Countering Terrorism in Bangladesh and Beyond

counter terrorism bangladesh

Since terrorists mostly outsmart law-enforcers and their victims, counterterrorism (CT) is an arduous tightrope walking. Effective CT requires governments, law-enforcers, and all potential victims of terrorism to understand what terrorism is all about. However, false flag operations, cry wolves, and politically motivated persecution of wrong people, and even invasions of the wrong countries have become very challenging to successful CT operations, in the world. The US-led invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya – among other places – in the name of countering state-sponsored and non-state terrorism may be mentioned in this regard. Ruling parties in Bangladesh are not free from tilting at the windmills to decimate their adversaries, albeit in the name of nabbing terrorists.

Time after time, media reports and through braggadocious assertions ruling party politicians inform us about Bangladeshi law-enforcers’ “successful operations” against Islamist terrorists in different parts of the country. One may, however, take all these assertions about the existence of large number of terrorists in the country, and law-enforcers’ “successful operations” against them, as typical political baloneys, not worth a dime. As the title suggests, this piece is not solely about problems of terrorism or CT operations in Bangladesh; it rather suggests the whole brouhaha about terrorism and its counter measures are problematic to the extreme. It is as problematic as removing a non-existing or the wrong tumour from a patient’s body! “CT operations” in Bangladesh quite often are euphemisms for political witch-hunting. We are used to reading and hearing about the so-called “cross-fire” or “gunfight” of law-enforcers with terrorists and criminals (due to collective ignorance, the two categories often remain undifferentiated) as evidences of the existence of terrorists and their “successful” eradication by the Government.

Excepting some sporadic, inept, and amateurish attacks by the JMB and HUJI activists in Bangladesh during 1999 and 2006, most “terrorist attacks” here do not fit in the profiles of terrorism. While global Islamist terrorist networks like the Taliban and al Qaeda inspired JMB and HUJI leaders and activists in Bangladesh, the ISIS’s short-lived success in Syria and Iraq inspired the Holi Artisan Café attack in Dhaka in July 2016. Certain evidences suggest that the mastermind of the Café attack had some links with the ISIS network. However, as there are so many unanswered questions about 9/11 attacks, and about Hillary Clinton’s and General (ret) Wesley Clark’s assertions that US “friends and allies” were behind the creation of the ISIS, so are there questions about who orchestrated some terrorist attacks in Bangladesh since 1999.

Since the Islamist terrorist attack at Holi Artisan Café in Bangladesh on 1stJuly 2016, politicians, analysts, and laymen in the country have come up with multiple hypotheses about the attack, and modus operandi to counter similar attacks in the future. Unfortunately, while their “theories” are half-baked, the Government-run CT operators’ modus operandi reflects their ignorance, and refusal to admit their lack of understanding of the problem. The July 2016 attack has simply pushed the traditional CT “experts” to a tight corner. Contrary to their expectations and the profiles of Islamist terrorists on their books, only one of the terrorists here had some exposure to madrasa education, the rest had secular education at an English-medium private university in the country, and came from well-to-do families. No wonder, many law-enforcers and intellectuals are in a state of denial! They refuse to call the Café Attack an Islamist act of terrorism, let alone an ISIS-sponsored one. However, there are evidences suggesting ISIS connections/blessings to the attack.

The July 2016 attack should ring a bell. It told us no country is immune to terrorism. Hence the importance of effective CT measures in Bangladesh! Then again, effective CT is contingent on the following points: a) understanding/defining terrorism; b) terrorism is VERY different from crime and warfare; c) someone’s terrorist is someone’s freedom fighter; d) terrorism in country X could be very different from county Y; e) terrorism in the present is different from the past, and we can only imagine what the phenomenon will look like in future; f) terrorism and insurgency are tactics in asymmetrical warfare, and are weapons of the weak, adopted by the weaker parties against the stronger one; and finally, g) today’s terrorist could be tomorrow’s insurgent, and even soldier and vice versa.

Meanwhile, thanks to the over-polarised politics in Bangladesh, top Awami League leaders had left no stone unturned to portray their arch political rivals, the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, as al Qaeda’s proxies in the country. Days after 9/11 attacks, on the eve of the October 2001 Parliamentary Elections in Bangladesh, coloured billboards with Khaleda Zia’s and Osama bin Laden’s portraits – side by side – appeared on walls in Dhaka city. Interestingly, Abul Barakat, a pro-Awami League Professor of Dhaka University, published his so-called research paper on Middle East-financed madrasas in Bangladesh as the harbingers of Islamist terrorism in the country [Economics of Fundamentalism in Bangladesh, Dhaka: Dhaka University Press, 2005]. As assumptions about the possible source of Islamist terror in Bangladesh are mainly politically motivated, which single out certain political parties and madrasa-educated marginalized sections of the population as the main sources of the problem, so are they not relevant to formulate any comprehensive CT programme. Islamophobia and excuses to establish Western hegemony in Muslim-majority countries are integral to the discourse of countering so-called Islamist terrorism.

However, the irrelevance of these assumptions by local and Western leaders, journalists, and analysts tell us something very ominous: the whole discourse of Islamist terrorism – before and after 9/11 – is biased and politically motivated lies. Not long after 9/11, Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner wrote the most alarmist piece, “Beware of Bangladesh – Bangladesh a Cocoon of Terror” in the Far Eastern Economic Review(April 4, 2002), giving the impression that terrorists were going to stage a successful Islamist revolution in the country. Soon, another Western journalist, Alex Perry unloaded his “deadly cargo” to attack Bangladesh. His write-up in the Time magazine, “Deadly Cargo – Bangladesh has become a safe haven for al Qaeda” (Oct 21, 2002) boosted the morale of those who desperately wanted to tarnish the image of the government as the harbinger of al Qaeda in Bangladesh, notwithstanding the bad reputation for the country.

While Bangladesh was fighting the homegrown Islamist terror outfits, HUJI (B) and JMB in 2005 (and soon crushed them by early 2006), yet another nasty piece against Bangladesh came out in the prestigious New York Times. This piece by Eliza Griswold, “The Next Islamist Revolution?” (NYT, Jan 23, 2005), “convincingly” argued about an “impending” Islamist takeover of Bangladesh. The rubble-rousers didn’t stop until late 2008. While Indian journalist Hiranmay Karlekar (a former editor of the Hindustan Times) came up with a poorly written book with a hyper-sensational title, Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan?(SAGE Publications, New Delhi 2005), Harvard-educated renowned author/journalist Selig Harrison wrote a sensational nonsense, “Terrorism in Bangladesh”, in the Christian Science Monitor(July 8, 2008). The Bangladesh Government’s ambivalence, denials about the existence of any terrorist in the country, and its hyperbolic claims about Islamist terror infestation and cry wolves from time to time since 2001 are stumbling blocks to effective CT operations in the country.

Roughly two years after the publication of the Pew Research Center’s findings on the so-called “popular support for suicide terrorism” in Bangladesh in 2014, Christine Fair, Ali Hamza, and Rebecca Heller published an essay in the Foreign Policymagazine, titled “Popular Support for Suicide Terrorism in Bangladesh: Worse Than You Think” (Sept 4, 2016). At the very outset, Christine Fair et al strongly disagreed with former US Ambassador Dan Mozena, who in March 2014 considered Bangladesh to be “a moderate and generally secular and tolerant” country, in the following manner: “While Mozena’s statement reflects the general perception that Bangladesh is a success story of a moderate, secular, Muslim democracy, this view never rested on strong empirical grounds”. Then Fair and her colleagues tell us about the slow and steady growth of Islamism in Bangladesh, that they think, “enjoy popular support”. What’s exceedingly disturbing is the blatant lie, as one comes across in this piece: “Between January 2005 and June 2015, nearly 600 people have died in Islamist terrorist attacks, but 90 percent of those have taken place since 2013”. If one buys this grossly exaggerated account, then it appears that 540 people got killed at the hands of Islamist terrorists since 2013! We don’t have the evidence if Islamist terrorists were the killers of innocent people in late 2013 and early 2014, up to the February 5 elections in Bangladesh.

Understanding the enigmatic phenomenon of terrorism – which has more than a hundred definitions – is a major step toward effective CT operation. While greed, criminal instincts, or desire to settle old scores with people motivate criminals to commit crime, terrorists resort to violent attacks on people purely out of ideological commitments to right a wrong, or to establish an alternative socio-political and economic order. They target unarmed civilians, mostly innocent, and total strangers. In short, crime is an end in itself, terrorism is a means toward an end. Terrorism is very different from violent crime; and is very dissimilar from warfare. Hence the irrelevance of the “Criminal Justice Model” and the “War Model”, espoused by President George W. Bush’s rhetorical “War on Terror”!

Terrorists terrorise particular communities, states, or the whole world, often to publicise their cause through violence. Margaret Thatcher is right that publicity works as oxygen for terrorism. Most terrorists are non-state actors, but states could be perpetrators of terrorism as well. While non-state actors brag about their actions, and love publicity for them, state-terrorism is quite subtle, and the actors are in a denial mode. Hitler, Mussolini, Yahya Khan, Pinochet, the Shah of Iran, Mullah Umar, and Saddam Hussein (among others) who resorted to state-sponsored terrorism against their own people or foreign nationals, never ever confessed their terrorist acts.

As insurgents mainly target soldiers and law-enforcers, and terrorists unarmed civilians – preferably soft-targets like children, the elderly, and women, counterinsurgency (COIN) requires somewhat different approach and methodology from CT. However, renowned French COIN and CT expert and a veteran of the War of Algeria, David Galula argues, COIN and CT are “eighty per cent political”, and twenty per cent military and police operation, effective CT means effective political action to overpower terrorists. Of late, terrorists and insurgents have become almost indistinguishable. Powerful terrorists often turn into insurgents, and weak insurgents adopt terrorist methods.

Of late, terrorists and insurgents no longer live in watertight compartments. Frequently, they are the same people, sometimes operating as terrorists and insurgents simultaneously; or at times they change their roles and strategies in selecting their targets, innocent and unarmed civilians (soft targets) or armed law-enforcers/soldiers (hard targets). Nevertheless, today terrorist attacks and insurgencies are asymmetrical warfare tactics of weaker enemies against their much stronger adversaries.

Lone-wolves are another category of terrorists, who often kill innocent, unarmed civilians (mainly in Europe and America) to draw attention to their cause or ideology, which could be secular or motivated by some deviant religious beliefs. Fatal vehicle ramming attacks in Europe, Israel, and North America; the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013; US Army Major Nidal Hasan’s fatal shooting of 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood Texas in 2009; and Timothy McVeigh’s truck bomb attack in front of a Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 that killed 168 people and injured over 600 are examples of lone-wolf or stray-dog terror attacks. These attacks are least predictable and most difficult to prevent.

As terrorism – very similar to insurgency – is a political problem, so its primary prevention lies in effective political manoeuvering. Intelligence and law-enforcement provide secondary preventions. One of the major problems for secondary prevention however is the inaccuracy of identification and prediction. It can be very difficult to predict who will and will not become deviant and also where and when a crime will take place. One other thing to predict is what kind of items will be targeted by offenders or potential offenders.Unlike crime prevention, CT is not about monitoring recidivistic activities of terrorists, because the state cannot afford to give terrorists parole or a second chance to behave. Rehabilitating or deradicalizing terrorists is altogether a different thing.

No clinical or actuarial predictions of terrorism is possible at all. Terrorists, like criminals, mostly behave like normal people. These statistical factors include, race, sex, age, criminal history, intelligence level, and family background to mention a few. Which factors the rater chooses is completely up to them, just as it is in clinical predictions. Just as clinical predictions did, actuarial predictions made a large number of false predictions as well, though at a lesser scale. One of the main reasons for the false predictions are due to using group data to predict individual behavior, which will never work. False positive predication is something is predicted to occur but it does not. False negative prediction is something is predicted not to occur but it somehow does. False positive predictions predict an individual to do something in the future. False negative predications say a person is not a threat to society but partakes in negative behaviour later on in the future.

Secular or religious ideologies motivate terrorists to attack innocent people, mostly total strangers, indiscriminate of age and gender to terrorise their adversaries, which could be illegitimate governments/regimes run by foreigners, or their own people, rival communities, members of political opponents, class enemies, and potential rivals/enemies. They target innocent people – mainly women, elderly, and children – or soft-targets to convey a message. The message is about what terrorists actually want to achieve by righting the wrongs, redressing their grievances, or reversing the prevalent socio-political and economic orders. In short, terrorists want to draw global attention to their cause, and simultaneously intimidate the legitimate or illegitimate governments and their communal, political, or economic rivals to concede.

There is nothing legitimate or illegitimate about terrorism, as someone’s terrorist is always someone’s freedom fighter. It all depends on from which side of the fence we are observing terrorism. Terrorists want to do something very dramatic, repulsive, extremely gruesome, frightening, and even unimaginable. The suicide terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001 (9/11), is so far, the most horrid series of terror attacks in history. They not only drew global attention to the attacks but has also virtually separated the modern world into two distinct timeframes, the pre- and post-9/11 worlds. In short, unlike crime and warfare, terrorism is not an end in itself but a means toward an end.

Overwhelmingly, terrorists are non-state actors motivated by secular or religious ideologies, to right a wrong, to establish an alternative socio-political-economic order, or just to avenge murders, rapes, torture, subjugation, and humiliation of their own people by others. Sometimes, terrorists resort to killing and destruction out of anarchic/nihilistic motivations. Some terror is also state-sponsored extra-judicial killing of dissidents, outlaws, and even ordinary people to terrorise potential dissidents. State-sponsored terrorism often leads to decades of anarchy, and organized crime by law-enforcers who turn into non-state death-squads engaged in killing and extortion of ordinary people. Several Latin American and Asian countries, including Bangladesh and Philippines have had state-sponsored extra-judicial killing squads, having all the potential to turn into non-state death-squads. Only regime change through peaceful or violent means is the anti-dote to state-sponsored terrorism. Ordinary CT methods are totally ineffective against state terrorism.

Differentiating terrorism from crime is an essential prerequisite for successful CT operation, everywhere, including Bangladesh. Terrorists are not just band of criminals motivated to rob and kill people just for the sake of amassing wealth, and/or settling old scores, personal or political. Since there are more than a hundred definitions of terrorism, failing to select the right definition in a given situation in a given country by its government leads to a catastrophic failure in its CT operation.

We must realise, successful CT operation depends on the understanding that terrorists are not the most formidable security threat to any modern country with regular armed forces, police and intelligence agencies, and most importantly, where well-informed and peace-loving people are in the majority. Terrorism is the “weapon of the weak”. When terrorists grow in number, they become insurgents, who no longer confine their operation to attacking innocent and un-armed civilians but attack armed soldiers and law-enforcers. When insurgents’ ranks are swelled, they become successful freedom fighters or liberation army. When George Washington and his men started their freedom struggle, they were small, resorted to attacking soft targets, and eventually with mass support became insurgents, and eventually formidable freedom fighters. At the end of the day, so long as terrorists remain terrorists, they never win against the state. Without mass support they fizzle out. The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) are good examples in this regard.

Then again, weak and corrupt governments, which fail to preempt terrorists’ attempt to gain enough strength to become formidable insurgents, who eventually become revolutionary. As the line between revolution and rebellion is quite thin, so is the line between terrorism and freedom struggle. The Taliban would have run Afghanistan for an indefinite period without direct US and NATO intervention. While successful CT operations by Britain neutralized and defeated terrorist-cum-insurgent IRA in Northern Ireland, unsuccessful CT and Counter Insurgency (COIN) operations by Batista led to the Cuban Revolution under Fidel Castro. No aspersion or disrespect to Castro and his group of fighters is intended here.

What average politicians, analysts, experts, and law-enforcers fail to understand about terrorism, and by default CT operation, is abysmally unbelievable. First of all, they deny the existence of any terrorists in their country. Their ostrich policy is simultaneously laughable and counterproductive. British colonial rulers in India never considered various freedom-loving groups and individuals – from Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi to Titu Mir, and from Kanu and Sidhu Santal to Dudu Mia, Khudi Ram, and Bhagat Singh – as freedom fighters or even as insurgents. To them, they were all criminals and outlaws, albeit for legitimizing their illegitimate rule. They knew they had been in a state of denial.

This colonial legacy is a very big problem toward addressing the problem of terrorism in Bangladesh. Unwittingly, law-enforcers and their employers still follow the British manual and police code in tackling the problem of terrorism. Even worse, at times some politicians in Bangladesh cry hoarse – and even tell foreign dignitaries and media – that the country is infested with terrorists, and they are linked with certain political parties in the opposition; and at times by muting the cry-wolf button, the same politicians deny the existence of any terrorist anywhere in the country. As the cry-wolf technique is counterproductive (very similar to what happened to the shepherd in the Aesop’s Fable story) so is the denial of the existence of any terrorist in Bangladesh. Since 2001, various governments either deny the existence of any terrorists in the country; or cry-wolf about impending terrorist attacks.

They often portray their political adversaries as the main promoters of terrorism. This type of Machiavellian political manoeuverings are stumbling blocks to effective CT operations, in Bangladesh and beyond.

To conclude, while CT and COIN operations could be effective against non-state actors, nothing short of revolutionary measures or mass upsurge work as antidotes to state-terrorism by totalitarian or quasi-totalitarian states under elected or unelected despots. Interestingly, it is much easier to fight, neutralize, and eventually decimate large terrorist-cum-insurgent organizations like the IRA, al Qaeda, Taliban, LTTE, and ISIS than tracking down and overpower lone-wolves or stray-dogs of terrorism. In view of the ongoing neutralization and decimation of several Islamist and secular terror outfits in the world, including the IRA, al Qaeda, ULFA, LTTE, FAARC, ETA, ISIS, Moro Islamic Liberation Force, Abu Sayyaf, JMB, Shanti Bahini, and HUJI, it appears that the world is gradually entering into the post-terrorist phase of history. Meanwhile, we have reasons to believe that despite having sporadic Islamist terror attacks in northwest Africa, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the world has already entered the post-Islamist phase of history. In view of the above developments, organized massive terrorist attacks have already become history. What we are witnessing today are widespread ethno-national insurgencies and lone-wolves attacks, which require something very different from the typical CT and COIN methods to neutralize them.

Dr. Taj Hashmi is retired professor of history and security studies. His publications include Global Jihad and America(SAGE 2014); Women and Islam in Bangladesh(Palgrave-Macmillan 2000); Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia(Westview Press, 1992); and Ouponibeshik Bangla(Papyrus, Kolkata 1985). Email: [email protected]


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