Transnational links, political vacuum fuel Bangladeshis' turn to terrorism

The arrests and detention of eight Bangladeshi men in Singapore for forming a cell to carry out terrorist attacks back home is a worrisome reminder of the escalating threats facing the South Asian nation, particularly those involving its diaspora. Last year, the Government of Singapore busted a similar network of over two dozen radicalised Bangladeshi migrants and deported them to their home country.

The phenomenon of some bigoted Bangladeshi migrants abusing the hospitality of host countries they find employment in, to then engage in terrorist planning, is unfortunately not limited to Singapore.

British Bangladeshis have come to attention in recent times for forming a large cohort of sympathisers and operatives of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Last year, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, publicly warned her British counterpart, Mr David Cameron, that Islamist hotheads of Bangladeshi origin were using the soil of the United Kingdom to recruit and brainwash misguided Bangladeshi youth in her country to join ISIS.

Home-grown terrorist outfits in Bangladesh have witnessed a revival in the past couple of years, thanks to funding and connections with hardline elements within the transnational Bangladeshi diaspora. While the vast majority of Bangladeshi migrants mind their business quietly, engaging in low-skilled menial jobs in rich countries to save money and remit to their impoverished relatives in Bangladesh, there is a segment among them which is enmeshed in global terrorist waves and finance channels.

Just what are some of these transnational linkages?

One example is the network of expatriate Bangladeshis based in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Libya, Pakistan and the United Kingdom who are active in running so-called "Islamic" charities, associations and non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh and neighbouring countries. These groups have been penetrating madrasahs (Islamic schools where Quranic learning precedes secular subjects ) in rural and urban Bangladesh, stoking a resurgence of terrorism.

Then there are Pakistani diplomats in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, who have also been blamed for allegedly financing extremist groups such as the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, which was earlier believed to have been crushed by the firm hand of the Bangladeshi state, but is now staging a comeback in alliance via the recently named Al-Qaeda in South Asia.

The other notorious terrorist movement, Ansarullah Bangla Team, which has been mercilessly assassinating secularists, atheists, religious minorities and independent bloggers, also has foreign patrons and benefactors.

The growing menace of Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh is thus inextricably linked to the international mobilisational efforts of the diaspora and the attraction of the "caliphate" model being popularised by ISIS.

Interestingly, security analysts have observed that the new wave of transnational Islamist fighters from Bangladesh since 2014 do not hail from underprivileged backgrounds. Rather, most of the current lot are well-educated and from relatively wealthy families who travel abroad frequently and can unassumingly slip into the landscape of cosmopolitan metropolitan centres like London or Singapore. Detecting and stopping them before they go on the rampage is harder as not all of them are the usual suspects who are lured into violent ways due to poverty or lack of employment opportunities.

One has to look beyond economics to gauge the underlying domestic factors driving the rebirth of radical Islamism in Bangladesh today.

The main structural weakness that is facilitating the return of extremism is a gaping vacuum in Bangladesh's polity, wherein Sheikh Hasina is wielding a state apparatus that leaves little room for expression of constructive dissent from civil society or unbiased reporting in the news media.

Bangladesh, which once prided itself on its activism and contestation for power, is virtually a one-party state now under Sheikh Hasina's Awami League, which has no serious counterbalancing force. The mainstream opposition, the Bangladesh National Party, did not contest the last elections and its followers feel persecuted, disenfranchised and frustrated.

It is in such a non-inclusive political milieu that Islamist terrorists are finding opportunity and space to reorganise and connect with fanatical sections of the diaspora living abroad.

Ironically, Sheikh Hasina herself is staunchly secular and has been targeted for assassination by Islamist radicals who blame her as the chief obstacle to ushering in their "caliphate" or syariah-based utopia. The trials she has pursued of religious extremists who committed war crimes during the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 have earned the undying wrath of Islamists. Yet, her style of rule has been so authoritarian that it has eviscerated secular and progressive intermediary institutions and civic bodies that could keep religious fundamentalists in check.

The collapse of Bangladeshi civil society in the last five years or so under the state's relentless crackdown has paved the way for usurpation of public space by ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates.

Violence by religious fundamentalists is also rising, due to a regularisation of election-related clashes, killings and vandalism in Bangladesh. For every secular or atheist blogger or writer who is felled with machete blows by brutal terrorists, dozens of partisans from political parties are routinely killed in hostile rivalries.

Hardcore religious zealots are on the march, thanks to a general political climate that is non- accommodative. When normal democratic politics is conducted like war, there is plenty of room for holy war as well to raise its head.

Only a combination of a significant course correction in Bangladesh's domestic political trajectory, and vigilant intelligence sharing with host countries where the Bangladeshi diaspora resides, can avert a worsening of the situation. Continuation of unhealthy patterns will exacerbate the void which ISIS is already exploiting.

•Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2016, with the headline 'Transnational links, political vacuum fuel Bangladeshis' turn to terrorism'. Print Edition | Subscribe