The recent attack on eminent writer Professor Muhammed Zafar Iqbal has brought the issue of radicalisation and militancy to the spotlight once again. The Daily Star interviews experts from three fields—Monirul Islam, Chief of Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit of Dhaka Metropolitan Police; Shafqat Munir, a research fellow with the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS); and Dr Mohammad Monzur E Elahi, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at National University—for their opinions on the overriding challenges we face, what we have done to combat radicalisation and what we should do in the short- and long-term.
“There is a need for moral education”
- Mohammad Monzur E Elahi, Associate Professor in the Department of Islamic Studies, National University
IT'S frustrating that some people are using Islam to justify their action. First of all, no one in their right mind can commit or even condone such an act. Secondly, it has no relation with Islam. Assuming that the person who attacked Dr Zafar Iqbal was inspired to do so because of his idea of “Enemy of Islam,” there is actually no place for that in Islam. Either he didn't understand Islam properly, or was misguided by false propaganda. It's possible that those behind the attack wanted to send a “message” about religion or polarise the public along religious lines. Whatever the motive, what we need to understand is that it's not only Islam that doesn't support such acts; attacking someone for their views, or for anything for that matter, goes against everything that we hold dear about our civilisation.
Islam is tolerant of difference of opinion. It is quite clear on this. If you want to do something about views that you don't support, you can do so through intellectual means, not physically. Even if someone is found to be demeaning to Islam or blasphemous, all you can do is counter them intellectually, by engaging them in debate or producing your own arguments, trying to make them see your point, but under no circumstances can you use violence. It's not within an individual's right to do so.
Sometimes people use the label “anti-Islam” to counter those whose opinion they think is in contradiction to Islam—their interpretation of it, that is. We should be really careful about that. That said, those doing it or even taking it further by indulging in acts of violence are not many in number. But if left unaddressed, the actions of a minority can have an adverse impact on the majority and disrupt social order and peace. I think the educated sections of our society, religious leaders, the media and other opinion-makers should work collaboratively to highlight the proper teachings and interpretations of religion.
On that note, khutbah on Fridays and other religious gatherings and seminars can play an important role in highlighting the proper values and teachings of Islam because these occasions involve the public directly, and have a huge impact on them. Also, since we live in a diverse society with people from different faiths and belief-systems, there is a need for moral education, since without a common moral centre, we cannot coexist. We should try to work out a moral education-based model with teachings from all religions which will teach the importance of respect for each other, respect for difference of opinion, as well as respect for every human life irrespective of what religion one belongs to. Importantly, Islam attaches great significance to moral education. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said that he had been sent to provide moral education.
Since religious militancy has emerged as a big issue, existing religion-based institutions should be strengthened and, where necessary, reformed to further spread the message of tolerance and mutual respect. In any case, I think caution should be taken so that there is no attack on religion because of the action of one misguided individual.
“Cyberspace is the largest platform for radicalisation”
- Monirul Islam, Chief of Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police
The Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit is focusing on violent extremism which includes counter-radicalisation and operational counter-terrorism. We are working on deradicalisation within our capacity. If someone does become radicalised, we want to make sure that it does not eventually translate into extremist or terrorist activities. And if he does participate in such activities, we arrest the culprit and carry out pro-active investigations. This is basically our mandate.
Despite the fact that the unit was formed not too long ago, in February 2016, we have been quite successful when it comes to operational counter-terrorism—we have been able to carry out intelligence-led pre-emptive operations without any collateral damage. In some cases, we have been able to step in at an early stage (such as recruitment) and other times we detected plots which were already at a mature stage and were able to thwart them.
We have been able to intercept the network of those who were involved in Holey Artisan, neo-JMB and Ansar al Islam. The murders of Avijit Roy, Xulhaz Mannan and bloggers are being investigated.
In terms of countering violent extremism, the CTTC is using the tool of “counter-messaging” since online radicalisation has become very commonplace. We are using messages of our own to counter radical/extremist commentaries in the online sphere in different websites. We are also carrying out awareness-building in educational institutions by exchanging ideas with students and teachers in seminars and workshops, with journalists, imams, etc. We have also launched an app called 'Hello City' (which is around 1.5 years old) and a TVC as some counter-radicalisation measures.
We have a cyber wing in the CTTC. And we know that a lot of things are happening online—starting from the initial motivation and training to finance collection and target selection. So we do need a strong online monitoring mechanism. And to achieve this, we need institutional strength as well as the appropriate hardware and software, especially when things like secured applications are concerned. You need the cooperation of tech giants like Facebook and Google which is where policy issues come in and this is BTRC's jurisdiction. So there is the lack of proper hardware and software, policy-related issues, and challenges related to P2P apps.
Since Bangladesh Police does not have a dedicated counter-terrorism unit, we obtained permission to work all across the country thanks to an administrative order. But only when it comes to legal cases outside of Dhaka, we face obstacles because investigating such cases outside of the capital is beyond our jurisdiction. The proposal for a full-fledged counter-terrorism unit under Bangladesh Police has been approved but it will take a few months before it becomes operational. They will have jurisdiction all over the country and have many branches. But this is not to say that this will remove all obstacles—there will remain other logistical challenges.
Since we work on the ground—we carry out raids, interrogate those involved, recover documents, etc.—we have quite a bit of firsthand knowledge. But to institutionalise this expertise, research will play an important role. One of the things we have learnt is that the cyberspace is the largest platform for radicalisation and the youth (irrespective of their educational background, status) are the target, especially those who are particularly vulnerable—it could be because of a disturbed family life; feelings of uncertainty and hopelessness; failed romantic relationships; lack of purpose; social alienation, etc.
There is no single cause of radicalisation. We all have a responsibility to counter the threat of radicalisation—members of society, law enforcement entities like the CTTC, and regulatory bodies such as BTRC. Along with this, the misinterpretation of certain Ayaats and the Hadith has to be addressed. The responsibility of the correct interpretation lies with Islamic clerics and scholars. In this regard, Islamic Foundation has been given certain guidelines but whether or not they are being followed has to be established which is not going to be an easy task. The vulnerable youth are the most common target of radicalisation so there is an urgent need to show them the right path. One way to do that is for them to immerse themselves in cultural activities, sports, and the like, and familiarise themselves with our history and some of our greatest role models.
“Developing social resilience is absolutely critical”
- Shafqat Munir, Research Fellow and Head of Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research under the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS)
We were very fortunate that in Bangladesh, for almost 12 months, there was an absence of any successful terrorist attacks. The credit largely goes to our law enforcement and security agencies who have managed to keep the threat under control. But from the analytical community, we have always maintained that the absence of a successful terrorist attack does not denote the absence of the threat of terrorism. The threat is alive and it can manifest itself at any point. This particular attack should be analysed minutely and the links and potential affiliations of the attacker must be identified.
In addition to all the kinetic or tactical actions that we are currently undertaking, we also need to put our focus on more strategic counterterrorism measures. By strategic counterterrorism measures, I am essentially referring to de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation programmes, addressing problems of radicalisation in the prison system, addressing issues of cyber-radicalisation. These are the issues to which we need to attach top priority. The problem of radicalisation that is happening through cyber-space is something that is quite significant and needs urgent attention.
We have some measures that are currently being taken by our prison system to initiate de-radicalisation within the prisons, but the prison authorities have been very pragmatic in admitting that they have resource constraints and they are doing what they can within their current limitations. But definitely a lot more needs to be done. There needs to be greater research on this issue and we need to map out what actions can be taken to address radicalisation within the prison system.
Countering cyber-radicalisation is a long-term issue. We really need to look at how we can counter their messages. For example, if a person or group is spreading hateful or inciteful messages, how can we, from the response community or the state, counter their messages with messages of peace and tolerance? If they are using the internet to spread their message, we, as the state and the society—the silent majority—should also be using the internet to spread our message. That's where a lot of focus needs to be now in my opinion.
Internationally, countering cyber-radicalisation is a new phenomenon. Societies are still trying to grapple with the challenge of how radical thoughts spread on the internet. It is also a new challenge for us and so our responses have to evolve over time. Surveillance and monitoring is very important but it has to go hand in hand with effective strategic communication on the internet as well. In addition to websites we have to look at apps, we have to look at social media, we have to look at the proliferation of fake news because they can often become a security challenge. The state has to attach a high degree of priority to the issue of cyber-radicalisation.
In the short-term, we have to take a fresh look at all the groups and networks and constantly try to dismantle and disrupt them so that new attacks cannot take place—our law enforcement agencies are already doing that. We also have to make sure that the financing channels are properly controlled so that terrorism financing can be curbed. We also have to constantly and consistently increase public awareness—not just about terrorist attacks but also the phenomenon of terrorism. We need to start developing channels of communication with the general populace which has always been a significant factor in curbing terrorism. Some of those channels have already been developed but those need to be enhanced so that there is enough inflow of information from the general public to identify and combat these factors.
We must always remember that the ultimate tool to defeat violent extremism is social resilience. Developing social resilience is absolutely critical and we must harness that ability of our society to fight the menace of terrorism. This is not just a security problem—it is a national problem, a societal problem, a problem which needs to be countered for the sake of the future of Bangladesh. We need to develop a whole of society approach to deal with this challenge.