Political violence is as much a concern as extremism because those wielding guns for politicians can easily switch allegiance to outlawed Islamic groups, says Marcia S.B. Bernicat
Kolkata: The political situation in Bangladesh may not be the cause, but it is a “contributing factor” in the rapid proliferation of Islamic radicalism in the country, said Marcia S.B. Bernicat, US ambassador to Dhaka.
“I have never experienced a country more politicized than Bangladesh,” Bernicat said in an interview. Political violence is as much a concern as extremism because those wielding guns for politicians can easily switch allegiance to outlawed Islamic groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda, she said.
“I have never experienced a country more politicized than Bangladesh,”-Bernicat
These groups have declared Bangladesh a “priority country”, and Dhaka’s vulnerability stems from the fact that unlike anywhere else, the IS and Al Qaeda are known to have worked together in Bangladesh. A large number of disaffected Bangladeshi youth continue to go missing and this is an indication that many are still being radicalised and recruited for extremist activities, Bernicat said.
What is your view about reforms in electoral politics in Bangladesh?
The Election Commission (EC) is a good starting point. The US, along with the European Union, worked hard to help strengthen the EC. But its efficiency and credibility rests with who its members are. The mandate of EC’s members is expiring in February. The president has a real task ahead of him, of finding enough members who are seen as being truly neutral.
We believe that the formation of a strong and credible EC will send a very powerful signal that it is indeed the government’s intention that the next elections will be above questions.
How has the political scenario in Bangladesh influenced extremism?
If you look at the IS’s own publications, they talk explicitly about the political divides in Bangladesh. They did their own analysis and came to the conclusion that those divisions provided opportunities to them to radicalize people.
But are people becoming radicalized because of the political situation in Bangladesh? No. People don’t become a terrorist because they can’t participate in a free and fair electoral process. The political situation in Bangladesh is not the cause, but it is a contributing factor for radicalization.
Those people who indulge in political violence are sort of guns for hire. They may have worked for a politician last week, and if IS is paying, they will work for IS this week. And the expertise here is 100% transferable.
If you look at the people who have been radicalized, it is the disaffected youth who have been called to action. The IS is far more flexible and adaptive than the Al Qaeda. It reaches into societies literally through the computer. They find people who are already a bit socially isolated—perhaps a socially awkward individual—and they slowly convert them.
People who have participated in political violence, or feel that they are totally shut out of the political process, are a little bit more susceptible to listening to the online radicalization rhetoric.
Are these groups still expanding in Bangladesh?
We don’t know the size of the network or if it is growing or shrinking. But I will name three things which are of serious concern to the Bangladesh government and all its partners. We know that both the IS and Al Qaeda have made Bangladesh a priority country. And the fact that they consider Bangladesh a priority country means that we have to believe that they are making efforts to expand.
Secondly, these organizations worked together in Bangladesh. They are also rivals, but we know people like Tamim Chowdhury (killed in an encounter last August) worked for both and so that’s a really dangerous phenomenon that they can at times share and build on their knowledge and expertise.
Thirdly, we know that young people are still disappearing. Most of the people who are reported as disappeared have disappeared without any news on where they are gone. That says recruitment is still successfully going on.
And how does this affect potential investors and those invested in Bangladesh?
American businesses tell us they want stability. Whether it is political violence or terrorism, if they don’t see the host government taking strong, transparent and effective steps to stop that violence, they think twice about investments. So in that case, political discussions are as important as law enforcement efforts to stop terrorism.
In the wake of the attack on the Holey Artisan bakery, are people still nervous?
Yes, absolutely. The fact that IS has said that this is just the beginning, and that they are going to continue to target westerners and business people has made people nervous.
We are being cautious, doing what we need to do to protect ourselves, but people believe in Bangladesh. The US believes that a stronger economy, a stronger governance structure, stronger democratic institutions, a stronger civil society will help protect Bangladesh from the attempts to increase terrorism there.