By Iftekharul Bashar
The global threat of violent extremism is becoming more dispersed and localised, as exemplified by the emerging trend in Bangladesh. A relatively new group named Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), which draws inspiration from the global jihadist movement, is t
Bangladesh, which experienced a first wave of violent radicalisation from 1999-2005, might be on its way to witnessing a second one. The emergence of ABT underscores the fact that, as the new generation of violent extremists is taking over, cyberspace is increasingly becoming important. It is accelerating the spread of ideology, facilitating networking, and proliferating training manuals for terrorist attacks. Above all it is narrowing the gap between local and global militant movements.
The ABT committed the murder of a Bangladeshi blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, because of his “atheist” views. Haider’s throat was slit after he was hacked to death by ideologically-motivated followers who believed it was their religious obligation to do so.
On August 12, Bangladeshi authorities arrested radical cleric Mufti Jasimuddin Rahmani, the leader of the ABT, along with 30 of his followers. Mufti Jasimuddin used Muslim religious institutions like mosques and madrasahs to instigate Bangladeshi youth to wage armed jihad against the state. At least two members of ABT are followers of al-Qaeda and have been detained abroad for militant ties and activities.
What makes the ABT different from other known militant outfits in Bangladesh arguably is its propaganda and indoctrination capability. Unlike other groups, the ABT has a strong presence in cyberspace, where it is leveraging the technological skills of its members. By translating and disseminating the materials produced by the al-Qaeda network, this group is trying to introduce a jihadist movement in the local language.
Through its cyberspace presence this group has been able to locate and radicalise a small and vulnerable fringe of Bangladeshi youth, highlighting the impact that the new media has on radicalisation and violent extremism. Starting as an online group with blogs and websites, Ansarullah emerged as an organisation with a four-stage mission, starting from inspiring people to join armed jihad to the establishment of Sharia-based rule by killing all opposing forces.
The first wave of jihadist movements from 1999-2005 was led by Bangladeshis who participated in the Afghan mujahideen resistance against Soviet occupation. However, Islamist militancy failed to take root due to the lack of popular support and government counter-terrorism initiatives.
Bangladesh has a zero-tolerance policy towards extremism and militancy. The country strengthened cooperation with regional and international partners and brought about major changes in the legal framework to ensure internal security. As a result of the authorities’ counter-terrorism efforts, there has been a decline in attacks and Bangladeshi terrorist/extremist groups remained weak and in disarray. Interestingly, ABT has surfaced at a time when the law enforcement environment is hostile.
However, the challenges are far more complex than before. Bangladesh will need to continue its zero-tolerance policy towards militancy and strengthen its counter-terrorism capabilities. The ABT’s emergence is evidence that violent extremists can and do adapt to changes in the security environment.
As the ground in Bangladesh is hostile, they make the best use of cyberspace to reach their goals. As the current global trend suggests, violent extremists are empowering themselves with information technology and the new media. Bangladesh needs to develop its capability to detect, monitor, prevent and counter online radical activities and their impact on the ground.
With many extremist websites being hosted offshore, it is important to ensure that no terrorist group gets cyber sanctuary. Bangladesh needs to develop more international cooperation to deny cyberspace to violent extremists and terrorists.
Iftekharul Bashar is an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.