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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Fighting Extremism in Bangladesh

Daisuke Iijima

Aug. 2, 2016

Authorities in Bangladesh are trying to fight back against extremism, carrying out police raids and launching an campaigns to deter young people from terrorism.

The crackdown is taking place as people in Tokyo held a memorial service for the 7 Japanese victims of last month's terrorist attack in the South Asian country. Nearly 900 people attended the ceremony, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.

Friends, relatives, and colleagues of the victims gathered to mourn.

"It's more than just saying it`s regrettable. I have no words. I don't know what to say, or what to do," said one man at the event.

Meanwhile, the streets of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, remain tense.

As the country comes to grips with last month's terrorist attack, it's doing all it can to stamp out radicalism. People there were shocked to learn that young men from relatively wealthy households committed the deadly attack.

The men killed more than 20 people after taking over a restaurant. The militants were then killed when security forces stormed into the building after a standoff.

Authorities had initially said Islamic State militants were not involved in the assault, but now they say otherwise.

At one apartment last week, police killed 9 gunmen during a raid. The flag of the Islamic State group and weapons were found there. Police suspect one of those gunmen trained the restaurant attackers.

"All the guys came out of the balcony and shouted 'God is great.' They shouted that if police die they will go to hell," said an eye witness.

Most of the 9 men killed in the gunfight were highly educated. Police suspect the group behind the 2 incidents is a new terrorist organization. They think it broke away from a local Islamic radical group after being influenced by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. They suspect the leader is a Bangladeshi-Canadian who is on the run.

"We have detained about 200 members of a new terrorist organization," said Munirul Islam, head of counterterrorism with the Bangladesh police. "We believe the group is not directly related to Islamic State militants or Al-Qaeda. But it is active as a terrorist group using the names and ideologies of the Islamic State."

Police have come up with a list of missing young people who they suspect may have joined radical groups. One of them, Tahmid Rahman Shafi, was seen as someone far apart from radicalism. The son of a prominent Bangladeshi, he was college educated and had a good job. But something changed.

"The Bangladeshi government should brace themselves for more attacks," Shafi says in a video that is believed to have been shot in part of Syria which is controlled by the Islamic State group.

It's thought the young man entered Turkey 2 years ago on his way to Syria after lying to his family.

To stop people from becoming radicalized, there is also a public-relations battle being waged. Bangladeshi police made a video after last month's attack. It depicts how a cheerful college student devoted to his family ends up joining a radical group. He's eventually arrested by police.

The video warns that extremists try to brainwash students by taking advantage of their emotional wounds, or sense of guilt for having taken alcohol or drugs.

"Recruiters of terrorist organizations observe targeted students very well. They take advantage of any sorrow, suffering or mental weakness. Then they immerse their targets in radical ideas," Islam said.

At least 4 members of the armed group who were killed in the 2 incidents, were students or graduates of the prestigious, private North South University. A month after the attack, students gathered there for a demonstration against extremism.

"Choosing rightest friends, first of all, the first option would be this. Not only North South University, there are many other universities who get indulged in this," one student said.

While radical Islamists have been trying to recruit Bangladeshi youth, the fight to stop them is just beginning.

Naonori Kusakabe, an expert on politics in South Asia from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, joins anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: The local police of Bangladesh now say that the Islamic State group was not behind the terror attack. They say it was a different group, but one that's been influenced by the Islamic State militants. What can you tell us about the situation there?

Kusakabe: Prime Minister Hasina claims the Islamic State group has no base in the country. She says domestic anti-government groups and opposition parties may have been behind the attack. Many say this is because her administration doesn't want to lose international investment and support over fear of the Islamic State group. Officials also want to attack opposition parties that may have strong ties to domestic Islamic extremist groups.

On the other hand, people in Bangladesh have been arrested for trying to recruit for the Islamic State group. This is a strong indication that organizations related to them have been active in the country. Also, note that some of the group's propaganda is written in Bengali.

Beppu: One of the shocking things about the attack is that it was carried out by men from wealthy families. What's your take on this?

Kusakabe: The Internet has increased the reach and impact of extremist groups, such as the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda. In Bangladesh, only 10 percent of the population has internet access on a daily basis, so it's actually not a surprise that the attackers were from the upper class. The wealthy are also more able to study and travel abroad, giving them greater exposure to the message of these groups.

I think this attack sprang from discontent about the state of international affairs and the government’s political control over Islamic fundamentalists. The attackers probably saw the ideology of Islamic State group as a way to counter this.

Beppu: What do you think the Bangladeshi government can do to change the situation?

Kusakabe: The ruling Awami League regime and opposition parties need to resolve the political turmoil through talks, otherwise I am certain we’ll see more attacks like this. If the economy grows, and with it the wealthy and middle classes, more will have access to the Internet and exposure to the ideology of extremist groups. Officials have the challenging task of fighting terrorism while also easing tensions with Islamic fundamentalists.

Beppu: Some people point out that this attack shows the spreading influence of the Islamic State group to Asia. What is your view?

Kusakabe: The attacks has shattered Bangladesh’s image as a moderate Muslim nation. There’s even a chance it could spark a chain reaction of terror attacks in neighboring countries with simmering tensions. For example, India and Pakistan, which are locked in a border dispute, and Myanmar, where ethnic conflicts could be instigated.

The international community has come to realize how important Bangladesh is to the region's stability. There are now reports that some of the terrorists involved in the attack have fled to India. It's more important than ever for these countries to work together to tackle the problem.