The Pulse | Security | South Asia

What Does COVID-19 Mean for Terrorism in Bangladesh? 

How the pandemic intersects with challenges of Islamist radicalization for Bangladesh.

By Shafi Md Mostofa for
What Does COVID-19 Mean for Terrorism in Bangladesh? 

A Dec. 29, 2018 file photo of Bangladesh police’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a security force focused on combating extremist groups, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath, File

Islamist militancy is not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh; rather it dates back to the early 1980s. Islamist militancy in Bangladesh, based on its evolution process and the range of activities involved, can be divided into six phases. The first phase, the incubation period, covers the period from the late 1970s to 1986, where there were no attacks and public activity. The second phase, the formation period, starts with the formation of the Muslim Millat Bahini in 1986 and ends in 2001 with the introduction of Hizb-ut Tahrir (HT) to Bangladesh. During this formation period, many Islamist extremist groups including HT, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HUJIB) came into existence in Bangladesh. The third phase, the operational phase, started in 2001 with the bombing of a Communist Party of Bangladesh rally and ends in 2007 with the execution of JMB and JMJB leaders. This phase witnessed the killing of 156 people — cultural activists, renowned poets, judges, and secular voices. The fourth phase (2007-2013) is called a “silent phase” because it was a quiet period in terms of militant activity. The “silent phase” was followed by a “violent phase,” which began with the killing of blogger Rajib Haider in 2013 and continued up to a 2017 suicide bombing in Sylhet. The 2018-onward phase is definitely a dormant phase, which is usually used for recruitment and fund-raising

This is where there is a question mark: How efficiently and successfully are Bangladesh’s security forces combating or tackling the militant issue? It is evident that so far the security forces are relying mostly on kinetic responses to the issue. However, military responses can only be a short-term strategy, because this cannot entirely rule out the root of extremism, which is based on an uncompromising radical ideology.

What have we seen so far in Bangladesh? When the Islamic State (IS) Caliphate was declared in 2014, the IS-affiliated group Neo-JMB started gaining momentum in Bangladesh. IS recruited from the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar Al Islam (AAI), JMB, and also from other existing extremist groups. This resulted in the growth of Neo-JMB, which finally staged the barbaric Holey Artisan café attack in July 2016. Today, IS is suffocating after losing its ideological basis — having a physical “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria. In Bangladesh, the IS-affiliated Neo-JMB has also suffered a serious drawback owing to a military crackdown Nearly 70 Neo-JMB members have been killed in around 30 operations.

On the other hand, the al-Qaeda affiliate AAI and JMB did not lose a large number of their members in operations, nor did they lose their ideological bases. JMB, however, has been suffering a leadership crisis since its leader Sheikh Abdrur Rahman and Bangla Bhai were arrested in 2005. Although leadership was conferred to Maulana Saidur Rahman, he has also been in jail since 2010. Other leadership did not get much attention, although JMB’s ambition of becoming a transnational organization is evident from its inauguration of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen India in 2017.

Surprisingly, AAI has remained comparatively unaffected since security forces started their anti-extremist operation in 2016. AAI’s spiritual leader Rahmani and some members were sentenced to imprisonment, but its military commander Major Zia, its spokesperson Abdullah Ashraf, and Muhammad Miqdadd are still unidentified. Despite the recent series of operations aimed at disrupting their networks, AAI’s continued online propaganda efforts have negative implications for peace and security in Bangladesh. They remain active online, as evident from their online statements, and publications of the group’s Bengali Journal Al Balagh.

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If we ask what the next big threat in Bangladesh extremism will be, then AAI can be the possible answer. This group has not lost its ideological base, unlike IS; rather their ideological points have been reinforced due to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the anti-Muslim citizenship law in India, and the fall of Neo-JMB in Bangladesh. AQIS has long been provoking the so-called Gazwatul Hind and other apocalyptic ambitions for Muslims.

Worryingly, AAI is still active online. Bangladesh has nearly 90 million internet subscribers. A 2017 survey conducted by the Bangladeshi police with 250 extremists revealed that 82 percent of them were originally inspired by social media propaganda and 80 percent of them used Thrima, WeChat, Messenger, as well as other social media apps to communicate.

Another reason for concern is that Bangladesh’s security forces have shifted their focus from jihadist militants to cracking down on drug trafficking networks, and now to countering COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic might contribute to the growth of radicalization in a number of ways in Bangladesh. First, both radicalizers and their audience now have enormous time to spend online, and have entered the cyber world with full capacity. This will definitely allow extremist groups to reach people. Second, this pandemic might cause frustration to some youths, as it is true with any crisis in life. These frustrated youths might easily fall prey to extremist narratives. Finally, this pandemic might enhance the doomsday narratives provoked by extremist groups, while some traditional scholars have already made references to this point. IS and al-Qaeda’s propaganda about COVID-19 is opportunistic and they have been changing their narratives as the pandemic evolves. They have so far termed COVID-19 as a “soldier of God.” Several news outlets have already reported that racist and extremist organizations around the world have ramped up recruitment efforts, encouraged attacks, and advanced hate-filled conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

In short, AAI, taking advantage of the leadership crisis within JMB and ideological frustration of IS, may come forward with a greater push on its agenda of Muslim India. Against this backdrop of militant challenge, Bangladesh government needs to have a clear strategy toward Islamist militancy. An ad hoc, reactive policy will not be helpful. This policy needs to address cybersecurity issues, keep continuous eyes on the cyber world, counter the extremists’ meta-narratives, create opportunities for youths, and adopt gender-specific deradicalization programs. Traditional Islamic scholars can be used to counter the extremists’ narratives.

Shafi Md Mostofa is an Assistant Professor of World Religions, Culture, and Politics (with special interests in Political Islam in Bangladesh) at Dhaka University’s Faculty of Arts. He is about to complete his Doctor of Philosophy from the Social and Philosophical Inquiry (SPI) Programme, University of New England, New South Wales, Australia.