Recently, Bangladesh has witnessed an uptick in the participation of female jihadists in multiple roles as the country’s militant landscape continues to evolve. Since the Islamic State-directed Holey Artisan Bakery attack in July 2016, Bangladeshi militant groups have become more assertive and violent, with a transnational outlook. Arguably, this marks a new and a more dangerous phase of ISIS-inspired Islamist militancy in Bangladesh, and women are increasingly playing a role.
On March 16, during a police raid, Bangladesh police arrested a female suicide bomber in the port city of Chittagong. Police discovered the existence of the militant hideout from the confessional statements of a militant couple who were arrested a day earlier.
Bangladesh had witnessed its first female suicide bombing during a police raid at a militant hideout in Dhaka last December. According to Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) Bangladesh, the suicide bomber had blown herself up while pretending to surrender to police when their safe house was besieged. The bomber, Shakira, was the wife of a Bangladeshi militant operative, Rashedur Rahman Sumon, belonging to the pro-ISIS Neo-Jamiaul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).
Coupled with the maiden female suicide attack, a number of female jihadists, mostly belonging to Neo-JMB, have also been arrested from Dhaka, Sirajgonj Tangail, and Chittagong districts.
The Bangladeshi authorities discovered first female unit in Neo-JMB on July 21, 2016, after the detention of a Neo-JMB commander for the southern region, Mahmudul Hassan Tanvir. Tanvir was arrested in connection with the Holey Artisan Bakery attack. Following his arrest, on July 24, police and counterterrorism officials in Bangladesh detained four female operatives of the terror group from Masumpur, a town on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s Rajshahi division. They were undergoing militant training to carry out attacks in Bangladesh. The police also recovered crude bombs, explosive materials, and extremist literature from their possession.
Similarly, on August 16, four more female jihadists were apprehended from Dhaka. Three were students of Manarat International University (MIU) and one was a trainee doctor at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Likewise, seven female militants were held in September, some of whom were waiting for directives from the Neo-JMB high command to take part in fedayeen or suicide attacks.
According to investigators, the top leadership of the Neo-JMB aims to recruit more females to manage its organizational activities. Given the rapid rise of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in Bangladesh, the discovery of female jihadists is a significant development. The trend indicates deliberate efforts by the violent-extremist organizations to engage young women and girls as potential recruits.
Contrary to popular perceptions, terrorism in Bangladesh is no longer limited to the males. Women’s roles in jihadism in Bangladesh have evolved from being wives of jihadists and raising their future generations to more prominent roles. For instance, they are increasingly participating in combat activities and facilitating the transmission of operational details. They are also leveraging social media to radicalize, mentor, and recruit other would-be female jihadists.
This shift mirrors trends concerning the growing popularity of ISIS vis-à-vis al-Qaeda in Bangladesh. Al-Qaeda confines the role women can play in jihadism. In one communiqué, current al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s wife forbade women from participating in combat operations. She defined them as caretakers of the families, responsible for raising the future generations of mujahideen. On the contrary, ISIS outwardly encourages and recruits women to take up arms against its enemies.
Neo-JMB is one of the few jihadist groups in South Asia that recruits women and trains the wives of its male members for combat activities, including suicide missions. Generally, most of the female militants are family members of male operatives. However, the Neo-JMB also recruits beyond their members’ families; such women are then married off to a fighter. The female Neo-JMB militants use social media outlets such as Facebook and encoded social media applications like Threema and Telegram for communication.
It is essential to point out that participation of females in militancy as combatants is not new to South Asia. Apart from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan have witnessed female militants in combatant roles during the civil war in Sri Lanka, the insurgency in Indian Kashmir, and the attacks in various parts of Pakistan.
Arguably, female jihadists offer operational advantages such as their ability to get closer to targets without being suspected. Women are usually considered as soft and physically weak and are subjected to relaxed security checks as security forces are generally dominated by males who cannot always conduct rigorous physical checks on females. Furthermore, as they do not conform to any profile that would trigger law enforcement alarms, their radicalization is less noticed by people in their social surroundings. At the strategic level, female attackers gain more publicity and media attention as they generate greater psychological impact on the adversary or the target audience.
The involvement of women as combatants can have grave implications for Bangladesh’s internal security, inter-faith harmony, and moderate sociopolitical fabric. As most women in societies like Bangladesh depend on informal sources and traditional institutions like madrasas for religious knowledge, government should engage Islamic scholars to counter the narratives employed by the jihadists to recruit women as suicide bombers. Additionally, more female officers should be involved in law enforcement and counterterrorism measures to effectively deal with gender sensitivities.
Nazneen Mohsina is a research analyst with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) program and a Graduate Student of International Relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.