Many in Bangladesh's ruling establishment seem to use terms terrorism and criminal acts interchangeably, and there seems to be continued refusal to accept that the country’s security situation has been in a downward spiral for long. Days after Dhaka café siege focused global attention on the alarming rise in terror strikes in the country, an Eid gathering in Sholakhia, close to capital Dhaka, was disrupted by bomb attacks.
The ground on seven acres of the bank of the Narosunda River in Sholakhia was originally donated by a descendent of Isha Khan, the ruler of Bengal of the Baro-Bhuiyan stock and Eid gatherings have been held here since 19th century. A larger number of security personnel were deployed in the wake of Dhaka attack but an attack on an Eid gathering was more than a criminal attack.
But, Dhaka’s political establishment seems more consumed by efforts to dispel any notion of the existence of either ISIS or Al-Qaeda in their country. For several months Bangladesh’s ministers and security chiefs have discredited reports that linked killings of secular bloggers, non-Muslims and gay activists with these outfits. Instead they continue to blame it on local militant groups with prime minister Sheikh Hasina going to the extent of hinting at the involvement of Opposition BNP’s partner, Jamaat-e-Islami.
Security situation in the country continues down the spiral in a politically polarized debate where the two leading party bosses, prime minister Sheikh Hasina of Awami Leage and former prime minister Khaleda Zia of BNP treat each other not just as political opponents but virtual enemies.
Such is the distrust and hatred for each other that Khaleda Zia’s first reaction on the Dhaka siege reeked of political opportunism in which she blamed the Awami League government of compromising on security. Zia subsequently tempered her response after her initial reaction came in for criticism as politically motivated at a time when Bangladesh faced its most serious security situation.
Only last month Sheikh Hasina referred to Khaleda Zia’s call for a “Hasina-free” Bangladesh as a threat to get her eliminated when speaking at a Iftar she remarked, “she (Khaleda Zia) said she wants a Hasina-free Bangladesh. What does it mean? It means she wants to kill me, too”.
A deep division between two leaders and their political outfits has made tackling the threat from terrorism more challenging.
Sheikh Hasina has for months treated individual attacks on bloggers and non-Muslims including an Italian and Japanese as unrelated security incidents. She held Jammat’s student outfit, Shibir, or groups connected with Jammat as responsible.
Scores of people have been arrested as part of a drive to tackle militants and terrorists but, many including the US believe that it was a ploy to get back at her political opponents. Sheikh Hasina’s re-election in a widely contested parliamentary poll which saw a poor turnout has put a question mark on the legitimacy of the government with US trying for a political rapprochement between her and Khaleda Zia.
Attempts by US to help with Bangladesh's counter-terrorism efforts were met with much suspicion. In fact, in May after the visit of the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal, the US envoy in Dhaka announced that Bangladesh-US-India would form a coalition to work on counter-terrorism in the country. Her statement was not confirmed by anyone.
Many believe that Sheikh Hasina suspects that US would share information with Khaleda Zia and is therefore, going slow on any such tie-up.
But, Bangladesh needs help with capacity building to counter-terror. Speaking at a counter terrorism conference in Jaipur earlier this year, Bangladesh’s minister detailed steps taken by Sheikh Hasina’s government in countering terrorism through legal, administrative and educational initiatives only to admit later in his speech that the country had “resource constraints”.
The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2012 and the Money Laundering Act of 2012 were positive steps as was the move to ban five terrorist groups but one of them, Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) has managed to hoodwink authorities by continuing its organisational activities to distribute CDs, posters, leaflets that help radicalise young men. Once radicalised these men end up joining other terror groups.
However, the Bangladesh government continues to treat bomb attacks and killing of individuals like that of bloggers and non-Muslims including the murder of Hindu priest in recent days as “criminal activities” by domestic militant groups. Unless the government admits that the situation is grave and addresses these incidents as more than a politically-inspired action, the security landscape in Bangladesh is bound to worsen. Indian security agencies already believe that ISIS and Al-Qaeda have managed a foot-hold through their domestic groupings and sooner the Sheikh Hasina government recognises the problem the easier it would be to begin the process of addressing a looming crisis in India’s neighbourhood.
Earlier, exposing the link between JeI, the largest Islamist party of Bangladesh, and JMB, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) Joint Commissioner Monirul Islam stated, on 26 November, 2015, "At least one-fourth of banned militant outfit JMB members are former Jamaat-e-Islami members and are now involved in acts of destruction across the country. The new members are also reportedly financing JMB's terror and criminal acts. JMB members are using the money to buy motorcycles, explosives and ammunition to commit crimes."