Escalating Jihadist Terror in Bangladesh – What Next?

7 Juli 2016; by Siegfried O. Wolf

After witnessing two dramatic terrorist attacks within one week, many people in Bangladesh are asking what happens next? Is the situation getting worse? Or will the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) be able to contain or even eradicate the threat of terrorism? Is terrorism homegrown or imported from outside by international Jihadist organisations? Even if the GoB has been criticized a lot for apparent inaction, last month it gave a major response, when Bangladesh’s security forces carried out a nationwide crackdown on radical Islamists in the country. The main part of the campaign ran over several days and included interventions by thousands of police and paramilitary personal, that led to the arrest of more than 11,300 people. It was regarded as important step in the right direction, besides different kind of critics, such as saying that only a few people arrested could be identified as militant Islamists. However, after Gulshan attack on July 1 and 2 and the Kishoreganj bombing on July 7, doubts are rising regarding the efficacy of the counter-terrorist campaign of the GoB. It is argued here, that both events were not only traumatic but also clear indications not only for the existence but also of the rise of international Jihadism in Bangladesh.

The terrorist attack in Dhaka’s international and diplomatic enclave Gulshan at the beginning of this month, which left at least 21 victims of different nationalities dead, was followed within less than a week by a bomb attack during the largest Eid congregation (Eid-ul-Fitr the greatest festival of the Muslims) at Sholakia ground at Kishoreganj, killing at least four people and leaving several people injured. Once again, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, at least directly for the attack in Gulshan. Regarding the Kishoreganj bombing, there are severe indications that it got inspired by IS since it seems to be in close relation with an IS propaganda video just released two days before. Nevertheless, the government officials are following the old rhetoric of continuing to deny the presence of foreign militant groups on the country’s soil. But many observers are starting to demand a more concrete, and even a complete new approach in fighting terrorism to protect the people living in the country. Of course, it will take time to give answers to all the questions, nevertheless taken both terror incidents into account we can make some observations.

Firstly, there is no specific ‘Bangladesh way’ regarding the strategies and methods of the terrorist attacks. After a series of killings from secular writers and thinkers in the country, some analysts identified a certain level of ‘exceptionalism’ in terrorist attacks in Bangladesh: instead of large scale assaults in order to create maximum fear and threat perception (especially by the use of suicide terrorists), one can find a strategic selection and termination of people which are identified as ‘anti-Islamic’. This way of ‘silencing any opposition’ towards Islamic extremist way of organising state and society got portrayed as the ‘new face of terrorism’ in Bangladesh. Obviously, such rationale helps also to support the rhetoric of the GoB that the current ways of Jihadist attacks are carried out by domestic groups and are not conducted by international terror organisation like IS or Al Qaeda. Having this mind, the two latest attacks must be seen in the same line of world-wide attacks which are either directly organised or inspired by international terror groups. Consequently, the GoB should finally recognize that the international Jihadi movement arrived in Bangladesh.

Secondly, the GoB is still not prepared to react in time: Operation Thunderbolt which led finally to an end the carnage which was initiated only 10 hours after the beginning of the attack. The reasons for this late (but successful) reaction, might be complex and manifold: long-decision making processes by the responsible authorities, lack in civil-military coordination, insufficient logistics and military equipment are definitely some of them.

In sum, what can the GoB do to avoid such attacks in future? Actually, there is no certain measure, or strategy with specific set of actions that could represent the ‘best solution’ in tackling the terrorist threat in any country. However, one crucial element is clear: to combat the Jihadist challenge the GoB must apply a complex and coherent strategy, which includes tough military options (like the latest crackdown on Islamists), as well as a substantial political approach against all kinds of Islamist radicalization and influence in the country. The pre-requisites are that the GoB finally accepts that the country has to face the threat of international Jihadism too and overcomes domestic political rivalries to find a national consensus. Additionally, it should start initiatives to protect the country’s minorities and other vulnerable groups (like LGBT). In this context, the GoB must take a stronger stand to promote Bangladesh Civil Society Organisations in order to strengthen secular and tolerant forces. Furthermore, Bangladesh needs substantial reforms in the educational sector (especially to reduce the leverage of the madrasas) and measures to improve the social and economic conditions of the people. Last but not least, the GoB has to join hands with the international community on the basis of commonly accepted standards human rights, transparency and accountability, to combat international terrorism.

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