At 8:45 p.m., five armed men stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery, an upscale establishment in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The siege lasted more than 12 hours. When it was over, 22 people were dead, most of them foreigners. While further terrorist attacks have taken place in Bangladesh since that fateful evening on July 1, 2016, the Holey Artisan massacre is considered the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s history. It also sparked new thinking on how to tackle violent extremism and led to efforts that other countries can use as a model for addressing similar problems.
In the months and years after the incident, Bangladeshi intelligence services and police authorities took action against sleeping cells and extremist networks. Their main focus was on capturing or killing high profile targets related to the Islamic State or a local Islamist terror network, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. Dozens of suspects were rounded up and arrested; 20 were eventually charged. At least seven of them were sentenced to death in November 2019. Another eight suspects were killed in counter-terrorism operations in different parts of the country.
To some observers, these persistent operations appeared ruthlessly effective. Unlike most of its neighbors, Bangladesh has avoided large-scale extremist violence for the past four years. But a different picture emerges beneath the surface. Online radicalization is widespread and is increasingly normalized. A network of violent Islamist extremist groups spreads hate speech and misinformation across the social media ecosystem. According to the Bangladeshi police, more than 80 percent of those arrested for terrorism in recent years have been radicalized online and nearly 60 percent have a university degree.
There are fears that online rumors and misinformation could spark a wave of extremism across Bangladesh. In fact, there are worrying signs that it is already beginning. In early November, houses of Bangladeshi Hindus were destroyed and set on fire after one of their residents was accused of supporting France and defaming Islam on social media. Last month a librarian was lynched and killed after he was accused of profaning the Quran. The Bangladesh Peace Observatory reported a worrying increase in attacks, police raids and arrests in the first nine months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
Concerns about digital radicalization are hardly new. Some of the young men involved in the attack on Holey Artisan Bakery were lively social media users and were actively distributing extremist content prior to the attack. You were also linked with other Bangladeshis living abroad, including one based in Canada, who helped plan and orchestrate the attack. Another convicted criminal involved in planning the strike was initially radicalized after watching videos made by Anwar al-Awalki, a prominent al-Qaeda leader, and Jasimuddin Rhmani, an al-Qaeda affiliate Bangladeshi preacher, who later joined Islam, had been produced in the state.
However, extremist content is on the rise in Bangladesh’s cyberspace, much of which has been carefully packaged to avoid detection by government and social media platforms. Examples of this are Jasimuddin Rahmani’s sermons on YouTube, which continue to collect views. Lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki are routinely translated in Bangla and distributed in the telegram and recommended by sympathizers on Facebook. While websites sponsored by notorious groups like the Islamic State are routinely removed by social media companies, extremist propaganda in local dialects is available on specialized websites, discussion forums, social media channels, and even fact-checking websites on which the curators add their own radical twist.
The spread of violent extremist ideologies in cyberspace is having real effects. There have been several incidents over the past few years in which liberal writers, digital influencers and LGBTQ activists have been deliberately killed. Extremist groups associated with al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS) are increasingly seen as advocates of socially conservative Islam. AQIS has an active presence on social media, although its supporters generally avoid committing staged acts of violence and getting involved with security authorities in Bangladesh. Instead, they secretly target their enemies and normalize hatred against “atheists” and “blasphemers”.
AQIS spreads divisive and intolerant narratives in the cyberspace of Bangladesh. One of their goals is to convince Muslims that “real” Islam does not support peace and tolerance. Instead, they are pushing for so-called “intellectual jihad” to overcome the corrosive influence of infidels. They wage a war of ideas in which stubborn supporters urge supporters to reject sanctions against polygamy, child marriage and slavery. They strongly oppose equal rights for women and routinely urge their followers to target blasphemers and secular liberals. AQIS also works to discredit the government and international organizations, including their attempts to promote religious tolerance and moderate forms of Islam.
Thanks to a combination of skillfully produced videos and viral content, AQIS is making impressive strides with younger, impressive viewers. The exchange of violent extremist content – advocacy of armed jihad, glorification of terrorist groups, calls for attacks against liberal activists and propaganda condemning minorities – is increasing rapidly. According to SecDev research, the number of interactions per Facebook post on violent extremist channels has increased by 250 percent in just one year, from an average of 99 interactions per post between April and June 2019 to 347 per post in the same months in 2020. This is partly due to the simultaneous growth of Islamist bloggers expressing support for AQIS.
Paradoxically, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped opportunist extremist groups reach an even wider audience. Internet usage has exploded by over 50 percent across Bangladesh since the outbreak was first reported in early 2020. Violent extremists took advantage of the improved connectivity to engage audiences in their networks of influence. In May 2020, only seven AQIS channels on YouTube with content related to COVID-19 saw an increase of over 100,000 new subscriptions. With the government distracted from the crisis, online radicalization has increased dramatically.
National and international authorities do not take the weapon of social media lightly. Shortly after the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery attacks, the Bangladeshi authorities teamed up with the United Nations to combat violent extremism both online and offline. For example, they work with a variety of institutions such as the Bangladesh Peace Observatory and Cox’s Cox Bazar Analysis and Research Unit to study the scope and scale of the challenge. With the support of international partners, they also started targeted programs to involve young people, including a digital peace movement with over 1.9 million people.
Its goal is to inspire younger Bangladeshis to express solidarity online, while building the resilience of more vulnerable groups, especially minorities. Promoting tolerance, inclusion, and digital literacy is key to changing attitudes and ultimately behavior. Helping people of all ages identify, question, and interpret what they read and share on social media is the first step in neutralizing divisive, exclusive, and ultimately hateful rhetoric that aims to divide and polarize communities.
There are hopeful signs that this type of effort will help reduce extremist content in Bangladesh’s cyberspace. In the past few months, the level of disinformation related to COVID-19 has steadily decreased. Dozens of extremist channels have been removed, although AQIS’s YouTube account still has over 600,000 subscribers. SecDev documented a 43 percent reduction in extremist content on around 400 social media channels between April and September 2020. In fact, between April and June 2020, over 90 percent of the Islamic State-affiliated Bangla channels became remotely resilient and often reappear under new names shortly after being shut down.
In light of reputational risks, tech companies like Facebook are stepping up their surveillance and strengthening guidelines for content moderation. Facebook recently announced that it now has fact checkers monitoring posts in Bangla and has added “false information” to falsify fake news and misinformation. Around 70 percent of the disinformation posts on COVID-19 identified by SecDev on Facebook have been removed or not made available to the public. Other tech companies also seem to be keen to strengthen their ability to identify and neutralize extremist material.
These challenges are likely to get worse before they improve. Social media usage is increasing rapidly in Bangladesh and around the world. Efforts to solve the challenges of radicalization, misinformation, and disinformation must necessarily go beyond the whack-a-mole approach, which still defines content moderation and account shutdown. Education, awareness-raising and targeted investments in digital natives are ultimately the only way to combat violent extremism in the long term. This needs to be accompanied by an ongoing debate on how to balance legitimate freedom of expression with the need to build safer cyberspace.