From Export to Import: The rise of Jihadism and the advent of the Islamic State in Bangladesh

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The origin of Islamisation in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is threatened by an increasing surge of radical Islamist violence. The killings of Bangladeshi liberal thinkers and progressive secularists, such as the blogger Avijit Roy[1], are not an entirely new phenomenon and exemplify the gravity of the situation. As such, the murder of secular thinkers in Bangladesh is only the gloomy peak of growing Jihadi influence in the country. Since the early 1990s, a silent but steady process of Islamisation started in the country. The breeding ground for this process was prepared by the country’s military rulers, Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) and Lieutenant General Hussain Muhammad Ershad (1982-1990). During both autocratic governments, far-reaching constitutional amendments were introduced, which undermined the institutional bulwark, i.e. the principles of secularism and democracy, against a potential Islamist takeover. More concretely, Ziaur and Ershad diluted the secular principles in the constitution in order to gain legitimacy by playing the religious card. They were undoubtedly inspired by their Pakistani peer, General Zia-ul Haq (1977-1988), under whose dictatorial regime Pakistan descended into a marsh of Islamic fundamentalism. By anchoring Islam in the constitution and putting religion at the centre of the political discourse, Bangladesh was effectively transformed into an Islamic state. As a result, Islamist parties have been able to incrementally appropriate room in the political arena, despite the fact that they did not enjoy much general public support. It is interesting to mention, that in this direction Pakistan serves as a crucial point of reference: the fact that Islamist parties do not receive many votes percentage-wise does not automatically imply that they are marginalised when it comes to exercising political influence and access to state resources. Here, aggressive political behaviour combined with extra-judicial measures (e.g. black mailing, target killings, major terrorist activities) is used as a compensation mechanism for the lack of electoral support. The high level of Islamist penetration of state and society was further enhanced during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) governments (1991–1996, 2001–2006). Not only were they using state resources to promote their ‘anti-secular revolution’ but also to push the entrenchment of Islamic fundamentalist elements deeply into the political-administrative structure of the country. Today, Bangladesh’s Islamisation is not a silent process anymore: it is loud, aggressive and it has reached the centre of power politics in Dhaka.

The Advent of Islamic State in Bangladesh

Nevertheless, it seems that the rising threat is accompanied by a growing culture of apathy towards the Radicalization and Islamisation of Bangladesh’s state and society, including not only people with extremely low income but also the middle class. The fact, that some of Bangladesh’s political parties, like the BNP and its close ties with the Islamist ‘Jamaat-e-Islami’, have a soft corner for Islamic extremism is an additional heavy burden for the protection of pluralistic and liberal norms and values. This is most unfortunate for the country’s democratic consolidation since the parameters of the Islamist threat changed dramatically: The killing of the Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella in the high security diplomatic area of Dhaka determines not only a broadening of the scope of terrorism in the country but also a tectonic shift of the Islamist landscape in the country. This malicious assassination is the first attack by the Islamic State (IS) activists and emphasizes that the global Jihad is taking root in Bangladesh. Having this in mind, the general South Asian strategy of ignoring or downplaying of an Islamist threat is not only naive but also short-sited. In contrast, one should rather dwell on the contemporary and future impacts and factors Bangladesh has to prepare for, in case IS engagement intensifies. Therefore, it is most important to understand the origin and genesis of IS. The contemporary world already witnessed the emergence and expansion of the most successful and brutal Islamic terror group ever, the Islamic State. The IS is an extremely radical Sunni Islamic group, which was formerly known as The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham/Syria/Levant (ISIS/ISIL), or ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyya fil’Araq wa-Sham (Daesh). An offshoot of al-Qaida, IS follows the tradition of Salafist-orientation in Islam and is deeply attracted by the ideology of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Especially Abul Ala Maududi’s (founder of JI) vision of the creation of an Islamic state and his respective notion of full citizenship, which is only available to Muslims, inspires IS. Subsequently, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on 29 June 2014, IS declared the founding of a new Caliphate and called on all Muslims to swear allegiance. Since starting its state-building efforts, IS fighters have been brutally capturing province by province in Iraq and Syria and eradicating Shias and religious minorities. In this context, one has to be clear about the ideology and historical allusions of IS, which are clearly directed towards the reestablishment of the medieval Khilafah (caliphate) system. This system experienced its final demise in the wake of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire – which can be considered as the last relict of the Caliphate – in 1916 through the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France. Having this in mind, IS is looking far beyond the borders of the Middle East, not only towards the West but also to the East – particularly in the direction of the larger Indian subcontinent.

Factors favouring the build-up of IS in Bangladesh

However, by reading current news of international and regional media and comments of analysts dealing with South Asia in general, and Pakistan and Bangladesh in particular, one cannot help but feel that history is repeating itself.

Besides the fact that the region has been for many years now suffering from an extremely militant Islamic fundamentalism and state sponsored terrorism, it is quite surprising that regional governments are still not willing to perceive and tackle the full scale of potential upcoming threat scenarios in South Asia caused by IS. It seems that in dealing with militant Islamic fundamentalism, especially Dhaka’s security circles are still trapped in old patterns. In lieu of decisive decision-making regarding appropriate measures how to counter terrorism, militancy and religious fanatics is still confronted with a ‘caution and silent apathy’ among politicians, military and intelligence. This is surprising for several reasons:

First of all, it is obvious that IS does not believe in boundaries between Islamic countries and areas with major Muslim population. Therefore IS will not restrict itself and its struggle to Syria and Iraq. Its increasing involvement in Afghanistan and recruiting activities in Pakistan and India should be seen as proof therefore. In this context it is significant to note that the goal and scope of IS are obvious: the creation of a caliphate comprising all current and former Muslim majority countries and countries formerly ruled by Muslims, which includes large parts of Central and South Asia besides Spain, Northern Africa and various areas of South-East Europe. In this context, it is even more stunning that neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan is undertaking sufficient measures to avoid that IS can take root in the Af-Pak[2] region, either directly through recruiting and ‘promotion’ campaigns or indirectly through the forming of alliances with local militant groups. At the moment it seems that Bangladesh is following the same path. At the moment, it does not seem that IS plans to incorporate Bangladesh in its ‘envisioned future caliphate’ yet. However, this should not be misinterpreted that the country will be spared from IS activities. The killing of the western citizen Cesare Tavella makes clear that Bangladesh has changed  from a recruiting place for into a battle field of IS’s global jihad.

Secondly, the appearance of IS defines a completely new security paradigm: instead of being only a hub for recruiting and training for the ‘export’ of extremely radicalized Islamist fighters, Bangladesh is likely to become a country increasingly attracting the ‘import’ of ‘global jihadism’. In other words, instead of being just a place of departure or transit, Bangladesh might increasingly turn into a destination for the flow of international terrorist activities. In this context, the influx of Uighur terrorists into Bangladesh and the likelihood that the Bangkok blast[3] on 17 August 2015 was planned on Bangladeshi soil  exemplifies the above-mentioned trend. Choosing Bangladesh to build up a support base must be seen as an indication that  Uighur terrorists are broadening their scope regarding goals and strategies. It has has become obvious that they are not just aiming to fight for separatism or autonomy of the Muslim dominated Xinjiang province in China, but rather to join the international acting ‘mainstream Jihad’. As such, one must expect an increase of Uighur terrorist attacks outside China, especially to target Beijing development projects and Chinese state enterprises abroad.

Bangladesh is a placed right between South and South East Asia. Therefore, the official denial of the noteworthy IS presence and influence in Bangladesh is dangerous and hypocritical. It ignores the elasticity and resilience of the global and regional terrorist networks as well as Bangladesh’s contribution to the global jihad movement.

Thirdly, although  there is no concrete evidence yet that IS is planning to take root in Bangladesh, a realistic review of concrete aims and strategies of this terror group indicates that it will enter the country rather sooner than later. Taking the geostrategic importance of Bangladesh for the global Jihad in bridging Muslim communities in South- and South-East into account, one must expect that IS is planning to gain a permanent foothold at the crosspoint of these two major Southern Asian regions. If not directly (at least immediately), than with the help of some local Jihadists and other militant extremist groups who are inspired by an Islamic fundamentalist ideology. These groups might differ with regards to the scale of the goals, military, militant strategies and leadership structures, but due to strong ideological bounds and common enemies they will most likely overcome potential differences. Having this in mind, the debate if IS has a remarkable presence in South Asia or not is absolutely necessary and justified. But it must be put into perspective. Focusing on assessments of IS leverage in the region only with regards to the physical existence and concrete operations and numbers of active IS fighters, like in Afghanistan or Pakistan and now in Bangladesh, is far too narrow. Instead, the mapping of threat scenarios should focus on the forging of alliances of IS and local militant groups functioning as operational proxies. These proxies offer room to manoeuvre for IS to propagate their narrow and truncated interpretation of Islam as well as to build up inroads into state and society. With the support of local partners, IS can gain strategic space to grow and expand its influence from the Af-Pak region into India and Bangladesh.

Fourthly, instead of ignoring any activities of IS in Bangladesh one should rather watch very closely IS propaganda and rhetoric regarding its radicalisation and Islamisation of the people and how far it will inspire Islamist militants. Especially the younger generation of terrorists are attracted by the successes of IS in Iraq and Syria, which has become the wealthiest jihadist organisation in the world[4]. According to some estimates, the Islamic State owns assets worth well over $2bn.

Also here, the developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan should serve as a warning for Bangladesh’s security authorities. In case there is no significant decisive victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan over the new government and the remaining international combat troops, frustrated Taliban and other young Islamists might turn towards IS. In this context, the massive offensive and the latest take-over of the city of Kunduz by Taliban forces must be interpreted as a severe attempt to overcome internal rifts among the Taliban movement (which appeared after the ‘official death’ of their spiritual leader Mullah Omar) as well as to regain ground and reputation towards the rising IS in Afghanistan. Also Pakistan’s Taliban might defect in remarkable numbers towards IS in case the major military operation Zarb-e-Azb of the Pakistan Armed forces achieves sustainable success in eradicating the Islamists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and other parts of the country. Furthermore, the fact that IS has much more financial resources available and can offer better military training in combination with the rising significance and recognition among global jihadist circles that South Asian Islamic fundamentalists might be even more attracted to the ‘new arrival’ from the Middle East.

Conclusions

To sum up, the entrenchment and strict implementation of Islam as state religion and the subsequent undermining of secularism and democracy as the founding principles of Bangladesh transformed the country into a breeding ground for the spread of a fanatic brand of Islam. Additionally, the country’s establishment still seems to be deaf and blind when it comes to the realizing  the full threat potential of Islamic fundamentalism. The way in which authorities and analysts are downplaying or ignoring the growing influence of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Bangladesh will open further space for the promotion and entrenchment of a fundamentalist ethos. Bangladesh’s decision-makers have to finally understand that the costs of ignoring Jihadism are much higher than narrow political ends and electoral benefits from radicalized sections of the country’s electorate. However, the price will not only be paid by the country’s troubled religious minorities as well as ‘western targets’ but by the whole state and society. Therefore, it is paramount that the government and the highly political aware civil society of Bangladesh do not commit the same mistake as Pakistan, allowing or even encouraging domestic militancy and international terrorist groups to use Bangladeshi territory as a launch pad for Jihadist activities.

It is time to develop a coherent and stringent strategy against religious fundamentalism. Currently , the few measures carried out by the current government to contain the Islamist threats remain ineffective, especially if one looks at the mobilising capacities of the Islamists and the on-going operations of ‘officially’ banned organisations. In order to stop this threat, a collective national consensus and stringent engagement of all democratic and secular forces is necessary. Last but not least, Bangladesh’s political decision-makers must overcome their ‘state of denial’ and finally enforce expeditious prosecution and punishment of militant religious extremism; as long as this is not achieved, Bangladesh risks falling even deeper in the clutches of Islamic fundamentalism in general and the even more brutal grip of IS in particular.


[1] Avijit Roy, was a US-citizen of Bangladeshi origin, published author, and prominent voice against religious intolerance was murdered publicly in Dhaka after returning from a book fair.

[2] Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

[3] Basically there are several hypotheses to explain the Bangkok blasts: COMMENT: which analysts? see the roots of it in the Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand and others are trying to link the bombing with military factionalism or tensions between the Army and the Police. There were also some speculations that international acting Jihadist organisations, especially al-Qaeda who has become increasingly more active in Southern Asia, orchestrated the attack. However, most plausible at the moment is that there is a correlation between the blasts and the forced repatriation of Uighurs by the Thai government this summer. In this context, one should emphasize that the Uighurs might have difficulties to conduct such a high profile attack by themselves and are in need of additional support. It is noteworthy  that the Uighurs are increasingly becoming embedded within  the global Jihadist network, which is deeply entrenched in Bangladesh. Therefore, it is very likely that the Uighurs will build  a support base in Bangladesh.

[4] Regarding Forbes, the main source of funding for IS are oil trade, kidnapping and ransom, collection of protection and taxes, bank robberies and looting.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Author

Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf

Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf is guest contributor at the International Security Observer. Dr. Wolf, Senior Researcher (member) at the South Asia Institute (SAI), Heidelberg University, and Director of Research at SADF (Coordinator: Democracy Research Program). He was educated at the SAI and Institute of Political Science (IPW) in Heidelberg. Additionally he is a visiting fellow at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST, Islamabad), affiliated researcher at the Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU, Durham University), and a former research fellow at IPW and Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi, India). Before starting his academic career, Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf worked for various consultancies specializing in political communication, e.g. promoting the interaction and cooperation between academic, political and economic spheres. He is the co-author of ‘A Political and Economic Dictionary of South Asia’ (Routledge: London, 2006), co-editor of ‘Politics in South Asia. Culture, Rationality and Conceptual Flow’ (Springer: Heidelberg, 2015), ‘The Merits of Regionalisation. The Case of South Asia’ (Springer: Heidelberg, 2014), and ‘State and Foreign Policy in South Asia’ (Sanskriti, 2010), and Deputy Editor of the ‘Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics’ (HPSACP). Furthermore, he has worked as a consultant for the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Germany, and is member of the external experts group of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force, Federal Foreign Office, Germany.

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