According to the United States State Department, there was a marked fall in the number of terror attacks that occurred around the world in 2015.
In a newly released report this month, the State Department attributed the 13% decline from 2014 to fewer attacks in Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan, which are three of the five countries that have been the worst affected by terrorism. The other two are Afghanistan and India. Together, more than half of the 11,000 attacks that occurred last year happened within the borders of these five countries.
Data compiled by the University of Maryland indicates that more than 28,300 people died – a 14% decline – and about 35,300 others were wounded in 11,774 terrorist attacks that occurred worldwide last year. State Department Acting Co-ordinator for Counterterrorism Justin Siberell notes that attacks and deaths increased in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines, Syria and Turkey. The State Department also reported that figures indicate that the terror threat “continued to evolve rapidly in 2015, becoming increasingly decentralized and diffused,” adding that extremists were exploiting frustration in countries “where avenues for free and peaceful expression of opinion were blocked.” The State Department highlighted that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group is the biggest single threat, adding that the group has attracted affiliates and supporters in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It noted that while IS was losing territory in Iraq and Syria, it was gaining strength in Libya and Egypt. The United Nations has also warned that IS is increasingly focusing on international civilian targets. The UN has reported that over the past six months, IS had carried out attacks in eleven countries. This does not include the militant group’s ongoing activity in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
The State Department report also disclosed that Iran was the biggest state sponsor of terrorism, stating that it supported conflicts in Syria and Iraq and that it was also implicated in violent Shia opposition raids in Bahrain. Bahrain has accused Iran of supplying weapons to Shia militants behind bomb attacks on security forces however Iran has denied this.
Now entering its second month, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) backed transport blockade continues to threaten the ruling Awami League’s (AL) ability to govern. While calling for the installation of a caretaker government to oversee fresh elections, the BNP has stepped up its campaign against an administration they describe as unconstitutional and illegitimate. In January, tensions began to rise in the lead up to “Democracy Killing Day”; the first anniversary of the 2014 parliamentary election boycotted by the BNP. In response, police banned protests, introduced nighttime curfews and shut down access to smartphone messaging services Viber and Tango, which were being used by anti-government protestors to communicate and coordinate their activities. But as the death toll climbs higher and the fire bombings and train derailments continue, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the measures being used to contain the spread of political violence are ineffectual. What, then, is the best course of action for Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her government? How will they find a way out of this political deadlock?
In a recent interview with the AFP, BNP leader Khaleda Zia said: “[e]very conscious and conscientious person in Bangladesh knows that the only way to resolve the current political crisis is to hold an inclusive, competitive and meaningful election.” To delay even further, she says, would result in the situation in Bangladesh becoming more complex. As such, the best solution would be to hold a “fair election” based on “consensus of all parties and through talks.” However, the credibility of Zia’s desire for a consensus-based resolution to this problem has come under scrutiny, as the BNP abandons democratic principles in favour of violent street politics. As the battle lines become more entrenched and the opportunities for political rapprochement diminish, the BNP would do well to recognise that continued violence could easily push them past the point of no return.
While a new election offers one possible solution to the impasse, it does not yet appear on the AL’s political horizon. Hasina has stated her intention to remain in office until 2019, while rejecting calls for dialogue with the BNP, whom she has described as “murderers.” While the Bangladeshi Prime Minister might not see how fresh rounds of negotiations would improve her position, the rising economic costs of conflict could force her hand. Should the they rise too high, the government might have no choice but to negotiate, but If they remain at manageable levels, negotiation would serve no other purpose than to legitimise a political movement which has no constitutional standing. In either event, the AL should realise that further marginalisation of the BNP from the political mainstream would be sub-optimal; by responding to dissent with violence, threats of imprisonment and the diminution of civil liberties, the AL are making it more likely that the opposition will radicalise even further.
As it seems unlikely that the AL will negotiate with the BNP on their own terms, alternative means of resolving the stand-off must be considered. A likely scenario – and one which was alluded to by Sheikh Hasina on January 21 – is that Zia will be arrested on charges of inciting violence and destruction of property. Indeed, charges of “instigating arson attack” have already been filed against her in the capital Dhaka, central Comilla and Panchagarh. And although Zia has refused to accept liability for the attacks, she has declared herself “ready to face any consequences as our backs have been pushed against the wall.”
A second likely scenario is military intervention. Although military rule has been a recurrent feature in Bangladesh’s political history, the AL will not willingly transfer their own power to the hands of the generals. If, however, they are unable to resolve the crisis on their own, they may very well prefer a military junta to the possibility of a BNP-led government.
By failing to engage each other meaningfully in dialogue, both of Bangladesh’s mainstream political parties have created a political void which has in recent weeks begun to fill with violence, crime and extremism. Violent Islamic groups, which view the AL and the BNP as anathema to their own ambitions for a religious state, have begun to emerge. Should this situation be allowed to continue, the consequences for Bangladesh are potentially devastating. In the wider interests of law and order, the AL’s political ambitions and those of the BNP must be put aside before it’s too late.
Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a prominent member of Bangladesh’s leading opposition party the BNP, was this morning sentenced to death for war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The on-going war crimes trials of numerous individuals who resisted separation has already caused disorder and violence across the nation, exposing deep divisions in Bangladeshi society. Following Chowdhurys sentencing, security has been increased across the country including in his home region of Chittagong, with potentially violent strikes and protests both for and against the verdict now expected.
Established in 2009 by the then recently elected Awami League (AL), the Bangladeshi International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been investigating and prosecuting individuals for involvement in genocide and mass killings perpetrated by those who rejected independence and collaborated with the Pakistani military during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War. The 1971 war lasted 9 months, with eventual Indian intervention in favour of the separatists inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Pakistani army. The campaign was marked by brutality, mass murder and atrocities on both sides, but the Pakistani armed forces and their supporters are widely regarded as being among the worst offenders. The ICT has however faced accusations of human rights violations and a disregard of due process in its activities from various international organisations, with opponents within Bangladesh claiming the trials are politically motivated.
12 individuals have so far been indicted by the tribunal. 10 of these are members of Bangladesh’s leading (and now banned) Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, while the other two are members of Bangladesh’s largest opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party. Salahuddin Chowdhury is the first of the BNP members, and the first sitting MP, to be sentenced by the court. He was found guilty of 9 of 23 charges, including genocide, abduction, atrocities against Hindus and the forcible conversion of Hindus to Islam, and has been sentenced to death. He is expected to appeal against the decision.
So far, the court has also convicted four members (and two former members) of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is a political ally of the BNP. All have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment for killings committed during the war. Another 5 trials remain currently.
The trial has revealed deep divisions at the core of Bangladeshi society that stem from the country’s birth over 40 years ago. Each verdict from the ICT has been marked by large protests both for and against the decisions. Those opposing the verdicts have been led largely by members of Jamaat-e-Islami, with demonstrations frequently turning violent and leading to deaths and the necessitating robust responses from the security forces. Major protests in favour of the trial earlier this year led to widespread disorder across the nation, and the eventual banning of Jamaat-e-Islami party by the Supreme Court.
Anticipating disorder, the Bangladeshi government has deployed paramilitary security forces to the city of Chittagong, Chowdhurys home region from which he has been elected as an MP six times, as well as in the capital city Dhaka. Anger and violent disorder is expected, with the broader politically unstable situation likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Foreigners in Bangladesh should remain highly aware of the dangerous security situation, and the potential for all political demonstrations to turn violent extremely quickly.
In South East Asia, the vast majority of piracy incidents, and commensurately the level of law enforcement response and international attention, currently occur around the Straits of Malacca, in the numerous islands of the Indonesian archipelago and the South China Sea. However, Bangladesh has seen a continuing, and significant, level of piracy as well, though the most serious incidents are primarily targeted against local fishermen and similar. This has included two extremely serious incidents within the past month. Of particular concern is the pirate’s methodology – kidnap for ransom and a high degree of violence is extremely common.
Incidents against foreign vessels in Bangladesh take much the same form as in the rest of South East Asia. This involves opportunistic armed robbery against ships, almost always berthed in the Chittagong anchorage. Robbers, sometimes armed, board ships and attempt to steal stores, cargo and valuables. They commonly flee when confronted by crewmembers. The overall rate of piracy against foreign vessels however remains relatively low, with a small number of incidents each month, particularly when compared with Indonesia, by far the most afflicted country in the region. Rates have remained relatively stable and even seen a slight decrease in the past few years. A high degree of security awareness on behalf of law enforcement and shipping is widely credited with helping keep the situation under control.
It is attacks against local fishermen and trawlers in the Bay of Bengal that are a potentially a much more concerning phenomenon. There are numerous active pirate gangs that operate in Bangladeshi waters, particularly around the Sundarbans mangrove forest which was home to at least ten separate pirate gangs late last year. Other regions throughout the country, including along rivers far from the coast, are also plagued by pirate activity.
As opposed to the opportunistic ‘smash-and-grab’ robberies that target foreign vessels in port, piracy targeting local fishermen tends to involve kidnap for ransom as standard. The most common period for attacks is between April and August, the fishing season. The scale of this activity is also dramatic. In addition to regular demands for protection money, often from numerous different gangs, attacks are commonplace. According to the local District Fishing Trawlers Owners Association (DFTOA), between January 2011 and November 2012 over 1000 fishing trawlers were attacked, with thousands of fishermen taken hostage for various periods. This reportedly led to ransom payments totally $1.28 million. In August 2012, over 60 fishermen were taken hostage in a single incident, while the first 3 months of this year reportedly saw 90 attacks in one coastal region alone. Last month, (August, 2013) in two separate incidents over 30 fishermen were taken hostage. Attacks of this scale are standard, and occur monthly.
The law enforcement response to these activities is of varying effectiveness. Last year, a large co-ordinated operation between the Coast Guard and Navy led to the release of nearly 40 hostages, while police operations in the past weeks in response to recent incidents saw several pirates killed in shootouts and secured the release of two-thirds of the hostages. However, the long term effectiveness of this law enforcement activity remains doubtful – many locals report that the pirates simply remain dormant and re-emerge after the operations. Alternatively, they flee across the border into India, where a lack of regional co-operation makes it difficult to apprehend them. The Bangladeshi navy and coast guard are weak – the coast guard has only 11 boats, most nearly 3 decades old and several unusable during the monsoon season. The effect on the economy can be huge – with coastal fishing contributing 30% of the nation’s total catch, during 2012-2013 this had dropped from 108’000 metric tons to 39’000.
Particularly concerning is the high level of violence that occurs in these incidents. Pirates are usually armed, and beatings of captive fishermen are a common occurrence. Murder of hostages is also frequent, with many killed every year either during or after attacks. In a single incident in April of this year, 31 fishermen were tied up and tossed overboard to drown after being robbed by pirates.
While currently this activity does not commonly target international vessels, the trend is particularly concerning. With growing rates of low-level, violent hostage taking and piracy throughout the Bay of Bengal, combined with a lower level of international attention and a weaker law enforcement presence than in other regions of South East Asia, the phenomenon has the potential to evolve into one of substantially greater threat. Some analysts believe Bangladeshi pirates will become a threat to global shipping within the next two years. While currently the threat to international vessels does still remain relatively low, a high level of security awareness should be maintained by all vessels in the Bay of Bengal.