By Nazneen Mohsina of RSIS
Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses
Volume 9, Issue 8 | August 2017
In recent months, Bangladesh has witnessed an upsurge of female participation in „jihadist‟ groups in diversified roles. Since the ISdirected Holey Artisan Bakery attack in July 2016, Bangladeshi militant groups have become more assertive and violent. At the same time, they have also developed a transnational outlook and linkages. The role of female Bangladeshi „jihadists‟ have evolved from passive to active and from peripheral to central as suicide bombers and combatants. This change marks a new and more dangerous phase of violent extremism in the country. The article will highlight the implications of women‟s participation in violent extremism for Bangladesh‟s internal security landscape and propose a gendersensitive approach to counter-terrorism related legislation, policing, and law enforcement.
Bangladesh is not new to violent extremism and Islamist militancy. Following the end of the US-supported Afghan „jihad‟ in the 1980s, various „jihadist‟ groups and networks infiltrated Bangladesh.1 The period from 2001 to 2005 represents the peak of militancy in Bangladesh underscored by a series of nationwide bombings and a number of suicide attacks. Then there was a relative lull in violence from 2006 to 2012. In the aftermath of the Shabagh protest movement in 2013 in which more than 100 people lost their lives and the domestic political situation became more volatile with Bangladeshi militant groups rekindling their violent activities. The movement was led by a few secular bloggers who demanded capital punishment for some leaders of the religiouspolitical party Jamaat-e-Islami (Jel), among others, who were convicted of war crimes during the Liberation War of 1971. The Shabagh demonstrations triggered counter-protests from Jel and other likeminded religious political parties. Overreactions from the security forces coupled with the suppression of political opponents worsened the already polarised Bangladeshi society drove radicals to join militant groups such as pro-Al-Qaeda militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT, Ansar al-Islam) and Jama‟atul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB). An ultra-radical faction of JMB, known as Neo-JMB gravitated towards the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in 2015.
Since then, Bangladesh has been reeling from a spate of extremist violence. This new phase of violence is punctuated by targeted assassinations of social media activists, secular bloggers, foreign workers and tourists, Hindu and Christian priests as well as members of the Shia community. Most of these attacks have been claimed by Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS), Al-Qaeda‟s South Asian affiliate, and Neo JMB.
Bangladeshi Female “Jihadists”
Notwithstanding the Bangladeshi security forces‟ counter-terrorism campaign, the growing participation of female fighters since 2016 marks a new phase in Bangladesh’s experience with violent extremism. The emergence of IS extremist narrative revolving around the so-called Caliphate, has significantly changed how extremist groups in Bangladesh view the evolving roles of women in terrorism – from playing peripheral roles to more central and assertive roles as suicide bombers, combatants, recruiters, preachers and propagandists. Bangladesh witnessed its first female suicide bombing in December 2016 during a police raid at a militant hideout in Dhaka. According to Bangladesh‟s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC), the suicide bomber blew herself up while pretending to surrender to the police when their safe house was sieged. The bomber, Shakira, was the wife of Rashedur Rahman Sumon, a militant member of the Neo-JMB.In 2017 alone, as many as seven female militants have been arrested and six others were killed in counter-terrorism raids. A sizable number of female „jihadists‟, mostly belonging to Neo-JMB, have also been arrested in Dhaka, Sirajgonj, Rajshahi, Tangail, Sylhet and Chittagong districts earlier in 2016. According to police investigators, the top leadership of the NeoJMB aims to recruit more females for its organisational activities.
The trend indicates that violent, extremist organisations are deliberately engaging young women and girls as potential recruits in Bangladesh. Security agencies busted Neo-JMB‟s first female unit on 21 July 2016 after the detention of Mahmudul Hassan Tanvir, a Neo-JMB militant for the southern region. Tanvir was arrested in connection with the Gulshan café attack. Following his arrest, police and counter-terrorism officials detained four Neo-JMB female operatives on 24 July 2016; who were undergoing training to carry out attacks in Bangladesh. The police also recovered low-intensity crude bombs, explosive materials and extremist literature in their possession.
Similarly, on 16 August 2016, four more female jihadists were apprehended in Dhaka. Three were students of Manarat International University (MIU), and the other was a trainee doctor at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.11 Likewise, four female militants were detained in September. Before the arrest they were waiting for directives from the Neo-JMB high command to participate in fidayeen or suicide attacks.12 More recently, during a police raid in Rajshahi on 12 May, a few militants including two females attacked security personnel with sharp weapons, leaving one fireman (who was helping the police) dead and eight others injured.
Evolving Roles of Females in Jihadism in Bangladesh
The roles of women in „jihadism‟ have evolved from wives and nourishers of ‟jihadists‟, to suicide bombers, combatants, preachers and ideologues. Furthermore, they are being used as human shields in combat operations and they also facilitate the transmission of operational details. They are also emerging as important chat-room administrators of various online social platforms, translators of extremist materials from English to Bengali language, and leveraging on social media to radicalise and mentor other potential female „jihadists‟. This shift mirrors trends concerning the growing popularity of IS vis-à-vis Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh. Al-Qaeda „restricts‟ the role of women in „jihadist‟ activities. In one of AlQaeda‟s communiqués entitled “Risala Ila AlAkhawat Al-Muslimat” (Letter to My Muslim Sisters), the present Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri‟s wife Umayma Hassan Ahmed has forbidden women from participating in combat operations. Umayma has defined the main role of women “to preserve the mujahedeen in their sons, houses and secrets, and to help them in raising their sons well”.
IS, on the other hand, outwardly encourages and recruits women to take up arms against its enemies. The group permits women to assert themselves by carrying out responsibilities side by side with men and taking part in the struggle. Lately, perhaps to widen their appeal some al-Qaeda ideologues have modified their earlier conclusions and have given ambiguous statements about female participation in armed actions. However, the „fundamental‟ commitment of Al-Qaeda women remains to the family, with „martyrdom operations‟ accorded a lesser priority.
The individual motivations for women to engage in terrorism are multifaceted. According to Bangladeshi security forces, most female radicals are influenced, and often pressurised by their husbands to become militants. Hence, female participation in terrorism is often linked to female subordination and not ideological attraction. Indeed, women militants in Bangladesh have tended to have one or more male family members who are also involved in militancy.
This could be because of patriarchal norms of Bangladeshi society in which female support for her husband is seen as a sociocultural duty. In such traditional social frameworks, women are encouraged, and indeed, expected to follow the men in the family. If women leave their husbands, they are shamed and ostracised by the society. Also, most women in Bangladesh are not financially self-sufficient. Hence, they are economically dependent on their husbands. These factors make it difficult for women to reject the extremist influence, and often oblige them to „follow‟ their husbands or other male relatives‟ direction.
While it is true that radicalisation of women is, sometimes, facilitated by relationships with others and also their social circumstances, there are also cases whereby women have voluntarily participated in militancy. Their militant activism can be understood as a response to the perception propagated by violent extremist groups – that Islam is in danger and the Muslim world is under attack and therefore „Jihad‟ is the only way to fight back and protect the religion. The worldview constructed by these violent groups is characterised by violence, injustices and oppression to which the only panacea is their version of “Islam”. Violent images and videos online create strong emotionally-charged narratives that reinforce these claims.
A small but growing number of young, educated women from mostly middle-class backgrounds in Bangladesh are persuaded by this “Islamist vision” of a salvific, pristine polity. The declaration of the so-called “Caliphate” by IS has been instrumental in attracting these women to the idea of contributing to a utopian society governed by Sharia laws. These women purportedly feel empowered to be in the fight for the rights of Muslims who are portrayed as besieged and assailed by sustained extremist propaganda. The implied innocence of the suffering Muslims increases a sense of moral outrage that generates anger and provokes a strong desire to retaliate.
Some female „jihadists‟ also harbour a secondary goal relating to greater gender equality. For instance, they are attracted to IS propaganda which often pushes for “Islamic feminism” and underlines the role of women as important state builders, while still following Islamic principles.24 In other words, they view militancy as a form of empowerment, liberation, and an opportunity to live in a society with a belief system that they subscribe.
In most cases, the process of radicalisation in women begin with a pursuit for spirituality, a longing for recognition, a quest for identity, a sense of belonging, and a desire to practice pure Islam. Their recruitment takes place both online and offline. Acquaintances, friends and relatives can facilitate the recruitment as well as online interactions with like-minded people. In recent years, online chat forums and social media platforms have become a new recruitment and meeting place between recruiters and aspiring jihadists. Because of its apparent anonymity, people are more likely to self-disclose via computer-mediated technology, which contributes to feelings of greater intimacy. The mutual validation of ideas among the participants may not only lead them to develop ideas at odds with the rest of society, but also harden their beliefs as interaction among them acts as an echo chamber which gradually radicalises them collectively.
Neo-JMB: a Pioneer of Female Jihadism in Bangladesh
Although other banned militant organisations in Bangladesh such as Hizb-ut Tahrir and ABT have female followers, they do not play an active role in jihadist operations. Besides AQIS, Neo-JMB is the only other „jihadist‟ group in South Asia that recruits and trains women for combat activities that include suicide missions. It is reported to have a “Sisters Department” which plays an active role in this process. Generally, most of the female militants are family members of male operatives. However, the Neo-JMB also recruits women beyond their families and marry them off to fighters. The female NeoJMB militants use social media platforms such as Facebook and encrypted social media applications like Threema and Telegram for communication.
It is essential to point out that the participation of females as combatants is not new to South Asia. Apart from Bangladesh, female militants have fought in the Sri Lankan civil war and the insurgency in Indian Kashmir, and joined in the attacks in various parts of Pakistan.
Advantages of Recruiting Females as Jihadists
Female involvement in terrorist activities in Bangladesh has increased due to several reasons. First, following the Gulshan terror attack, Bangladesh‟s security forces have intensified its counter-terrorism efforts across the country. The increasing number of arrests has thinned out the male fighters and dented the operational capability of these networks. As such, „jihadist‟ groups have been recruiting women to supplement their manpower and remain functional.
Second, female „jihadists‟ offer operational advantages. For instance, they can get closer to their targets without being suspected. Women are usually considered to be passive and non-violent, and are thus subjected to less rigorous security checks. Moreover, Bangladeshi security forces are dominated by males who cannot conduct rigorous physical checks on females for reasons of propriety.
Third, as females do not conform to any profile that would trigger law enforcement red flags, their radicalisation is less noticed by people in their social surroundings. For instance, the presence of women in militant dens is less likely to arouse public suspicion as they are assumed to be unlikely perpetrators of terrorist violence. Finally, at the strategic level, female attackers attract more publicity and media attention, as they are perceived to generate greater psychological impact on the adversary or the target audience. Even symbolic participation by female militants in combat and training activities attracts more media attention compared to their male counter-parts. All these imperatives often make female members „highly effective‟ actors for their organisations. Nonetheless, female militants would continue to play subordinate roles to men as both Bangladeshi society, and the ideologies of the Islamist militant outfits are traditionally patriarchal in nature.
As extremist groups are increasingly recruiting women to engage in a range of activities, female militancy in Bangladesh should be given due attention. The involvement of women as combatants can have grave implications for Bangladesh‟s internal security, inter-religious harmony and tolerant socio-political fabric. Gender-specific counter-narratives and counter-extremism messaging to counter the appeal of violent extremist propaganda need to be revised to cater to gender nuances. Bangladesh‟s counter-terrorism efforts have been generally successful so far but terrorism cannot be eliminated by eliminating the terrorists alone. Addressing the underlying socio-economic, political and ideological factors that sustain radicalisation and breed violence have to be addressed in the longer term along with neutralising the operational strength of the militant groups.
Militant groups in Bangladesh will continue to find supporters and willing participants unless the country adopts a more inclusive approach that is particularly focused on eliminating conditions conducive to radicalisation, and promoting gender equality. For instance, campaigns focusing on empowering women and their socioeconomic development based on the Islamic way of life rooted in the Quran and Sunnah could be introduced to increase their „bargaining power‟ and self-esteem and encourage them to take a firm stand against violent extremist ideologies. Also, as most women in traditional societies like Bangladesh mainly depend on informal sources and traditional institutions like the madrassas for religious knowledge the government should engage the Islamic scholars to counter the narratives employed by „jihadists‟ to recruit women. In addition, women should be trained to be religious preachers and employed in the community, mosques and social media forums to facilitate a moderate understanding of religion. Lastly, more female officers should be involved in law enforcement and counterterrorism measures to effectively deal with gender sensitivities.
About the author
Nazneen Mohsina is a Research Analyst with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme, a constituent of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.