of opposition activists and leaders of both these parties, most of them arbitrarily, and filed unsubstantiated cases against many of them.

In addition, there has been an apparent policy of extra-judicial killing and disappearances directed specifically at activists in the parties, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. The parties have been hollowed out and the remnants are now barely allowed to function.

A parallel development was the government’s banning in 2013 of two pro-Islamic TV stations, Islamic TV and Diganta TV, and the closing of the most popular opposition newspaper, Amar Desh, along with the arrest of its editor.

Whether or not the government is “hell bent on turning Bangladesh into a one-party state,” as Milam states, the country is certainly close to becoming one.

Significantly, this has all taken place at a time when the government established the International Crimes Tribunal, which prosecuted, convicted and handed out death penalties to leaders of the two main opposition parties – in particular the Jamaat – for crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence.

While holding the trials may well have been the right thing to do, there were always attendant risks of some kind of blow-back – particularly when the convictions were inevitably to end in executions.

Such risks were no doubt increased when the trials came to be seen as highly politicised and lacking basic due process – and moreover, were taking place at a time when the government was also arbitrarily arresting, killing and disappearing Jamaat party activists and seeking the banning of the organisation itself.

Repression to militancy?

While it is easy to see how such an “Awami League onslaught against its political opponents,” in Milam’s words, could in principle be linked to ongoing militancy, it is perhaps less straightforward to identify the mechanics of how this would happen in practice, as well as supportive evidence.

Milam is vague on this. He says that the Awami League’s actions have “allowed violent radicals of all stripes to let loose” and that the near monopolistic use of law enforcement resources on constraining the political opposition reduce “the resources that can be devoted to preventing terrorism and crime’ and that the ‘atmosphere of impunity … emboldens extremists”.

The most direct way for this kind of political repression to act as a direct cause of militancy would be if the main opposition parties themselves were responsible for it.

Though this seems to be the police view as well as that of the prime minister, there is no evidence to support the contention that the BNP or Jamaat, or their leaders, are instigating or supporting Islamic militancy of this kind.

A more plausible linkage would be if certain outlying radical elements within these parties, or those victimised by the law enforcing agencies – part of what Milam perhaps refers to as “violent radicals of all stripes” – decide that the most effective response to state repression is to join hands with Islamic militants. Indeed Islamic State, whilst criticising Jamaat, has claimed that some party followers have ‘joined the ranks of the Khilāfah’s soldiers in Bengal.

There are, though, reasons to be sceptical that this is happening.

There are two distinct lines of militant attack taking place in Bangladesh since 2015. Hacking attacks, upon people deemed to be promoting atheism and LGBT activities, for which Ansar al-Islam (once known as Ansarullah Bangla Team) have claimed responsibility.

There have also been a different set of attacks against foreigners, Hindus, Baul music supporters, converted Christians and Shi’ite festivities, which have been claimed by the Islamic State.

None of those attacks include any obvious political targets.

The people killed, injured or attacked are not pro-government activists, Awami League local government activists or linked to the Awami League. Only on one occasion has a police officer been killed and that murder appears not to have been planned.

The vast majority of people killed are ‘political/religious’ targets – that is to say people murdered because of their critical views on religion, or because their lifestyle or life choices are seen as inconsistent with a particular fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

These are not the kind of attacks that you would expect as a response to Awami League’s repressive activities. They seem much more likely to be the product of individuals with very different political motives.

Indeed, the two men who were detained at the scene of the murder of the blogger Washiqur Rahman – the only two men now in the custody of police that we can be sure did take part in any of these attacks – were madrasa students with no link to the opposition political parties.

There are however two other, perhaps more likely ways, in which the political repression could be linked to militancy.

First, as mentioned by Milam himself, the relentless focus of law enforcement authorities on the political opposition in the last three years may have provided an opportunity for the existing militant organisations to re-group – perhaps with the assistance of the global jihadist organisations – with little obstruction from the state. “Emboldened by impunity,” as Milam puts it.

Secondly, the repression of the political opposition may have created a ‘permissive’ environment in certain pockets of the country that has helped the militants; that is to say those linked to the opposition may be less willing to assist the police in identifying the culprits and more willing to turn a blind eye to militant activity.

Beyond political repression

It is however important to also look beyond political repression in seeking to find the causes of the recent outbreak of violence.

Ikhtisad is right to focus in his article on the role of an influential post 1975 Jamaat and, more recently that of Hefazet-e-Islam, an organisation formed from Madrasa educated students. And Milam notes the significance of the influence of ‘Wahhabism’ brought to Bangladesh from workers returning from Saudia Arabia.

However, these are explanations for an increasing Islamic conservatism or fundamentalism in certain parts of Bangladesh that provides an environment where militant ideas might grow and take root. They do not help explain the timing of the current militancy.

Ikhtisad’s seeks to to blame the Jamaat for the current militancy.

His link between the killing of intellectuals during the country’s 1971 war, said to be carried out by the Jamaat’s student wing, and the current spate of murders, 45 years later, seems quite a stretch. Apart from the fact that the killings happened during a war, and with the assistance of the Pakistan military, the intellectuals killed in 1971 were murdered because of their support for an independent Bangladesh, not because of their views on religion.

More significantly, his article suggests that the atheist blogger attacks started as a response to the February 2013 mass Shahbagh protests, which demanded the execution of those convicted at the International Crimes Tribunal (principally meaning Jamaat leaders).

However, the timeline does not support such an interpretation.

The attacks against bloggers started two weeks before the Shahbagh protest, with the near fatal attack against Asif Mohiuddin. And whilst Rajib Haider was killed during the Shahbagh attacks, it is most likely that the planning for the murder started weeks earlier.

Moreover, significantly in all the statements published by the Ansar al-Islam and the Islamic State, there has been no comments made on the ‘injustice’ of the International Crimes Tribunal – suggesting that the tribunal itself is not a motivator for these groups.

However, it is quite possible that the widely popular Shahbagh movement itself, a secular protest that was branded by its opponents as antagonistic to Islam and ‘led by atheist bloggers,’ helped incentivise the Ansar al-Islam stream of Islamic militancy. It should though be kept in mind that the recent stream of Ansar al-Islam-claimed blogger killings only started in February 2015 – two years after the Shahbagh protests.

So where does that all lead us.

It seems unlikely that there is any direct link between the spate of militancy and either the Awami League’s political repression on the one hand or the International Crimes Tribunal on the other.

Perhaps a more mundane explanation – referred to above – for what is going on is the most accurate.

Islamic extremism has existed for some time in Bangladesh.

An indirect effect of the state’s concentration on destroying the opposition parties was the law enforcement’s loss of focus on dealing with militant groups that had not been completely extinguished when the BNP arrested JMB’s leaders in 2006.

In addition, the widely popular Shahbagh movement, representing the demands of a pro-active secular Bangladesh, may have been seen by the militants as a direct attack on their ideals, which required a response.

Due to this loss of state focus and the creation of a perceived new secular threat, these groups have been able to re-organise and also to reframe themselves in the context of the new realities of social media, deep political divisions within Bangladesh and the demands of global jihadist organisations.

David Bergman is an investigative  journalist based in Bangladesh. He also runs the Bangladesh Politico and Bangladesh War Crimes blogs, and tweets @davidbangladesh.