Bangladesh: Political Polarization Makes Return of Terrorism Increasingly Likely
Brian M. Perkins
Incidents of terrorism have declined significantly in Bangladesh over the past several years following the devastating attack on the Holey Artisan Baker in Dhaka on July 1, 2016 that claimed the lives of 29 people, including 18 foreign nationals. The decline came as the Bangladeshi government and security forces adopted a brute force counterterrorism strategy spearheaded by the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit. The number of successful terrorist attacks are down, but there are questions as to the long-term efficacy of the government’s strategy as the counterterrorism operations are not taking place inside a vacuum. Instead, they are occurring amid a backdrop of increasing political polarization and Islamist radicalization.
Counterterrorism operations have led to the arrest of more than 1,000 individuals and the death of more than 100 suspects. The operations have managed to disrupt the networks and leadership of the main militant groups—Ansar al-Islam and Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB)—but both have remained resilient and appear to have been able to reorganize both within Bangladesh and in India. Recent arrests, including that of a regional JMB commander in March, have indicated that the group is still actively rebuilding and recruiting (Dhaka Tribune, March 30).
Meanwhile, the ruling Awami League won a landslide victory in the December 2018 elections, securing not only the prime minister position but also 288 of the 300 parliamentary seats. The victory was heavily contested by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whose activists are regularly the subject of government crackdowns and purges within the military. The landslide victory has eroded confidence in the country’s democratic process and has led to the disenfranchisement of younger opposition activists, who are already bordering on the more violent side of politics. The Awami League government has also, despite its purported secular agenda, grown increasingly close with the more hardline Islamist party, Hefazat-e-Islam, giving the group an even more significant voice and riling secular activists. Similarly, the Awami League’s political maneuvering and realignment with parties based in the volatile Chittagong Hill Tracts has seen a significant escalation in violence (Dhaka Tribune, April 1). The Chittagong Hill Tracts are a fertile ground for militant recruitment due to longstanding political and economic grievances.
With militant groups already reorganizing in Bangladesh and India and the increasingly polarized political environment in Bangladesh—which is trending toward a one-party state—the return of terrorism is seemingly becoming more likely as the months pass. While brute force counterterrorism operations have been helpful in disrupting terrorist activity, the country’s political environment is stifling efforts to completely eradicate militancy and politically motivated attacks.
Democratic Republic of Congo: New Islamic State Branch Could Capitalize on ADF Network
Brian M. Perkins
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been grappling with rising ethnic violence as well as a decades-long insurgency by militants from the Allied Democratic Front, and now the country is faced with the emergence of the latest Islamic State branch—Islamic State Central Africa Province. DRC’s restive Nord Kivu province has long been the center of ADF activity, with the group regularly carrying out violent attacks on security forces and civilians alike, and many expected the group was behind an attack against the army near Beni in mid-April. However, the Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the attack, which reportedly left several soldiers dead, via its official Amaq News Agency (Twitter.com/SimNasr, April 18). The claim of responsibility was followed by a communique in which the new IS branch claimed to have raided an Army barracks in the Beni region, killing three soldiers and wounding five others. The communique was the first instance in which the Islamic State in Central Africa Province name had been used but IS ties and overtures have long been present in the region.
Evidence of ties between ADF and IS have been mounting over the past few years as the ADF’s agenda and ideology has increasingly shifted from political to a more radical Islamist view in line with that of IS. The majority of the evidence linking the two groups has been tentative, mostly consisting of instances in which IS propaganda and books have been found at ADF camps and the groups adoption of the name Madina at Tauheed Wau Mujahedeen (MTM), meaning “The city of monotheism and of those who affirm the same” (Congo Research Group, November 14, 2018). Further, while Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi was in Washington in early April, he warned of the threat that IS would seek to exploit the situation in the country and linked that threat to the ADF (Digital Congo, April 8)
While ties between the ADF and IS are evident, the extent of the relationship between the two is unclear, as is the composition of the newly minted Islamic State Central Africa Province. The announcement of Islamic State Central Africa Province does not yet indicate a rapid deterioration of the security environment in DRC, and it does not signal a significant, quick shift in the jihadist landscape or the type of violence employed in the region. After all, the ADF has become known for its violent tactics and for brutally killing civilian women and children. The ADF, however, does provide a ready and resilient network of militants with strong ties to local tribes—for years members have married into local tribes in the areas they operate. ADF also provides a leadership framework akin to that of other IS provinces, with highly isolated leadership and dispersed factions capable of operating autonomously.
The coming weeks and months will likely shed further light on the nature of the new IS branch’s activities and local ties, and while its emergence does not signal a drastic change in the environment, it is a startling development that could have significant long-term repercussions. Unlike IS’ other branches in Africa, the branch in the DRC would not have to contend with significant contingents of both local and international forces, such as France’s Operation Barkhane or the African Union Mission in Somalia. As such, IS has particularly fertile ground to grow and a ready-made network of militants with deep local roots from which it could draw upon. Further, DRC could be a particularly appealing destination for foreign fighters due to the lack of international security forces as well as the lower cost of travel and ease of entry into the country.