Nice to Singapore to Dhaka: Joining the dots on terrorism

Radical ideologies are spreading faster than before, and appealing to vastly different cross-sections of people. How can this be tackled?

In Bangladesh, a popular cafe in the capital, Dhaka, is attacked on July 1 by youngsters from well-educated, wealthy backgrounds who kill the cafe's Italian, Japanese, Indian and local patrons.

In Singapore, on July 12, four radicalised Bangladeshi construction workers are sentenced under the Internal Security Act for funding global terror outfit Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In France, on July 14, a 31-year-old delivery driver - a Nice resident born in Tunisia who had shown no overt signs of radicalisation - drives a cargo truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing 84 people and injuring more than 200.

Other than the common thread of terrorism, the disconnect of geography and distinct identity of these three countries and the perpetrators are significant. One, Bangladesh, is a progressive Muslim democracy and a developing country; the second, Singapore, is an energetic Asian economy known for its efficiency and discipline; the third, France, is a developed European country known for its liberal social values.

The attack by armed militants on a cafe in Dhaka's diplomatic enclave marks an alarming peak in the violence that has hit Bangladesh in recent times. Unlike previous attacks which singled out secular bloggers, LGBT activists and religious minorities, this was different. "Soft target" cafe customers - foreigners and locals who just happened to be there - were killed by the well-coordinated and heavily armed assailants.

The Bangladeshi nationals arrested in Singapore, meanwhile, were as well-organised as the militants of the Dhaka attack. According to court documents, each of the men had clearly defined roles, from financial to security and fighter councillor.

In the case of the France attack, ISIS claimed responsibility for it. "The person who carried out the operation in Nice, France, to run down people was one of the soldiers of Islamic State," the Amaq news agency affiliated with the militant group said on its Telegram account.

As the French authorities probe the attacker's motives, what is noteworthy is that while recruits of Al-Qaeda were mostly home-grown militants from madrasahs, ISIS is casting the net wider in its recruitment.

According to a policy paper titled "ISIS in the West" by International Security - part of the New America think-tank - as of last November, there were 604 militants from 26 Western countries who had left home to fight for ISIS. These fighters represent a demographic profile different from those of other militants, mostly from poor backgrounds and with little education. The average age of these Western male militants is 25 and for females, 22. Of the recruits, 60 per cent have middle- and high-school qualifications, 30 per cent have a university background, and 0.5 per cent hold higher education degrees.

Traditional approaches to counter-terrorism consisting of hard-power tactics might have been useful against groups like Al-Qaeda. However, countering the ideology such as that dispensed by ISIS, which radicalises cross-sections of people across continents, is a different game.

Conventional methods will not work in a situation where terrorism grows from within. It requires a deeper understanding of what motivates people of diverse socio-economic backgrounds and nationalities to ditch their family and friends to embark into uncharted territory filled with hatred and revenge, fury and carnage.

Whether it involves educated urban youth or poorly educated overseas workers or a frustrated loner, radical ideologies are spreading much faster and wider than before. The questions are: What is this new dimension in radicalisation, and what is the common thread pulling the diverse demographics together?

While pundits debate what results in such an ever-expanding ideological outreach, the reality is that extremists, in the form of religious zealots or free-speech advocates operating in extremes, do not bode well for any society.

The murder of innocents in Paris in the Charlie Hebdo headquarters was perpetrated by young men radicalised from cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and images of US torture in Iraq. Terrorist outfits such as ISIS exploit religious sensitivity by appealing to aggrieved Muslims.

Since 2005, there have been more than 10 incidences arising from caricatures of the Prophet printed in newspapers and magazines across Norway, Germany, Denmark, France and the United States. Ironically, the very societies being attacked are inadvertently ending up providing fuel to the propaganda machine of ISIS for new recruits.

Religious sensitivities can run deep and, if pricked recklessly, can lead to unforeseen consequences. Just as a cartoon exhibition on the Holocaust in Teheran upsets Jews, needless ridicule of Islam offends even the most liberal-minded Muslim.

Interestingly, there have been hardly any Muslims, including among the misguided extremists, who have offended either Christianity or Judaism. It is time to pause and reflect - and not just blame, shame and counter-attack in a vicious circle with more lives lost at the hands of terrorists mesmerised by a hate doctrine that has nothing to do with Islam.

It is important to look beyond the surface to understand the psyche and mindset of desperate people putting their lives at risk in pursuit of extreme ideologies. If the world continues to turn a blind eye to the sufferings of Palestinians or the tragedy taking place in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where innocent civilians also die from drone attacks and bombs, it makes the task easier for radical outfits like ISIS to lure a broad spectrum of people into their fold.

If global terrorism is to be tackled, a change is needed in both thinking and strategy. Unless the dots are connected, there are likely to be more tragedies.


  • The writer is chairman of The Institute for Policy, Advocacy and Governance, a Bangladesh think-tank.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2016, with the headline 'Nice to Singapore to Dhaka: Joining the dots on terrorism'. Print Edition | Subscribe