Terrorism: no way out

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Bangladesh has shown political will and firm commitment to fight terrorist groups and has made it harder for terrorists to establish safe havens
Dr. Mohammed Abul Kalam, PhD

In the last couple of decades terrorism in Bangladesh has been on the rise. The fact remains that it has been there and the threat still persists despite a zero tolerance policy of the government. Rather, it is perceived that it is on the rise. In the most recent report published by the Institute of Economics and Peace it has been mentioned that Bangladesh has risen three points in the Global Terrorism Index, meaning the situation has deteriorated. The wave of terrorist activities and religious extremism is taking a heavy toll on the country’s economy, its politics and the people’s cultural life. In this vulnerable situation, government has to ensure its citizens’ right of personal life and liberty and security of life.  There has been an obvious growing trend of radicalisation in Bangladesh.

Terrorist outfits like JMB, HuJI-B and a few others exist in Bangladesh, but there’s also a nexus between national and international groups. In the past, we arrested members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, LeT and ISIS sympathisers (The Independent, September 9, 2017).
The world lauded Bangladesh for its commitment to counter both domestic and transnational terrorist groups. And Bangladesh has showed political will and firm commitment to fight terrorist groups and has made it harder for terrorists to establish safe havens.

Bangladesh has complicated its battle against terrorism by restarting war crimes tribunals that target high-ranking officials who collaborated with the Pakistani Army during the 1971 war for independence. During that civil war, 3 million Bangladeshis were slaughtered in what today is widely seen as genocide. Many of the accused war criminals are also political opponents of the current government. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the country’s largest opposition party, has enlisted extremist elements of Jamaat-e-Islami, an allied group, to perpetrate arson and murder as tools of partisan disruption. As a result, hundreds have died during a two-year campaign of domestic terror. The government has continued to uphold the rule of law and due process. The war crimes tribunals continue, even as opposition to them has grown angrier and more violent.

Islamic State, the jihadist group that runs a dwindling portion of Syria and Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack, its 28th in Bangladesh since 2015. The deadliest of those was an assault on a restaurant in Dhaka, the capital, last year, in which 22 civilians, two policemen and five terrorists were killed. The government insists—to near-universal disbelief—that the perpetrators are a new faction of a home-grown group called Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh. Either way, the government does seem to be pursuing with vigor the directive of the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, to “root out militancy”. But the siege in Sylhet was preceded by three botched suicide-attacks in the previous two weeks. The security services recently killed six militants in a raid in the southern city of Chittagong. And two sieges of suspected jihadists are now under way in the city of Moulvibazar, to the south of Sylhet.

The government seems to have had great success in persuading ordinary citizens to report suspected militants. But its appeasement of extreme religious groups such as Hefazat-e-Islam, which share much of the militants’ worldview, is at odds with the crackdown. Foreigners are frightened (17 of the victims of the restaurant attack were foreign). Cafés they frequent now sport airport-style security.

The Staging and Communication of Terror: Social media have played an essential role in the jihadists’ operational strategy in Syria and Iraq, and beyond. Twitter in particular has been used to drive communications over other social media platforms. Twitter streams from the insurgency may give the illusion of authenticity, as a spontaneous activity of a generation accustomed to using their cell phones for self-publication, but to what extent is access and content controlled? Over a period of three months, from January through March 2014, information was collected from the Twitter accounts of 59 Western-origin fighters known to be in Syria. Using a snowball method, the 59 starter accounts were used to collect data about the most popular accounts in the network-at-large.

Social network analysis on the data collated about Twitter users in the Western Syria-based fighters points to the controlling role played by feeder accounts belonging to terrorist organizations in the insurgency zone, and by Europe-based organizational accounts associated with the banned British organization, Al Muhajiroun, and in particular the London-based preacher, Anjem Choudary.

The jihadist insurgents in Syria and Iraq use all manner of social media apps and file-sharing platforms, most prominently Ask.fm, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp,  Pal Talk, kik, viper, JustPaste.it, and Tumblr.

Encryption software like TOR is used in communications with journalists to obscure locational information. But circumstances conspire to make Twitter the most popular application. Specifically engineered for cellphones, it is easy and inexpensive to use. Posts (tweets) may contain images or text, links to other platforms can be embedded, and an incoming tweet can effortlessly be forwarded to everyone in an address list. Some types of social media require either 3G or Wi-Fi access but Twitter can be used in the absence of either.

Website managers in back offices integrate the twitter feeds of frontline fighters with YouTube upload and disseminate them to wider audiences. These back-office managers are often wives and young female supporters. It makes little difference if they are working from Raqqa or from Nice. It may be that as phone and Internet access deteriorate on the ground, the insurgents are relying on disseminators outside the war zone to spread their messages.

Terrorism aims to intimidate a particular audience—or sometimes multiple audiences. Victims are chosen not because they are the enemy but because of their symbolic importance. To achieve their objectives terrorists need to reach broad publics.

However, as clandestine organizations, they have—in the past at least—had to rely on mainstream media to broadcast their message. This essential dilemma drives terrorist behavior. The solution is to stage dramatic violent incidents against symbolic targets compelling the media to broadcast the message. By attacking the Pentagon on 9/11, Al Qaeda strove to drive home the vulnerability of the American state to the muhajideen. The orange jumpsuits worn by two American journalists beheaded by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in August and September 2014 alluded to the jumpsuits worn by the inmates in Guantanamo Bay, making the executions appear as acts of retribution against the American treatment of Muslims.

The focus in the terrorism literature on the theater of terrorist spectaculars overshadows the reality that terrorists also use the Internet for the same reasons everybody else does; for organization and planning, proselytizing and entertainment, and to educate the believers. In fact, most of the online communication of terrorists is mundane to the point of appearing innocuous.

Communication is therefore critical to terrorist strategy as well as organization. The Internet was a gift to terrorists on both scores. Al Qaeda early on understood the potential of the Internet for building a global movement.

In a letter from 2002 to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, Osama bin Laden wrote: “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ratio may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for the battles.” During the first jihadist insurgency in Iraq, Ayman al-Zawahiri reiterated the lesson and wrote to the now deceased leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: “We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Ummah.” Documents found at the Abbottabad compound in May 2011 revealed bin Laden’s insistence upon the primacy and significance of online media. In a letter to an associate, he wrote: “media occupies the greater portion of the battle today.”

The need to reach the intended audience—governments, publics near and far—put terrorists in an oddly dependent relationship to the media. After the 2001 expulsion from Afghanistan, Al Qaeda had to find a new way to connect with the masses. The chosen medium was tapes sent by messengers to Al-Jazeera. Two months after the 2005 London Underground attacks, Al-Jazeera broadcast an Internet posting from Ayman al-Zawahiri taking responsibility, together with Mohammad Sidique Khan’s suicide video. A year later, on the anniversary of the London attacks, Al-Jazeera released a second video featuring a second 7/7 bomber, Shehzad Tanweer. The novelty value of the Britons’ delivery of the message guaranteed airtime for a while.

Social media freed Al Qaeda from the dependency on mainstream media. Starting in 2011, many jihadi groups, media outlets, and individuals moved on to mainstream social media platforms and created new accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Most groups’ media outlets still post their content to jihadi forums but will simultaneously create sponsored Twitter accounts where they release new statements or videos.

In the new lateral social media environment control over content is decentralized. Anyone can participate. Distribution is decentralized via “hubs” and volunteers use mainstream interactive and inter-connected social media platforms, blogs, and file sharing platforms.

Cross-posting and re-tweeting content on social media by volunteers is a low-cost means of dissemination to wide audiences.

The new media environment is also resistant to policing. Control practices that worked in the framework of vertically controlled Internet environment do not work in the new environment of social networking and micro-blogging. The widespread use of lateral integration across multiple file sharing platforms builds redundancy through the manifold postings of the same document and resilience against disruption and suppression by governments and Internet service providers. The question arises how the Web 2.0 media environment has altered not only the theatricality of violent incidents but also, more broadly, how media usages affect terrorist organization.

To sum up, propaganda has always been central to terrorism. Terrorists prefer tight control of the message but lacking directly control of mass media—print or television—have in the past relied on compelling mainstream media into doing the communication by means of the staging of attacks.

Social media has changed the dynamic fundamentally. It has eliminated the terrorists’ dependency on mainstream media, reversing the relationship by making mainstream media dependent on the jihadist-run social media. But has media self-sufficiency come at the cost of message control? And what changes have new media brought to the theater of terror?

The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology, Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR), Dhaka, Bangladesh
E-mail: med_sociology_iedcr@yahoo.com

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