As more people stay home because of the pandemic, security experts worry radical groups are using this as an opportunity to sow the seeds of their ideology in young minds
Eid is less than a week away and the police have received information that the outlawed terrorist group Neo JMB may carry out attacks, on the directives of international terrorist organisation ISIS ahead of Eid-ul-Adha. ISIS has reportedly formed a new wing called 'Bengal Ulayet'.
Accoding to law enforcers, the target area for launching attacks could be embassies, religious institutions or police establishments.
Earlier, on July 17, almost two months after the countrywide shutdown was lifted, an Indian woman allegedly working for neo JMB was arrested in Dhaka by the counterterrorism unit of Dhaka Metropolitan Police. Ayesha Jannat Mohona, alias Jannatul Tasnim or Pragya Debnath, had been living in Bangladesh in guise of a Bangladeshi citizen with a fake passport and a national identity card. For four years, she had been actively engaged in radicalising youths, training and recruiting them.
Two days later on July 19, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) detained six more active members of the organisation.
In a world preoccupied with Covid-19, talk about violent extremists had all but disappeared during the first few months of this year as people around the world moved to the safety of their homes to protect themselves from the scourge of the virus.
But with so many people staying home and young people deprived of formal education (as schools and universities first closed and then reopened online), is this also not a fertile time to sow the seeds of online radicalism?
Security experts and researchers think so. And the spate of recent activity and arrests also indicate to a spike in radicalism.
In June this year, Ayman Sadiq, founder of one of Bangladesh's largest e-learning platforms 10 Minute School, was targeted and threatened by an Islamist group online.
"A propaganda was floating around on the internet about killing me for promoting same-sex marriage, which is a complete lie. Neither I, nor my institution, promoted any such thing," Ayman told The Business Standard.
He explained, "Last month, one of my former colleagues, who lives in London now, posted a Facebook status in support of gay marriage. In reaction to that post, some people soon started blaming 10 Minute School for promoting Western culture and encouraging people to go against Islam."
The tech entrepreneur added, "Many people started sharing a Facebook post that said to kill me wherever they found me. They even posted videos with my photograph that said kill and send the 'murtad' (apostate) to hell. I have even received threats over phone."
"First of all, there is no relation between my former colleague's personal Facebook post and 10 Minute School. Naturally, we did not release any formal statement because he was my former colleague. He has not been with us for the last two years," he said.
There is also global concern over the spike in radicalism.
A recent BBC report reads, "Radicalisation has increased for a small number of vulnerable people, as the pandemic may have driven young people to spend more time online and exacerbate grievances, which makes people more vulnerable to radicalisation."
Even though the number of terrorist attacks has declined globally, there is a potential risk of rise in anarchy and extremism when everything will go back to normal.
Crowded places have always been the target of terror attacks. As people have not come out of home for long, when the lockdown eases, terror groups may try to create a real chaos.
Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of the department of international relations at the University of Dhaka, said, "If we suspect any potential threat, we should thoroughly investigate it."
He said it is now very easy to track down individuals using the internet and email.
The security forces in Bangladesh have the equipment to detect people's identities, he added.
"The presence of militant groups is particularly bad for business. In the wake of the Holey Artisan attack, many investors left the country in fear," said the professor.
Imtiaz went on, "The law enforcement agencies should investigate these incidents properly and we should not give these handful of people any space."
Regarding the threat to Ayman, Shafqat Munir, head of Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research (BCTR) at Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, said, "The recent threat given to the educators of 10 Minute School is a disturbing development which we should take seriously. First of all, we need to dive deep into the root of the threat. Where did the threat come from? Who were involved and what were their motives?"
Shafqat agreed that as people are spending more time on the internet now there is a potential threat that terrorist and extremist organisations may cash in on the situation and spread their propaganda.
"We must remember that the Covid-19 pandemic has not weakened the terrorist organisations. Rather, they are trying to take advantage of this situation to revive themselves. So, we have to be very careful," he added.
Monirul Islam, additional commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police and chief of the counterterrorism and transnational crime unit, said the law enforcement authorities had observed fundamentalists posting provocative content on the internet.
"But most of those who spread such content are not connected to any terrorist organisation or network. Sharing extremist content does not necessarily mean that they will join terrorist organisations."
Monirul thinks that even though these groups are active in the virtual world, many of them do not have any strength and structure in the real world.
Regarding the threat to Ayman, he said, "We have taken this into consideration seriously and are trying to track down those who were involved in this."
He further said, "We do not feel they will carry out an attack. However, we have stepped up monitoring and surveillance."