In 2010, critically acclaimed US social critic Noam Chomsky said in an interview, ‘Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s really an easy way: stop participating in it.’ Let us dissect what he said. One of the world’s leading scholars, Chomsky considers stopping oneself from participating in terrorism an easy step. But, in reality, in the minds of young people, it is much more complicated. 

Bangladesh is a country of different faiths. While, majority are Muslims; Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and other religious groups also make up a notable portion of its population. It also has an ill-fated, undeniable history of religious extremism. 

Since 2012, there have been more than 3,500 attacks on the homes of religious minorities. National athletes have faced death threats for merely attending minority community religious festivals. Religious preachers delivering extreme sermons continue to instigate violence. This is the unfortunate reality. 

In 2016, Bangladesh saw the infamous Holey Artisan tragedy, which was the deadliest religiously driven terrorist attack on its soil since 2005, when terror outfit Jama’atul Mujahideen carried out a nationwide bombing attack. Such attacks are driven by extreme ideology and hatred towards communities considered the ‘other.’ They have gone for too long, increasingly unchecked.

Facing realities

In Bangladesh, honest debate on issues related to religious identity is very rigid in everyday social discourse. This is reflected in the virtual world. There is an increasing rigidity in the identities adopted by Bangladeshi youth, and serious intolerance when these identities are contested. The rigidity is manifested in different scales of attacks on minority communities, seemingly stemming from the criticism of religion on social media.

There is an increasing rigidity in the identities adopted by Bangladeshi youth, and serious intolerance when these identities are contested.

In Bangladesh, religion is such a sensitive topic that the slightest deviation from the established belief can agitate public minds. Transforming such sensitivity into violent extremism, especially in the minds of the young, is an easy task for a party with vested interests.

A deep analysis shows that such violence has little to do with faith and more to do with how extremist organisations take advantage of youth vulnerabilities. In an age of virtual realities, such extremist organisations can foster ‘otherness’ more easily. New generations are getting isolated while the online content is left unchecked.

Recruited online

As of 2022, Bangladesh’s population is some 165 million, equivalent to 2.2% of the global population. A total of 27.8% of the population is made up of youth within the age bracket 15–29 years, and 29.7% of the country’s population are active on social media.

With new technologies, terrorist organisations globally have shifted to the online realm to attract sympathisers and recruit members. The same is the case in Bangladesh. Terrorist networks are recruiting tech-savvy members, particularly from engineering or information technology backgrounds, to operate online and attract youth.

Designated teams within terrorist outfits are also assigned to upload misinterpreted religious text, disinformation, fake news and other purposefully crafted content.

‘When I joined the organisation, my main role was to translate content from English to Bangla or vice-versa and then upload it on the sites we used for recruitment. Like me, there were many others who had to upload such material online on a regular basis,’ says Alif (alias), a 21-year-old who was a member of banned terror outfit Ansar Al-Islam in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Ruhul (alias) reflects on his own journey in becoming a member of another banned militant outfit, Neo-Jama’atul Mujahideen, based in Bangladesh, emphasising how the internet facilitates violent extremism: ‘I spent my time on the groups where I met others. We would talk about world politics. We would even give exams online after interacting with recruiters. That’s how I got involved.’

Just like Ruhul, numerous others have been indoctrinated into an extreme ideology via social media. This has led eventually to membership in a terrorist organisation.

Identity assertion

Globalisation has its flip side, especially for developing countries. The transformation that will impact youth needs reassessment. As the world turns towards a digitalised reality characterised by consumerist behaviour, social maladies like violent extremism and mental health challenge, threaten young generations the most. Indeed, understanding youth vulnerability is a top puzzle in policy circles globally.

What explains the vulnerability of young people who take to the internet for answers? Present-day society reflects virtual realities in which youth are increasingly vulnerable. Issues such as a sense of identity and sense of self are more crucial than ever before.

The experience of adolescence has changed over time. During adolescence, people make their journey towards adulthood and develop a sense of who they are and what motivates them. It is the time for identity formation and role adoption.

Terrorist organisations adopt a ‘catch them early’ strategy and recruit from schools and colleges. As adolescents transition into adulthood, stability is sought through the pursuit of social roles and identities.

During transition, they form attachments with peers and seek guardians and models both at home and in everyday places like schools. Research shows that identity validation gives young minds healthy self-esteem that leads to confidence. In the absence of this, youth may feel extremely confused, suffering from low self-esteem. Vulnerability stems from confusion. Young people may get aggressive when their sense of identity is contested—a behaviour common among young members of terrorist outfits. In short, the notion of intolerance among youth stems from confusion.

Young people may get aggressive when their sense of identity is contested—a behaviour common among young members of terrorist outfits.

The dark internet

How is the present different from the past? The age of the internet has created isolation hotspots for Bangladeshi youth. Research shows they spend more hours scrolling instead of interacting with people and places. Now, with reduced social interaction, lives are more fragmented and uncertain. The conventional identity formation is thus openly challenged. Conventional norms and practices that have shaped identities in the past no longer hold any value for youth of the internet era.

A young person can quickly become detached from community-based realities. Adolescents also have fewer opportunities to develop a healthy sense of identity. There is little space to be curious, if you are not exploring ground realities.

Meanwhile, the internet exposes adolescents to a plethora of narratives and interpretations. Left vulnerable with fractured egos, these youth increasingly depend on virtual realities for identity formation. They seek a sense of belonging, social membership and collectivity.

An apt example here is the above-mentioned case of Faisal (alias), a 19-year-old engineering student recruited by Neo-JMB. In his childhood, Faisal did not have many friends. He was not encouraged to engage in activities outside his studies. He would spend his time at home either online or playing video games. When he turned 19, he was admitted to a popular engineering institute in Dhaka city.

He explains his recruitment process experience. ‘I felt like I could relate to them.’ Faisal emphasised how he felt like he was a part of a larger community, something he had not experienced before.

Holey Artisan, a popular boutique café, after a barbaric attack by a group of militants, Gulshan, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1 June 2016 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

Traditional social relations are thus breaking down and being replaced by relationships with members of terrorist networks, especially online. Youth are influenced more and more by these online interactions. Peer groups that help achieve a sense of affiliation are created online, with like-minded individuals, reinforcing extremist behaviour. Another member of the terrorist outfit Ansar Al-Islam mentioned to the authors, ‘Brother would send me documents, audio tapes and content online to learn about.’

Opinions on global politics and other social issues are interpreted by members of terrorist networks and then shared with the vulnerable youth. Such digital content is curated to paint black and white narratives about the communities that the youth identify with as being persecuted. Given young people’s fragile egos, this fishing technique works.

Towards youth protection

The harsh reality of today is that the virtual world hinders the healthy development of youth identities and offers unrestricted access to terrorist ideology. So, the question is, how do we protect vulnerable youth?

Stricter regulation is needed of internet content that targets specific communities, promotes religious discrimination and fuels hate speech. There needs to be a no-tolerance regulation policy for such content.

It should be understood that the internet is not a causal space regarding violent extremism. However, regulatory mechanisms enabling the identification, monitoring and prohibition of groups that call for violence are vital.

Regulatory bodies’ increased cooperation with popular social media platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, is of utmost importance. These channels continue to remain unchecked and are infiltrated by terrorist propaganda, especially in the local Bengali language.

The question for policy-makers is how much regulation? While the authorities should regulate the internet for harmful materials, decision-makers must keep in mind that this regulation should not be at the cost of people’s voice. Regulation must make a balance between misuse and people’s rights.

While the authorities should regulate the internet for harmful materials, decision-makers must keep in mind that this regulation should not be at the cost of people’s voice.

Counter-ideology

Smart regulation will minimise harmful content but won’t completely weed it out. There will always be newcomers shooting out extremist ideas. Violent extremism is based on ideology; it is not like petty crimes that end with arrest.

The only way to oppose an ideology is to provide a better counter-ideology. Bangladesh has been a celebrated home to Bengali progressive ideology since its birth. Its rich culture, which culminated in the spirit of its liberation war in 1971, is the root of the country’s progressive thoughts. This culture-based ideology needs to be smartly fostered at the grassroots as the antidote to extremist ideology. 

Let young, impressionable minds see the narrative and make their choice. If the narrative is delivered properly, they are more likely to choose an open society-based ideology like Bengali progressive thought. To ensure this, professionals need to be brought in. Thought leaders, social scientists and psychologists can play a key role.

Social restructuring

Vulnerability within youth stems from deeper issues related to social structures that alienate. Bangladesh needs to invest offline to counter online radicalisation. The country’s institutions like youth clubs are not equipped to enable the development of healthy egos and identities for youth. It’s time to invest in institutional infrastructure that allows adolescents to explore.

Ensuring access to various peer-based networks such as youth clubs, social welfare groups and activism-based organisations facilitates a sense of belonging and societal attachment. Role models who advocate for change through peace and unconditionally condemn discrimination have an important role to play.

Overall, holistic efforts for and by institutions working online and offline should be the focus. Meanwhile, citizens and netizens should refuse to be terrorised. This seemingly tough mindset can be cultivated through education and mass awareness. Educational policy should be reformed to equip young minds with critical thinking, which is likely the key to uprooting terrorism.

 

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Sumaiya Iqbal
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Sumaiya Iqbal is Lecturer of criminology at the University of Dhaka. She is a social scientist. She is also Research Fellow at the International Center for Development and Decent Work, University of Kassel, Germany. She has worked with the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit of Bangladesh Police, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Her research focuses on violence, violent extremism, substance abuse and juvenile delinquency. She pursued her graduate studies at the University of Dhaka.
Monirul Islam
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Monirul Islam is Additional Inspector General and Head of the Special Branch of the Bangladesh Police. He is a civil servant. He was Chief of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit and Head of the Detective Branch of the Bangladesh Police. He specialises in counter-terrorism, cybercrime and transitional crimes. He was awarded the Bangladesh Police Medal, the President Police Medal and the Inspector General of Police’s Exemplary Good Services Badge. He pursued his graduate studies in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Dhaka.