Is Bangladesh Succeeding in its Battle Against Islamist Militants?

Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in the wake of the July 2016 siege on a Dhaka cafe (Image Source: Jubair1985)

Since Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in response to the high-profile attack on a popular Dhaka café by Islamist militants last July, the country has fortunately not witnessed another major attack on the same scale. Yet sixteen months on from the siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery – during which terrorists massacred 20 civilians with sharp weapons before Bangladeshi commandos stormed the building – fears over violent extremism in the south Asian nation remain ever-present.

Despite thousands of arrests and the deaths of top militant leaders at the hands of state security forces, signs of heightened political tensions and evidence of militant activity just below the surface have raised concerns over the potential for separatist violence and a new wave of attacks, in a country which until recently had little past experience of dealing with terrorism.

Whilst Bangladesh’s improved law enforcement capabilities have almost certainly prevented further bloodshed over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has faced criticism over its somewhat contradictory approach to confronting terrorism. At the same time as pledging to tackle Islamist militants head-on, the government has been accused of facilitating an environment in which extremist ideology can flourish.

This report asks if Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism crackdown will ultimately prove successful in keeping a lid on militant activity, and asks whether the government in Dhaka is doing enough to combat the radical ideology which fuels such violence.

The issue of terrorism in Bangladesh first caught the world’s attention in 2015, after an unrelenting wave of small-scale attacks targeting secular bloggers, university professors, foreign citizens and members of religious minority groups. In all, more than 20 people were shot dead or hacked to death in a two-year period by Islamist militants, with attacks often taking place in broad daylight.

The level of violence was unprecedented in what is usually considered one of the most secular and tolerant Muslim-majority countries, especially in comparison to regional neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have long been blighted by sectarianism, religious intolerance and suicide bombings. The attacks made global headlines and hit the tourism industry and Bangladeshi economy hard.

PM Sheikh Hasina’s government blamed the attacks squarely on domestic jihadist group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which it said were linked to its political opponents and seeking to destabilize the country.  This was despite claims of responsibility for some of the attacks by trans-national jihadist groups including the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Neither claim could be proven concretely, however the government’s investigation into the attacks was roundly criticized at the time as few people were brought to justice over the killings.

The attack on the Dhaka café in July 2016 – often described by analysts as ‘Bangladesh’s 9/11’ – was seen as a game changer, and prompted the government to take concrete action. A sweeping security crackdown followed and large-scale police raids led to the arrest of thousands of suspected terrorist sympathizers across the country, whilst a number of senior militant leaders were killed during security operations. Nine suspected militants were killed in the Kalyanpur neighbourhood of Dhaka just three weeks after the café attack, whilst on 27 August last year police claimed to have killed the head of ISIS in Bangladesh – Tamim Chowdhury – during a raid in Narayanganj.

PM Sheikh Hasina denies that ISIS has a presence in Bangladesh, blaming attacks on local JMB militants (Image Source: DFID)

A newly-formed Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU) of the Dhaka Metropolitan police took on hundreds of new recruits was granted a national mandate several months after the café siege, and has overseen counter-terrorism operations across the country. Authorities have clamped-down hard and have received much praise for their actions.

However, a number of small-scale suicide bombings earlier this year reignited fears and indicated a possible shift in tactics away from the knife attacks witnessed in the past, towards more sophisticated and well-planned operations of the nature seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whilst the threat appears to have been contained for now, these developments show there is little room for complacency – especially given that some of the driving factors behind Bangladesh’s surge in terrorism over the last few years remain unresolved.

The initial wave of machete attacks on secular bloggers and foreign citizens came after a period marked by what some analysts describe as a ‘creeping Islamism and sectarianism’ in Bangladeshi society. The rise of religious intolerance was evidenced by two attacks on Shia targets in late-2015. First, a bomb blast targeting a procession outside a Shia shrine left two people dead, before a few weeks later a Shia mosque in Bogra was attacked, killing one person and wounding several others. These attacks on Shia targets – a minority group in Sunni-majority Bangladesh – raised suggestions that some in Bangladesh were becoming increasingly sectarian in mindset.

Longer-term factors have also played a role. Following the country’s 1971 independence war, senior leaders from the Jamaat-e-Islam party were convicted many years later on charges of crimes against humanity, with several of them sentenced to death by hanging. These events have stoked anger and exacerbated tensions in Bangladeshi politics which remain close the surface to this day. The Jamaat-e-Islam party is part of the current opposition alliance to the ruling Awami League, which has been in power since 2009. Divisiveness has been a key feature of the political scene in recent years, which has only worsened as the government has linked the terrorist JMB group to opposition parties.

In this sense, the government’s counter-terrorism campaign must be viewed in the broader domestic political context. The debate over naming perpetrators and ascribing blame following terror attacks has become a heavily politicized issue. Despite numerous claims of responsibility from international terror groups – including for the Dhaka café siege – Sheikh Hasina’s government has continued to deny the presence of ISIS or AQIS within the country’s borders, referring only to the JMB group and domestic political forces looking to ‘destabilize the government’.

This language has facilitated a corresponding crackdown on opposition political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), exacerbating concerns that Hasina’s administration is becoming increasingly authoritarian in its approach to governance. More worryingly, absolving ISIS and AQIS of responsibility allows them to act with impunity – if indeed they are directing attacks within Bangladesh – and establish a firmer foothold under-the-radar.

Whilst terrorism remains a concern in Bangladesh, a repeat attack on the scale of the Dhaka cafe assault has so-far been avoided (Image Source: Souvik.arco)

Whilst launching a crackdown and condemning Islamist terrorism, the government’s approach has also been contradictory. At the same time as appearing to clamp down on terrorist elements, PM Sheikh Hasina has several times in the past warned secular bloggers for criticizing religion, saying ‘I don’t consider such writings as free-thinking but as filthy words. It is not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions’. Some have labelled this as victim-blaming, and say it constitutes a sympathetic attitude towards terrorism, facilitating recruitment and legitimizing extremist ideology. At the very least, many argue that it is an attempt to stifle debate and restrict freedom-of-speech in a country which had been considered relatively open.

Despite these problems, a high-profile attack on the scale of the Dhaka café assault has not been repeated, to a degree validating the government’s strategy and indicating its improved counter-terrorism capabilities. The tide of less-sophisticated lone-wolf attacks has also slowed markedly. However, this type of attack is extremely difficult to guard against as perpetrators make use of easily-obtainable weapons and often have no known links to militant organizations.

When incidents do occur, the government continues to blame local groups such as JMB. And it is true that concrete links between domestic militants and ISIS or AQIS have not been proven, despite claims of responsibility. Yet the politicization of terrorism remains a concern, and a clear distinction must be made between political parties and militant groups unless there is concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.

The government’s denial of ISIS presence in the country raises fears that the violent ideology of transnational jihadist groups is being underestimated. As ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq, it may look to further its recruitment in south Asian countries, including Bangladesh. As we have seen recently in the southern Philippines, local groups can be heavily influenced by such ideology and act upon it, whether concrete links to international groups exist or not.

As a result, the authorities in Bangladesh must remain vigilant and alert. The anti-terror crackdown has undoubtedly made progress, but this alone is not enough. Violent ideology must be countered and criticized, meaning that the space for those who wish to defend secular ideals – as well those who wish to defend various strains of religious thought – must be protected in Bangladesh if violent extremism is to be defeated in the long-run.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor

Advertisements

Balochistan: Seven Decades of Insurgency in Pakistan’s Restive South

The proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, linking Xinjiang to Gwadar Port, has raised tensions over development in Balochistan (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Next year will signal 70 years since the beginning of a fierce separatist insurgency fought in Pakistan’s troubled southern province of Balochistan. Over much of the last seven decades the conflict has rumbled on at a relatively low intensity, punctuated by five distinct periods of heightened violence. The current flare-up – which ignited in the mid-2000s – has proved by far the most enduring. And amid rising tensions in recent years, it appears there is no end in sight to Pakistan’s longest – yet most under-reported – war.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province and stretches from the country’s interior to its remote southwestern region, where it borders neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran. The province is a vast territory rich in resources including gold, copper and natural gas, yet remains Pakistan’s most underdeveloped and impoverished province. A sizeable proportion of its 12 million residents hold grievances regarding a perceived lack of political rights and accuse the central government of resource exploitation – concerns which underlie the seven-decade separatist movement and continue to drive the struggle for independence today.

The insurgency began less than a year after Pakistan’s independence from colonial rule in August 1947, when in March 1948 Pakistan dispatched troops to annex the southwestern area which was then known as Kalat. The territory’s ruler, Ahmed Yar Khan, later signed an accession treaty formalizing the incorporation of Kalat into the newly-founded nation-state of Pakistan. Yet many in the region strongly opposed the move, and the first of the Baloch nationalist rebellions was born.

The 1948 uprising was soon put down by security forces, but further armed campaigns erupted in 1958, 1962 and 1973, each lasting no-longer than four years before the army were able to regain a semblance of control. The fifth insurgency began in the mid-2000s and has been the most enduring. The violence was triggered as a consequence of several factors: as a result of opposition to the regime of General Pervez Musharraf; as a reaction to the 2006 killing of a key Baloch leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, by the Pakistani army; and in response to a crackdown launched by security forces.

Ten years on, the fifth Baloch insurgency has still not abated as clashes continue between the military and an array of armed separatist groups, including the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Republican Army (BRA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF).

In the last decade, the Pakistani authorities have been accused of committing widespread human rights violations, including presiding over unlawful detentions, extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances. Criticism from international observers has been particularly fierce, with Human Rights Watch stating in a 2011 report that ‘‘the surge in unlawful killings of suspected militants and opposition figures in Balochistan has taken the brutality in the province to an unprecedented level.’’

The most controversial aspect of the war in Balochistan concerns the fate of the thousands of Baloch fighters and opposition activists who have disappeared in the last few decades. In December 2016, the BBC reported that almost 1,000 dead bodies of political activists and suspected separatists had been found dumped across the province since 2011. Human rights groups say the evidence points towards large-scale abductions and extra-judicial killings, citing relatives’ claims that many of the victims had previously been detained by Pakistan’s security forces before disappearing.

The government and military have repeatedly denied all accusations of complicity with regard to kidnappings and extra-judicial murder, instead blaming the deaths on organized crime and clashes between various militant groups active in the region. However, media silence on the issue within Pakistan, along with the high level of risk making the province a virtual no-go zone for journalists, has made substantive corroboration or verification of these claims almost impossible, further raising suspicions among many in the international community.

Quetta, Balochistan. The resource-rich province is home to 12 million residents in Pakistan’s southwest, bordering Iran and Afghanistan. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Amid the lack of coverage, the government is keen to put across its point of view, labelling most of the Baloch nationalist groups as ‘terrorist organizations’ and highlighting their continued attacks on not just security forces, but also against civilians. For example, in an April 2015 incident the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) reportedly killed 20 labourers working on a road near the city of Turbat. The past few months have witnessed further attacks by Baloch nationalists against construction workers, who are often regarded as legitimate targets by the insurgents given local opposition to state-led development projects in the province.

Ongoing construction projects related to the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have caused particular concern, further enflaming tensions over development in the region. China has invested $46bn in the project, which aims to connect the western Chinese province of Xinjiang with the strategically-important deep-water port of Gwadar, located on southern Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coastline. Pipeline projects routed through the province have also heightened tensions, with separatists accusing the government of prioritizing large-scale, foreign-backed infrastructure and resource-based projects which bring few direct benefits to residents in the southwest.

In this sense, the conflict and its drivers are largely a tale of competing narratives: whilst the separatists claim the government ignores their long-standing grievances related to poverty and underdevelopment, the government argues that insurgent activity is holding the province back and restricting economic growth.

All previous peace-making efforts – which can be described as limited at best – have achieved little. The provincial government is weak and has failed to adequately mediate between politicians in Islamabad, the military and the numerous Baloch separatist groups. A proposed government amnesty programme has also failed to gain traction as violence has continued on both sides.

Unless the central government makes a concerted attempt to initiate meaningful dialogue involving all stakeholders, allows greater media access and demonstrates a willingness to discuss the core grievances of the Baloch population, the prospects for a lasting ceasefire remain slim. The longer the current status-quo continues, the conflict will remain intractable and existing divisions will be further entrenched. Seven decades on from the first uprising against the Pakistani state in Balochistan, the hope for a peaceful resolution looks as far away as ever.

This article was first published on Eurasia Review.

Poverty, violence and underdevelopment: tracing the history of India’s Naxalite conflict

naxal-1
The Naxalites are present in large swathes of territory across rural central and eastern India, spanning an area which has become known as the ‘Red Corridor’ (Image Source: M Tracy Hunter, Wikipedia)

India’s Naxalite insurgency has been waged in remote central and eastern parts of the world’s second-most populous country for more than five decades, with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once describing it as India’s ‘’greatest internal security challenge’’. Since the late 1960’s the conflict has existed at varying levels of intensity, with the Naxalites periodically being fought back by the Indian military only to later re-emerge as a force to be reckoned with once again. As a product of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment in India’s inaccessible rural heartlands, the long-running insurgency has been particularly difficult for the security forces to tackle.

As an internal conflict, which receives little coverage in the international media, it is likely that few in the West will have heard of its existence. This article strives to fill this void and provide an overview of the Naxalite insurgency through investigating several key questions: how did it all begin? What have been the key developments and incidents over the last five decades? What are its core drivers? And lastly, what does the future hold for Naxalite-affected areas in central and eastern India?

The insurgency has its roots in the remote forests of West Bengal in 1967, when a left-wing Maoist group staged a violent uprising in the rural village of Naxalbari. This is where the term ‘Naxalite’ originates from, and has since been used to describe armed groups involved in the decades-long struggle against the State that followed. The original uprising was soon crushed by the security forces, however in later years the Maoists re-grouped and have since asserted control over vast swathes of rural land across central and eastern India, in an area which has become known as the ‘Red Corridor’, indicating territory in which the Naxalites are present.

The ‘Red Corridor’ stretches through multiple states including Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. Naxalite insurgents have been present at one-time-or-another in more than one-third of India’s 640 districts, whilst many thousands of people have died during the course of the conflict since the late 1960’s.

The Naxalites describe themselves as a left-wing Maoist movement, which has dedicated itself to fighting for the basic rights of indigenous tribespeople and the impoverished rural population, whom the Naxalites contend have been neglected by the central government for decades. In particular, they claim to represent local concerns over resource redistribution and land ownership. The Naxalites view India as a capitalist, semi-colonial and semi-feudal state, and ultimately seek to establish an agrarian-led ‘communist society’ by overthrowing India’s elected government through a protracted armed struggle.

In the later years of the 20th Century the insurgency was assumed to be in decline, and took the form of an under-the-radar low-intensity conflict. However, it gained significant traction in September 2004 when the Communist Party of India (Maoist) was founded. It was established following the merger of two of India’s most prominent far-left groups: the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (People’s War) and the Maoist Communist Centre of India. By 2011, the Naxalites had grown in strength and commanded around 20,000 fighters in rural areas, who has armed themselves through raiding police bases in remote locations. In 2013, the Indian Government estimated the total number of Naxalite fighters to be around 11,500, in addition to 38,000 fighters in the Jan People’s Militia armed with basic weapons such as bows and arrows. The Jan Militia are thought to provide support to the armed wing of the Naxalites – known as the CPI-Maoists People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) – and are known to have participated in attacks.

In 2009, the Indian Government launched its largest ever anti-Naxalite offensive, which involved 50,000 troops and thousands more police officers. The large-scale military offensive was known as Operation ‘Green Hunt’, and consisted of co-ordinated raids across the worst-affected states. The initiative was successful in eliminating prominent Maoist leaders and gaining control of rebel-held territory. As a result of the operation, the Naxalites were pushed deeper into their isolated jungle strongholds, yet have retained an ability to carry-out high-profile attacks and kidnappings. The Government has pledged to crack-down even harder unless the rebels renounce violence and enter peace talks; however, this appears to be an unlikely prospect.

In the period which followed the Government offensive, the number and severity of Maoist attacks increased, with the security forces representing the most frequent target. In April 2010, rebels ambushed paramilitary troops in a remote forested area of Chhattisgarh state, killing 76 soldiers in what was the worst-ever Maoist attack on state security forces. The Naxalites have also waged a sustained campaign of smaller-scale attacks, having regularly been involved in minor skirmishes with security forces and incidents across the affected states. The most commonly used tactics have included destroying infrastructure, blowing-up railway tracks and raiding police stations.

The most notorious Maoist attack of recent years came on 25 May 2013, when insurgents attacked a convoy of Indian National Congress leaders in the Darbha Valley in a remote area of Chhattisgarh state. The politicians had been returning from a rally, after which they were travelling through the region in a heavily-guarded convoy of up to 25 vehicles. As the convoy reached a deeply forested area, it was blocked by trees which had been deliberately felled by the Naxalites, who then triggered an IED before Maoist fighters hiding in the surrounding forest opened fire, killing 27 people. Among those killed were high-profile politicians including former state minister Mahendra Karma, Chhattisgarh Congress leader Nand Kumar Patel and senior Congress leader Vidya Charan Shukla.

At the height of the insurgency in 2009 it was reported that 586 civilians were killed during the year, along with 217 insurgents and 317 members of the security forces. Whilst the insurgency appears to have decreased in intensity since then, there were still 300 fatalities attributed to the conflict in 2016, according to the IISS Armed Conflict Database. The security situation has improved in several of the worst-affected states, however the Naxalites still retain presence in the most remote areas and still have the capability to launch attacks against the security forces.

naxal-2
A 2009 operation by the Indian military pushed back the Maoists into remote jungle areas; however they have continued to launch attacks against security forces (Source: Mannat Sharma, Agencia Brasil)

The Naxalites have sought over the decades to build a wide base of popular support in rural areas, through pledging to address socio-economic problems such as governance failure and caste-based discrimination, whilst opposing land acquisition. The Naxalites have established their bases in impoverished communities in mountainous and forested parts of southern, central and eastern India. These areas are home to around 84 million indigenous Adivasi people, many of whom lead a traditional lifestyle as subsistence farmers, trapped in extreme poverty and living with a lack of basic services. These factors have been essential to the continuation of the Maoist cause, and the lack of basic amenities such as healthcare, education and clean drinking water have provided the Naxalites with an aggrieved community from which to recruit fighters and enjoy wide support.

The worst-affected states also happen to be the location of large quantities of India’s valuable natural resources, such as coal, iron and copper. However, few benefits from this resource wealth accrue directly to local people, and many rural residents do not share the Indian Government’s vision of top-down capitalist economic growth. These issues have created widespread resentment, and have contributed towards feelings of exclusion and marginalization amongst a large proportion of the impoverished rural population. Many citizens living in areas of Naxalite influence lack the education necessary to pursue alternative opportunities, and have seen little benefit from India’s rapid economic development.

In the last few years however, there have been encouraging signs of change and hope in the ‘Red Corridor’. The Government appears to be paying increasing attention to the affected areas, and has pursued a two-pronged strategy for change based upon the defeat of the rebels and the initiation of development projects. The strategy has been implemented one small step at a time: as rebels are pushed back from an area, construction companies move in under armed guard to begin laying down roads. The approach seems to have been effective, with one local official telling news agency Al-Jazeera: ‘‘we have found that wherever we have built roads, Naxal presence has diminished.’’

The provision of hard infrastructure may pave the way for the construction of hospitals and schools, and will likely result in greater economic development whilst allowing previously-isolated communities to feel more integrated. As a result, support for the Naxalites may begin to falter. However, concerns have been raised that a recent resurgence in mining by large corporations in areas now considered ‘safe’ from the Naxalite threat, could stoke renewed resentment amongst the local population and cause support for the Maoists to increase once again.

Amidst the long and continuing struggle between the Naxalites and the Indian state, the impact on civilians living in the zone of conflict has often been forgotten. For six decades, they have been victims of violence and counter-violence, and have seen little positive change in their living conditions. Both the government and the Maoists have been accused of committing violence and using tactics of intimidation.

Many tribal people have waited more than 50 years to be compensated for land which they were forced to hand over to the Government soon after India’s independence from British control. Displacement has also continued in order to make way for resource-based projects, from which local people receive few tangible benefits. Villagers have experienced intimidation from corporations’ private security personnel and also from state security forces. Voices of dissent against the government are often silenced, and there have been numerous reports of torture and abuse at the hands of the police, suffered by local people accused of supporting the Maoist cause.

The Maoists themselves – despite claiming to stand up for the rights of indigenous people – have also been known to react violently towards people suspected of not supporting their agenda. The majority of civilians reported to have been tortured or killed by the Naxalites have often been branded as police informers. Civilians therefore have to live with the dual fear of being persecuted by both sides; they are effectively trapped in the middle of an intractable conflict which appears no closer to a resolution than at any time in the past.

The future remains uncertain for the people living in areas affected by the Naxalite conflict. If recent improvements to the situation in some states are to be taken advantage of, it needs to be ensured that the ‘‘resource curse’’ – which has long plagued under-developed areas (not just in India, but across many of the world’s developing states) – does not materialize in light of renewed resource extraction by large corporations. The development concerns of local people must be addressed in order to undermine support for the rebels in the long-term, and to ensure that India’s rural population begins to experience the benefits of India’s remarkable economic growth.

Past evidence suggests that the adoption of purely militaristic strategies has been largely ineffective in combatting the insurgency. Moving forward, a more diverse and multi-layered approach to the problem is needed. This approach must recognize the complexities of the conflict and do more to address its underlying causes through determined and sustained initiatives, rather than simply eradicating the symptoms through military offensives. Greater dialogue is needed between all stakeholders, along with greater recognition of the rights of people living in poor rural communities. If lasting socio-economic progress can be achieved and livelihoods can be improved, then one of the world’s longest-running conflicts –  which has for decades halted progress and development across large swathes of rural India – could finally be brought to an end.