Militant Islamism has posed a significant challenge to Bangladesh since the 1980s, with various conflicts in the Middle East serving as significant motivating factors.
The Palestinian struggle for an independent state motivated the first generation of militants in Bangladesh, who formed the Muslim Millat Bahini in 1986. The Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1990s inspired the second generation of militants, who formed myriad militant groups in Bangladesh, including the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B). The third generation of militants is deeply influenced by events in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, which fostered the growth of the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated Neo-JMB, and al-Qaida-affiliated Ansar Al Islam in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s first generation of Islamist militants lost their momentum when the radical Bangladesh Army Major Matiur Rahman was arrested in 1986. The second generation of militants lost direction in 2007 when the JMB’s top leaders including Bangla Bhai and Shaikh Abdur Rahman were executed.
Ansar Al Islam (AAI) came into the limelight by killing blogger Rajib Haidar in 2013 and they are also alleged to have killed dozens of secular bloggers, publishers, and writers. When IS declared the global Caliphate on physical territory in Raqqa and Mosul in 2014 and named its Khalifa in Bangladesh in 2015, it emerged the preferred jihadist partner of Bangladeshi Islamist radicals.
The partnership resulted in IS staging a massive attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka in July 2016. This was the first hostage killing in Bangladesh. Most importantly, it happened in the country’s diplomatic area. Twenty nine people, including 17 foreigners and five militants, were killed in the attack.
The Bangladesh government responded robustly to the attack. Security forces carried out a series of operations, which culminated in the killing of nearly 100 militants. It greatly impacted the functionality of the Neo-JMB as 90 percent of the 100 militants arrested were from Neo-JMB. While security operations forced the third generation of militants to lie low, it did not weaken their ideology. Neither did it result in a leadership crisis, especially for the AAI.
Recent media reports have drawn attention to the arrest of nearly 500 Islamist militants over the past year and to the online activity of militant organizations.
In an article published in The Diplomat in 2020, I argued that since 2018, Islamist militancy in Bangladesh had been going through a silent phase, a phase of recruitment and fundraising. The recent arrests of around 500 militants indicate that the Islamist groups have done well in terms of recruitment.
It does seem that surveillance of these militants and their arrest in large numbers by security forces have forced the militant organizations to continue lying low, thereby extending the “silent period.”
However, Bangladeshi Islamists have not been silent online.
Al-Qaida founder Osama Bin Laden understood well the importance of the media in proselytizing youth. In 2002, he stated, “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ratio may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for the battles.”
His then-deputy and now al-Qaida chief Ayman Al Zawahiri said that “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our ummah.” Stressing that “we must get our message across to the masses of the nation and break the media siege imposed on the jihad movement,” he went on to say that “This is an independent battle that we must launch side by side with the military battle.”
Developments in the field of technology have empowered state actors immensely but also, these have facilitated the activity of non-state actors. Terrorist organizations are highly adept at using modern technology to disseminate their ideas and use magazines such as Azan, Rumiyah, Dabiq, Resurgence, and Al Balagh to do so. These magazines address Bangladeshi youth directly. Al-Qaida published Al Balagh in the Bengali language in order to expand their reach among Bangladeshis.
Terrorist organizations also use different social media outlets and encrypted messaging apps to reach Bangladeshi youth. These outlets include Facebook, Telegram, YouTube and ChirpWire.
In 2021, Bangladesh’s counterterrorism unit arrested the country’s first ever female operative, Zobaida Siddiqua Nabila. Police revealed that she used a Facebook page named “Titumir Media” to connect with sympathizers. She also used different encrypted messaging platforms, including Telegram and ChirpWire to contact individuals. She ran 15 channels in her Telegram accounts, and had over 25,000 followers. Her channel used to broadcast extremist content, bomb-making manuals and strategies for attacks.
A 2021 media report says that Bangladeshi militants use multiple media outlets including Telegram, Hoop, Element, the Internet Archive, Bcove.Video, Yandex.Com, the IPFS distributed web platform, File.Fm, Transfer.Sh, Tune.Pk, Vudeo.Net, File.Fm, Fromsmash.Com, Gofile.Io, Tune.Pk, Wetransfer.com, and Mediafire.
They also use YouTube to indoctrinate youth. One such YouTube channel is the Ummah Network, which has nearly a million subscribers and 70 million views. The channel runs in the Bengali language. In general, contents of extremist propaganda focus on vilifying “the western liberal ideals and the democratic government.”
Apart from targeting Western liberal ideas and democratic values, Bangladeshi Islamist groups have also tailored their ideology to some prophetic traditions, which is very specific to South Asian Muslims. This ideology is called the “the Gazwatul Hind,” the ambition of Muslim conquest of India. This is a trademark ideological rallying point for al Qaida.
Bangladesh has over 90 million internet users and most of them are youth. Bangladesh government should put mechanisms in place to bring cyberspace under surveillance to tackle extremism.