Avijit Roy - Blogger brutally murdered in Dhaka Bangladesh
Avijit Roy – Blogger brutally murdered in Dhaka Bangladesh

Of late, terrorists or unknown assailants have killed freethinking writers and bloggers, a couple of foreign nationals, and two LGBT activists in Bangladesh, around 36 people since February 2015. And almost ritualistically, killers have been bragging about their acts, and proclaiming to be al Qaeda, ISIS, Ansar al-Islam, or Ansarullah Bangla Team affiliates. Interestingly, some Bangladeshi politicians claim (a) various Islamist terrorists groups – including al Qaeda and ISIS – have infested the country; (b) they are linked with the two main opposition parties in the country, the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami; and (c) they have resorted to terrorism only to overthrow the present government.

We know there’s nothing new about terrorism in Bangladesh. Non-state actors like Maoist Naxalites, JMB, and HUJI (B), and state-sponsored death-squads –the Rakkhi Bahini, police, and RAB – by now have killed thousands of people in the country. The JMB-HUJI (B) alone killed more than 150 people during 1999 and 2005, in movie theatres, political rallies, and elsewhere. Since early 2013, no place seems to be out of bounds for the killers, who purportedly belong to some Islamist terror outfits. But who actually have been killing so many innocent people here, we simply don’t know.

However, since law-enforcers so far have managed to arrest only a handful of suspects, including one Jamaat-e-Islami activist in connection with the killing of Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique of Rajshahi University last month, it seems either the “terrorists” have some sort of impunity, or even worse, they simply vanish in the air! The worst assumption could be some unknown killing squads doing the dirty job on behalf of the actual beneficiaries of these indiscriminate or selective killings. We know, the first three things the police and detectives do to resolve a murder mystery are: a) to find out the killer (s); b) the motive of the killing; and c) the actual beneficiary (ies) of the crime. And only a Sherlock Holmes could lead us to the killers, their motives, and the beneficiaries of the mindless killings.

It’s simply unbelievable that while al Qaeda, ISIS or their local affiliates have purportedly been killing people right and left – not with bombs or guns, mostly with machetes inside the victims’ residences, workplaces, or in public thoroughfares, often in broad daylight – the police and intelligence departments have suddenly become too “inefficient and clueless” to apprehend the killers. Strangely, the police even didn’t bother to interview the slain freethinking blogger/writer Avijit Roy’s wife – killers of her husband gravely injured her too – who’s an eyewitness to the killing. Interestingly, the same police and intelligence departments in the past tracked down and captured most masterminds of the JMB and HUJI (B) terror groups, including the Bangla Bhai, Shaykh Abdur Rahman, and Mufti Abdul Hannan in 2005-06, while the BNP-Jamaat Coalition was in power.

What Avijit’s father Professor Ajoy Roy said publicly last week is very revealing, and disturbing as well: “I have been silenced. The police initially told me the three killers of my son had been under their surveillance. On my asking why they were not arresting them instead, they had no answer. Now the police are telling the killers have already left the country”. My former Dhaka University colleague and friend Professor A.K. Fazlul Haque – who also recently lost his son to unknown assailants – believes the killers enjoy some sort of impunity. The experiences of the bereaved parents, and our own experiences, and common sense collectively demolish the hunch and conspiracy theories about al Qaeda, ISIS, or the ubiquitous BNP-Jamaat involvements in the ongoing killings of freethinkers, foreign nationals, LGBT activists, and others in Bangladesh.

Now, not only the ruling Coalition and its main Opposition (which’s outside the Parliament) contradict each other as to who have been killing writers, bloggers and freethinkers in the country, but some ministers of the Coalition Government also contradict each other in this regard. While the Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan denies the existence of any ISIS in Bangladesh, Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu insists there are 8,000 al Qaeda supporters in the country. And we know, ISIS is an offshoot of al Qaeda.

Politicians here – like elsewhere in the world – often delude people with cry wolves, blame games, and false flag operations. Raising the spectre of al Qaeda or the Islamist bogey is a favourite political game in Bangladesh since the 1990s. Interestingly, we all the time hear the BNP-Jamaat Alliance is in league with al Qaeda and its ilk. So much so that days after 9/11, coloured printed posters appeared on Dhaka city walls with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Khaleda Zia, portraying them as birds of the same feather, committed to terrorism in the name of Islam.

It’s sad but true, some Western governments, media, and think tanks since the late 1990s have been projecting Bangladesh as a safe haven for Islamist terrorism. As the New York Times reported on March 20, 2000, President Clinton cancelled his planned road trip to Joypura – a village 20 miles northwest of Dhaka – (while he was visiting Bangladesh) because of “concerns raised by the Secret Service”. Interestingly, the same report added: “Bangladesh does not have a recent history of violent incidents”.

Soon after 9/11 the Wall Street Journal, its Asian subsidiary, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the Christian Science Monitor started publishing half-baked, sensational articles on Bangladesh by Eliza Griswold, Bertil Lintner, Selig Harrison and others, portraying the country as one on the verge of an Islamist takeover. Lintner portrayed the military in Bangladesh “with ties to the militants”, allegedly being churned out by local madrasas. We find the reflection of such sensationalism in some Bangladeshi politicians’ statements, newspaper reporting, and even some “academic research” , which portray “Middle East-sponsored” Islamic banking, insurance, madrasas, and the Jamaat-e-Islami as promoters of violent Islamism in Bangladesh.

The latest killings in Bangladesh have saddened and outraged the whole world. The UN Secretary General, Secretary John Kerry and Assistant Secretary Nisha Desai Biswal of the U.S. State Department, among others, recently asked the Bangladesh government to take immediate action against the killers. Thanks to the Government’s failure to produce credible proofs against BNP-Jamaat activists as killers of freethinkers in Bangladesh, most people at home and abroad want convincing answers about the killers’ identities, and the motives of the killings. Meanwhile, both Washington and Delhi want to work together with Dhaka to tackle the problem of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh.

While Washington and Delhi seem to have drawn the conclusion that Islamist terrorists have been doing these killings, Dhaka seems to be somewhat ambivalent in this regard. The Bangladesh Government on the one hand denies there is any al Qaeda or ISIS in the country, on the other it holds BNP-Jamaat supporters – the so-called anti-Liberation and pro-Islamist terrorists – responsible for the killings. Thus, it’s difficult to agree with Marcia Bernicat, the US Ambassador to Bangladesh, that Bangladesh, India and the United States – all fighting extremism – are all on the same page with regard to the killings in Bangladesh.

The way the U.S. and Indian governments, and some conservative think tanks in the U.S. are appraising the spate of killings in Bangladesh is very unfortunate. Recently (on May 3rd) the Heritage Foundation organized a workshop in Washington D.C. on the present situation in Bangladesh. The bias of the workshop is well reflected in its title, “How Can Bangladesh Stop the Escalating Extremist Violence?”, as if undoubtedly “extremists” (a byword for Islamist terrorists) are responsible for the killings!

It’s noteworthy; the Heritage Foundation is a leading ultra-right conservative think tank in the U.S., which favours hegemonic U.S. foreign policy in the Third World. It recently became controversial for publishing a report on the economic costs of illegal immigration to the U.S. Jason Richwine – a co-author of the report – believes Hispanics and Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites, and have trouble assimilating because of a supposed genetic predisposition to lower IQ.

Three prominent South Asia experts presented papers at the workshop: Samina Ahmed, Ali Reaz, and Liza Curtis. The main objective of the workshop was to start off a joint US-Bangladesh counterterrorism (CT) operation to fight and defeat the elusive Islamist terrorists in Bangladesh. As if the U.S. has been successful in containing Islamist terrorism at home or elsewhere in the world!

Samina Ahmed is quite unambiguous in asserting that the terror attacks have been attempts to destabilize the present government. Although the present Government holds similar view, she incisively points out the following: Bangladesh needs the rule of law; the prevalent zero-sum game of politics is bad; the police are fully politicized; there’s no due process and freedom of the judiciary in the country; there prevails a climate of impunity; and the Bangladeshi people in general don’t favour either violent extremism, or the present regime under the Awami League.

Ali Reaz points out as to how the politics of expediency and the Awami League government’s ambivalence towards political violence are problematic. He points out, while Sheikh Hasina attended the funeral of Ahmed Rajib Haider – the first Islamophobic blogger to be killed – purportedly by Islamist militants in February 2013, and glorified him as a martyr, she now asks freethinkers not to hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims.

Reaz legitimately questions why only hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims, not followers of other religions, be declared a crime! He believes both the Government and terrorists are intolerant of any dissent or opposition. He raises the question (which I have raised as well) why CT was effective in 2005-2006, and is faltering today. He, however, favours a joint U.S.-Bangladesh CT operation to overpower the terrorists in Bangladesh.

Liza Curtis is disappointing. Instead of imputing the ongoing terror and political violence solely to bad governance, corruption, and the marginalization of people, she wants Bangladesh Government’s whole-hearted cooperation with its U.S. counterpart. She, however, blames the lack of democracy, extreme political polarizations, and the ideology of Islamism for the killings. She doesn’t question if the elusive Islamist terrorism or some thing else is responsible for the ongoing killings in Bangladesh.

If lack of democracy and terrorism has positive correlation, then one doesn’t know how to explain the terror attacks in Western democracies like America, Britain, France, and Belgium! She thinks by promoting Sufism or “liberal/tolerant Islam”, and regulating mosques and madrasas, Bangladesh would neutralize Islamist extremism. Adherents of Sufi Islam could be as violent as Mumtaz Qadri – the assassin of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer – who followed Sufism, not Islamist extremism. Millions of Qadri’s admirers in Pakistan also belong to certain Sufi schools.

While one appreciates the growing concern of the U.S. government, human rights organizations, and think tanks at the ongoing killings of innocent people (36 in the last 14 months) in Bangladesh – purportedly by Islamist extremists – one wonders as to how they had never been that vocal at the killings of hundreds of innocent Bangladeshis in the last ten years, by criminals, political rivals, and law-enforcers –especially the RAB. Various reports reveal the RAB and police killed more than 1,000 suspects and innocent people through extra-judicial killings between 2004 and 2010. Hundreds of civilians die in “poll-violence”. Since February 78 people got killed at the hands of political rivals during local council elections.

Politicians in power fail to explain extrajudicial killings by law enforcers; the killing of 57 army officers at the BDR headquarters; and the killing of pedestrians, bus and car drivers/passengers in 2013–2014. While Bangladesh is fast becoming a safe haven for killing squads and terrorists, rampant corruption, unaccountability of rulers, their cronies, bureaucrats, and law-enforcers have virtually turned Bangladesh into Satyajit Roy’s Hirak Rajar Desh. Nothing seems immoral, impossible, disorderly, or surprising at all! The “winners take all” is the rule of the game. The opposition – the real ones, not some pseudo-opposition parties – isn’t even entitled to crumbs from the high table.

While innocent people, intellectuals and dissidents get arrested, harassed by law-enforcers, disappear and die, politicians are in a state of denial, and even worse, busy vilifying each other as killers and anti-state elements. Bangladesh isn’t only fast turning into a killing field, but also into a safe haven for politically well-connected bank defaulters, money launderers, and share-market scammers, Money launderers have so far sent more than 30 thousand crore (thirty billion) taka out of Bangladesh; share-scammers defrauded millions to the tune of several billion takas; and “unknown” criminals robbed more than $100 million from the Bangladesh Bank. Interestingly, the Finance Minister often rubbishes all criticisms of financial scams, and considers these crimes as growing pains of growth and development.

It appears from the Information Minister’s recent statement that the Government is contemplating complete media control through a “Media Monitoring Centre” to keep an eye on print and electronic media, including the social media, who are allegedly “trying to create divisions in the society by writing against different religions and beliefs”. Human rights activist Sultana Kamal has aptly assessed the situation: “We can’t deny that people are afraid to speak up”. When people are afraid to speak up, sections of them might resort to anarchy and terrorism.

One may cite the International Crisis Group’s latest Report on Bangladesh in this regard: “The Government’s heavy-handed measures are damaging its own legitimacy and benefitting extremists …. If mainstream dissent remains closed, more and more government opponents may come to view violence and violent groups as their only recourse.” Nothing could be more insensible than undermining the grassroots, the ordinary people’s understandings of what goes on at the top. At the opportune moment, they retaliate against bad governance and tyranny.

I think if Dhaka, Delhi, and Washington can agree to formulate a workable formula to tackle the problem of the ongoing killings in Bangladesh, they need to take the following steps: Firstly, it’s essential to know if the killers are ideology-driven terrorists, or local gangsters, or even members of politically motivated death-squads. Secondly, they must understand terrorism has never been a primeval cause or an “original sin”, it has always been preemptive, retaliatory, avenging, and a weapon of the weak or ideology-driven, marginalized people’s violence against the powerful. Finally, it’s time to find out the motives of the killings, and who could be the actual beneficiary (ies) of the crime.

Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). Email: tajhashmi@gmail.com

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