Countering extremism in Bangladesh
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Since 2015, terrorism and violent extremism have been the most significant challenges facing Bangladesh. Almost a year has elapsed since the terrorist attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka but its reverberations are felt to this day. The attack on the bakery resulted in the gruesome death of 29 people, including nationals from India, Italy and Japan. As the first anniversary of that attack approaches, it is important to take stock of the current situation vis-à-vis terrorism and violent extremism in Bangladesh.
A lot of ink has been used to dissect individual incidents, the tactics and strategy behind attacks. However, one year after what was arguably the most gruesome attack faced by Bangladesh in its history, it is important to look at the way forward. For any state engaged in efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism, arresting the radicalization process is perhaps the most nettlesome and complicated challenge. Operational measures are easy to carry out but countering radicalization is a long-term process.
It is important to acknowledge the ferocity of the challenge faced by Bangladesh since 2015. Within a short span of time, Bangladesh was faced with a large number of attacks. One could argue that it took the state over a year to fully grapple with the re-emergence of the challenge and, logically, most of the concentration was on operational measures. The time has come to devote more energy and effort towards addressing the issue of radicalization as a whole.
A significant amount of radicalization now takes place in what can be termed as the “online-offline combine”. A combination of targeted messaging in the virtual world followed by recruitment through interaction in the real world takes many impressionable youths towards the path of terrorism. Countering online radicalization, therefore, needs an approach where the factors specific to Bangladesh need to identified. It is critical to probe how the recruiters manage to trap people into the path of violence and destruction and, in some cases, indoctrinate them to flee to faraway lands to participate in jihad.
Countering cyber radicalization doesn’t mean stringent checks and curtailing access. The smarter option would be to crowd out the messages of terrorists with counter-messages which rebut them in a logical manner and, at the same time, exude a sense of hope and optimism for the youth. In the era of the post-truth world, the authorities also need to be vigilant against the proliferation of “fake news”, which has become a tool of choice for inciting violence and hatred.
While a combination of deterrence and dissuasion continues in the online realm, a proper narrative needs to be crafted in the offline realm. In fighting this ideational battle, states need to be on the offensive and militant groups should be on the defensive. In other words, states should create the narrative and militant groups should be engaged in countering that narrative, and not the other way round. A dispassionate assessment of the situation would be the first step. It is important to recognize the fact that people also get attracted to the path of terrorism and violence for pecuniary, and not only ideological, reasons. In crafting the narrative in the case of Bangladesh, it is important to have a solid partnership between the government and civil society. In the battle of narratives, choosing the appropriate messenger is as important as choosing the message. Strengthening social resilience is also an important tool in countering radicalization. The people of Bangladesh have displayed a remarkable resilience in the aftermath of recent attacks. There is an opportunity to bolster it even further. As Fareed Zakaria said: “The ultimate counter-terrorism tool is social resilience; if we are not terrorized, they do not win.”
The most important step would be to create a counter-radicalization strategy which will dive into all these aspects and look at other areas which need to be addressed, such as the issue of prison radicalization and the spread of radical thought among women. Ensuring effective coordination between the various organs of the state and creating a “whole of government and whole of society approach” is the need of the hour. Creating a holistic architecture to govern all activities of the state towards countering violent extremism is an important prerequisite for achieving success. Such a strategy also needs to underscore the importance of regional and international cooperation. The strategy should also be a document based on national consensus, and one that includes inputs from relevant organizations and entities.
Finally, as Bangladesh approaches the next general election in a year and a half, it will perhaps be the first time that the country heads to the polls against the backdrop of an escalated threat of terrorism. It is crucial to significantly de-escalate the threat to ensure that the elections are held in a peaceful manner. The important strides Bangladesh has made in terms of socio-economic development could also be impeded unless this threat is countered. It is a long and arduous battle ahead but it is a struggle that Bangladesh must win. It is not just a security challenge that Bangladesh is faced with, it is a struggle for the kind of future it will have as a nation state. There is no option but to emerge victorious.
This is part of the Young Asian Writers series, a Mint initiative to bring young voices from different Asian countries to the fore.
Shafqat Munir heads the Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research, a specialized centre at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies.