By Shahedul Anam Khan
December 29, 2016
Are we reading too much into the involvement of women in terrorist acts in Bangladesh? This by no means is a new spectacle. The so called weaker sex has always been a part of terror ever since the phenomenon was exploited to create psychological and physical havoc on the target, be it the state or a particular segment of the population. They have been the vector of death and destruction in equal measure with their male counterpart, and perhaps more efficient at times in carrying out their tasks.
So why should we go about suggesting, as one notices being done in some sections of the media by some commentators, that what we witnessed in Ashkona on December 24, of a women blowing herself up with a suicide vest, is a new development. It may be so in Bangladesh, but so is the character of terrorism that we are witnessing in the country that we hadn't witnessed heretofore. What we saw on that day was merely the enactment of similar script that has played out in many parts of the world, where Islamic extremists are perpetrating violence in the name of the scripture.
Female members in a terror outfit have not been merely couriers but, if one delves into the history of terrorism or into the re-emergence of it from the early sixties and seventies, women had led the main action as well, apart from the fact that most terrorist organisations have had a female wing to supplement the main effort. Leila Khaled, the first woman to hijack a plane and blow it up eventually, captured public imagination and so did Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, the LTTE suicide bomber who blew up Rajiv Gandhi in a suicide attack in 1991.
The “Black Widows” of Chechnya still induce fear among many Russians, being responsible for several terrorist acts, including blowing up two passenger planes in 2004 that took off from Moscow airport, bombed the Moscow metro twice, and took part in the siege of a school in Beslan, where hundreds of innocent civilians, including children, lost their lives, and bombing in March 2010 of Moscow metro, killing at least thirty five people. Their cause is the creation of an Islamist caliphate in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region that includes Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. And all these statistics are encapsulated in various reports over several years and which have been so exquisitely described by Dr. Ali Reaz in a very recent article in the Prothom Alo.
What, however, we need to focus on is the motivation of these women, and whether there indeed is a female cadre of these extremist groups in Bangladesh. At this point in time any comment on these two matters would be at best an educated guess. Is this a one off case, are they being motivated by their husbands to act the way they did, as reports in some newspapers have portrayed? We should not rule out the possibility of involvement of women, albeit in a very nuclear form, in extremist activities. If that be the case how are these women being recruited? My views stem from the fact that the international extremist group that these elements draw inspiration from have a dedicated group of female terrorists working in various forms. Just recall the Black Widows. They are called so because they had lost their husbands, brothers or close relatives in the Chechen wars waged between the Russians and the Islamist rebels since 1994. They wanted to avenge the loss of their loved ones and were thus targeted for recruitment and training by the Chechen rebels quite easily. Can we entirely overlook the possibility of such psychological compulsion in our context? The IS recruits women in various ways but the internet is a very handy expedient for brainwashing and recruitment of female cadres.
And this brings me to the despondency expressed by some talk-show commentators who think that killing off all the terrorists in the Holey Artisan incident would have seen the end of the phenomenon. The terrorists do not work on a single-group basis. There are many cells that work without having knowledge of any other cell that might be in existence, except when it comes to the coordination at the final stages of preparing for an operation.
I firmly believe that apart from the several extremists groups that the security agencies have neutralised in the last several months, there are many sleeper cells that are likely to be activated at an opportune time from their state of suspended animation on the orders of the brain controlling this group. Neutralising one group will not neutralise the operational capabilities of the extremists as a whole. The crux of the issue is finding out the brain and the source of funding. It is a tall order. But once that is done the capabilities of the cells will be blunted both due to lack of directive and orders as well as funds. And that is what the focus of the agencies must be on.
Shahedul Anam Khan is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.