Political polarization has reached “historic highs” in Bangladesh and constant antagonism between rival parties has helped enable a resurgent militant threat with a general election looming, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a study released Wednesday.
The country’s poisonous politics has allowed a resurgence of religious extremism led by two groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansar al-Islam, also known as Ansarullah Bangla Team, according to Brussels-based ICG.
“While there is no direct line between toxic politics and the rise of jihadist violence, a bitterly divided polity, between those espousing secularism and those emphasizing Bangladesh’s Muslim identity, and a brutal and highly partisan policing and justice system, nonetheless has opened space for jihadist groups,” said ICG, a group that researches conflicts and security-related issues around the globe.
“Without a change of course – and particularly if the December elections trigger a crisis similar to that around previous polls – the country could face another jihadist resurgence,” ICG said.
Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal played down the report, saying his country’s security forces had virtually eliminated the militant threat by launching a crackdown that killed scores of suspected militants since terrorists carried out a massacre of hostages at a café in Dhaka in July 2016.
“We have broken their backbone. They can stand no more,” he told BenarNews. “We, our intelligence agencies, have been alert and vigilant. There will no place for the militants.
The study by ICG pointed to the 2014 general election where the Awami League maintained power after main rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the polls, because Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had refused to let a caretaker administration govern during election season, as required by the constitution.
Since then, it said Awami League had taken steps to marginalize the opposition through the conviction and prison sentence against BNP leader former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and legal actions against Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), Bangladesh’s largest faith-based political party.
“To make matters worse, Awami League leaders have exploited the threat to further discredit BNP and JeI, accusing them of complicity in high-profile attacks,” ICG said.
Minister Khan said there would be no boycotts this year because all legal political parties would be involved in polls.
“There will be no threat of militancy,” he said.
Khan praised police, the Rapid Action Battalion and other law enforcing agencies for stopping militants from operating in Bangladesh. He blamed JeI and its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, for being responsible for militant acts.
“These Jamaat-Shibir act sometimes as the JMB, sometimes as Neo-JMB, sometimes as Ansar al-Islam,” he said.
But according to ICG, the government’s use of blunt indiscriminate force in cracking on militancy, including carrying out enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that eliminated large numbers of jihadists and weakened militant groups, was counter-productive.
“[T]he government should adopt a counter-terrorism strategy anchored in reformed criminal justice and better intelligence gathering. Rather than cracking down on rivals, it should forge a broad social and political consensus on how to confront the threat,” its report said.
Militants can exploit situation: Bangladeshi expert
Reacting to the ICG report, security analyst retired-Brig. Gen. Sakhawat Hossain warned that politics indeed can breed militancy if JeI is shut out of the electoral process.
“I do not want to express extreme views like the International Crisis Group, but it is true that the militants could exploit the absence of democratic system,” he said.
“They command at least 4 percent of the total popular vote. If JeI cannot take part in the next general elections, they could go berserk,” he said. “If 1 percent of the JeI workers turned militant, the situation would be very bad and could get out of government control.”
He said pre-emptive strikes by law enforcers against militant groups brought temporary relief to Bangladesh. ICG noted in its report that there were no major militant attacks in 2017.
“But we have to guarantee good governance through a healthy democratic system to counter militancy,” Hossain said. “So we hope that all political parties take part in the next general election and the country’s democratic system continues.”
Recommendations from ICG
ICG offered suggestions to government and opposition leaders to ensure peace in Bangladesh.
“Ending the deadlock is even more urgent today as Bangladesh confronts a new generation of potentially more dangerous jihadists with apparent links to transnational terror groups such as ISIS,” ICG said, referring to the Islamic State.
“Instead, Sheikh Hasina’s government has made no serious attempt to reconcile with the mainstream opposition, opting instead to waste police resources on repression of opponents,” it said, adding the choice undermined democracy and security.
“Another breakdown of law and order would almost certainly play into the hands of groups like Ansar and JMB. If the government does not change course, such forces may experience another resurgence,” ICG said.