‘IS interested in Bangladesh to develop capability’

Nuruzzaman Labu
Published : 00:35, Aug 22, 2019 | Updated : 18:43, Aug 22, 2019

John T Godfrey, Deputy Coordinator for Regional and Multilateral Affairs of the United State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism. PHOTO/US Embassy in DhakaBangladesh is located in such a region where terrorist groups including the Islamic State (IS) are greatly interested, said John T Godfrey, Deputy Coordinator for Regional and Multilateral Affairs of the United State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.
Godfrey made the remarks during an interview with Bangla Tribune at the US mission in Dhaka.
What is the United States doing in Bangladesh in terms of countering violent extremism?
The embassy has a range of programs they are partnering with the government of Bangladesh on and those are carried out or implemented in different parts of the country and targets are arranged with different audiences considered to be at risk. Those include but aren’t limited to women and young people in particular.
What is Washington’s perspective on counter terrorism and violent extremism in Bangladesh?
From the perspective of Washington that Bangladesh obviously had the unfortunate experience of having terrorist acts committed here in the country: some of them recently. I think the one that really grabbed everyone’s attention was the really terrible attack against the Holy Artisan Bakery in 2016.
In the aftermath of that attack we saw the government take a number of steps to dismantle the network that had conducted the attack and there has been some success in getting rid of the source of that particular threat.
There concern is more broadly about the fact that Bangladesh is located in a region where Islamic State and other terrorist actors have shown an interest in trying to develop capability and perhaps even establish a presence and going forward there’s going to need to remain quite a high level of attention on efforts to mitigate that threat.
Bangladesh has decided that it will not allow foreign terrorist fighters to return back to the country. Do you think this will be helpful and what should be the government’s approach in this regard?
Just to clarify, here we’re talking about fighters who have gone to Iraq and Syria; our policy is that countries of origin of foreign terrorist fighters should repatriate those individuals, prosecute them where it’s appropriate to do so. But in any event, certainly have in place programs that provide for the appropriate monitoring and de-radicalisation and re-integration of those individuals.
One of our concerns is that leaving them where they are in north-eastern Syria maybe feasible in the short term but in the longer term, that could create problems both for Bangladesh but frankly for other places that those individuals might travel to as well.
The Islamic State is believed to be completely demolished and the fighters, especially foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) have spread all around the world, especially the South Eastern region. How alarming do you think FTF returning is especially for Bangladesh?
There is great concern about foreign terrorist fighters who went to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State (ISIS), finding ways to get out of there and getting to other places and some of those individuals, in fact, all of them are very dangerous people. And there’s concern that if they are able to get to some place, that they will be able to reconstitute networks and develop capabilities and constitute a threat to those countries.
So I think that as we look at the region more broadly that is South and South East Asia, what we think we understand is that it’s a region that the ISIS is interested in and that is something that is worrying.
Online radicalization is major threat. More people are radicalized through online and social media. So what is your suggestion to stop lone wolf or wolf pack attack and home grown radicalization?
I wish I could give you a simple answer that involved one or two things that societies need to do to address this complicated problem. But unfortunately it is a very complex challenge and it involves a range of efforts running in parallel, complementing each other to help change the mentality of individuals who self-radicalise but also to change the environment under which they self-radicalise.
I think this is one of the things that is very important to understand is that often people go through some sort of traumatic event in their life or some sort of challenge that leaves them vulnerable to radicalisation and having systems in place and programs in place that allow people to understand what those signs of radicalisation look like when someone is going through that kind of experience. Having in place systems that provide for effective intervention that help people steer people off that path of radicalisation.
It’s a very complicated thing to do but it’s something that I think is really important, particularly in societies where there are people who feel marginalised for any number of reasons.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has been silent for a long time. Do you think they pose a threat to Bangladesh as well?
If I could start with big AQ (Al-Qaeda), one of the things we worry about is that while the world’s attention for the past several years has understandably been focused on IS or ISIS because of the terrible incidents in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere.
Al-Qaeda, which is a very opportunistic organisation, has quietly taken advantage of that time to reconstitute capability and to expand its networks. We are quite concerned that they are poised to do something to try to re-assert their position in the vanguard of international or transnational terrorism. I would say that the AQIS very much fits into that broader trend and that’s quite worrying.
All the countries are alert about the process of online radicalisation. Do you think shutting down websites is enough in combating radicalization?
Unfortunately, again this is an issue where there is no single solution to the problem and that shutting down websites or removing content from the internet is not really sufficient to address those issues. The techniques that I think have proven to work better over time are alternative narratives and so called counter narratives.
In the United States we would say that the best remedy for bad speech is more speech. That right to free expression is enshrined in our constitution and that’s the way that we address the particular issue of so-called bad speech.
I would say that across a range of societies one of the things that we have seen as a contributing factor to radicalisation by Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups is the absence of messaging that counters what those groups are putting out. That I think is something all societies need to be particularly focused on and the population that is really at the most risk to that sort of messaging and if it’s not countered effectively are young people and that’s something terrorists have most certainly figured out and exploited that in a very opportunistic way.
But trying to focus on messaging that targets those populations, young people and other people at risk and really respondent to and mindful of the challenges they’re going through as they emerge from being young people to adults is an effective approach.
What should be the government’s approach in countering violent extremism?
One of the really important things for any government in any society is to have a good healthy dialogue with actors outside of government; that is civil society and non-government organisations, religious leaders, and community leaders below the level of the federal government.
It allows governments to have a much better and more accurate understanding of the challenges that people are facing within that society and of the dynamics that are driving things like radicalisation or potential for people to go along the path to terrorism. And that doesn’t just extend that dialogue to diagnosing the problem but also extends to what steps the society takes to try to address those problems and to meet those challenges.
For things like counter-messaging and things like coming up with credible voices who can speak about what is and isn’t Islamic or is appropriate within Islamic tradition need not be limited to just the government. In fact it would be more effective if there was a broader range of actors from within Bangladeshi society contributing to those thoughts and those efforts.
Do you think that the absence of freedom of expression can drive young people to radicalization?
What we’ve seen in places around the world is that certainly the lack of ability to freely express one’s opinion can lead to a sense of marginalisation and isolation which can in turn lead to frustration and potentially radicalisation as well.
Whether we are talking about young people or people at different points in their life, or who’re affiliated with different segments of society, the sense of having an ability to give voice to one’s concerns and views and to have those heard in a very sincere way is something that’s ultimately healthy.