Countering Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh

What’s new? Two groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh and Ansarul Islam, dominate Bangladesh’s jihadist landscape today. Attacks since 2013 have targeted secular activists, intellectuals and foreigners, as well as religious and sectarian minorities. The ruling Awami League has politicised the threat; its crackdowns on rivals undermine efforts to disrupt jihadist recruitment and attacks. Why did it happen? Bangladesh’s antagonistic politics have played a part in enabling the jihadist resurgence. The state confronted groups responsible for an earlier wave of violence with some success from 2004 to 2008. Subsequently, especially since controversial January 2014 elections, bitter political divisions have reopened space for new forms of jihadist activism. Why does it matter? A lull in violence over recent months may prove only a temporary respite. With elections approaching in December, politics could become even more toxic. The government’s continued marginalisation of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and its forcing underground of opponents like Jamaat-e-Islami, risk sapping resources from efforts to disrupt jihadists. What should be done? Instead of relying on indiscriminate force, including alleged extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the government should adopt a counter-terrorism strategy anchored in reformed criminal justice and better intelligence gathering. Rather than cracking down on rivals, it should forge a broad social and political consensus on how to confront the threat.

Executive Summary

As Bangladesh’s political polarisation reaches historic highs and local jihadist groups forge links with transnational movements, conditions are ripe for new forms of militancy that could threaten the country’s security and religious tolerance. Two groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarul Islam, dominate today’s jihadist landscape; a faction of the former appears to have consolidated links to the Islamic State (ISIS) while the latter is affiliated with al-Qaeda’s South Asian branch. Both have perpetrated a string of attacks over the past few years, some targeting secular activists, others Bangladeshi minorities. The ruling Awami League has politicised the threat. Its crackdowns on political rivals sap resources from efforts to disrupt jihadist activities. Instead, it should invest in reinforcing the capability of the security forces and judiciary and build political consensus on how to tackle the threat. The country’s recent history of jihadism dates to the late 1990s, when veterans of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan returned to Bangladesh. A first wave of violence, involving two groups, the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh and the JMB, peaked on 17 August 2005, when the latter group synchronised bomb blasts in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Successive governments subsequently took action against the JMB’s leadership, but the group has revived itself, albeit in a new form. Another group, Ansarul Islam (or Ansar), has also emerged, while a JMB splinter – dubbed the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” by law enforcement agencies – calls itself the Islamic State-Bangladesh and has funnelled fighters into Iraq and Syria. Ansar portrays itself as the defender of Islam from those who – in its leaders’ view – explicitly attack the religion. The JMB, on the other hand, has named a longer list of enemies: it considers perceived symbols of the secular state and anyone not subscribing to its interpretation of Islam as legitimate targets. The Bangladesh police allege that JMB operatives have played a part in attacks claimed by ISIS on prominent members of minority communities and religious facilities and events, including Ahmadi mosques, Sufi shrines, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Shia festivals. An attack on a Dhaka café on 1-2 July 2016 that killed over twenty people, mostly foreigners, appears to have involved loose cooperation between different groups, including both rural-based madrasa students and elite urban young men.

Bangladesh’s contentious national politics have played a role in enabling the jihadist resurgence. Ansar found its initial raison d’être in the Awami League government’s post-2010 trials of people accused of war crimes perpetrated in the 1971 war of independence. Those trials, targeting the senior leadership of the largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), prompted criticism for violating due process, lacking transparency, and involving intimidation and harassment of defence lawyers and witnesses. The prosecutions were used to crush the JeI, a close ally of the Awami League’s main political rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and to discredit the BNP itself. They provoked widespread anger among Islamists, which was mostly expressed through mass protest, not jihadist violence. Yet Ansar, depicting the trials as an assault on Islam, recruited urban, educated youth, albeit in relatively small numbers, and perpetrated brutal attacks on secular activists and bloggers who had demanded harsh punishment for those prosecuted. Political polarisation has contributed to the growth of militancy in less direct ways, too. The marginalisation of the BNP through politically motivated corruption and other trials of its leadership, including party chief Khaleda Zia’s 8 February 2018 conviction and five-year sentence for corruption, and of the JeI, through the war crimes trials and a ban on its participation in elections, have eliminated most democratic competition and encouraged the growth of a jihadist fringe. A purge of BNP and JeI sympathisers from the armed forces has elicited animosity within some military circles toward the Awami League, which the jihadists also appear to be seeking to exploit. The BNP, for its part, has on occasion used terrible violence, or supported groups that do so, fuelling political animus and deepening schisms. The influx of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August-December 2017 also raises security concerns for Bangladesh. Jihadist groups – including ISIS and Pakistani militants – have referenced the Rohingya’s plight in efforts to mobilise support. For now, though, little suggests that the refugees are particularly susceptible to jihadist recruitment. Bangladesh’s response to the humanitarian tragedy should focus primarily not on counter-terrorism but on providing support for refugees and redoubling efforts to assuage potential friction between them and host communities.

The state response to the surge of jihadist violence over the past few years has relied primarily on blunt and indiscriminate force, including alleged enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Such tactics have eliminated large numbers of jihadists and weakened militant groups. But they undermine intelligence gathering. Security officials fear the ability of jihadist movements to recruit, raise funds and conduct operations remains intact. To make matters worse, Awami League leaders have exploited the threat to further discredit the BNP and JeI, accusing them of complicity in high-profile attacks. The government continues to use security forces to target its opponents, motivated, it appears, by the imperative of victory in the December 2018 general elections. While the past year has seen a lull in attacks, marginalising the mainstream political opposition is likely to play into the hands of jihadist groups. Politicised, the police force and judiciary will continue to struggle with the detailed investigative work necessary to disrupt networks that now tap not only madrasa students and their families in deprived rural areas but also privileged students in wealthier quarters of the capital. While the Awami League appears little inclined to do so ahead of this year’s vote, reversing the polarisation that creates an enabling environment for jihadists and building political consensus on how to tackle the problem, while investing in a professional police and judiciary, are likely prerequisites of forestalling further jihadist violence. Without a change of course – and particularly if the December elections trigger a crisis similar to that around previous polls – the country could face another jihadist resurgence.

Brussels, 28 February 2018

I.Introduction

Bangladesh faces a sustained threat from jihadist attacks. Since 2015, two jihadist groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarul Islam (hereafter Ansar), have targeted foreigners, secular activists and intellectuals, religious and sectarian minorities, and other perceived opponents with rising frequency. These groups appear to be more integrated into transnational networks than earlier generations of jihadists. Yet their expansion is largely rooted in domestic political dynamics, which influence and inform state efforts against them. The bloody 1-2 July 2016 siege at a café in Dhaka’s upscale Gulshan neighbourhood, the heart of the diplomatic zone, forced domestic and international policymakers to reconsider the extent to which jihadist militancy had taken root in Bangladesh. That three out of five alleged attackers belonged to Dhaka’s elite, not the madrasa sector more commonly associated with such jihadist militancy, suggests that the appeal of jihadism has spread and that jihadists may be able to tap a new constituency from which to recruit, even if thus far only in small numbers. The report analyses the roots of Bangladesh’s jihadist groups, their goals, organisational dynamics, recruitment patterns and links to regional and transnational networks. It is based on interviews conducted in April-August 2017 with security officials, the legal community, and political and civil society actors, including representatives from Islamist parties and umbrella groups. Security risks inhibited access to jihadist groups and detainees; the report thus draws on their leaflets, online literature and public statements, and interviews with lawyers and law enforcement officials who have closely dealt with them. It proposes measures to counter the threat, based on analysis of the impact and effectiveness of the government’s response. Given the topic’s sensitivity, and an increasingly repressive environment in Bangladesh, most names have been withheld.

II.Genesis of Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh

Jihadist militancy in Bangladesh began in the 1980s, when around 3,000 Bangladeshis reportedly joined the U.S. and Saudi-sponsored anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. A first generation of Bangladeshi militants were veterans of that war. In 1992, a new group, Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (also referred to as Harkat-ul Jihad), led by three Afghanistan veterans, Mufti Abdur Rouf, Mowlana Abdus Salam and Mufti Abdul Hannan Sheikh, declared that Bangladesh should become an Islamic state. The group, which operated from the Chittagong Hill Tracts bordering Myanmar, also aimed to aid the Rohingya Muslims in that country. A Harkat-ul Jihad leader, Fazlul Rahman, along with jihadist leaders from Pakistan and the Middle East, signed Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa calling for jihad against the U.S. and its allies. In 1999, the group claimed a failed assassination attempt on Bangladesh’s leading poet, journalist and human rights activist Shamsur Rahman, and carried out a bomb attack at a cultural event in Jessore that killed ten people. After the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S., the group became more active under the leadership of Mufti Hannan, who had established strong links with Lashkar-e-Tayyaba in Pakistan. In February 2002, it attacked the American Center in Calcutta, killing four police constables and a security guard, and injuring over twenty in the first strike on a target in India. In May 2004, it attempted to assassinate the British high commissioner to Dhaka. Its deadliest action was the August 2004 grenade attack on an election rally of then opposition leader and chief of the secular Awami League party, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, killing over twenty people; scores, including Hasina herself, were injured. In addition to attacks in Sylhet Division, in the north east, and areas around Dhaka, the Harkat-ul Jihad also struck numerous times in southern locations such as Akhaura, Bagerhat and Khulna, mostly between 1999-2005. Founded in 1998, the JMB and its militant wing Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh became active in the early 2000s, recruiting and training, raising funds, running outreach programs, and mobilising members across the north and in selected southern districts such as Chittagong, Jessore and Khulna. Its Dhaka-based leader Abdur Rahman also began establishing links with political powerbrokers willing to support his agenda.

Jagrata itself began as a vigilante group in north-eastern regions that had been the base of left-wing militants for decades. Khaleda Zia’s BNP-led government (2001-2006) initially failed to take action against it, due to limited law enforcement capacity but also sympathy for these groups within Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party and a member of the BNP’s governing alliance. The animosity of the military and some BNP leaders toward India also drove them to patronise various Islamist groups supporting insurgencies in India’s north-eastern provinces and Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Some government and police officials saw the JMB and Jagrata as useful tools against left-wing militants.Despite these reservations, domestic and international pressure nudged the government to form, in 2004, an elite paramilitary anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, which includes military and police personnel. JMB’s 17 August 2005 countrywide coordinated and simultaneous attacks, involving over 459 low-intensity bombs, in all but one of Bangladesh’s 64 districts, killing two people and injuring around 100, proved a turning point. The subsequent security crackdown, including trials and executions of top JMB members, forced the group into hiding. In the following years, its leaders described the synchronised 2005 attack as a “sound blast” to draw attention to their message, contained in leaflets left at the bombing sites, which called for war against “Western imperial powers” and their local allies, including Bangladesh’s secular state. The judicial system was a particular target; there were several attacks on judges and court premises.

While JMB and Harkat-ul Jihad represented similar threats, and often operated in tandem, violently opposing Bangladesh’s secular traditions, there were fundamental differences. Harkat-ul Jihad drew on South Asian Islamic traditions, its ideological bent close to that of today’s Deobandi-inspired Hefazat-e-Islam, a hardline Islamist movement which over recent years has won concessions from the ruling party (see Section VII.B). Harkat-ul Jihad was largely based in the south, and it found its recruits in qaumi (privately run) madrasas. JMB, on the other hand, drew on the Wahhabi-inspired Ahl-e Hadith movement and was located mainly in the north east, though it also conducted outreach and recruitment drives in the south west, in Satkhira and Bagerhat districts. Increasingly bitter competition between the Awami League and BNP ahead of elections scheduled for January 2007 led to paralysing street violence and a political crisis, prompting a coup and military rule, between 2006 and 2008, behind the veneer of a caretaker government. The military jailed much of the political class. The military-backed government redoubled counter-terrorism efforts, including through specialised trainings for law enforcement officials and anti-militancy messaging in the media and the state-run Islamic Foundation, as well as through Friday sermons in mosques across the country. It also tried some JMB leaders. Arrests and convictions of JMB and Harkat-ul Jihad members continued after the restoration of democracy and elections in December 2008, which returned the Awami League to office. By that time, the jihadist leadership appeared to have been dismantled and the security environment seemed much improved, leading law enforcement agencies to shift attention away from militant groups.

III.Setting the Stage for a Jihadist Resurgence

A.Politicised Justice and an Islamist Backlash

The Awami League came to power in January 2009 having promised an international war crimes tribunal to prosecute those responsible for atrocities during the 1971 war of independence, a longstanding demand popular with the party’s voter base. Most of those expected to be tried were JeI members; others were from the BNP. The tribunal was established in 2010. While the quest for justice was legitimate, the trials were deeply flawed, lacking due process. They were also convenient tools for sidelining or eliminating rivals and rallying the Awami League’s political base. The convictions and executions that followed provoked a domestic backlash; many of the accused had major followings, notably among religiously conservative constituencies across the country. In particular, the 2013 death sentence for JeI leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a popular preacher, prompted violent countrywide demonstrations and clashes with police that left hundreds of protesters dead. Islamists portrayed the trials as an attack on Bangladesh’s Muslim identity. Secular activists mobilised, too, though to insist on harsher sentences. In February 2013, after another JeI leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, was given life imprisonment, activists demonstrated in Dhaka’s Shahbagh square demanding a death sentence. These protests, dubbed the Shahbagh movement, were led by urban, secular youth, including bloggers critical of the role of organised religion in Bangladesh’s secular polity. Islamists highlighted these opinions to discredit the movement as anti-Islam, demanding that Shahbagh organisers be punished.

The war crimes trials and the Shahbagh movement provided the backdrop for a new era of Islamist and jihadist activism. By 2013, JeI was on the defensive, with most of its top leaders on trial. Hefazat-e-Islam, a hitherto marginal umbrella organisation sustained by qaumi (privately run) madrasas, stepped into the gap, quickly becoming a prominent socio-political force by channelling Islamist sentiment against the trials in large street demonstrations in late 2013. To defuse the protests, the government made concessions, including withdrawing plans to regulate the qaumimadrasa sector. Hefazat also allegedly delivered the government a list of 84 bloggers and activists it wanted prosecuted and executed for making derogatory statements about Islam. A new kind of jihadist mobilisation surfaced shortly thereafter. On 15 February 2013, ten days after the Shahbagh demo