On May 25, the Bangladesh government banned the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) organization under the country’s 2013 anti-terrorism laws. The ABT was behind the recent killing of three secular/atheist bloggers—Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman and Anant Bijoy Das—whose writings criticized organized religion and the intolerance of the country’s Islamist radicals. However, while the immediate trigger for the ban on the ABT was the killing of these three bloggers—their hacking to death evoked immense outrage in Bangladesh and abroad—the outfit had been on the radar of security agencies since at least 2013. Notably, in February of that year, ABT activists hacked to death Ahmed Rajib Haider, another secular blogger whose writings galvanized the so-called “Shahbag protests,” which were held against Islamist groups involved in the country’s 1971 war of independence.
In August 2013, the ABT’s leader, Mufti Jashimuddin Rahmani, was arrested along with 30 of his followers for making incendiary speeches in mosques and madrassas. Police later recovered from Rahmani a “hit list” that identified 12 secular liberals, including Haider, for elimination (Bdnews24.com, August 8, 2014). The ABT has potential links with al-Qaeda, and five ABT activists, who were arrested for Haider’s murder, were hailed as “Five Lions of the Ummah” on the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Mujahideen website (Daily Observer [Dhaka], November 7, 2014).
Waves of Religious Radicalism
The context behind the ABT’s rise is the decades-long clash between secular liberals and religious fundamentalists in Bangladesh. Although the 1971 Liberation War marked the triumph of linguistic nationalism in Bangladesh, the Islamists were not fully defeated. Within a few years, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the country’s leading Islamist group that was banned for its role in the 1971 war, was resurrected and has benefitted from patronage received from successive regimes, whether military or democratic. Its madrassas also provided young recruits for militant Islamist outfits that proliferated from the mid-1980s.
Bangladesh has witnessed two waves of religious radicalism in recent decades (RSIS, October 8, 2013). The first (1999-2005) was led by Bangladeshis who fought alongside the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s and was dominated by groups like Harakat ul-Jihad al-Islami-Bangladesh (HUJI-B) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB); this wave included hundreds of Bangladeshi youth waging jihad in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Upon returning home, they radicalized others and joined local extremist outfits. At the domestic level, a fundamentalist-friendly coalition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which included the JI and the Islamic Oikya Jote came to power in 2001 (Asia Times, December 9, 2004). It was only in 2005 that the Bangladesh government, acting under international pressure, began banning various extremist and jihadist outfits. The crackdown caused a lull in extremist activity, although various banned outfits continued to function quietly under new names or front organizations.
A second wave in religious radicalism was sparked by the secular Awami League-led government’s setting up of a domestic tribunal in 2010 to try JI leaders and other Islamists accused of war crimes during the 1971 war. Islamist mobilization gathered further momentum in early 2013 in response to the Shahbag protests when secular liberals took to the streets and cyberspace to demand the death penalty for war crimes convicts. In their blogs, these individuals were sharply critical of Islam and the intolerance of Islamists (Dikgaj.wordpress.com, February 16, 2013). Islamists in return denounced secular liberals as “apostates” and openly called for their elimination. For instance, the Chittagong-based Hefajat-e-Islam issued a 13-point demand for Shahbag protestors and “atheist[s]… bloggers and anti-Islamists” to be hanged to death (YouTube, April 6, 2013). Of the 84 “enemies of Islam’” on its “hit list,” nine people, including Roy, Rahman and Das have been killed so far, and several others have been attacked (Risingbd.com, March 30).
Similar yet Different
Although terrorism and religious extremism were linked in both waves of radicalism in Bangladesh, there are significant differences between new radical outfits like ABT and the older ones. The goal of the major radical outfits of the 1999-2005 period was to impose a rigid, narrow interpretation of Islamic law on Bangladesh. They sought to achieve this through undermining the authority of the state by carrying out spectacular terrorist attacks that made the state appear weak and helpless. In 2005, for instance, the JMB carried out over 500 well-synchronized bomb attacks in over 300 locations across Bangladesh over a span of an hour. By contrast, the second wave appears to have less sweeping goals; at least for now, it seems aimed at silencing the articulation of secular and/or atheist views. Bomb attacks are rare, with outfits like the ABT preferring to eliminate specifically identified individuals by hacking them to death in crowded places. Machetes and meat cleavers have been the weapons of choice. The simplicity of such attacks has made it difficult for Bangladesh’s police to prevent them (Huffington Post, March 4).
Although their methods of killing opponents are rudimentary, the new outfits are technologically-savvy. They have a significant presence in cyberspace and counter criticism of secular-atheist writers on social media. They also use the internet not only to keep abreast with what their “enemies” are writing but also to identify their targets (Dhaka Tribune, November 3, 2014). These groups also use the internet for propaganda; the ABT is said to be translating al-Qaeda’s online material into Bengali and disseminating it, thus acting as an important link between the global jihadist movement and the local population (RSIS, October 8, 2013). Despite this, many of the movement’s foot soldiers are not familiar with the internet. For instance, Washiqur Rahman’s two killers had neither read his blogs nor knew how to operate a Facebook account, while being nonetheless willing to kill him for his online writings (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, May 21).
Ban and Beyond
The ABT’s immediate response to the ban has been defiance. Weeks after the ban was imposed, it issued death threats to ten people, including the junior minister for home affairs, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal (Bdnews24.com, June 2). This bravado was probably aimed at boosting the morale of its rank and file. In the longer-term, the ban is likely to strengthen the hands of the law enforcement agencies to arrest activists. However, it is also likely to push the outfit deeper underground, which makes it harder for police to trace its leaders and their hideouts, and the ban is also likely to shift ABT’s activities increasingly into cyberspace. Recruitment and fundraising will be affected adversely.
The ban, however, is not likely to mean the end of ABT. Banned outfits like HUJI-B are active ten years after they were outlawed. There is also the potential for ABT to shift from carrying out targeted knife attacks on individuals to using bomb attacks, as during the country’s first wave of radicalism. Over the past year, police have found large amounts of weapons, explosives, detonators and bomb making manuals in the possession of arrested extremists. In addition, several banned outfits have come together on a common platform, the Bangladeshi Jihadi Group, which should provide a boost to their operations (Daily Star [Dhaka], October 26, 2014).
Adding to the complexity of the present wave of religious radicalism in Bangladesh is the growing influence of the Islamic State group on young Islamists (Terrorism Monitor, February 6). Reports in the Bangladeshi media have notably drawn attention to the arrest of Bangladeshis recruiting locals on behalf of the Islamic State (Dhaka Tribune, September 30, 2014). If these are true, then Bangladesh’s second wave of radicalism is likely to be not only prolonged but also, more intense and violent.
Much will, of course, depend on how scrupulous the Awami League government is in tackling religious extremism. Its performance on this score has been mixed so far. While it has confronted the Islamists head on, some of its steps may have provided a shot in the arm to radicals, allowing them to portray themselves as being unjustly persecuted; the ban on JI, for instance, has had this effect (Bdnews24.com, March 6, 2013). In addition, the government has also sometimes sought to appease the radicals, with some atheist bloggers being arrested for their writings (Daily Star [Dhaka], April 2, 2013). Meanwhile, the government has made little effort to foster a culture of tolerance, to reinvigorate democratic institutions or to restore public confidence in the judiciary, all of which will be needed to dissuade the country’s youth from heeding the call of religious radicals.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher and journalist based in Bangalore, India. She has written extensively on South Asian peace and conflict, political and security issues for The Diplomat, Asia Times and China Brief.