Recent attacks against foreign nationals and secular bloggers have brought unprecedented attention to terrorism in Bangladesh. Yet while most of this recent surge of attention has been focused on the presence of ISIS (also known as Islamic State), with some, for example, debating the extent of ISIS’ ability to recruit foreign fighters and carry out attacks in Bangladesh, less attention has been paid to understanding the historical and political origins of homegrown militancy in the country. Historical tensions over conceptions of Bangladeshi nationalism, as well as more recent political violence that is rooted in these tensions, has generated homegrown radical movements that in turn have played an important role in building fertile ground for foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS that are looking to build a base of support in Bangladesh. Policymakers who seek to combat ISIS’ growing influence in Bangladesh must therefore be aware of the roots of these homegrown militant movements.
These radical organizations, including the banned Ansarullah Bangla Team, have claimed responsibility for some of the recent attacks against moderate bloggers, foreign nationals, and religious minorities–and therefore pose a threat not just to Bangladeshis, but also to regional security. Although recent political polarization is certainly partially to blame for this violence, tensions between those with a left-leaning, secular conception of nationalism and those with a more religious, fundamentalist vision stretch back several decades, with roots in the 1971 Liberation War. As just the latest chapter in these debates over the role of religion in the state and society, these attacks against moderate bloggers could have a worrisome numbing effect on moderate political voices, therefore building fertile ground for ISIS recruitment.
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Between March 1986 and December 2014, there were 1,049 terrorist attacks in Bangladesh, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD). Such violence tends to peak during election years, such as during the 2014 elections, when the opposition party BNP boycotted the polls, organizing violent strikes in Dhaka known as hartals. Yet of those attacks, only a handful have been claimed by internationally affiliated organizations like ISIS, and even fewer have been perpetrated against foreigners—the vast majority of this violence has targeted Bangladeshis themselves.
This violence is intimately linked to the country’s contentious national politics. In the bloody Liberation War of 1971, “Freedom Fighters” with a secular vision for Bangladeshi nationalism and the Bangla language movement fought for the right to secede from Pakistan. They fought against radical Islamist militias that were allied with the Pakistani military. The atrocities committed during this conflict are seared on Bangladesh’s national consciousness and continue to fuel tensions in the debate over the role of religion in the state. These opposing nationalist visions live on in Bangladeshi politics, with the current ruling party, the Awami League, often seen as the flag bearer for the secular nationalist view, while the BNP and its allies, Jamaat-e-Islami, tend to forward a more conservative, religiously-infused political position.
The tensions between these two parties is heightened by accusations of corruption on either side—accusations that often ring true in a country that is continually ranked one of the most corrupt in the world by international organizations like Transparency International. Tensions have ratcheted up further since 2014, when the Awami League party won an election that the BNP refused to participate in, and subsequently formed the International Crimes Tribunal (known as the ICT) to try the leaders of the 1971 militias—individuals who now happen to be senior leaders in Jamaat and the BNP, the Awami League’s bitter rivals. The ICT has sentenced several of these leaders to death or life in prison, leading to violent protests by BNP and Jamaat-backed forces, as well as protests by secular-leaning groups that see some life sentences as not going far enough. The execution of two senior leaders in November raised security concerns, and the government preemptively deployed policy and paramilitary troops in Dhaka to contain protests, although the violence was fairly minimal compared to past protests. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised concerns about “serious flaws” during the ICT trials and appeals process, and have called for an immediate halt in executions of those convicted of war crimes by the ICT.
By polarizing the political space and increasing the prevalence of political violence, these tensions provide fertile ground for foreign terrorist groups like ISIS to recruit. One concerning trend of late has been the series of attacks against secular bloggers (the so-called “atheist bloggers”), publishers, and other moderate political voices, including religious minorities.
The first of the recent attacks occurred in February 2015, when the well-known blogger Avijit Roy, an American citizen, was stabbed to death by machete-wielding assailants in Dhaka. Since then, almost every month seems to bring news of another attack. Several bloggers who write for secular and humanist platforms, including Oyasiqur Rhaman, Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niloy Neel, have been hacked to death, with the Islamist extremist group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) claiming responsibility for many of them. On October 31, publishers of secular and atheist texts at several publishing houses were attacked.
Attacks against religious minorities have also been on the uptick. Members of the outlawed terrorist organization Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh were recently arrested and charged in the murder of a Hindu priest. Taken together with a recent attack against a Shia mosque, as well as a series of recent threats sent to Christian priests, suggest efforts to further polarize the Bangladeshi public, since religious minorities are often associated with the Awami League party and their secular policies. They also raise the specter of large-scale communal violence against religious minorities, which unfortunately has all too often plagued Bangladesh’s politics. Most notably, in 2012 an estimated 25,000 people participated in violence against the small Buddhist community in Ramu upazila, destroying Buddhist monasteries and shrines as well as houses. As AMM Muniruzzaman, President of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies recently noted, “attacks on Shia and threats against Christians are evidence of efforts to create a sectarian, religious divide in Bangladesh.”
In order to curb the influence of organizations like ISIS in Bangladesh, policymakers should focus on preventing the politically motivated violence perpetrated by these outlawed groups. However, in addition to providing increased protection for atheist bloggers and minority religious groups, the Awami-led government of Bangladesh needs to be pushed to compromise on political issues that have historically set off violent protests and contributed to the polarization of the political space. Specifically, the international community should pressure and provide support to the government in holding free and fair elections that are contested by all parties.
The international community should also put pressure on the government to halt the ICT trials and executions, eliminate the death penalty, and ideally redesign the reconciliation process to operate in a less partisan way. As Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Brian Adams, has noted, “Justice and accountability for the terrible crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence are crucial, but trials need to meet international fair trial standards. Unfair trials can’t provide real justice, especially when the death penalty is imposed.”
While these are important correctives, the sad reality is that given the current intransigence of the Bangladesh government, the international community will be hard-pressed to get Dhaka to comply. Nevertheless, because of the sizable amount of aid that Bangladesh receives from the United States, European countries, and international organizations, the West has significant untapped leverage that could be used to push the government in the right direction.
Finally, the international community can invest in inter-faith peacebuilding measures to prevent violence against religious minorities and build social cohesion. By taking these measures to counter homegrown radical organizations, policymakers can begin to curb the violence and political polarization that provides fertile recruiting ground for organizations like ISIS.
Alexandra Stark is pursuing a PhD in International Relations at Georgetown University, and is a Research Assistant for the World Faiths Development Dialogue in Washington, D.C. She holds an MSc from the London School of Economics.