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Rising terror threat

Gabriel DomínguezJanuary 25, 2016

Dhaka has filed terror charges against 14 men allegedly linked to the banned Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) - a hardline Islamist group blamed for the murders of secular bloggers. DW takes a look at the ABT and its agenda.

Bangladesch Festnahme der Mitglieder der ABT Terrorgruppe
Image: Getty Images/AFP

The 14 Bangladeshi nationals - aged between 25 and 40 - were part of a larger group of 26 construction workers who were deported from Singapore last year on charges of supporting an "armed jihad ideology." Singapore authorities said that the men - who were reportedly in possession of a significant amount of radical and jihadi-related material - bore grievances against the Bangladeshi government over its actions against some the country's Islamic groups and leaders.

"Members were encouraged to return to Bangladesh and wage armed jihad against the Bangladeshi government. They had also sent monetary donations to entities believed to be linked to extremist groups in Bangladesh," said Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs in a statement.

Suspected links to ABT

The Bangladeshi government in Dhaka later said that while they had found no evidence of links to al Qaeda and the so-called "Islamic State" (IS), 14 of the men were charged with being members of the banned Ansarullah Bangla Team or ABT.

But what exactly is the ABT? The ABT is a Bangladesh-based Islamist, militant group which has gained prominence in recent months after claiming responsibility for the murder of five secular bloggers and a publisher.

The outfit has also been accused of taking part in bank robberies and of issuing a hit list of secular bloggers, writers and activists around the world, in which it threatens to kill them if its demands are not met - an allegation the group has denied.

Experts say the militant group's roots can be traced back to 2007 when it operated under a different name, Jama'atul Muslemin. The group re-emerged as ABT in 2013, most likely led by older extremists associated with more traditional Bangladeshi militant outfits.

Bangladesch Angriff auf Moschee in Dhaka
Bangladesh has seen a rise in Islamist violence in recent monthsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

"These groups have been under intense government pressure for some time, so they've been forced to reorganize under new names to avoid surveillance," Asad Ali, a Bangladesh expert at IHS Country Risk, told DW.

Recruitment strategy

It's hard to estimate just how large the ABT is or how it is organized, but experts say it doesn't enjoy a large support base within Bangladeshi society. Nonetheless, the group seems to be succeeding in indoctrinating and recruiting the country's youth. In fact, analysts say the organization reflects a new and young generation of jihadists in the Muslim-majority South Asian nation of 160 million.

"Their main target group for recruitment is highly-motivated and well-educated university students, especially those familiar with the English language and are active in social media," Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), told DW.

But the ABT is also known to recruit from the poorer and more conservative sections of society as well as from the Islamic political organization Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and its youth wing, following the government crackdown on the party.

Moreover, the ABT- which has been linked to the al Qaeda faction in South Asia, AQIS - seems to have some Bangladeshi sympathizers in European - primarily British - urban agglomerations, as counter-terrorism expert Tomas Olivier told DW.

In general, says Ali Riaz, a Bangladesh expert and professor at Illinois State University, the group attracts mostly those who feel marginalized and disenfranchised. "But the sense of alienation is not always connected to their economic status. It could well be generated by factors such as local and global politics as well as a sense of victimhood as Muslims, to name a few," said Riaz.

Jihadi ideology

The ABT is said to be heavily influenced by renowned Islamist ideologues, such as Anwar Al-Awlaki, an al Qaeda leader killed in a 2011 US drone strike. The group is hence believed to support the armed jihadi ideology of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and IS, which aim to wage holy war in Bangladesh and abroad.

Announcements and website postings by the group's supporters show the ABT has a domestic agenda which is connected to a global strategy, as analyst Riaz points out. The domestic agenda, he says, is focused on silencing the critics of the religion, particularly those who disagree with the ABT's radical interpretation of Islam. "This is a part of its goal to create an 'Islamized' society in which only one single interpretation is considered acceptable," he said.

The global agenda, in line with that of AQIS, is to destabilize South Asia, Riaz added.

As a result, the ABT opposes democratic governance since they perceive democracy as anti-Islamic. "They aim to end any democratic system in Bangladesh. There is no doubt the group categorically rejects not only democracy but also any form of consensus-based political decision-making," Wolf told DW, adding that the ABT pressurizes local media outlets to silence any opposition against the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladeshi society.

Killing dissenters

But there is one area where experts say the group is following a somewhat different approach from older militant Islamic fundamentalist organizations like Harakat ul-Jihad al-Islami-Bangladesh (HUJI-B) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

In contrast to HUJI-B and JMB, the ABT's main goal is not to influence the state structure in order to implement their Islamic fundamentalist ideology or to carry out spectacular attacks to discredit the state to gain publicity, they say.

"At the moment, it seems that their chief aim is to silence or eliminate the critics of extremist religious doctrines. In order to do so, they are using the cyberspace not only to promote jihadi ideology but also to identify prominent opponents and murder them in brutal ways to draw attention," said Wolf.

This explains why most of the group's targets have been liberal, independent and secular intellectuals, bloggers, cultural personalities, and supporters of war crimes trials. In other words, anyone who poses a threat to the ABT's fundamentalist Islamic teachings and lifestyle could be a potential target, say analysts.

Dhaka's response

The Bangladeshi government has historically been comprehensive in countering militancy, which has meant that extremist groups operating in the country have had very limited capability. Moreover, Dhaka has responded to the rising threat with closer international cooperation in order to minimize the growth and influence of the group.

However, analysts such as Riaz give several reasons why they believe this approach alone won't be enough to neutralize the threat posed by such extremist groups. First, they say, there is already a "favorable global environment for terrorists," thanks to the emergence of IS, which recently claimed responsibility for a deadly attack in Indonesia.

Secondly, the increasingly polarized political situation in Bangladesh is tacitly creating a hospitable environment for such groups, they argue. For instance, IHS analyst Ali says that the ruling Awami League (AL) response to the increase in militancy in late 2015 has been "highly politicized."

"Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has directly accused the opposition Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) of using militancy to destabilize the government, although no proof has been provided to support this. The risk here is that militants will increasingly find space to reorganize, with the state's security apparatus predominantly focused on the AL's political opponents."

Also, IHS sources in Dhaka report that Bangladesh's various counter-terrorism forces compete for political favor, often resulting in false and exaggerated arrests. "In the long term, the AL's continued crackdown on the BNP and JI, especially if this involves either party being banned from politics, is likely to push activists towards militancy, providing groups such as ABT a significant recruitment boost," said Ali.

Symbolbild - Flagge ISIS
Experts say there is a 'favorable global environment for terrorists,' thanks to the emergence of ISImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Increasing threat

In light of these developments, analysts such as Wolf argue that the presence of ABT members in Singapore can be seen as an indication of the rising threat posed by a group which is now looking beyond Bangladesh to promote and participate in jihadi-related activities.

Moreover, he says, this shows the group is trying to build-up an own international network in order to carry out Jihadi activities as well as operate independently from the financial and logistical support of terror groups like IS or al Qaeda.

This, however, doesn't mean that the group already has the capabilities to launch a sizeable terrorist attack outside the jurisdiction of Bangladesh. "More likely Ansarullah Bangla might take terrorist operandi and expertise to the Indian sub-continent, and more specifically to Dhaka and Kashmir," said Olivier, who is also CEO of security consultancy Lowlands Solutions Netherlands (LSN).