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Should Bangladesh Take Al-Zawahri’s Threats Seriously?

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By Taj Hashmi *

The answer to the question planted in the title of this article is a definitive “NO”. There is absolutely no reason to take Ayman al-Zawahiri seriously or consider his threats “ominous”. If al Qaeda could, it would have attacked Bangladesh by now. Between February and September this year, Zawahiri has circulated two video speeches, the first one primarily focused Bangladesh and the second one mainly focused India. The fugitive head of al Qaeda, which is fast losing ground to more radical ISIS and its ilk, in his hour-long speech in September declared that the terror outfit had set up a new branch in the Subcontinent with a view to waging jihad and establishing an Islamic caliphate across the region.

Unfortunately, Zawahiri’s wishful thinking – reflective of his desperation and despondency – evoked lots of over-reaction among analysts. Prime Minister Modi seems to have reacted the right way by outright rejecting the speech as delusional. He eliminated all speculations about Indian Muslims’ vulnerability to al Qaeda propaganda.

Some analysts seem to have read too much into the text of the speech. Hence the apprehension about impending terror attacks by al Qaeda in Bangladesh! Unfortunately, some people also mix up events, ideologies, organizations and people by linking them all with al Qaeda, JMB, HUJI, or some other Islamist outfit. While the Bangladeshi polity is sharply polarized between pro- and anti-Awami League people – especially after the 5th January Elections – it seems Zawahiri’s video speeches are godsend for those who want to vilify their political rivals as offshoots of al Qaeda.

One finds a parallel between Zawahiri’s and bin Laden’s video speeches. Weeks after 9/11, when American troops had decimated al Qaeda’s strongholds in Afghanistan, bin Laden in one of his video speeches told the world that he was planning another mega attack on America, which would make 9/11 look like a noisy party. As bin Laden was full of gibberish and wishful thinking, so is his successor. Terrorists love to exaggerate their strength and brag invincibility. Verbal threat is an old strategy to terrorize one’s enemies.

One may recall what followed another video broadcast by Zawahiri in February this year. Condemning the killing of some Hefazat-e-Islam activists in May 2013, the al Qaeda Chief urged Bangladeshi Muslims to launch an Intifada against the Hasina Government. Within days of this broadcast, a mysterious attack on a prison van took place at Trishal near Mymensngh (105 kilometers off Dhaka). Several gunmen – purportedly members of a proscribed Islamist terror outfit (JMB) – killed one policeman and rescued several JMB prisoners. Within days police arrested some of the criminals involved in the attack. Interestingly, they did not belong to any Islamist group but to a secular party. This dramatic episode is a glaring example of using Islamist terrorism as the bogeyman for political purpose.

Since people often confuse all Islam-oriented groups as offshoots of Islamist terrorist outfits, we need to understand the fundamentals of terrorism, along with the modus operandi of certain Islamic and secular parties. Political violence is not synonymous with terrorism. Some elementary aspects of terrorism are: a) Terrorism is asymmetrical warfare; b) Ideologies (secular or religious) and socio-economic conditions – not crime – draw people toward terrorism; c) Terrorism is a means toward an end, not an end in itself; d) Terrorists mostly kill total strangers and innocent people, NOT for the sake of killing but to terrorize their enemies by drawing people’s attention, to achieve their goals – “Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism” (Margaret Thatcher); f) Terrorism is different from crime and insurgency – insurgents primarily attack police, military and law enforcers, and terrorists target innocent civilians; g) Criminals kill, abduct and plunder surreptitiously, and terrorists brag about their violent acts; and h) When terrorists lose capabilities to perpetrate terror (run out of followers, money and arms), they often terrorize their enemies by verbal or written threats.

We need to know why people deliberately implicate even innocent people with terrorist acts. This is cry wolf method. People love to draw other’s attention and sympathy towards them to their advantage, and they also do it to fight the purported (common) enemy together. As common men and women – like the shepherd in the Aesop’s Fables – cry wolf to draw people’s attention, so do politicians across the world. But politicians resort to cry wolf not to make fun but for the political and economic dividends it fetches to the table.

There is a plethora of examples in this regard. The latest being some Western leaders’ alarmist views – including Obama’s and Cameron’s – about how serious the ISIL or ISIS threat is to the security of the world. In 2003, we heard similar cry wolf from George W. Bush, Tony Blair and others about Saddam Hussein’s “capability and wish” to attack the West. Tony Blair outperformed others by raising the alarm that Hussein’s (non-existing) chemical weapon-laden ballistic missiles had the capability of reaching London in just 45 minutes.

The cry wolf method is possibly over-used in Bangladesh. Here politicians and their followers frequently blame their political opponents as agents of certain countries, or even as sponsors of Islamist terrorism. In 2000, the Government did not allow President Clinton to go outside the capital city by road as “rumor had it”, terrorists would ambush his motorcade. Overuse of the cry wolf method has not only turned some politicians into objects of ridicule, but has also made counterterrorism a difficult task in Bangladesh. Politicians’ gimmicks, “terrorists are coming”, and “so and so are al Qaeda agents”, on the one hand trivialize genuine terrorist threats, and on the other, inadvertently help the terrorists’ cause by unnecessarily hyping up terror threat. We must not lose sight of the fact that Zawahiri and his ilk want to terrorize people, if not by bombs by verbal threats and intimidation.

In sum, it is not fair to single out Bangladeshi leaders and analysts in this regard. The way some Western journalists – Bertil Lintner, Eliza Griswold and others – once hyped up the terrorist threats to Bangladesh is simply unacceptable. Bangladesh, with poor governance, poverty, inequality, youth unemployment, and last but not least, rapid Wahhabization of the culture, cannot be immune to Islamist militancy and terror for an indefinite period. In view of this, leaders, analysts and laymen should think twice before they play the terrorism card. Bangladesh has lots of tightrope walking in the coming days.

* The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee. Sage has recently published his latest book, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.


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