Complacency regarding the threat of extremism may lead to disaster
On this day five years ago, while an entire nation was recovering from the shock of the biggest-ever terror attack in the heart of Bangladesh’s capital, Islamic State (IS)-inspired extremists took their last hard bite at an Eid congregation in Kishoreganj.
Seven armed extremists attacked a police check-post to make their way into the main Eid congregation, resulting in an hour-long gunfight that left two police constables, one woman and an attacker dead.
The Eid day attack amid a heavy presence of police and devotees was revealing of the growing danger from emerging terrorist groups.
The Sholakia attack was the culmination of three-and-half years of targeted killings by two radical Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and IS. Beginning with the murder of a blogger in February 2013, members of the groups increased their attacks, killing secular bloggers, teachers, members of religious minority communities, LGBTQ activists and foreigners as a prelude to plotting the Holey Artisan Bakery and Sholakia attacks in July 2016.
It almost seemed as if the two extremist groups were competing to see who could kill more people they had deemed “enemies of Islam.” Many people believed the Sholakia incident would be followed by more large-scale attacks, but several years have passed without any such catastrophe taking place.
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Government and law enforcement officials claim the nationwide crackdown on extremism in the wake of the two major attacks prevented more from transpiring. Scores of suspected extremists were either killed or captured in raids carried out by the security agencies.
However, security analysts have urged caution, as the extremists may have paused their activities to lull the public and law enforcement agencies into a false sense of security.
Past precedent and the dangers of complacency
Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), both adherents of Al-Qaeda ideology, carried out numerous bomb and grenade attacks from 1999 to 2005, killing hundreds. There was a pause in 2006, before the extremists resurfaced with renewed vigour in 2013.
Other extremist organizations around the world also tend to launch attacks in phases. They carry out attacks for a period, before pulling back when the pressure from law enforcement agencies becomes too high.
Five years after the Sholakia attack, pro-IS extremists are nowhere to be seen in Bangladesh. The same can be said of pro-Al-Qaeda operatives.
Government officials have maintained that the lull in attacks is evidence that Bangladesh has been a role model in tackling extremism. However, a similar stance was adopted from 2006-2012 and it left the country vulnerable.
Extremists not inactive
Extremists may not have carried out any major attacks in recent times, but they are far from inactive in Bangladesh. Instead, they have resorted to using social media, which is notoriously difficult to monitor, to spread propaganda, recruit, train and plot attacks.
Furthermore, several so-called Islamist scholars have been abusing their platforms to spread extremism among the country’s youths. Some have even faced legal action, such as Mufti Amir Hamza.
It is imperative that the law enforcement agencies stay vigilant against extremism considering its lingering presence in the country.
Prison radicalization a major concern
Another major cause for concern is unabated radicalization in prisons, as general prisoners may come into contact with leaders or members of extremist groups.
Several thousand suspected extremists, including some top leaders, are now lodged in prisons across the country. The launch of de-radicalization programs in prisons is still at the discussion stage.
Bangladesh has been successful in tackling extremism largely through an application of brute force. However, it may be time for Bangladesh to follow the example of other countries and develop innovative, education-based strategies against radicalization, before extremism rears its ugly head again.