Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 16, 2017
Changing nature of terrorists in Bangladesh

Source Image: Haque Sakib/CC BY-NC 2.0

A devotee taking a self-portrait in Khulna, Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, the pattern and nature of youngsters joining militancy appears to be fast changing. A recent report in the popular Dhaka Tribune newspaper claimed that it is no longer youngsters from ‘madrasas’ who are the source for Jihadi recruitments. Students with science and technology background are also joining extremist groups in large numbers.

Many of the young militants arrested by the security agencies recently are of science background. It reported that extremist groups like New Jamaatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB) or Ansarul Bangla Team (ATB) have in their ranks many youngsters who had studied science. In March this year, security agencies arrested JMB leader Oliujjaman alias Oli, who is an electrical engineer from BUET, an elite technology institute of the country. A month later, they also arrested the chief of the IT cell of the ATB, who is a software engineer.

In April again, the security forces arrested many militants, many of whom had background in science and technology. One of the main catches was Mashfuqur Rahman of the New JMB. He had joined the computer science department of the BUET in 2005 but did not complete the course as he was attracted to the extremist group. In another catch, security agencies arrested eight more members of the New JMB. Of this lot too, most of them had science or IT background. The leader of this group had a diploma in computer hardware, while another was a science graduate and the other a diploma holder in computer graphics and hardware.

Bangladeshi academic Ali Riaz, in his paper titled “Who are Bangladeshi Islamist Militants” highlighted that around 61 percent of the militants (arrested between 2014 to 2015) had come from middle-class or upper middle-class strata of the society with a large number of them being either engineers or has studied science. Riaz’s study was based on the data published in the media. The study revealed that out of the 65 cases where reference to the occupation of the militants were made, only 25 of them were involved in manual jobs or were madrasa students. Among the rest, nine were engineers, nine students, five teachers (one of them a madrasa teacher) and two IT experts. The study also stressed that among the militants who were reported to have a different occupation, a sizeable number of them were students either of engineering or science. For example, one of the teachers had studied chemical engineering. Similarly, among students, one was from an engineering college while the other was from a science college. Among the businesspersons, one had a Master in Soil Science while two had had studied Information Technology.

Experts say that the presence of cadres with a background in natural sciences and technology is helping extremist groups to acquire sophisticated technology to expand their networks and improve assault techniques. The attack on the Holey Artisan in July 2016 stand as a precedent to the extent of violence the new age Jihadist cadres can cause. The Holy Artisan attack was one of the bloodiest incidents of terror the country had ever witnessed. A group of gunmen stormed into an upscale restaurant and killed around 20 people, mostly foreigners. Interestingly, the assailants came from elite families having a liberal education.

The extremist groups’ fascination now for cadres with a background in natural science and technology are because of various reasons. One, their knowledge will help in the making of bombs. Two, their skill will help in spreading the network in the country and the world-wide. And three, they appear to be more easily adaptable to the ideology while students with humanities background tend to ask more questions.

However, this trend is not unique to Bangladesh alone. An article in the UK based newspaper, Guardian, on December 3, 2015 had claimed that almost half of the jihadis recruited in the Middle East and North Africa have a degree in the natural sciences or technology. The report claimed that around 44% of them had a degree in engineering. Also, it highlighted that 18 British Muslims who were accused of terrorist activities, eight were engineers or had  studied information technology while others studied subjects like pharmacy or maths. Only one had studied humanities. The extremist groups prefer recruits who will be “intelligent and curious, but unquestioning of authority”.

Analysing the reasons behind students with a background in natural sciences joining terrorist organisations, the report observed that the content of scientific education mostly focuses on resolving right or wrong, correct or incorrect. Hence, students lack skill in critically examining issues, which is a normal practice in humanities.

Although, there is a need for a detailed research on the reason or motivation for youth with elite education joining extremist groups, this angle, however, cannot be overlooked.

Bangladesh has been fighting the problem of terrorism since the 90s. Harkat-ul-Jihad Bangladesh is considered to be one of the first extremist groups in the country. The group was founded by the returnees of the Afghan Jihad. In later years, madrasa students, especially kawmi madrasa, joined the organisation and formed the cadre base for the extremist groups in the country. But now, the country is wondering about the motivation of the youngsters with elite educational background joining extremist organisations.

The government has adopted tough measures to tackle terrorism in the country. It executed six top leaders of the JMB in 2007. In April this year, it again executed the leader of Huji-B Mufti Hannan for his involvement in the terrorist activities. Security agencies have also arrested many top leaders and cadres of extremists groups like the JMB and the ATB. Realising that military means alone are not sufficient to deal with the problem of religious extremism, the government has laid out a wide counter radicalisation programme.

The following counter/de-radicalisation efforts were undertaken by the government.

 Islamic Foundation has supplied anti militancy khutbas prior to the Jumma prayers at about 300,000 mosques across the country to raise awareness among people.
The Foundation has also brought over religious scholars from holy mosques in Mecca and Madinah; These scholars told the audience that Islam does not allow for terrorism.
The Islamic Foundation provided training for all imams and muezzins and had published thousands of leaflets and books against militancy and sent them to every mosque in the country.
In August 2016, about 100,000 Islamic scholars, led by Mawlana Farid Uddin Masud, who leads the country’s biggest Eid congregation, singed a fatwa against militancy and handed over it to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The government banned Peace TV, along with various other telecasts, books and publications that propagated militancy.
Following consultation with educational institutions across the country, a list of the students who have been absent or had gone missing was prepared.
Prosecutors were instructed to handle cases of terrorism with care.
Various ministries issued instruction memos to the field level officers regarding anti militancy activities
The Ministry of Cultural Affairs advised educational institutions to carry out various cultural activities
The Department of Films and Publication produced around 18 documentaries against radicalisation
Law enforcement agencies and concerned ministries prepared television commercials focussing on the negative impact of militancy

Source: Dhaka Tribune, 30 April 2017

A strong counter radicalisation programme has become necessary due to a surge in terrorism in the country following increase in such activities across the globe. Some security observers have even expressed doubts about the presence of groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State in the country.

Bangladesh has achieved some success in taming terrorism, but extremist groups remain active in the country. The recruitment of the new cadre base stands as a challenge to the security agencies as they tend to be more tech savvy. This trend demands greater preparedness from the security agencies to deal with the new age of terror. Along with the continued counter/de-radicalisation efforts, there is a need to look into the curriculum of the natural sciences and engineering. This is necessary not only for Bangladesh but also for the entire sub-region since we share common cultural and historical linkages. The problem in Bangladesh could be a warning signal for the sub-continent.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee (1975 2021) was Senior Fellow with ORF. She specialised in Indias neighbourhood policy the eastern arch: Bangladeshs domestic politics and foreign policy: border ...

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