This article is an adaptation of a policy paper published in William and Mary Law School's The Comparative Jurist.
They say that all Bangladeshis are separated by a maximum of two degrees of separation. On July 1, this reality was tragically proven true.
Holey Artisan Bakery is the kind of place where expats can cure homesickness by indulging in a range of epicurean delights, while locals (especially kids) can grab themselves a treat-especially before fasting hours begin during Ramadan. It's the type of establishment my cousins loved to frequent; dragging my uncles and aunts until they too became lifelong addicts of French pastries and Italian gelatos. I actually ate an out-of-this-world cake from there at a birthday party when I last visited Bangladesh in 2011.
On July 1 during the waning days of Ramadan, seven heavily armed terrorists decided it was a suitable venue to rob 24 innocent people of their lives and to shock and terrorize a nation of 170 million in the process. We have family who often visit restaurants in Gulshan for iftar, and we worried intensely about their safety all night-not knowing if our unanswered calls were simply them sleeping soundly or something more heartbreaking. Although they were safe, we learned that three young students studying in the US were murdered in the attack, and that the two Emory students were family friends.
Two degrees of separation indeed.
Unprecedented Savagery Security forces have recently killed the suspected Canadian-Bangladeshi plotter of the country's worst terrorist attack. Yet the tragic saga of violent extremism and political violence is likely to continue. Indeed Bangladesh has been suffering waves of extremist political violence for several years. Bloggers, activists, journalists. Leaders of a range of vulnerable communities including Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, as well as Shia and LGBT Muslims. Even a Muslim professor whose only crime was engaging in cultural activities. All of these innocent citizens found themselves targets for cold-blooded murder, many of which were committed publicly in broad daylight. Yet attacks against foreign expats in Bangladesh have been exceedingly rare, and the Holey Bakery attack was the first time in the young country's history that expats were targeted on such a large scale. Equally as alarming was the fact that these perpetrators were highly educated and came from relatively privileged backgrounds. Whether any of these perpetrators were actually Daesh or Al Qaeda operatives or were simply members of domestic terror organizations, one stark reality emerges: Violent extremism is a crisis that Bangladesh can no longer ignore. Radicalization and Political Violence: A Pressure-Cooker Model Violence was never a stranger to a country that was born out of immense bloodshed and suffered decades of post-independence instability under a series of authoritarian regimes. Even in the post-democratic era, political violence has reared its hideous head multiple times. Most of the violence witnessed in the past decade stems from about half or more of the population being extremely frustrated with the fact that the current government has been in power for so long, especially after they were re-elected in 2014 through an election boycotted by the opposition and where voters were given few genuine choices. The long-awaited yet flawed war crimes trials and the subsequent banning and crackdown of the historically tainted Jamaat e-Islami ("JeI") party has led to increased agitation by party cadres from JeI and other like-minded extremist groups, of which a subsection is willing to commit acts of violence targeting both the state and vulnerable minority communities alike. Overreactions from security forces--along with the opportunistic harassment and broad suppression of opposition members--have led to increased polarization and hardening of mentalities and tactics. An even smaller subsection of these individuals gradually became radicalized from feelings of political subjugation and flocked to ultra-hardline militant outfits waging war on the state. In such a pressure cooker situation of government suppression, subgroups of subgroups find motivation to commit increased levels of violence. These individuals, who were once simply passionate members of legal political parties, can gradually transform into radicalized and ultra-violent foot soldiers of hardcore domestic and even international terrorist groups. This phenomenon was seen in Algeria's brutal civil war, and is a folly being repeated by the ultra-repressive Sisi regime in Egypt. It seems that process may well be repeating itself in Bangladesh. Counter-Extremism Rehabilitation: A Specialized Solution In the aftermath of these attacks, a natural government response is to increase the power of and boost spending for the nation's myriad security forces. Yet Bangladesh is already becoming a heavily militarized and securitized state, complete with a liberal use of law enforcement authority.
Instead, it would be far more useful to craft specific solutions in the areas of security, political rehabilitation, civil society, and grassroots activism. Recommendations in all of these areas are detailed in The Comparative Jurist policy paper "Anti-Terrorism and Counter-Extremism in Bangladesh: From Policy to Grassroots Activism." This article will focus on the understated yet potentially game-changing importance of counter-extremism rehabilitation.
As the number of internal armed conflicts in the Muslim world has increased over the past few decades, there has been a steady rise of extremism-inspired terrorism and militancy among segments of disaffected Muslim populations around the world. The backgrounds of the Gulshan attackers continue to demonstrate that radicalization can affect individuals of all educational levels and socio-economic backgrounds. In response, various Muslim countries have developed specialized programs for their citizens who have participated in activities involving terrorism and militancy both within their borders and abroad. Likewise, various European countries dealt with its citizens returning from fighting in conflicts abroad.
The Saudi and Danish Models
Most Muslim countries treat militancy and terrorism as crimes punishable by imprisonment or death depending on the severity of the crime. Yet several nations have also launched rehabilitation programs designed to "deprogram" select citizens from extremist ideology. Indeed while boasting some of the broadest and most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the world, perhaps the most notable rehabilitation model is Saudi Arabia's "Care Rehabilitation Center" ("CRC").
Established in 2007, the CRC is located in a former resort complex outside Riyadh. The program's two primary objectives include "changing perceptions and views" and "behaviour modification", with the overall goal of creating an environment which "encourages detainees not to commit violence again."[ CRC features art therapy as well as religious and psychological counseling services in order to apply a "soft approach" in altering the hardline views of participants and their eventual re-integration to society. The program features 205 "graduates", but there are two major requirements: participants must demonstrate a "willingness to change" and their activities cannot have resulted in injury or death of any Saudi nationals. Saudi Ministry of Interior officials claim that the program is largely a success and report that only ten percent of participants being send back to prison while also looking for ways to reduce the terrorism-militancy recidivism rate of twelve percent. Participants include Saudi nationals accused of domestic or foreign terrorist-militant activities as well as released Guantanamo prisoners.
Likewise while most European countries punish citizens convicted of conducting militant and terrorist activities abroad with lengthy prison sentences, in 2007 Denmark launched its own rehabilitation program in Aarhus. The program was initially designed to deal with right-wing soccer hooligans, but has now evolved to re-integrate Danish citizens returning from fighting in Syria. Like the CRC in Saudi Arabia, the Danish program "involves counseling, help with readmission to school, meetings with parents and other outreach efforts." The program is a collaboration between police and welfare services. The Danish program is smaller in scope that the Saudi program and hard data on recidivism rates is not yet readily available. Yet the mayor of Aarhus insists the program is necessary
"We cannot afford not to include them back in our society and make sure that their path of radicalization is changed, so they can be an active part of our society."
A Dedicated Bangladeshi Counter-Extremism Program
There are several potential legal and policy lessons that the Bangladesh can learn from these rehabilitation models which will be crucial in conceptualizing and implementing its own program. While the exact contours of such a program will certainly require further analysis and input from specialized partner organizations and experts, there are several foundational guidelines.
For instance, advisory panels of psychologists and other experts can help judges consider candidates for the program on a case-by-case basis, based on a number of aggravating and mitigating factors such as the nature and results of the activities they participated or attempted to participate in, the individual offender's' level of culpability, their socio-economic circumstances, the likelihood of danger they would pose to society, and demonstrations of remorse and willingness to reform. The program may even be used to treat Bangladeshis who attempt to join or are former members of international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh.
A dedicated de-radicalization program will serve as a crucial alternative to Bangladesh's vastly overburdened and overused criminal justice system. Indeed British authorities recently announced that they will segregate imprisoned Muslim extremists from the general prisoner population due to prison staff being "ill-equipped to deal with the problem of radicalization behind bars." De-radicalization programs specifically solve this problem by creating a dual benefit of helping to prevent extremists from sharpening their criminal expertise while simultaneously stemming the radicalization of other prisoners.
These programs also provide a substantial incentive to surrender for both potential and active militants. They also give concerned family members and friends a specialized avenue for referring troubled individuals without fear of their loved ones enduring strenuous interrogations, torture, or imprisonment. In addition to the programs in Denmark and Saudi Arabia, there are additional programs in Algeria, Morocco, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The Bangladeshi government should carefully study and audit the programs to see which models (or which aspects from multiple models) would work best in a Bangladeshi context. A Manageable Ailment
There are no silver-bullet solutions to the pestilence of violent extremism and political violence, and it can't be accomplished overnight. Indeed all of the recommendations featured here are intended to serve as a means of continuing a national dialogue, and it is the guidance of the experts on the ground which should be heeded.
Yet working towards enacting concrete solutions on both an institutional and grassroots level is the right step. Violent extremism and political violence are not insurmountable crises. South Asia has endured centuries of foreign subjugation, the horrors of Partition, and sectarian and ethnic carnage. Muslim civilization has overcome seven Crusades, Genghis Khan's ravaging hordes, and the Bubonic Plague. The recent string of attacks in from Turkey to Malaysia--and especially the attack in Mecca--have galvanized the world against violent extremism in an unprecedented way. We can and will overcome Daesh, al Qaeda, and all of these anti-Muslim and unIslamic terrorists. Dedicated to the victims of the Gulshan attacks, and victims of terrorism and political violence everywhere.