Expatriate Muslim workers from Bangladesh, some of whom feel insecure and alienated, are often drawn to extremist views by the false propaganda that their religion is under threat. The recent arrest and deportation of 26 Bangladeshi construction workers from Singapore is a wake-up call to both Dhaka and Singapore to conduct background checks of expats before they are sent off or welcomed. Bangladesh should be more vigilant as overseas remittances contribute much to its foreign currency reserve
DHAKA: During the last two months of 2015, 27 Bangladeshi migrant workers were arrested by the Singaporean authorities for harboring extremist views similar to those propagated by terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS).
Twenty-six of them were deported to their home country by the end of December and migrant experts in Bangladesh believe the incident should be a wake-up call not only for Singapore but also for Bangladesh.
The news was originally broken by The Straits Times after the ministry of home affairs in Singapore divulged the information about the arrests on January 20. The report mentioned that the 27 workers arrested were all Bangladeshi expatriates working in the construction sector of the host country for the past two to seven years.
The Straits Times further revealed that the workers were arrested between November and December of 2015 under Singapore’s Internal Security Act as they were planning to wage “armed jihad overseas”, but “not in Singapore”.
Believed to have been functioning since 2013, the cell seems to have supported “armed jihad ideology of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and IS,” said The Straits Times.
“We still have 14 of them in our custody while 12 others were released under the supervision of their families, as there were no valid charges against them,” said Bangladesh police spokesperson Maruf Hossain Sardar to Asia Times.
Bangladesh police believe that the 26 are not linked to international terrorist cells like Al Qaeda or IS but connected to the local terrorist group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT).
“We are investigating whether ABT has similar cells among Bangladeshi migrants in other parts of the world. We also have kept an eye on the 12 workers we have already released,” said Sardar.
When questioned by police, the workers said they used to meet and say their prayers at a mosque near Mustafa Centre in Singapore.
Monirul Islam, Joint Commissioner of Detective Branch of Bangladesh Police, said: “Inspired by Ansarullah Bangla Team members there, they became loyal to the outfit.”
Most of them were not actively involved in politics in Bangladesh before migrating to Singapore although a few of them were involved with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest religious political party in Bangladesh, he said.
Some of them had remitted money to different organizations including Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI) on several occasions.
Fearing that the tenets of Islam were under threat in the country, HeI had brought out a massive rally in Dhaka’s Motijheel area, the business district, in May 2013.
A clash between police and HeI activists led to the deaths of more than 25 HeI activists, after which the protests were quelled.
On the other hand, the ABT is blamed for the murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh like Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das in 2015. Although the police have arrested a number of suspected ABT members over the past one year, the group allegedly published a global hit list of bloggers in September 2015.
Migrant experts in Dhaka believe that some of the Bangladeshi workers in foreign countries are succumbing to extremist beliefs due to problems linked to “integration and other issues” they are facing there.
During a conversation with Asia Times, Dr. Tasneem Siddiqui, the founder chairperson of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) at the University of Dhaka and a professor of political science at the same university, said: “Such workers in a foreign land usually live in closed communities and interact only with each other. They are prone to believe in propaganda about issues back home.”
She speculated that most likely, these workers believed in the HeI propaganda that Islam is under threat in Bangladesh, which eventually brought them together.
“The situations are slightly different for Bangladeshi workers in the Middle Eastern countries where most of them without jobs are likely to fall into the traps of extremist cells,” she said.
She also addressed the situation of Bangladeshi expatriates in the United Kingdom and other European countries.
As most Bangladeshi families reside in small communities, “they are easily exploited by patriarchy in the foreign land which eventually drives them toward extremism,” she said, alluding to incidents from last year when some British-Bangladeshi families had joined IS.
Siddiqui said the Bangladesh government should work toward “defusing such conflicts” as remittances from foreign destinations are a huge contributor to Bangladesh’s foreign currency reserve.
While calling for better coordination between the Bangladesh government and the governments of host countries, she said: “I believe, background checks need to be conducted for Bangladeshi workers before they are sent off. Most likely, Singapore will initiate this practice following the latest incident. But we need the same from Bangladesh end, as well.”
Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based freelance journalist and editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, a leading English daily in Bangladesh.