Nuances of anti-terrorism campaign in Bangladesh

Nuances of anti-terrorism campaign in Bangladesh

Dhaka, May 3: Terrorism is going through an identity crisis in Bangladesh.  Everyone now agrees there is terrorism, – read Islamic militants- but few agree what is their ID card. The US would like the whole lot to be branded as IS and thus make Bangladesh part of one global strategy against ‘terror’ led by it. But Bangladesh PM Sk. Hasina disagrees, writes Afsan Chowdhury in

She has not taken the bait for some very good reasons for her much to US’s chagrin. Nothing could be more suicidal in Bangladesh than to be seen as a Trump/US ally whose anti-terror campaign is considered more anti-Islam than terror. This perception has made a collective war against ‘Terror’ impossible globally.

Not that Sk. Hasina cares. She has managed to neutralize the “terror’ presence in Bangladesh after ignoring it initially when the damages were of the retail variety.  Bloggers, activists including gays, teachers, plain nobodies etc were killed but Hasina didn’t move. She even scolded bloggers for ‘criticizing Islam’ but the situation changed when the Holey Artisan Bakery, a café located in upper class Gulshan enclave was attacked in July 2016 killing almost 25 people including foreigners and many taken hostage. With global negative publicity and impact on foreigners and the upper class, she was stung into action.

Afsan Chowdhury, the author of this article

First, all the attackers were wiped out in a dawn attack by the army followed by an aggressive campaign against terrorists all over the country. Since July 2016 no major attacks have been reported. The US was happy with her moves but what it wanted was the ‘this is IS’ statement but that has not come. Meanwhile, Hasina seems to have dimmed the threats significantly.

The terrorists have not mounted a single operation since July but have regularly died in mopping operations including committing suicide to avoid capture, police says. Over 40 have been killed since July and several hundred taken into custody. Media reports suggest that the big ones are already inside though not officially admitted.  Nobody is asking how the terrorists are being killed. The mood is “get them and we don’t care how.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the public believes what the police and other law enforcement agencies say all the time. To them it’s a law and order problem which the enforcers are handling and thank you. This attitude has helped the Government mount its operations without bothering about credibility.

The “IS is here” funding and Chinese billions

The US and other European powers who feel more in charge with an admission of ‘IS is here’ have been pushing for it. There is a US funded initiative to support both policy research and field level action against terrorism with possible funding of estimated 40 million dollars in the first tranche.  Two UN agencies are involved as well. One is not sure what is expected to be achieved but think tanks, NGOs and academic institutions are quite happy to join the anti-terror band wagon.

This move is a concerted one to put pressure on Bangladesh but Hasina is proving to be more stubborn/ resilient than expected. Her main international counter-terrorism activity is to support Indian efforts to tackle the North Eastern India ‘insurgency’. By shutting down sanctuaries in Bangladesh she has earned Indian gratitude which translates into political support for her.

But she has also been at the receiving end of USD20+ billions of Chinese money with which she bought 2 Chinese subs which as irked India greatly. Her recent visit to India was from a position of more strength than any PM before, thanks to overflowing of desperate to invest Chinese money. India has put in 4 billion and plans to sell weapons too.

Given this scenario, the US may find it hard to convince Hasina to join its anti-IS bandwagon. Most think that the Gulshan attackers- Dhaka’s upper class youth gone missing – had some IS links but the rest who have been caught or killed are homegrown.

Bodies of five young terrorists who indulged in the massacre at the Holey Artisan restaurant in Dhaka

Why this IS identity is sought by the US isn’t clear but for the time being terrorism  seems contained. Bangladesh doesn’t have any internal or cross border long term festering disputes which usually lead to insurgencies. The Chittagong Hill Tracts- part of the North East- had a major insurgency in the 70-80s decade but it was contained. Unhappy peace continues there now with a non-implemented Peace accord signed by Hasina backing a massive military presence. The old Maoist problem is dead, ethnic communities browbeaten and the Hindus who experience a difficult minority life pose no problem.

Meanwhile, the Government has embarked on a massive expansion of the police’s counter-terrorism unit spreading to areas outside capital Dhaka.   It’s a signal that all threats are taken seriously but the name of the enemy is not IS and there maybe more than one threat in mind.

(The featured image at the top shows the arrest of suspected Islamic terrorists in Bangladesh)