By Saimum Parvez
Bangladesh is an often overlooked country in violent extremism research.
At least 40 pro-secular writers and activists, foreign nationals, and members of minority religious groups were murdered in Bangladesh by violent extremists between 2013 and 2017. On July 1, 2016, Islamic State-affiliated violent extremists stabbed to death 20 hostages, including Indian, Italian, Japanese, and US citizens in a restaurant. Several of these attacks were reportedly carried out by followers of Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). According to Bangladeshi law enforcement, a large number of these individuals were radicalised through digital media.
Building on John Horgan’s process model, this post reports on the findings of PhD research arguing that digital media’s role in extremist lifecycles can be explained in three phases: recruitment, strengthening, and attack. The study was based on micro-data on 370 Bangladeshi violent extremists, including their socio-demographic traits and their patterns of digital media use.
Data on the extremist lifecycles was collected via document analysis (i.e., newspaper reports, court documents, memoirs, social media content) and interviews with key informants, namely law enforcement officers, security experts, and journalists. Of the 370 extremists on whom data was collected, 287 (78%) used digital media in the involvement or engagement phases of their extremist lifecycle.
This Blog post describes and discusses the study’s findings with regard to the role of digital media in Bangladeshi extremists’ recruitment processes, attraction for females and young people, strengthening convictions, and attack opportunities:
Today’s violent extremists have increased control over their propaganda generation and distribution. They publish and broadcast their own materials online without depending on the traditional media. This ability to bypass mainstream print and electronic media helps contemporary violent extremists to propagate their news and messages directly to interested audiences.
Digital media also provide opportunities for violent extremists to respond quickly. This includes responding to aspiring violent extremists directly, via messaging apps, social media, comments sections of blog posts, etc., but also responding to international/national/local events, including terrorist attacks, natural disasters, financial crises, political developments, and the pandemic, in a timely fashion. For example, Bangladeshi extremists regularly post their views/ interpretations/suggestions–even health tips–in their digital media outlets, which helps them to stay relevant to their audiences.
Also found was that many jihadists’ participation in (online) jihad was influenced by the perceived anonymity and security offered by digital media.
Increasing women and youth participation
The database of Bangladeshi violent extremists developed for the study revealed that they were mostly young, educated, and came from middle-class backgrounds. Analysis of these violent extremists’ lifecycles also found that digital media could reach individuals for recruitment who were previously unreachable.
In particular, digital media made it easier for women to connect with previously “unknown” recruiters and participate in jihad. Among violent extremists who used digital media at some point in their extremist lifecycle, women were more likely than men to use digital media in all aspects of the outreach and recruitment phase, including consuming and disseminating propaganda, and in connecting with recruiters and fellow jihadists.
Also, global jihad, exploiting the opportunities provided by globalisation, introduced Bangladeshi extremists to globally known English-speaking preachers and other new jihadi role models, who motivated several affluent Bangladeshi youths from westernised backgrounds.
After recruitment, digital media played a vital role in strengthening the convictions of the jihadists to become actively engaged in violent extremism. This strengthening occurred by two means:
The construction of a grand narrative and employment of that narrative in interactions among Bangladeshi jihadists to build jihadi echo-chambers. Three themes were prominent in this jihadist grand narrative. First, the construction of a perceived crisis founded on the idea that Islam and the Muslim community were under threat. Second, that establishing an Islamic State based on their interpretation of Islamic law was the only solution to this crisis. And third, armed struggle as the “only way” to achieve this solution, even if it required civilian killings.
Analysis of the extremist lifecycles revealed that continuous interaction and justification of these core jihadi narratives contributed to boosting the determination of the individuals in the dataset to take an active role. In fact, the continuous online interactions with fellow jihadists built a small online jihadi community. At this stage, a commonly identified trend was that the jihadists tended to isolate themselves from non-jihadi friends and family members and started to live in their online jihadi bubble. Living in these bubbles reinforced their jihadi beliefs and prepared them for engaging in attacks.
After strengthening their convictions, Bangladeshi violent extremists were ready to be assigned an active role in an attack. One interesting finding here was that small groups and individuals were more flexible in their decision-making and target selection because of widely available jihadi online guidelines. The latter allowed individuals and small groups to operate on their own, following the convictions of their leaders found in online materials.
Moreover, in the pre-terrorist activities phase, Bangladeshi extremists used digital media for fundraising, training, and information on construction of explosive devices. Even during an attack’s execution (e.g., Holey Artisan Bakery attack), digital media helped the jihadists to maintain real-time communication with their leaders, send photos and videos, and operate according to their leaders’ guidance.
In several instances, violent extremists also claimed responsibility for attacks and distributed the images or messages related to attacks via several digital media platforms, especially Facebook, Twitter, and chat forums.
Overall, it was found that digital media played significant roles in the extremist life cycles of those recorded in the dataset but was not the sole factor for their radicalisation. Instead, online and offline factors were intertwined in their lifecycles, with entirely online radicalisation being very rare.
Saimum Parvez is a senior lecturer at the department of Political Science and Sociology at the North South University, Bangladesh. He has recently completed his Ph.D. on the role of digital media in violent extremism from the University of Sydney. On Twitter @saimumparvez1.
This Blog post summarises findings of author’s Ph.D. project Understanding Digital Media and the Lifecycles of Bangladeshi Violent Extremists. Some of the findings were also published in the article titled ‘Digital Media and Violent Extremism in Bangladesh: Profiles and Narratives’.