The world appears to be witnessing a new phase in Islamic State’s global war which began in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
Shortly after the deadly coordinated terrorist attacks by an IS-claimed cell, an IS media outlet released a video of the group’s elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
His message, which referred to the Sri Lanka outrage, was bad news for most of the world including for Asia. With the destruction of the last IS enclave in Syria earlier this year by the U.S. and its allies, Baghdadi sought to rally his followers for a new fight — direct attacks in countries beyond its former territorial strongholds in Syria and Iraq. Governments, including in Asia, must respond to the threat, as the Sri Lanka attack showed.
The release of Baghdadi’s first video message since he was shown delivering a sermon in 2014 at the famous Grand al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Iraq, put paid to speculation that the IS chief was either in poor health or had died.
With the recent onset of Ramadan, or Islamic fasting month, Baghdadi felt it was the right moment to put out a rallying call to his supporters, aimed at boosting flagging morale and a demonstration of IS’s worldwide ambitions.
Baghdadi suggested that the so-called “caliphate” that his group had established in Syria and Iraq five years ago was always destined to crumble and that he had long ago made plans to continue the global struggles through franchises and affiliates around the world.
That strategy appears to have succeeded, not least in Asia. Baghdadi’s video could be taken as a green light for a recent upsurge of terrorist incidents during the holy month of Ramadan. After the Sri Lanka assault on April 21, the group in May claimed attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic as well as in my country, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh, a 90%-Muslim land of 165 million, has become a focal point of concern because on April 30, the same day as the release of the Baghdadi video, an image of the five terrorists who staged the deadly Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka in July 2016 appeared on an IS media outlet. A message in Bengali, English and Hindi threatened more attacks from Abu Muhammad al-Bengali, who is regarded by followers as the “emir” of IS in Bangladesh.
On April 29, a small bomb blast in the Dhaka district of Gulistan injured three policemen. The attack was claimed by IS, which referred to it as an “operation in Bengal.” Some analysts suggest that the bombing signaled the start of more attacks in Bangladesh and possibly in India, especially since the May 10 announcement by IS of an Indian “province” that it calls “Wilayah of Hind,” within India’s northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. On May 27 another explosion took place in Dhaka’s Malibagh area which left three people injured, including a police officer. This attack was also claimed by IS and said by Dhaka police to be more lethal than the April 29 attack.
Since the Holey Artisan Bakery attack, which killed 24 people besides the five terrorists, Bangladesh’s security forces have taken a sledgehammer approach in cracking down on suspected militants. They have killed scores and jailed hundreds over the last three years. But extremist groups tend not to remain quiet for long as they continue to radicalize, recruit and resurface at a time of their choosing.
The Bangladesh government has learned some important lessons since the Holey Artisan Bakery incident. It believes that the cafe attack was one of a series linked to Neo-Jamatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB), a local terrorist group with possible ties to IS, since 2014.
The Bangladesh government and civil society groups have tried to respond by launching measures under programs known as PVE, or Preventing Violent Extremism, across the country, which engage youth groups, local communities, schools and religious leaders.
While some of the measures are considered innovative and helpful, overall, such programs have not been particularly effective due to lack of expertise, resources and their short-term nature.
For Bangladesh and other countries, the best way to counter extremism and terrorism is through effective, long-term and sustainable programs that address grievances at both the individual and community level.
Ultimately, young people must be imbued with a sense of purpose. Governments and non-government organizations should undertake initiatives to strengthen ties among different ethnic and religious communities, including interfaith programs that emphasize the importance of the different groups in the history and cultural heritage of the nation.
Economic development is vital for creating jobs and opportunities that young people seek. Young men and women who have persevered at school and college only to be frustrated later by poor employment prospects can become vulnerable to radicalization. Through employment, young people not only have a source of income but also feel empowered and confident about their lives and future.
Bangladesh has recorded remarkable economic growth of over 6-7% annually in the last decade and has exceeded over 8% this year. However, according to the government’s latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey, inequality is still rising. The government therefore needs to ensure that the benefits of growth reach the bulk of the population by promoting more pro-growth policies, strengthening education, investing in skills development and human capital, improving infrastructure and fighting corruption.
A significant area of focus, often absent from government efforts, is mental health. Many youngsters grapple with issues of isolation, depression, identity and an inability to fit into their respective communities.
This includes not just poorer people but a growing number of young men and women from the upper echelons of society who are struggling to find their place in the wider world. They are driven into joining terrorist organizations less for the ideology than for a sense of belonging, which groups such as IS have been effective in providing.
It can be argued that the new phase for IS represents a rebirth which could represent a more virulent threat. “IS 2.0” is high-tech terrorism aided and abetted by social media and operating without much centralized organization. The group’s propaganda targets young people via their mobile phones, tablets and computers, urging them to battle anyone deemed their enemy. Inevitably this will lead to “lone wolf” and “wolf pack” terrorist attacks, carried out by independent individuals or groups.
It will be a protracted and bitter fight. But a more coordinated, sustained and thoughtful approach by government and civil society can help prevent and counter extremism — including in Bangladesh.
Faiz Sobhan is senior research director at the Dhaka-based Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.