The Tendrils of Terrorism


Local residents pay their respects to the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery at a stadium in Dhaka on July 4. © AP

Asia needs a concerted campaign to counter the fast-spreading culture of jihad.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

One of Bangladesh’s worst terrorist attacks, in which 20 patrons of a Dhaka restaurant were butchered by militants, highlights Asia’s growing threat from Islamist violence. Among those killed were seven Japanese aid workers, including an 80-year-old railway expert, nine Italians, one Indian and a U.S. national. Terrorist attacks this year from Jakarta to Pathankot, India, have served as a reminder of the growing scourge of jihadism in Asia.

Several factors have contributed to the rise of Islamist terrorism. Some Muslim communities are caught in a vicious circle of exploding populations, a chronic dearth of jobs, high illiteracy and fast-spreading extremism. In Bangladesh, among other troubled states, the intersection of political instability, popular discontent, resource stress and population pressures has formed a deadly cocktail of internal disarray, fostering a pervasive jihad culture.

In addition, a corroding state structure has served as an incubator of Islamist terror, creating conditions under which transnational militant groups can thrive. Weak or dysfunctional states are more likely to host terrorist groups that not only carry out transnational attacks but also target their host states.

Another major factor is the systematic export by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some other oil sheikhdoms of Wahhabism, an obscurantist and intolerant version of Islam. This has gradually snuffed out more liberal and pluralistic interpretations of Islam in Southeast, South and Central Asia, thereby promoting radicalization among many Muslims and allowing Islamist groups to become increasingly entrenched.

Linking radical Islam with radical terror, Wahhabism interprets the Koran in a way that instills the spirit of martyrdom, with promises of reaching paradise through death.

Reinforcing the rise of religious extremism, petrodollar-financed madrasas, or religious schools, have sprung up across Asia. Wahhabi fanaticism has helped spread the tendrils of terrorism, serving as the ideological mother of Asian jihadist groups that murder, maim and menace the innocent — from Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia to Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Taliban in the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt. Bangladesh authorities have blamed the cafe attack — claimed by the Islamic State group — on a local Wahhabi-infused group, Jamaat ul-Mujahideen, whose top two leaders were convicted and executed in 2008 for carrying out nationwide bombings.

Adding to Asian security concerns, Wahhabi-indoctrinated militants from countries including Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China, India and Kazakhstan, have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for another offspring of Wahhabism — IS. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last year called Southeast Asia “a key recruitment center” for the fanatical group.

The jihadists who return to their homelands from Syria and Iraq could wage terror campaigns in the same way that the Afghan war veterans, like Osama bin Laden, came to haunt the security of the Middle East, Asia and the West. The multinational rebels in Afghanistan, who became known as “mujahideen” (Islamic holy warriors), were originally trained and armed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s to help oust Soviet forces from that country.

Yet another factor that has fueled violent jihadism is state sponsorship of — or collusion with — terrorism. Militants, some promoted by regimes and some operating with the connivance of elements within national militaries and intelligence organizations, have employed religion or ethnic or sectarian aspirations to justify their acts of cross-border terror.

For example, Pakistan’s use of extremist groups as an instrument of foreign policy is well documented, with the U.S. State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism for 2015 stating that some United Nations-designated terrorist organizations continue “to operate within Pakistan, employing economic resources under their control and fundraising openly.” Essentially, the Pakistani military has reared “good” terrorists for cross-border missions while battling “bad” militants that fail to toe its line.

For states nurturing violent jihadist groups, the chickens have come home to roost with a vengeance. For example, the recent Istanbul airport attack is a reminder that Turkey has come full circle. The country served as a rear base and transit hub for IS fighters. But when IS became a potent threat to Western interests, Turkey came under pressure and began tightening its borders. By allowing the U.S. to fly sorties over Syria and Iraq from a Turkish air base, Ankara has now incurred the wrath of IS, the group whose rise it aided.

Saudi Arabia, which has bankrolled Islamist extremism ever since the oil-price boom of the 1970s boosted the kingdom’s wealth, also contributed to the rise of IS, creating a Frankenstein’s monster that now threatens it as much as any other country. This is apparent from the latest explosions in Medina and two other Saudi cities. Paradoxically, IS is using Wahhabism to try and delegitimize Saudi Arabia’s cloistered, Wahhabism-exporting royals.

Bangladesh’s grim challenge

The Dhaka cafe attack highlights the specter of jihadism haunting Bangladesh, the seventh most populous nation, that is made up mainly of low-lying floodplains and deltas. Excluding microstates, Bangladesh features the greatest population density in the world. Less known is the fact that its jihadist problem is largely self-inflicted.

Indeed, Bangladesh’s future is imperiled as much by Islamic radicalization as by global warming. The accelerating radicalization of a society with largely moderate Muslim traditions was highlighted by the fact that the slaughter of mainly foreigners in the cafe attack was perpetrated by educated young men from affluent families.

Ever since her election as prime minister in late 2008 marked the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina has battled jihadists, including those reared by the country’s military intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, and the National Security Intelligence agency. Hasina has sought to curtail the powers of the DGFI, which, like Pakistan’s military-run Inter-Services Intelligence agency, nurtured militant groups and conducted operations against political parties and journalists.

Born in blood in 1971, Bangladesh has been wracked by perennial turmoil, including 22 coup attempts, some successful. Hasina survived when gunmen assassinated her father — Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and its first prime minister — and executed her extended family in a single night in 1975. She survived again in 2004 when assassins hurled grenades at one of her political rallies, leaving two dozen people dead. According to Hasina, she has escaped death 19 times.

That Bangladesh’s political turbulence and violence are unlikely to end any time soon is apparent from two developments: The boycott by the largest opposition party of the January 2014 national election, which returned Hasina to power; and the wave of Islamist attacks since 2013 on secular bloggers, atheists, gay rights activists, and members of the Hindu minority, with some of the targets decapitated or hacked to death in public. Now, there are serious questions about whether a politically divided Bangladesh can cope with the upsurge of Islamist violence.

Against this background, the fight against terrorism in Asia is likely to prove long and difficult. A study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center estimates that the aggregate Muslim population by 2030 will have doubled since 1990, with the largest increase being in Asia. The demographic explosion could accentuate the stresses that are contributing to violent jihadism and thereby act as a threat multiplier.

There is greater need than ever to bring the international fight against terrorism back on track. Only a concerted, sustained campaign to deal with the factors spurring jihadism can help stem the challenge from the forces of terror.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi, and a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2016.