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Shahab Enam Khan, docent in international relations at Jahangimagar University in Dacca and a member of the Enterprise Institute, has completed an extensive study of radical Islamist movements. In a recent interview with Fides in his office in the Gulshan district of the Bangladeshi capital, the scholar recalls that to understand the spread of jihadist-Salafism and the future challenges it is necessary to look at the past: to the period immediately following the country’s independence, obtained in 1971 after a bloody war to free itself from control by Pakistan.
The conditions for the affirmation of radicalisation of Islamist matrix, says Shahan Enam Khan, depend on the political polarisation created in the years following independence. When political movements and parties fought each other in the name of different principles and ideologies, while institutional incapacity to guarantee efficient governance became increasingly evident. This led to a political vacuum plugged with new radical Islamist movements, whose recruitment strategies focussed precisely on criticism of the establishment, and the incapacity to guarantee services and rights for the majority of the population. Corruption of the administrative and statuary machine together with that which invests the judiciary sector, supplied other elements for propaganda.
In more recent years, another factor has emerged: contradiction between the country’s economic growth, which benefits only an educated urban elite, and the non-inclusion of the majority of the population, especially in rural areas. According to recent estimates by the Asian Development Bank, Bangladesh’s gross domestic product in 2017 grew by more than 7%, and forecasts for 2018 remain at the same level. However growth is not inclusive and poverty remains widespread, according to reports issued by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and the World Bank: about 30% of the population lives below the national poverty line, 17% (circa 25 million) suffer from extreme poverty; the unemployment rate is about 4%; every year of between 2 million and 700,000 more young people wanting to enter the world of work, only one fourth succeeds; the average monthly salary goes no higher than 5.500 Taka (60 euro), one third of the sum necessary for living in a decent manner.
Around these factors, groups pertaining to the local variegated radical galaxy have organised a rhetorical battle. This battle passes by various channels of distribution, ranging from pamphlets printed underground and distributed in rural areas and city peripheries, to word of mouth communication, ending up on social media, ever more accessible and inexpensive. Precisely along these channels of communication beginning with the institution of the so-called Islamic State in the Summer of 2014, there has been a grafting of global jihadist rhetoric, of the group led by the self-proclaimed Calif Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the earlier one of al-Qaeda. Both the present number one of al-Qaeda, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri and his rival, al-Baghdadi, look with particular interest towards the Indian sub-continent, potentially an enormous recruitment area. With its 172 million Muslims and intermittent but constant unrest between different religious communities, India is the morsel most sought after. Bangladesh, a nation with the fourth largest Muslim population in the world and a secular nationalist government led by Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and unpopular with the Islamists, follows immediately. Not by chance, in September 2014 al-Zawahiri announced the creation of al-Qaeda on the Indian sub-continent (AQIS Asian quantum Information Science Conference).
Unlike the leader of the so called Islamic State, which only recently appeared in the area of South East Asia, here the al-Qaeda roots are solid, based on alliances, contacts, acquaintances consolidated during decades, since the 1990s, and Afghan Mujahedin resistance to Soviet occupation. That jihad involved about 3,400 Bangladeshi. Some of them formed in 1992 the group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (local branch of the Pakistani group of the same name), which in 2005 inaugurated an ambitious agenda of power taking in ten years, supressed by members of the security.
From the end of the 1990’s to the beginning of the following decade, professor Shahab Enam Khan told Fides, the scene was dominated by two more groups : Jamaitul Mujahedin Bangladesh and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, responsible in the Summer of 2005 for 500 explosions in different parts of the country. Groups with a network of militants active in rural areas and metropolitan peripheries, composed mainly of young men without schooling, poor, marginalised, excluded from the job market, lacking opportunities for social improvement, filled with resentment.