Last July's assault on a Dhaka cafe was a wake-up call for Bangladeshi society. A national soul-searching has hastened to tackle the roots of this violence.
The private school in Dhaka saw itself as a million miles away from the domain of extremist violence. Bangladesh's elite largely regarded this phenomenon as confined to the country's rural, poor, and madrassa-educated population. When several students disappeared without a trace, few believed the boys had been ensnared by the destructive jihadi ideology of ISIS.
But these young men would go on to carry out the most lethal terror attack in the young country's history. The assault on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, the capital, last July was a wake-up call for Bangladeshi society, from government to parents. While the cafe has now reopened, the scars run deep. A national soul-searching has hastened to tackle the roots of this violence.
Bangladesh is alternately heralded as a beacon of tolerance and secularism in the Muslim-majority world or a hotbed of Islamist militancy. The country is renowned for the openness and moderation of its indigenous Sufi-inclined religious practice. But a sharp rise in extremist violence over the past three years has taken place amid urgent questions around the role of religion in a country that enshrines secularism in its constitution. Meanwhile growing political polarisation, governance issues, and a gulf between ruling elites and a rapidly developing populace, complicate a coherent response to extremism. There are also international aspects of the phenomenon that need to be better understood, in particular the influence of ideologies, networks, and funding from overseas.
This report examines the nature of the challenge Bangladesh faces, as well as drawing wider lessons for the international community from the country's experience.*
On the 27th of Ramadan 1437, the Soldiers of the Khilafah in Bengal decided to send an inghimassi team of five shahadah [martyr] knights to the Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan, Dhaka, in order to give the Crusaders a taste of their own medicine.
ISIS magazine Rumiyah
The Dhaka cafe assault saw 24 people killed during an 11-hour siege in the affluent diplomatic district of Bangladesh's capital. Nine Italians, seven Japanese, and six Bangladeshi nationals, including two police officers, were among the dead. It was the worst attack in the country's history, and came just weeks after then-ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani urged Muslims to commit acts of violence during the holy month of Ramadan.
The words above were those of Tamim Chowdhury, the now deceased Canadian-Bangladeshi militant commander who claimed the title 'Head of Military and Covert Operations of the Soldiers of the Khilafah in Bengal.' The biochemistry major from Windsor, Ontario, strikes a strange figure as the 'emir' of ISIS in Bangladesh, and the unconventional circumstances of his radicalisation certainly demand further research. Chowdhury, the chief architect of the Dhaka attack, justified the cold-blooded slaughter of the "so-called 'innocent civilians'" because of their culpability for their countries' attacks on Muslims. They had elected their leaders, he argued, and their taxes were funding the bombs raining down on Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The attackers purportedly asked victims to cite a verse of the Quran, though this did not stop Muslims being among the dead. Chowdhury claimed that the attack was "just a glimpse" of what was to come. His eulogies to the attackers were published in ISIS' Rumiyah magazine, one month after he died in a police raid on his Dhaka safe house at the end of August 2016.
Bangladesh has seen its share of extremist violence, but this incident was unique, and game-changing. The attack, repeatedly referred to by people I spoke with as 'Bangladesh's 9/11' in terms of its jarring effect on society, prompted introspection, revulsion, and reaction, and the attacks were unequivocally and widely condemned. The perpetrators' bodies were rejected by their families, with the father of one of the boys declaring, "That's not my son."
The attack shocked the nation for a number of reasons. Its location, the heart of the diplomatic district; the fact that it had the highest death toll of any terrorist atrocity in the country's modern history; and its demographic – international victims, and educated perpetrators. The attackers comprised three upper-middle class Western-educated boys, and two poorer madrassa students. The fact that it was mass casualty also struck a contrast with the growing extremist violence the country has suffered in the past three years, which specifically targeted individuals.
One of the ISIS-produced obituaries of the attackers neatly summed up the concerns of Bangladesh's elite. One declared allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi "despite being raised in a secular [apostate] family linked to the ruling [tyrannical] government of the Awami League," while another was described as "affluent" with a "lavish lifestyle." A third had earned a degree from the Malaysian campus of Australia's Monash University.
Beyond socio-economic grievance, one local researcher pointed out that ISIS' conveyance of its ideology as a leveler – all are equal in Islam – works both ways. The operation offered an instant road to piety and redemption for boys known better in school for their joint-smoking than their religiosity; their 'martyrdom' would lead them straight to heaven. In their propaganda jihadi groups play on a spectrum of real and perceived grievances, from the personal to the geopolitical, to frame a view of the world whereby the West is at war with Islam and the only solution is an idealised Islamic state. According to a number of experts, the government and civil society are not taking enough proactive steps to challenge such seductive narratives.
The debate over challenging extremism in Bangladesh is multifaceted, but the strength of Bangladeshi identity and civil society can bolster a comprehensive institutional response. Ashikur Rahman, Senior Economist at the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, defined the fundamental problem faced in the country as fourfold: The historical patronisation of Islamist groups by political parties; the growing influence of foreign religious practices, particularly those from the Gulf; an education system that fails to equip young people with critical and tolerant outlooks; and a globalised grievance that gives the suffering of Muslims around the world resonance at a local level, and frames it around the failure of Western-style democracy. While these dynamics come with many caveats and exceptions, such societal shifts provide the mood music to the legitimisation of violence for religio-political ends.
The Bangladeshi government firmly denied any international influences or factors behind the attack. Even though ISIS claimed responsibility, and had access to privileged details including photos of the dead victims, Bangladeshi Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu very quickly declared that the work had the hallmarks of Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a home-grown jihadi group whose attacks have largely focused on individual members of religious minorities. "As of this moment, we can safely say that they are home-grown terrorists. They are members of a local domestic terrorist network," he said.
Bangladesh certainly has a history of 'local' terrorist actors. A previous seam of violent extremism struck the country between 1999 and 2005, with the main culprits Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen. But the Dhaka cafe attack was the crest of a new wave, which began with the killing of Rajib Haider in 2013, the first of dozens of bloggers to be murdered. Four years on, Bangladeshi militancy is dominated by the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Islam, and an ISIS-linked breakaway of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (Neo-JMB).
There are a number of incentives for the government not to acknowledge direct ISIS or international involvement in extremism in Bangladesh. As one senior diplomat put it, there is a political challenge in that it weakens claims that militants constitute proxies of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and their Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami. But there are also considerable reputational issues; the government believes that such an admission would provide a major hit for the country's international credibility, and officials are concerned that an acknowledged ISIS presence would give a free hand to Western intervention, either through soft or hard means.
Since ISIS claimed its first attack in Bangladesh - the murder of an Italian in Dhaka in September 2015 – the group's Bengali-language propaganda has proliferated, with an emphasis on promoting 'lone-wolf' jihad over hijrah (migration to the group's so-called 'Caliphate'). To demonstrate its alleged prevalence, it has even provided a quantitative breakdown of the targets of its 24 claimed attacks: Twelve per cent Shia, 19 per cent Apostates and Atheists, 27 per cent Christians, and 42 per cent Hindus and Buddhists.
To say the blame lies exclusively with ISIS, however, ignores local factors. Other government figures and experts have alleged the involvement of al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) affiliates in the Dhaka cafe incident. But the government's hesitance to acknowledge the role of a group like ISIS is also symptomatic of a broader reluctance to acknowledge the nature of the extremist threat. These groups encapsulate a shared ideology, and one that pays no attention to borders. Links to transnational outfits should be a cause for concern for the Bangladeshi government, and not a matter to be dismissed.
The fact that the attackers pledged allegiance to ISIS is, of course, significant. When would-be attackers pose with an ISIS flag, there are certainly important questions to answer about whether the group has directed or inspired violence. It is undeniable that the notion of a 'realised' Caliphate, an entity purporting to represent the global Ummah or Muslim community, has internationalised what was previously a largely domestic phenomenon in Bangladesh. The Dhaka cafe attackers took up Arabised kunya (used as a nomme de guerre in ISIS' propaganda), evoking great battles within the history of Islam. This was something rarely seen before in Bangladeshi militancy, and demonstrates the scale of this shift. Evidence released months after the attack indicated that the Bangladeshi cell's leader "sought and won approval" for the attack from ISIS' central command.
But arguing over whether the attack was 'local' or 'international' is a false binary. ISIS' growing influence is likely in part reflective of a new methodology that has been seen in attacks claimed by the group elsewhere in South Asia, including Pakistan, where the international jihadi group makes use of local militant networks to carry out attacks. This phenomenon, leveraging local networks rather than directing attacks, will likely only increase as the group loses territory in Iraq and Syria.
Though it has repeatedly insisted that ISIS is not active in the country, Bangladesh is aware of the international nature of extremist networks and funding - and the flow of extremist ideas - between Bangladesh and diaspora communities overseas. In 2015, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned her British counterpart David Cameron that more needed to be done to counter extremism in the United Kingdom, amid concern that British jihadis from Bengali communities were stoking violent Islamism in the country. Dhaka has also accused the Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence agency of agitating in Bangladesh, including through support for militant groups, a claim made by India and Afghanistan as well.
Extremist groups are adept at navigating the international and the local. There is a need to build up a fuller picture, and an evidence base, of what such global relationships look like. Given this increasingly globalised phenomenon, closer international cooperation is required to effectively counter the extremist threat. But governments also need a finer understanding of the nuances between extremist, political and religious groups. Failure to effectively distinguish between Deobandi quietism, Gulf-supported Maududi Islamism, mainstream Bengali pluralist Islamic practice, Salafi-jihadi militancy, and other practices, risks alienating some of the most powerful allies in the battle against extremist ideas; those with the credibility, and religious legitimacy, to fight back with a compelling alternative vision.
Bangladesh's response to the Dhaka cafe was robust. According to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Global Extremism Monitor, at least 57 counter-extremism incidents followed the assault, dropping to 37 by September. There were at least 164 extremist-related arrests in July, dropping to 55 by September. Meanwhile, some 22 extremists were killed in the aftermath of the attack, largely in raids. This dropped to single figures in August and September.
The South Asian nation has received commendations from around the world on its counter-terrorism strategy, with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov praising Dhaka's "uncompromising policy." Its robust approach can be seen in operations with names like Storm, Thunderbolt, and Hit Strong targeting terrorist hideouts (or 'dens'). 'Enhanced methods' have been cleared through the courts, including tightening bail conditions of those accused of extremism, and increased monitoring of educational institutions to prevent radicalisation, and of imams to identify and prevent hate speech. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also urged citizens to be vigilant. Awareness campaigns have included leveraging television shows and public messaging outlets as part of a "know your neighbour" strategy, to ensure people watch for signs of extremism.
In part, the response has been directed at reassuring the international community. For instance, after ISIS propaganda singled out "sports teams" for attack, causing two England cricketers to drop out of the World Cup being hosted by the country, the team had a personal security detail of 500 soldiers for the competition.
The government has undeniably done much since the Dhaka assault to set back the imminent strike capability of jihadi groups; the majority of those with any close involvement in the attack have either been killed, locked up, or sent into hiding. Some worry that the 'novelty' of proactivity is wearing off, and the government response is returning to an inactive status quo.
One Dhaka professor said that the government had its "head in the sand" until the end of 2015 with regards to the scale of the extremist threat, particularly with its reluctance to accept any international aspects to the phenomenon. Many say the government should have seen an attack along the lines of that on the Holey Artisan Bakery coming. Violent extremism did not emerge overnight. The militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) has been active since 1998, and is renowned for setting off hundreds of bombs in a single day in 2005, killing only two people. Further, the internationalisation of the country's militant phenomenon goes back to al-Qaeda; a number of Bangladeshis fought with the group in Afghanistan.
At the same time, a resurgence in the popularity of non-violent extremist groups - including the international Islamist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir, on university campuses, as well as student wings of militant groups such as JMB - has created an echo chamber in which an Islamic state is seen as a legitimate means of rebellion against the current order within student politics. Increasing state pressure means the groups are increasingly relegated to the online space, with 10,000 Hizb-ut-Tahrir supporters joining a video conference in 2015 opposing the "tyrannical rule" of the current administration.
Violent jihadism and political Islamism are demonstrably correlated in many contexts. But, the government risks an over-conflation of militancy and political opposition through its tough stance, which is seen as having targeted non-militant Islamists. A weeklong crackdown on militancy just prior to the Dhaka cafe attack, believed to have led to the arrests of some 14,000 people, purportedly had activists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and its Jamaat-i-Islami ally, as the main target. This conflation of political opposition (Islamist or otherwise) and violent extremism was viewed warily by many diplomatic figures.
As well as politicising what should be a cross-party effort, diplomatic figures expressed concerns that imprisoning thousands of Islamists, conflated by authorities with violent extremists may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the threat of prison radicalisation looming large. The imprisonment of political activists as terrorists, will not help address the root causes of extremism in Bangladesh, and may in fact provide a recruitment ground for violent militancy.
The year running up to the Dhaka cafe attack saw growing international focus on extremism in Bangladesh. The country witnessed dozens of attacks on religious minorities, secularists, and free-speech advocates, largely by militants wielding machetes and knives. While relatively small numbers of Bangladeshi jihadis (fewer than 50) are thought to be fighting in Syria, domestic targets have ranged from secular and atheist bloggers, academics, and gay rights activists, to Hindu and Sufi clerics and temple employees, as well as foreign workers.
Of these attacks, more than 20 have been claimed by the ISIS-linked Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and about half a dozen by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), through local franchise Ansarullah Bangla Team. The two groups have a similar recruitment pool, and Wall Street Journal correspondent Zain Syed even suggests that the rival groups have an unspoken agreement in Bangladesh: The former largely targets religious minorities, while the latter has focused on secular bloggers, although there have been exceptions to this rule.
Generally, Bangladesh does considerably better than its neighbours at positive religious relations and policies that encourage inclusive growth, says Syed. There is little tolerance for communal tensions, and Bangladeshis tend to be comfortable balancing religious and national identities. A moderate and pluralistic sentiment permeates the national religious practice, which has traditionally drawn upon a blend of South Asian cultural influences.
But identities are also changing fast. There are thought to be three million Bangladeshis in the Middle East, with the Gulf states attracting more than 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers between 2005 to 2010. Through these migration dynamics Wahhabi influence is growing. This shows in shifting cultural attitudes and increasingly conservative religious practices.
University of Dhaka scholar Lailufar Yasmin expresses the increasing concerns in secular Dhaka about the 'Arabisation' of Islam in the country. There are also suspicions over outward expressions of non-indigenous religiosity, such as women wearing the niqab or men growing their beards in the Salafi style. She cites the example of the widespread move away from the traditional Bengali greeting of khuda-hafez (goodbye in the name of God) to Allah-hafez (goodbye in the name of Allah), on the grounds that khuda is a Persian word, while Allah is Arabic and, therefore, more Islamic. The banning of the Gulf-based Peace TV in the wake of the Holey Bakery attack demonstrates the perceived power of media in changing religious rhetoric. The Information Minister said the channel was "not consistent with Muslim society, the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith, Bangladesh's Constitution, our culture, customs and rituals."
These changes are accompanied by other rapid societal transformations. A nationwide drive to promote a 'Digital Bangladesh' has brought increased access to ideas and images from around the world, creating the sorts of international communities that led to the blogging craze, which took off in Bangladesh a decade ago. Extremists are able to play upon public unease over such changes by presenting a vision of an idealised society that is based on a restoration of what they say are traditional religious values. These appeals should not be underestimated. Religious identity is salient in Bangladesh – a 2003 survey found that religion is the first choice by a citizen for self-identification.
While such religious and demographic changes do not in themselves create vulnerability to extremist narratives, they take place in the context of a polarised debate around secularism and religiosity in Bangladesh. An increasingly binary division is leaving room for extremism to flourish within a country that has in the past prided itself on openness and the co-existence of differing worldviews.
A dialogue around Bangladesh's secular and Islamic identity has reverberated since the state's creation in 1971. The government itself has issued mixed messages. In November 2016, officials indicated they were considering dropping Islam as the country's national religion. The move came after Dr Abdur Razzak, a leading member of Bangladesh's ruling Awami League party, claimed Bangladeshi people have embraced "a force of secularism," and that "there is no such thing as a 'minority' in our country."
On the other hand, there is also a reluctance on the part of government to talk about religion within the political space, for fear of alienating the voter base. This has often meant a less-than-robust response to condemning extremist ideologies. At its most concerning, this phenomenon has seen allegations about victim-blaming from the government, with secular and atheist bloggers insinuated as having some responsibility for attacks on them, for 'provoking' violent action by offending religious sentiments. According to the International Crisis Group, "Hasina and her senior officials have said the government cannot be held responsible for the consequences of such writing."
Academics express concern that Bangladesh's much-vaunted tradition of secularism, fundamental to the country's founding history and its opposition to Pakistani rule, is being lost. University lecturers complain that a creeping intolerance in the academy means it is impossible to express even religious agnosticism within an academic environment for fear of attack.
Meanwhile, there is a profound danger that, if secularism is only associated with the establishment, political opposition will by definition become anti-secularist. Ashikur Rahman argues that it is essential that the politically disenfranchised are able to see the secular space as broad and inclusive, not conditional on agreement with the government.
This debate around the role of religion in the state also cuts across a highly adversarial domestic political environment, which some have claimed has facilitated the rise of violent extremism in Bangladesh. Former US ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan William B. Milam argued in May 2016, two months before the Dhaka cafe attack, that "the recent string of vicious killings in Bangladesh is less a terrorism issue than a governance issue: It is the ruling Awami League's onslaught against its political opponents, which began in earnest after the last election in January 2014, that has unleashed extremists in Bangladesh." Meanwhile, the claims of pro-Awami League figures that the opposition's resort to riots, strikes, and election boycotts, as well as ongoing accusations that extremist groups have been 'patronised' by political parties, demonstrate that violence has been normalised within the political space.
Conflict between the ruling Awami League and the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party has resulted in high levels of political violence. It has also led to a deeply politicised counter-terrorism agenda that has allegedly been used to target opponents, as well as genuine existential threats to the state. This has led to a murky sub-state environment where extremist groups can flourish, and in which it is hard to tell the difference between militants and political Islamists in responding to the extremist threat.
A gaping rift between elites and wider society was another recurring theme among experts, with the former having little idea about what the majority are thinking, and vice versa. This disconnect with established systems has resonance with the shocked responses to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as United States president. In Bangladesh, this gap provides rich ground for extremist recruiters, who frame their vision of society as the solution to individual grievances - some real, some perceived; some local, others global - which find fertile soil in the alienation from the establishment.
Civil society organisations have recognised a strong generational element to the challenge. Many young people feel voiceless within the current political set up, despite considerable zeal for political engagement. The Centre for Research and Information, a youth-focused NGO in Dhaka, emphasises the urgent need for building a society-wide coalition that rejects violence and militancy, through reference to unifying identities. Communicating across divides, generational and societal, will be essential for stemming the divisions in which extremist ideologies prosper.
In an effort to adopt a front-footed approach, the government has adopted a number of 'softer' extremism prevention methods. One government official responsible for implementing preventative measures claimed that the use of religion for political gain was at the root of violent extremism, but that "Bangladesh's history is one of tolerance and religious harmony." Countering the threat, a process expedited by the Dhaka cafe incident, was therefore framed as a matter of asserting national values. Officials emphasised the strong societal response exemplified by parents and communities rejecting the bodies of the Holey Artisan Bakery attackers.
Rhetoric around preventative approaches to countering violent extremism is much aligned with international and UN frameworks. Responses are 'multi-stakeholder,' working with women, youth groups, and others at risk. The government plays a facilitating, not implementing, role, with organisations such as the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a Dhaka-based think-tank, involved in articulating context-specific counter-extremism strategies. This 'institutional distance' was seen as particularly important in the religious sphere. An imam training programme designed to propagate a tolerant brand of Islam was framed around working to empower religious leaders, not imposing a state-sanctioned religious perspective on Friday prayers.
The effectiveness of religious actors in fighting extremism is a matter of debate. Some praised leaders' outspoken condemnation of violent extremists, citing a fatwa signed by 100,000 Bangladeshi imams condemning ISIS as an "enemy of Muslims and enemy of Islam." Others said that there was still some discomfort in truly condemning the jihadi worldview for fear of appearing anti-Islamic, something which also translated into the political arena. All agree that there was still work to be done in equipping religious leaders with the communication skills and religious literacy required to contest the slick and simplistic ideologies perpetuated by the likes of ISIS and its affiliates.
As a pilot country for the GCERF (Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund) apparatus, an international effort to support community-led counter-extremism initiatives, Bangladesh clearly wants to be seen as an example for other countries. The gender and CVE issue was emphasised, including the presence of all-female peacekeeping forces, presented as a model of good practice for the international community.
Experimental 'cash for de-radicalisation' initiatives launched in 2016 have provided financial incentives for militants renouncing their radicalism and laying down their weapons. The government hopes that offering considerable sums, more than four times the per capita income of about $1,300, will help societal reintegration. But although many militants in Bangladesh are poor, uneducated, and unemployed, this approach does not comprehensively address the threat.
One crucial part of prevention is related to education, where reform is inherently political. Many attribute the growth of extremist attitudes within educated populations to an education system where uncritical conservative orthodoxy has become the default position. There has been little work to develop critical thinking, religious tolerance, or pluralism in the classroom. The government has come under fire for succumbing to pressure by conservative religious figures to remove content from textbooks deemed atheistic, or un-Islamic. Academics also speak of a rapidly shifting academic landscape. One lecturer shared an anecdote that, 20 years ago, people could express diverse academic opinions, including sympathies with Communism, but that now, you "don't know if you're two or five degrees of separation away from a violent extremist."
Islamism is increasingly being presented in Bangladesh as a protest against globalisation and Western influence; indeed Islamism has replaced the role that Communism used to play in the country's anti-hegemonic, anti-imperialist discourse. Another professor who has conducted wide-scale studies on perceptions towards extremism said that radical elements make use of this revolutionary sentiment, weaving it into their own utopian narrative.
In a globalised world, Bangladesh cannot see the challenges it faces in isolation from the wider picture. Given the increasingly international elements of Bangladeshi militancy, global partners are key to helping contain the threat. This includes both near neighbours to address the regional aspects of militancy, such as India, Pakistan, and Myanmar (where growing concerns over the fate of the Rohingya community affect Bangladesh directly), as well strategic international partners, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, with large diaspora communities.
Extremist content aimed at Bangladesh is widespread and accessible on the web, and counter-narratives are few and far between. Dhaka would benefit from being on the front foot in equipping credible messengers to challenge extremist narratives online. It could also benefit from drawing lessons from other countries in curbing the threats of prison radicalisation, and developing the critical thinking needed to deconstruct extremist worldviews in both formal and informal education.
Bangladeshis are proud of their culture of openness and tolerance. Emphasising such values, and unequivocally condemning extremism in all its forms, will help to keep militancy at the margins. However, it seems that the government has yet to establish its own role in this endeavour, whether it be assembling broad alliances to discredit extremist narratives, or building resilience in at–risk populations, to effectively address the root causes, rather than symptoms, of violence.
* This report is based on fieldwork, interviews, and meetings with more than 20 policymakers and thought-leaders in Dhaka and London throughout the second half of 2016. Government officials, politicians, researchers, activists, journalists, diplomats, and civil society leaders were also consulted. Because of the sensitivity and polarity of the subject matter, some names have been anonymised. I would like to thank Faiz Sobhan, of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, for comments on a draft version of this paper.