The endorsement and sharing of extreme views by moderate Bangladeshi Muslims did not emerge in a vacuum. It is a consequence of years of relentless propaganda pumped out by violent extremist social media channels. Multiple SecDev assessments have shown how AQIS-affiliated channels disseminate and embed radical viewpoints, including in ostensibly “moderate” posts. During the last two years, violent extremist groups have targeted democratic institutions and secular values in Bangladesh, essentially giving rise to Muslim supremacist attitudes while also closing open dialogue and civic space.
Over the past year AQIS has cast the Taliban as Muslim “freedom fighters”. This burnishes their credentials and reinforces the message that armed jihad can generate results. In February 2020, for example, posts on AQIS-supporting social media channels hailed the erstwhile US-Taliban peace treaty as a triumph over the West and the first step toward creating an Islamic state in Afghanistan. At the time, IS-affiliated posts denounced the peace process, claiming that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had sold-out to the West and were not “true” Islamists.
The Taliban has long served as a rallying call for like-minded extremist groups. AQIS is a committed backer of the Taliban and urged its followers to support them. Not surprisingly, Al Qaeda described the US-Taliban peace treaty in March 2020 as a victory for jihadists. It published a 4-page Bangla pamphlet designed to rally AQIS and Taliban supporters in Bangladesh. In the wake of the US exit in August 2021, a similar statement was published by Al Qaeda congratulating the Taliban. No surprise, then, that the Taliban’s taking of Kabul has added fresh zeal to the extremist cause across Bangladesh.
SecDev detected a spike in Bangla social media chatter in late August and early September 2021 urging Muslims to travel to Afghanistan and to carry out attacks in Bangladesh proper. These messages should be treated with caution. To be sure, most online calls for violence seldom translate into offline action. Many of these appeals are also coming from enthusiastic sympathizers rather than official channels of extremist groups. At the time of this writing, however, there does not appear to be an imminent threat of violence, at least not from AQIS-affiliated groups.
Nevertheless, several AQIS influencers are celebrating the Taliban victory and urging Muslims to steel themselves for a prolonged jihad across Central and South Asia. They are calling on supporters to take the fight beyond Bangladesh’s borders. Violent extremists are convinced that a large popular support base was a crucial determinant in the Taliban’s victory hence their determination to radicalize Muslims across Bangladesh. Some analysts are concerned that IS-affiliated groups might attempt copy-cat activities in Bangladeshi cities, taking a page from IS-K’s book. Monitoring online social media activity is more important than ever to identify signals that could translate into real instability.