- - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In the weeks since five militants took hostages and opened fire at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the government’s response has been relentless and innovative.

Authorities stepped up efforts to locate and arrest extremists and sought to remedy the growing problem of radicalization at its root — in schools, mosques and online. Police also erected more security barriers and began to use new methods of intelligence-gathering, including a mobile app that allows citizens to quickly report crimes and suspected acts of terrorism.

Bangladesh actually started its anti-terror drive before the bakery massacre. In June, security forces detained hundreds of suspects in a concerted effort to locate and discourage terrorists. They arrested 194 suspects including many people who belonged to known cells in banned organizations such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ansarullah Bangla Team, Ansar-Al-Islam, Harqat-Ul-Jihad and Allaher Dal. Authorities arrested the top leaders of Jama’atul Mujahideen, the Ansarullah Bangla Team and Islami Chhatra Shibir.

These groups aren’t widely known outside Bangladesh. But they have long been breeding grounds for local felons who increasingly wave the flag of the Islamic State (ISIS). As a result, the carefully targeted arrests have visibly weakened the most threatening organizations in the country and reduced the danger of terrorist attacks.

While security forces pursued suspected terrorists, law enforcement agencies also put in place extra safety measures to protect the public. Major facilities around the nation that are vital for importers, exporters and foreign businesses have been fortified with new security and checkpoints. Railway stations, bus stops, airports and areas of public assembly are being guarded much more closely than before.

The attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery was, in effect, an attack on Bangladesh and its secular government. But it was directed specifically at foreigners who live and work in the country. So security, including checkpoints and a heavier-than-usual police presence, has been beefed up in neighborhoods that are frequented by nonresidents. Bangladesh is determined not to allow extremists sully its reputation as a welcoming place for foreign visitors.

This increased emphasis on traditional security is only part of the plan. Much of the rest is unconventional, like the threat itself. Bangladesh intelligence agencies have consistently discovered that the perpetrators of ISIS-linked attacks have been domestic extremists who have been encouraged and perhaps even trained by larger terrorist groups from far away.

Syrians or Iraqis haven’t infiltrated the country. Rather, Bangladesh’s terrorist problem is homegrown. Yes, some of the extremists have claimed connections to ISIS, but it is unclear if their acts were directed by ISIS or if the terrorists boasted about an allegiance that did not exist. More likely, the criminals were local thugs who sought the notoriety of being associated with the ISIS brand.

The government has taken ownership of this fact. That’s why checkpoints, increased security and civilian cooperation are components of the effort. In addition, Bangladesh’s elite crime fighting force, the Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, introduced a mobile app called “Report 2 RAB.” It allows citizens to send information and photos of suspected criminal activities directly to the authorities. The app helps police act more rapidly to prevent bloodshed.

But the battle is also ideological. The vast majority of extremists in Bangladesh are indoctrinated at a young age in Islamic schools where they are molded by radical imams.

To combat this practice, the Education Ministry has asked educational institutions to inform the government whenever students are absent for more than 10 days. This will give authorities a better chance to chase down would-be terrorists before they make the full turn to radicalization.

Authorities also are monitoring sermons delivered by imams during Friday prayers. Imams have been advised to deliver sermons in accordance with the tenets of Islam and have been discouraged from advocating violence in the name of religion.

After the horrendous attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheik Hasina reiterated her “zero tolerance” policy on terrorism, militancy and violent extremism. She has been widely praised for this sentiment, imperfect as it is. She understands that modern-day extremism can only be combated through the cooperation of the Bangladeshi people.

Tahseen Ali holds a doctorate in history specializing in modern South Asia and teaches college-level history courses in the Houston metropolitan area.

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