Bangladeshi Extremists Using Social Media to Identify Secular Targets

On April 30, Nikil Joarder, a Hindu tailor, was hacked to death while sitting outside his shop in central Bangladesh.  Joarder, who was in his early 50s, had been arrested in 2012 for allegedly making derogatory remarks against Islam though he was later released  after spending weeks in jail.   Just days earlier, Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent LGBT activist and editor of Bangladesh's only LGBT magazine was hacked to death along with another man in his Dhaka flat.   These two killings, along with the brutal hacking murder of a university teacher were all believed to be the work of extremists.  While Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility, government sources dispute this stating that the Islamic terrorist group is not operating in Bangladesh.  Still, the presence of numerous other extremist organizations means that finding those responsible may not be possible. 

In the past few years, many attacks believed to be the work of Islamic extremists have also been carried out.  The victims include secular bloggers, academics, gay rights activists, and members of different religious minorities including Shia, Sufi and Ahmadi Muslims, Christians and Hindus.  Many of the victims were hacked to death by machetes and few of these murders have been solved by police.  There have also been allegations that police are complicit in the killings by not arriving until after the attackers have fled. 

One disturbing similarity among the victims is that they were targeted on social media shortly before their deaths.   Violent extremist groups are openly using Facebook and Twitter to threaten likely victims as well as claim responsibility after the killings occur.    Media critics are also warning about the growing role  of social media in identifying potential targets as well as allowing extremists to spread dangerous misinformation that makes violence more likely.   A September 2012 campaign of attacks directed against Buddhist monasteries, temples, and private homes occurred following the publication of an image of a Quran being desecrated.  The image appeared on a Facebook account under a Buddhist male name that later proved to be fake.   Using bogus accounts like this allows for extremists to promote hatred and violence against minority religious groups.

Extremists are also using information published in mainstream media stories to track secular bloggers, gay activists, and other potential targets and openly inciting violence against them.  They also invite other netizens  to provide information to aid in identifying even anonymous bloggers and celebrating their deaths afterward.   One recent documentary, titled "The Razor's Edge" which was produced by anonymous blogger “Nastiker Dhormokotha” (religious talk of an atheist), describes the often harrowing danger faced by secular bloggers in Bangladesh today.  The documentary has since won  in the Citizen Journalism category at the Deutsche Welle BOBs awards in 2016.  

While Bangladeshi government authorities have regularly come down on Facebook for various "threats to public security,"  they represent only a fraction of the cases in which social media has been used by extremists.   Mainstream media publications are also being encouraged to provide better privacy for individuals who risk being targeted and to avoid inflammatory rhetoric that might lead to violence. 

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