Minimal Threat of Digital Disruption by Violent Extremists Ahead of 7 January Elections in Bangladesh
Ahead of Bangladesh's national election on January 7, 2024, an unexpected pattern has been observed: violent extremist (VE) groups are noticeably holding back from spreading anti-election messages online. This development is surprising and stands in contrast to the election in 2018 when a significant increase in VE propaganda targeting political candidates and the election process itself was observed. Nonetheless, this doesn't negate the potential for electoral violence, as 2023 experienced a rise in tensions, particularly between the Awami League (AL), known for its socialist and secular stance, and the conservative-nationalist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). It appears that VE groups are strategically reducing their online activity, likely to avoid provoking government authorities.
A volatile election process, as usual
The January 2024 elections are occurring in a volatile domestic environment. Major opposition parties led by the BNP are boycotting the election. After their demand that the election be administered by an interim care-taker government was ignored, they urged citizens to boycott the process. All seven BNP legislators resigned from Parliament on December 10 2023, describing the AL government as “illegal”. Conflict monitoring groups documented over 420 demonstrations between December 2022 and November 2023, over 40 percent of which involved violent clashes between BNP on one side and AL supporters and police on the other. At least five people were killed in clashes in December 2023 alone, with thousands of BNP supporters detained.
The international community is cautiously supportive of the national election, though wary of a turbulent post-election scenario. Indeed, Bangladesh suffered from extensive levels of political violence following in elections a decade ago, in 2014. Regional powers such as India, China, and Russia have all openly backed the AL-led government's decision to proceed, despite large-scale BNP-led rallies and strikes. Western countries, notably the European Union and the United States are urging free and fair elections but have also raised concerns about state repression targeting opposition parties. Not surprisingly, critical governments were forcefully rebuked by the ruling AL government.
Figure 1: A digital poster from a VE channel on Facebook that declares ‘democracy is the religion of the Kafirs (infidels)’
A surprising decline in VE propaganda targeting the election process
Notwithstanding deepening tensions between rival political parties in 2023, the 2024 national election is seldom publicly discussed on VE channels and among their followers. Throughout 2023, SecDev monitoring efforts of VE influencers - particularly groups inspired by Al Qaeda ideology - found that that content focusing on explicitly “political” (e.g. criticism of the Bangladeshi government, politicians, elections) and “anti-Hindu” content declined. When compared to the 2019-2022 period, there was very limited engagement on VE channels with themes related to the election, or national politics more generally.
VE channels were seized with a wide range of issues in 2023, but the share of content devoted to politics steadily fell. Narratives generated and disseminated by VE groups focused instead on international and regional conflicts (e.g. Gaza-Israel war), successes registered by terrorist groups against perceived enemies (e.g. in Afghanistan, Mali, Pakistan, and Somalia), and the oppression of Muslims outside of Bangladesh (e.g. India and Palestine). A number of VE influencers likewise ramped-up their attacks against transgender activists and inflamed internal conflicts between various Islamist sects. SecDev also documented an increase in online disputes between rival VE groups (e.g. Al Qaeda vs Islamic State), albeit mostly focused on issues connected to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
SecDev monitoring suggests that VE content across virtually all themes appeared to drop throughout 2023. For example, the most widely known Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) influencer in Bangla language, Tamim Al Adnani, was significantly less active in 2023. While Al Adnani’s video lectures used to be published on five official channels on YouTube and other social media platforms, only one channel now publicly releases his videos. The average number of videos released on official AQ channels has gradually declined to approximately two per month while it used to be about ten to twelve between 2019-2022. Part of the reason for this is that YouTube started cracking down on official AQ channels in mid-2022. VE influencers and networks have also grown on Facebook and Telegram in recent years.
What explains the drop?
SecDev assesses that this “pause” in openly challenging election-related issues may be precisely to avoid a direct confrontation with the current government, including security and intelligence services. Indeed, it is likely that VE groups are instead operating and organizing covertly, to avoid interference from official security agencies. SecDev documented some trolling of Islamist leaders who are running for office by VE supporters, but this is occurring on a very limited scale. The absence of explicit attacks against political candidates and the election more generally is in stark contrast to the 2018 election.
Figure 2: Screenshot of a Telegram post by an Islamic States operated channel. The post referred to news footage about Islamist political party leaders (Islamic Andolon Bangladesh) having a discussion with leaders of the leftist parties regarding boycotting the election. The post declared that there is practically no difference between the Islamist parties and communist parties as both have taken democracy as their religion.
Another key reason that might explain the relative silence from VE groups is that they consider all democratically elected governments their enemy. In other words, they reject all political parties regardless of their ideology: a change of administration via an election is seen by VE actors as largely irrelevant. Where SecDev has documented VE content, it tends to support the view of opposition parties that the election process is non-inclusive and one-sided, not least since one of the major opposition parties is calling for a boycott. It is likely, then, that VE groups see the election as a low priority target and are not prepared to expend political and material capital to influence voters one way or another.
It is not clear how the relative inactivity of VE groups will affect the 2024 election. In the past, VE actors have typically encouraged followers and the wider society to refrain from participating in elections, whether as campaigners, candidates, or voters. This default position would indirectly support the opposition who are opposed to the election, and urging voters not to vote on election day. The relative “silence” of most VE groups may indirectly support the ruling party, albeit modestly, since latent voter suppression may be more limited.
While there is evidence that some VE groups are passively discouraging people from participating in voting and other election related activities, it is less than expected. There is no clear evidence from public domain sites of VE groups issuing direct threats against political candidates or encouraging and inciting violence against them. Nor is there evidence that VE groups are actively seeking to exploit the election for specific gain. The risk of explicit VE interference in the lead-up to the election is likely to be minimal, though it is unclear how VE groups are likely to position themselves in its aftermath. It is likely that many will continue spreading strong socially conservative messages and galvanize the public against secular, moderate and liberal actors.
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