Standing Firm Against Extremism
For its geographic location, Bangladesh is recognized as a land bridge between South and Southeast Asia. The strategic connector is also poised to bridge counterextremism efforts with others in the region by sharing a common message and common goal to fight the problem.
International powers recognize Bangladesh for empowering its people to stand firm against radical influences. Locals report suspicious activity and people to the proper authorities, and the Bangladeshi government and military have offered extensive training to its personnel to improve their skills. Neighboring countries big and small have noticed Bangladesh’s success and sought to form partnerships with the nation.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example, publicly praised Bangladesh’s government for cracking down on extremists and militants who would often target India from Bangladeshi soil.
“Bangladesh has firmly rejected extremist ideas and achieved success as an open and moderate society and democracy,” Singh said in a September 2011 India Today magazine article. “Both India and Bangladesh are vulnerable to the forces of extremism and terrorism.”
Bangladeshi authorities disclosed proof of that vulnerability when they announced they had disrupted a December 2011 intended coup by a select few current and retired military officers with extremist views who were plotting against the government. Two of the alleged conspirators admitted to having connections to the outlawed political party, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), suggesting that religious extremists continue to maintain links within the country’s armed forces, Brig. Gen. Masud Razzaq told Inter Press Service (IPS) at a January 2012 news conference in Dhaka after the thwarted takeover. The general described the conspirators as having “extreme religious views” and trying to “create disorder in the army [by] riding on the religious sentiments of other officers,” the Daily Mail newspaper reported in January 2012.
On its website, HuT entices Army officers to “Remove [Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh] Hasina, the killer of your brothers, and establish the Khilafah to save yourselves and the Ummah from subjugation to U.S.-India,” IPS reported.
HuT is an international Sunni political movement that espouses radical ideology with the intent of re-establishing the Islamic Caliphate. Although Dhaka has banned HuT, it operates legitimately in more than 50 countries, and continues to have a voice in Bangladesh.
“Such forces sap the strength of our societies, threaten our state systems and impede our social and economic progress. It is therefore of paramount importance that we work together,” Singh said of collaborating with Bangladesh, according to India Today. To that end, the government of Bangladesh remains unwavering in its convictions and actions to rid the country of terrorists and prevent its people from becoming radicalized, country officials say.
“No terrorist must be allowed in Bangladesh,” Brig. Gen. Kazi A S M Arif, director of the National Security Intelligence for the government of Bangladesh, told FORUM during an interview inside his Dhaka headquarters. He emphasized the government’s intolerance in allowing a “single inch of land in Bangladesh” to be used in harboring extremists.
To learn about Bangladesh’s successes in curbing radicalization and share their own, military leaders from across South and Southeast Asia gathered in Dhaka for a weeklong meeting in January 2012. The Regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism through Strategic Communications offered a forum for military decision-makers and extremism experts on eradicating terrorism to talk about best practices and what has worked within their individual communities. Participants included representatives from Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), a think tank established in 2000, hosted the three-day event, in partnership with the U.S. military and U.S. Center for Civil-Military Relations based at the Naval Postgraduate School, which aims to build partner capacity.
“We believe that a successful counterextremism program, and any counterterrorism effort, is dependent upon the development and execution of effective strategic communication initiatives and policies,” said Farooq Sobhan, president of BEI. “By strategic communication, we mean efforts to understand and engage key audiences and stakeholders with the purpose of creating … and preserving conditions favorable to advances of the country’s interests and policies.”
Sobhan acknowledged that extremism remains a constant threat despite South Asia’s ongoing success in defusing extremist activities. “Not only to us in this region but globally,” he said. “We believe it is time to increase our efforts outside the traditional counterterrorism programs and activities, with the aim and objective of addressing the conditions that lead to extremism and implement more robust strategies with the view of adopting a more holistic approach to countering the development of extreme attitudes and behaviors that create the space and the conditions for acts of terrorism.”
More than 20 Bangladeshi officers graduated from a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported, community-based policing course in February 2012. The program is building the capacity of 1,300 midlevel police officers throughout northwest Bangladesh by training them in the best practices of community policing. According to program data, 258 officers had completed the three-day course by the end of February.
A team of 32 Bangladesh police officers began training in April 2012 to co-teach and eventually lead the community policing course to ensure sustainability of the program, according to the USAID Bangladesh Facebook page and U.S. Embassy in Dhaka.
India also has adopted a community policing strategy to counter radicalization in its neighborhoods. Law enforcement agencies there visit identified radical “hot spots” to talk with residents about their grievances and build confidence in the legitimate government and its laws. To keep the public aware of their role in fighting extremism, Indian officials visit crowded public locations such as malls or bus terminals and perform skits or plays addressing the issue of terrorism to educate citizens and provide them with resources for contacting law enforcement.
In some Indian cities, such as Kochi, private security agencies have trained their staff to work more effectively with local police when needed. Police have also started training private security guards on improvised explosive device detection and bomb disposal to increase the number of observers local authorities have on the street. Authorities have also trained fishermen to spot suspicious activities along the coast and have given them equipment to make contacting police and reporting what they see easier.
“In a world of innovative technology that continually transforms the way we conduct our business and go about our daily lives, we [aim] to change the way in which we seek to protect our people and our assets,” according to a presentation by an Indian police official attending the BEI- and U.S.-hosted conference in Bangladesh.
Nepalese officials say that while all violent crime has a local connection, common indicators exist across borders that may point to ideologically motivated violence. However, each circumstance is unique and must be viewed within the context of the community where an action takes place. Authorities must seek to understand the community where a suspect lives, works and operates, according to the Nepal delegation’s presentation during the countering violent extremism conference in Bangladesh.
“Information and communication shape perception, attitude and behavior. Thus, we must be conversant about cultures, social and political structure, languages and religions,” Nepalese officials said. “Only then, we will understand biases and tailor the intended messages to intended audiences.”
A Wake-Up Call
For Bangladesh, the simultaneous detonation of bombs in 63 of its 64 districts in August 2005 was a “serious wake-up call for the entire nation,” Arif said.
The “citizens of the country forced the government to take action,” said Arif, adding that top terrorists were captured after the extremists’ show of force with the multicity bombings. Since the government of Bangladesh’s crackdown, any radicals who remain in Bangladesh have no leader to steer them, according to Arif.
“We must not be satisfied with that because it’s very difficult to [eradicate] terrorism,” he told FORUM. “Just from controlling it for a few years, we cannot claim it has been uprooted. Still, the concept is there. We must not show any slack [weakness]. If we do, it may resprout with much more vigor.”
Leaders within Bangladesh agree that success in properly tailoring messages and defusing extremism here means greater sustained success in fighting radicalization for other countries in the region.
“Terrorism is not simply somebody else’s problem,” U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan Mozena said. “It is a threat to each of our countries individually and to all of us collectively as a community of states that is working to build moderate, tolerant, prosperous, free societies; societies that respect the human rights of our citizens; societies that seek to create circumstances that allow each citizen to achieve his or her own potential; societies that enable citizens to provide a better future for their children.”