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The Bangladesh factor behind recent ISA arrests

Why has Bangladesh come to the fore as an extremist threat? One reason is that it has become a battlefield in the struggle for global dominance between terror network Al-Qaeda and its powerful offshoot, ISIS

The recent series of arrests in Singapore under the Internal Security Act (ISA) of two separate groups of Bangladeshi foreign workers - 27 late last year and a further eight last month - have raised eyebrows.

Why has Bangladesh suddenly come to the fore? As it turns out, the arrests are instructive in three senses. First, it shows how the competition between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for leadership of the global extremist movement has become truly globalised.

Second, it drives home how the extremist Islamist ideology - a creed that justifies the violent setting up of an Islamic State - that both Al-Qaeda and ISIS broadly share can thrive in a sociopolitical environment that is conducive to it.

Third, it confirms that the only posture that makes sense in the escalating global conflagration between extremist Islamism and the wider world is one of unapologetic zero tolerance.

GLOBALISATION OF THE AL-QAEDA-ISIS CONTEST

Recent incidents in Singapore, South-east Asia and Bangladesh all point to the intensifying global contest between Al-Qaeda and one of its ideological offshoots, ISIS, for global pre-eminence in the international extremist Islamist movement.


Bangladeshi protesters and former Rajshahi University students during a rally in Dhaka on April 29 against the killing of Prof Siddique. His attack and death were claimed by ISIS. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

This contest began the day ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi inaugurated the "caliphate" in June 2014 in Iraq and called on the world's Muslims to pledge allegiance to it as a religious obligation.

ISIS, till then just a particularly formidable splinter of the parent Al-Qaeda network founded by Osama bin Laden, suddenly assumed huge significance among extremists worldwide.

Osama and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had always conceptualised the caliphate as a downstream aspiration, but ISIS has been trying to make it a reality in the present time.

This was exemplified by its military successes on the ground in Iraq and its territorial control over swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, enabling it to inspire tens of thousands of people who have joined the ranks as foreign terrorist fighters.

While the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front continued to represent the former's interest in Syria in clashes with both the Assad regime as well as ISIS, Zawahiri was keen to signal to would-be supporters and potential recruits worldwide that Al-Qaeda was still worthy of their moral and material support.

He thus established Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) as a new venture to radicalise that region's huge Muslim population. One country that is very much part of this new strategic plan, not only for its own Muslim population but also because of its strategic location, abetting geographically on eastern India and Myanmar - and by implication, South-east Asia - is Bangladesh.

EXTREMIST CHALLENGE TO BANGLADESH

Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, seceded from Pakistan in a bloody war in December 1971. As envisaged by charismatic founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh is a constitutionally secular country although about 90 per cent of the population is Muslim.

Hence, the native Bengali culture of the country and the customs and practices of other creeds such as Hinduism, Christianity and, of course, Islam have traditionally enjoyed public and official protection.

However, since 1972, the military governments that have intervened in the often unstable democratic political process at various times in the country's history politicised Islam in order to burnish their legitimacy against the backdrop of growing Islamic revivalism in the late 1970s and 1980s. These military regimes dropped the secularism principle from the Constitution in 1977 and declared Islam the state religion in 1988. While the Bangladeshi Supreme Court reasserted the constitutional secular principle in 2010, Islam remains the state religion.

The combined impact of these constitutional adjustments, the long-term influence of Saudi-funded mosques and madrasahs promoting the puritanical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, and the return of large numbers of Bangladeshi workers from the Middle East, where they had been immersed in Wahhabi orthodoxy, have been crucial.

In the eyes of many commentators, these trends have contributed to a religious and cultural environment conducive to the gestation of extremism.

Long before AQIS was set up in 2014, Bangladeshi society had already been in the throes of a culture war between secular, liberal civil society on the one hand and increasingly hardline extremists on the other.

As early as August 2005, one home-grown Islamist group, Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), had gained national notoriety for setting off hundreds of bombs around the country, although the death count was thankfully low. JMB has since been banned.

There have been a number of other home-grown extremist groups that have been banned as well, but nevertheless still appear to operate under the radar.

What has greatly complicated the situation now is the aforementioned Al-Qaeda versus ISIS contest. Thus, the recent spate of deadly machete attacks on secular and liberal bloggers, academics and activists have been carried out apparently by newer transnationally linked rather than locally focused outfits linked to AQIS, such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and its successor Ansar al-Islam group.

Meanwhile, the latest issue of Dabiq, ISIS' online magazine, reports that a command structure in Bangladesh has been set up with a view to ultimately incorporate the country within the ISIS caliphate. ISIS had claimed responsibility for eight low-key attacks in the country since September last year. However, the head of the ISIS Bangladeshi operation, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, expressed his desire to conduct a large attack in the country to boost ISIS' credentials among other home-grown extremists in the country.

Christian missionaries, Hindu figures, Shi'ites and foreigners have been identified as potential targets. Most recently, the murder on April 23 of English Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, who was hacked to death at a bus stop in north-west Bangladesh, was claimed by ISIS.

This was the first ISIS-claimed attack since the latest Dabiq issue appeared. Particularly telling is that Prof Siddique was apparently a defender of Bengali music, poetry and literature. He did not have a history of making anti-Muslim comments, yet he was targeted for his "call to atheism", according to ISIS sources.

Prof Siddique's assassination suggests that the extremist war on the Bengali secular experiment, under which all creeds currently receive equal constitutional protection, can only intensify, thanks to the ongoing AQIS-ISIS competition for bragging rights and recruits.

NEED FOR ZERO TOLERANCE TOWARDS EXTREMISM

In a very real sense, therefore, there is a struggle going on for the cultural ethos of constitutionally secular, Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Moreover, the growing AQIS-ISIS rivalry apparently being played out on Bangladeshi soil is generating ripple effects elsewhere, including Singapore. While the first group of Bangladeshis arrested in Singapore late last year were apparently linked to the AQIS-affiliated ABT, the individuals detained last month aspired to be part of ISIS.

It is imperative for Dhaka to openly confront the real nature of the threat and take strong measures, in consultation and coordination with its international partners, to crack down decisively on home-grown and transnational extremist groups. Failure to do so would only permit the latter's creeping erosion of the traditional, progressive Bengali Muslim soul of the country to continue.

Zero tolerance is the key, as in Singapore. While a much smaller city-state, Singapore's policy of zero tolerance of extremism is utterly sensible. If not checked by systematic educational and tough legislative measures, extremism - even if the actual plots unearthed are for the moment amateurish - could violently unravel Singapore's multicultural fabric.

Dhaka and Singapore have much reason, therefore, to compare notes and collaborate even further.

• Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna is Head of Policy Studies and Coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme in the Office of the Executive Deputy Chairman, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2016, with the headline 'The Bangladesh factor behind recent ISA arrests'. Print Edition | Subscribe