The recent killing of USAID worker and gay rights activist Xulhaz Manna in conjunction with the barbaric murder of secular bloggers, an Italian diplomat and a series of attacks in Bangladesh over the last three years has become a transnational terrorist concern. Despite Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the Awami League (AL) Government denying that the recent spike in violence is the result of international terrorist groups, Bangladesh is in a precarious position where extremism threatens to erode the secular foundations of the state. The advent of extremism has further geopolitical ramifications for the region, threatening a spill over affect into India and into Myanmar. Metaphorically, the positioning of Bangladesh as a gateway to Asia is like a dam wall and if the dam wall of security breaks, then the potential for further violence increases.
Hasina’s AL government has been pre-occupied with alienating the opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The political rivalry between the AL and the BNP has constructed a hostile environment, where AL has sought to persecute the opposition and voices of dissent. The AL government has issued an arrest warrant for leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and twenty six BNP leaders over a deadly firebombing attack in 2015. Consequently this has led to a situation of political instability, which has created a vacuum allowing extremist groups to gain traction and support. This raises questions over the erosion of Bangladeshi democracy and how political polarisation has indirectly created a situation that has allowed extremist groups to prosper and fuel a cycle of violence.
Although historical factors also play a role in the characterisation of political polarisation. The 1972 Constitution which placed an emphasis on secularism and tolerance in the aftermath of a bloody-civil war with Pakistan, was followed up by a series of amendments which laid the foundations for oppression. Specifically the second amendment of 1973, gave executive power to declare a state of emergency and the third amendment of 1974 ‘The Special Powers’, act authorised warrantless detention. Secularism was subsequently replaced with Islam as the state religion in 1988 during the military rule of Hussein Muhammad Ershad. The 1975 military coup that led to the assassination of the first President Mujibur Rahman, subsequently laid the foundations of the present political hostility between the AL and the BNP. With current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Rahman blaming military ruler Ziaur Rehman, the husband of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and leader of the BNP.
The political hostility between Hasina and Zia has at times turned into violent clashes of supporter bases, and judicial oppression of opponents during elections. There are further complications with the Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), an ally of the BNP being continuously blamed by the AL as an instigator and supporter of violent extremism, going as far to allege that JEI has a strong supporter base in East London and the British government should urgently tackle financial contributions from this network.
Against this historical backdrop of political hostility and polarisation, which at times has been characterised by politically-fused violence, non-state actors such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) have been able to launch an array of attacks evidenced in the coordinated murder of secular bloggers. Furthermore the ABT has published a global hit list of secular bloggers, writers and activists, leaving secular and liberal thinkers in Bangladesh fearing for their lives. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, including the killing of an Italian diplomat and Japanese agricultural worker. Even though Bangladeshi authorities deny the role of international terrorist-groups, and shifts the rise of extremism to both the opposition and the notion of radical Islamist groups such as the ABT, global terror linkages in Bangladesh are evident. The first sectarian attack with the bombing of the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura in October 2015 provides evidence of possible linkages to international terrorist influences in a predominantly Sunni Bangladesh.
Without rapid action to prevent the spread of extremism and the subsequent erosion of secularism in a majority-tolerant Bangladeshi society which fought a bloody civil war for independence, violent extremism could reach further than Dhaka and into East Asia.
Thomas Penfold holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, has worked in Laos and has a profound interest in international security and risk analysis.
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