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Don’t shoot Messenger

  • Published at 05:00 pm February 22nd, 2020
gun shoot violence

Social media doesn’t turn young people into terrorists

Every now and then, we are served with ugly reminders that militancy is alive and well in this country, and when such incidents happen, our law enforcement and elite forces spring into action. 

After the Holey Artisan attack in 2016, counter-terrorism was front and centre of the conversation, and there were many stories about successful raids that took out dangerous terrorist cells. There can be little doubt that a good number of militant operations have indeed been nipped in the bud in these past four years, and for that, our counter-terrorist forces deserve praise. 

While these agencies are not perfect, their job is a difficult one. The risks of conducting raids on these terrorist dens are extremely high, and there is usually not much fame and fortune at the end of it. 

That is not to say we should let them off the hook when they bungle things. Corruption and inefficiency are rampant within their ranks, and the public often lives in confusion as to which mastermind was taken out, who was a terrorist, who was a mere bystander, and who got shot due to reasons that may or may not be related to some internal agenda.

In the aftermath of Holey, we saw how easy it is for the line between perpetrator and victim to get blurred. Nevertheless, it is hard to fully understand the complexity of the job if we are not in their shoes.

A few years ago, just across the street from the Dhaka Tribune offices, a 21-year-old man blew himself up after figuring there was no way out for him. The terrorist, Saiful Islam, was his own one and only casualty, and that is thanks to good intelligence and a successful operation that managed to get to him on time. 

The exact spot where his dead body lay was visible from my desk at the office. I remember looking out the window at the site of destruction -- debris everywhere and the street cordoned off -- and hammering out my op-ed for the day. It feels a bit unreal to try to imagine what else might have happened that day. What if Saiful were successful? What if our forces were a few minutes too late? What if he had somehow managed to run across the street to take a few more people with him to the afterlife as his last act?

But then, we can drive ourselves crazy thinking about the what-ifs. The world is minus one terrorist and that is a good thing. 

And yet, the death of a dim-witted, brainwashed 21-year-old is hardly satisfying. In a way, Saiful was a victim. He was a victim of a hijacked childhood, a victim of a lack of proper parenting, and a victim of being deprived of a good, sound education -- the kind that teaches young people to think critically, examine their values, and become responsible citizens of not just their own country but the world. 

There is, alarmingly, a whole industry in place which mass produces would-be militants. The very same forces that brainwashed Saiful are ceaselessly at work, promising young men scores of virgins in the afterlife and who knows what else. 

Our authorities are starting to understand that counter-terrorist operations are not enough, that maybe hearts and minds need to be changed, but when it comes to the latter, sadly they are out of their depth. Once again, they have picked that one thing the older generation simply does not understand and branded it as evil: Social media.

At a recent event on violent extremism at IUB, police top brass said over 80% of those involved in terrorist activities had been radicalized through social media. OK fine, but does that tell us anything useful? Is Facebook Messenger the villain here? Instagram or Twitter maybe? 

Technically, the official was not assigning blame, but stating a fact. However, given our government’s track record in misunderstanding and clamping down on social media, it is hard to not see what is being insinuated here.

Terrorists communicate on social media. So what? Everybody does. The internet just happens to be the dominant way of communication in the times in which we live. What our government and counter-terrorism forces really need to do, instead of blaming Messenger, snail mail, carrier pigeons, or any tool of interaction, is to look into how these destructive and violent attitudes actually breed.

The signs are all around us -- in Bangladesh it is not hard to run into ideas and ideologies that espouse harming others, killing unbelievers, or punishing women for some perceived transgression.

Hatred and incitements to violence are out in the open. These poisonous messages are disseminated in broad daylight, and do not require the use of an iPhone.

If we neglect to confront these ideas, if we keep turning a blind eye, it won’t matter how many terror cells are taken out or how many smartphone apps we block. Some stupid kid will always be next in line to murder in the name of God. 

Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.

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