Syed Munir Khasru, Chairman, IPAG
Abdullah Ar Rafee, Sr. Research Associate, IPAG
On July 1, 2016, Bangladesh was rocked to the core as a group of young militants stormed Holey Artisan Bakery, a posh café in a highly secured diplomatic zone in Dhaka, killing 20 hostages – 17 of whom were of foreign nationals. A week later, another attack in Sholakia, which was hosting the largest Eid prayer of the country, killed 3 more people, including 2 police officers. ISIS had finally announced its arrival in the country through its local wing “Neo-JMB”. Law enforcers were subsequently up to their neck trying to curb the revival of violent extremism which had been successfully subdued during the late 2000’s. Since the attack, in over 15 major anti-militancy operations, Bangladesh law enforcement thwarted multiple planned attacks around the country, killing over 35 militants, and jailing at least 2,000 more, which included the heads of the terror outfit in the country. For over two years now, there has not been any major terrorist attack made possible through a well-orchestrated counter terrorism strategy that not only involved police operations, but also the stifling of financial & logistical sources of terrorists, establishing rehabilitation centers, running an effectgive public awareness campaigns etc.
The Bangladeshi Culture of Moderate Islamism
One of the key reasons for such a rapid turnaround has been the moderately Islamic culture that the country fosters compared to its relatively more extreme neighbors such as Pakistan or Afghanistan. Despite being the 3rd largest Muslim majority country with almost 90% of the total population being Muslim, Bangladesh has seen social and cultural movements over the years atypical of more secular nations. The Bengali people rallied together to win the liberation war in 1971 on the principle of Bengali nationalism as they sought to get out of bondage with then Pakistani Government based solely on common religion Islam. Since 1991, the country has been led by women leaders, a milestone of equality unseen even in some of the most developed nations. The ethos of diversity and tolerance have for long been imbibed into the Bengali character as evinced from the multifarious festivals throughout the year which do not differentiate between faith, race, creed. During the anti-militant drives of 2016 and 2017, many families of the dead militants refused to take back the bodies – showing how religious extremism is not inherent in the culture, and rather externally induced.
A Multi-Stakeholder Approach
The recent IS-backed militancy has been something Bangladesh has never faced earlier, particularly the novel nature of targeting young educated adults from affluent backgrounds and inspiring them to conduct suicide missions. However, a multi-pronged strategy, led by the government has been key in fighting this global phenomenon. While the law enforcement agencies performed anti-militancy drives in the field, the government took legislative action through revisions to The Money Laundering Prevention Act (2012) and overhaul of some of the largest banks in the country through which terror financing was channeled. Stringent monitoring of some of the suspect NGOs has also been key towards stifling the flow of funds.
The government leveraged the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) to create a Community Support Mechanism that has worked well on root-level initiatives on social engagement, rehabilitation and counselling of potential and ex-militants. A key conduit to spread the positive message have been the Imams in mosques and madrasas who, through their sermons, used scripture-based messages to enlighten the community about Islam’s true take on extremist ideologies. Community policing has been a successful measure as law enforcement agencies increased their vigilance. For example, in universities students who have been absent for prolonged periods and potentially exposed to radical doctrines have been identified. Another awareness campaign, the “Know Your Kid” approach, encouraged families to engage more with their children, something uncharacteristic in a large power distance Bangladeshi society. The campaign was successful by discouraging young minds from being persuaded by extremists, and instead confiding in their parents to know the truth about religion.
Locals rise to the occasion
Keeping true to its culture, the Bangladeshi people, particularly local youth communities, have enthusiastically responded by taking the onus on their own shoulders through multiple community initiatives. Cultural programs, such as Puppet shows & Jatras (short stage plays), which are popular in rural communities have been a medium to spread the positive message. In other places, private NGOs have come forward to create radio programs that gather religious leaders, focus on topics of religious plurality and promote extracurricular activities in the rural areas. An initiative under the banner of Tech for Peace incubated development of various kinds mobile apps targeting CVE by focusing on pertinent issues such as mental health, which often go unattended in this part of the world. As seen clearly, medium of communication and the delivery of speech have been instrumental towards the success of this multi-stakeholder approach and a key component of this strategy has been avoiding labels such as “counter-terrorism” or “radical” which can act as deterrent towards reaching out to vulnerable minds.
The Way Forward
Being the world’s 3rd largest Muslim populated country, Bangladesh has had its share of extremist incidents,. If anything, the consequent actions have proven that extremists cannot simply run away conducting such crimes, and it is not just the law enforcement agencies, but also the people that whose commitment to anti radical agenda that have been the key differentiating factor when compared to other Muslim majority countries in the neighborhood and Asia. Bangladesh has not faced any major terrorist attacks since July 2016 and if there is anything to learn from history, there is no room for complacency. The government needs to actively maintain and scale up the momentum of this holistic multi-stakeholder approach by developing a long-term strategy to ensure that roots of radicalization and terrorism are weeded out. For the global community, Bangladesh stands out as a positive example of how community building initiatives and cultivation of open communication and culture can help tackle extreme radicalization even in one of the most densely populated Muslim regions in the world.
Syed Munir Khasru is the Chairman of the international think tank The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG).
Abdullah Ar Rafee is A Senior Research Associate of the international think tank The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG).