Bangladesh marked Genocide Day on March 25, to remember the targeted mass killings carried out by the Pakistani army and its agents for the preservation of an Islamic republic in 1971. On March 26, the country celebrated its 46th Independence Day, an act that was in defiance of the barbarism, justified by religious ideology, in 1971. Sylhet, a city in the northeast, was unable to partake in either, as violent Islamist forces clashed with those seeking to neutralise them there.

Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies were conducting a five-day siege on a five-storey building within which resided terrorists. The joint-force operation ended on Tuesday. There were 10 casualties and at least 40 people were injured. The army was deployed for the first time since the terror attack on a Dhaka restaurant in July (in which 20 hostages were among the 29 killed). It announced that the militants were highly trained, which flies in the face of assertions made by certain quarters of the so-called Bangladeshi intelligentsia who are determined to paint the Islamists as inept. These same people are keen to delude themselves and the citizens they inform into believing that a heavily-armed resistance by Islamists that kept the police, the elite paramilitary force Rapid Action Battalion, and the army at bay for five days – killing and maiming many, including those from the law enforcement agencies, using explosives during a miniature guerrilla battle in a populated residential area – is not dangerous. This insistence by a politically and intellectually compromised civil society is verifying the government account, replete with denial and deflection.

No sooner had the siege ended than two others began, 214 km apart. Law enforcement targeted two buildings in Sylhet and one in Comilla on Wednesday. At the time of writing on Friday, the operation at one of the buildings in Sylhet was yet to conclude. The one in Comilla ended with the militants – at least two – escaping, leaving behind a building rigged with explosives. The city mayoral election scheduled for Thursday went ahead as planned, and was used as a reason to delay law enforcement efforts.

This recent spate of sieges was preceded by a police raid on a militant hideout in Chittagong on March 16. Previous arrests had garnered testimonies about the existence of a network of over 500 terrorists in Chittagong. Security experts had noted that the focus on the port city and major commercial hub was an alarming development. Sitakunda, where the March 16 encounter between the two sides took place, was the site of the massacre of Hindu pilgrims on February 15, 1950 by mobs subscribing to Islamism. That same ideology has survived into the present day, nurtured and patronised by politics.

Rise of Islamist forces

The commercial importance of Sylhet has grown manifold. A significant portion of Bangladeshi expatriates are from this part of the country, and as their remittance has swelled the country’s coffers, so too has their toxic religious dogma established a strict conservatism. The two buildings that were under siege on Wednesday are owned by a British Bangladeshi. Generous donations from others like him have seen the proliferation of Qawmi madrasas (that run on public donations and not state funding) and radicalism in Sylhet.

Additionally, the anti-immigration and hardline security rhetoric of neighbouring Indian state governments, intent on closing the Bangladesh-India border, has affected the region. Bangladeshi Islamist forces, under the aegis of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami, were assisted by Bangladesh’s National Security Intelligence and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence in posing a credible security threat to India across this part of the shared border during the 2001-2006 government’s tenure.

The growing threat of Islamist terrorism is adding to pressure on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to sign a defence agreement with India during her visit to that country in April. The military in Bangladesh has been an active participant in its politics. It is unlikely to take too kindly to being subjected to oversight. An Islamist faction of the army attempted a coup d’état in 2011. The perception of overt Indian encroachment during the current Awami League regime has resulted in the promulgation of simmering anti-India sentiments. Islamist forces have historically capitalised on this, and the slow surrender to terrorism makes this a particularly pertinent concern in Bangladesh.

Major Syed Ziaul Haque, commonly known as Major Zia and a son of Sylhet who was stationed abroad when serving in the army, was one of the key players in the thwarted coup of 2011. He was said to be in Bangladesh in August last year. It is unknown whether he is in custody or remains at large, but his involvement in the targeted murder of freethinkers has repeatedly been emphasised. His close associate and the instigator of the coup, Ishraq Ahmed, absconded to the United Kingdom when it was foiled.

Members of the Rapid Action Battalion are seen outside the Holey Artisan restaurant, where gunmen had taken hostages, in the upscale Gulshan area of Dhaka, in  July, 2016. Credit: Reuters
Members of the Rapid Action Battalion are seen outside the Holey Artisan restaurant, where gunmen had taken hostages, in the upscale Gulshan area of Dhaka, in July, 2016. Credit: Reuters

Home-grown terror, says state

The Awami League government, however, has been at pains to label the recent terrorism as home-grown. The group carrying out the attacks, and against whom law enforcement agencies are waging war, has been identified as New Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi media has propagated this carefully controlled narrative, and reporting in the foreign media has been conspicuous by its absence. The result is that the claims of the authorities have been accepted as fact without independent verification. Detractors are deviants who are enemies of the state, derided and threatened into silence.

The original Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh was amongst the chief antagonists during the first phase of rampant terrorism in Bangladesh. It was birthed and nurtured by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat government, especially by the former party’s heir apparent Tarique Rahman, currently in self-imposed exile in London. Furthermore, the army and the intelligence agencies, the National Security Intelligence and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, were directly involved in the process. Should the current terrorist outfit be a new iteration of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, the involvement of politicians and the military is inescapable and inevitable. However, despite repeated claims by both the government and law enforcement agencies that equate terrorism with the New Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, no evidence of a thorough investigation into the inner workings of a known outfit, based on precedent, is apparent. This is particularly alarming since the existence of Islamism amongst the armed forces, particularly sections of it inclined towards political engagement, is indisputable. Islamist organisations require converts to sustain and thrive. Proselytising is, therefore, a central tenet of Islamism. This has been entirely absent for the unusually silent New Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, as have claims of responsibility from it for its alleged attacks.

Ignoring Islamic State

There is an alternative line of investigation that is being ignored. Neaz Morshed Raja, a man from Chittagong, fought for the Islamic State and killed himself in a suicide attack on October 12, 2015. His name was on the Rapid Action Battalion’s list of missing persons suspected to be terrorists. A Bengali video in which he calls on Bangladeshis to martyr themselves for Islamism appeared a fortnight ago, on March 15. Two days after that, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a Rapid Action Battalion camp, injuring several officers. A week later, on another Friday, a second suicide attack was carried out at a police checkpoint outside Dhaka’s international airport. The incompetence of the 17-year-old bomber was responsible for Dhaka being fortunate enough to escape without any loss of life. The government and the police downplayed both attacks, going so far as to state that they were not attacks at all.

The video featured the voice of Tahmid Rahman Shafi, another missing Bangladeshi fighting for the Islamic State who appears in the group’s propaganda specifically directed at Bangladesh. The Sitakunda raid on March 16 uncovered evidence of Islamic State inspiration and propaganda. The Dhaka attack last year was claimed by the Islamic State, with documented evidence. Shortly after that, Bangladeshi authorities concocted the New Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh title. There has been a concerted effort by the government – ably assisted by civil society and the domestic media – to discredit the Islamic State’s claims and deny its existence in Bangladesh.

In denial

Islamism survives by evolving and taking on new guises, with every iteration being more intolerant and violent, and better equipped with ideology and resources than the last. That the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat are responsible for politicising Islam, and not only creating a fertile environment for extremism but actively fostering it, is undeniable. Equally beyond doubt is the fact that many of the terrorists caught in the past had once been members of the Jamaat and its student organisation, Shibir. However, just as the root cause of fundamentalism – the Salafi and Wahhabi ideology prescribed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat – is a foreign import, so too seems to be the contemporary terrorism. When the perpetrators assert one thing, and those trusted to fight them insist on something contradictory, the populace is left without the relevant information crucial to ensuring its safety and survival. This has the additional adverse effect of the public’s trust in the government and law enforcement eroding as confusion reigns supreme.

Unless there is verified and verifiable consensus about the identity of the terrorists, a comprehensive and definitive solution can never be found. A staunch refusal to do so by the Awami League government and Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies – with the assistance of the media and civil society – reeks of denial, if not deliberate misinformation. This is aiding and abetting the very forces the authorities seek to fight, thereby elevating them to a legitimate socio-political force, while continuing to marginalise minorities and dissenters. The real enemy needs to be known so that a largely ignorant and apathetic population does not suffer, so that a nation severely threatened by the very virulent and violent Islamism it was born in defiance of, does not succumb to it.

Ikhtisad Ahmed is a columnist for the Dhaka Tribune and author of the socio-political short story collection Yours, Etcetera. His Twitter handle is @ikhtisad.