FEATURED | Why the ‘Five Eyes’ Should Not Turn Blind: A Decisive Moment for Counter-Terrorism in Bangladesh

The ‘Five Eyes’ are an intelligence sharing network, known for its exclusive cooperation among each other. However, in order to face the challenge of international terrorism, they adopted increasingly the practice of sharing intelligence with non-‘Five Eyes’ members, like Bangladesh. But instead of using intelligence information for a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, Bangladesh’s Government is suspected to have misapplied this information against political opponents accompanied with severe human rights violations.

By Siegfried O. Wolf


The ‘Five Eyes’ are an intelligence sharing network, known for its exclusive cooperation among each other. However, in order to face the challenge of international terrorism, they adopted increasingly the practice of sharing intelligence with non-‘Five Eyes’ members, like Bangladesh. But instead of using intelligence information for a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, Bangladesh’s Government is suspected to have misapplied this information against political opponents accompanied with severe human rights violations. This accusation created certain confusions in the relations between ‘Five Eyes’ countries and Dhaka, which resulted in demands to restrict security cooperation with Bangladesh. 

FEATURED | Why the ‘Five Eyes’ Should Not Turn Blind: A Decisive Moment for Counter-Terrorism in Bangladesh

Keeping this context, this article argues that any punishable measures towards Bangladesh, like the holding back of valuable intelligence for counter-terrorism, would have significant negative impacts in the long run. It will be outlined that the major rationale therefore lies in rooting the issue in the country’s political legacies and collective memories determined by the experience of the independence war and the role of western countries, foremost the United States (US). Furthermore, restriction in security cooperation with Bangladesh might disturb the country’s historically sensitive civil-military relations adding to the problems of democratic transition, and could be harmful for relations with Bangladesh in the long run. As such, it will be necessary to continue full cooperation between the ‘Five Eyes’ and the GoB in counter-terrorism.

The ‘Five Eyes’: An exclusive club

The so-called ‘Five Eyes’ nations make up the world's leading intelligence-sharing network. This alliance is comprised of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States which are represented by their signal intelligence agencies (SIGINT).[1]

The ‘Five Eyes’ partnership’s origin can be traced to the British-US intelligence cooperation to monitor enemy radio transmissions during the Second World War (WW II), that matured during the Cold War. In the aftermath of the East-West conflict, it seemed that the most exclusive intelligence alliance was temporarily without a clear assignment. Subsequently, the ‘Five Eyes’ were trying to broaden the scope of its initial mission. This task was defined by the collection of foreign intelligence ‘defined as "all communications […] of a foreign country which may contain information of military, political or economic value’ to the Five Eyes partners, as determined in the more or less founding document, the 1946 UKUSA agreement (or BRUSA).

In this context, it is important to note that, originally, ‘Five Eyes’ partners and Commonwealth nations were excluded. Nevertheless, due to various ‘whistleblowing processes’ it became obvious that especially the United States National Security Agency (NSA) do spy on affiliates. This got more significance in the global war against terror. Nevertheless, collaboration between the ‘Five Eyes’ gained new impetus after 9/11.

Today, this alliance constitutes of a patchwork of various surveillance programmes and intelligence-sharing arrangements which enable to monitor the majority of all kinds of communications worldwide. Operating within a system of geographical work-sharing, the group divides the world into eavesdropping target sectors. By exchanging their respective intelligence, concerns and subsequent approaches go far beyond the original SIGINT sharing (like defence intelligence, human intelligence). But besides their cohesiveness in action, the respective individual intelligence agencies are running within their own national legal framework and legislated mandates. However, all intelligence agencies of the ‘Five Eyes’ are entrenched in the Anglo-Saxon culture and bounded together by the acceptance of liberal democratic values and processes in their goal to achieve complementary national interests. The latter one is commonly perceived as the main factor in building trust between the alliance partners but also sets them apart from intelligence activities of many other countries.

In this context, one must emphasize that information sharing and other forms of cooperation have significant implications for human rights. This turned into an critical issue between the ‘Five Eyes’ countries and their partners after Edward Snowden made public that the NSA has been able to retain vast amounts of data from the UK and other partners. Besides this ‘Five Eyes’ internal dimensions of Snowden exposures, also the relationship and intelligence sharing with non-alliance members got in  the focus of international attention.

The ‘Five Eyes’ and Bangladesh: The accusation of misuse of intelligence sharing

One of the latest remarkable cases is that of Bangladesh. Tensions, or at least some kind of disconnection, appeared in the relationship between Dhaka’s security circles and foreign intelligence agencies. More precisely, it seems that there exists some ‘confusions’ over how shared intelligence is used by Bangladesh’s authorities and security sector agents.

There are two major claims: First, human rights organisation (like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch) are stating that Bangladesh’s security agents are involved in human rights violations. Secondly, and closely linked with the previous claim, accusations exist that the Government of Bangladesh (GoB), namely Prime Minister (PM) Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League (AL) administration, use foreign intelligence for political purposes. As such, in both cases, intelligence sharing about subjects between foreign agencies with Bangladesh authorities is considered as critical. Such phenomena could complicate counter-terrorism efforts in Bangladesh. This raises further questions regarding ongoing and future intelligence cooperation between Dhaka and the ‘Five Eyes’ and its impact on the rise of Jihadism in Bangladesh.

There are claims that foreign intelligence was handed to the GoB and to its security agents. However, the more problematic claim that this information was supposedly used for partisan reasons to arrest suspects, especially political opposition members (Bangladesh Nationalist Party/BNP) who maintain close relationship with religious extremist parties like Jamaat-e-Islami, is difficult to prove. Reports of human rights agencies hint that some detainees face human rights violations. Considering the strong polarisation of state and society, endemic violence, and a culture of revenge between the two major political parties AL and BNP, it seems that these claims have some substance. Furthermore, Bangladesh’s armed forces have a historical record of extra judicial, outlaw activities and being highly politicized. This got fostered due to a widespread culture of impunity dating back to the time of the country’s independence war, a serious lack of political will, and a gap in institutionalized civilian control over armed forces. However, statements that the GoB used information for political purposes instead of comprehensive counter-terrorism are falling short. Furthermore, it hampers the understanding of the currently perceived tensions between Bangladesh and the ‘Five Eyes’. This can be understood from the following reasons-

(A.) Sensitive civil-military relations as factor in counter-terrorism and foreign relations

One has to be aware of the tensed relationship between the GoB and the security forces. Bangladesh lacks formal, institutionalized civilian control mechanisms over its security forces. Generally, PM Sheikh Hasina was able to gain control over decision-making processes in all policy fields, especially in the area of internal security. Ms. Hasina’s main power resource is her personal charisma and authority as daughter of Bangladesh’s ‘founding father’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Bangabandhu) as well as internal factionalism within and rivalry between the different security agents.

A most remarkable example in this direction is the ‘Pilkhana crisis’, a staged mutiny of the para-military Bangladesh Border Rifles (BDR) at Pilkhana/Dhaka on 25/26 February 2009. During that time, the capital witnessed a bloody confrontation in which numerous commanding officers of the Bangladesh Army, deployed at the BDR, were killed. PM Hasina was able to hold the regular soldiers back by taking revenge on the BDR, restructuring the latter one as the Border Guards Bangladesh and reducing the army leverage in the new force.

Against this backdrop, Sheikh Hasina exercised successfully her personalized and not institutionalized decision-making power vis-à-vis the military top brass. However, from a long term perspective, there are not clear indications that Ms. Hasina was able to exert control over policy implementation, especially not when it comes to counter-terrorism activities. Especially religious inspired segments of the armed forces are trying to undermine Sheikh Hasina’s government. The coup attempt of fanatic Islamists officers in 2012 (Heinous conspiracy) can be seen as a proof. Despite the fact that the coup failed, it turns out that parts of the army still try to follow historical patterns by acting against the line of the civilian government. One should be aware that Bangladesh has a tradition of direct military interventions, namely the military rules of General Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) and General H.M. Ershad (1982-1990) as well as the military-backed (rather controlled) non-party caretaker governments from 2006-2008. Both of the dictators helped to prepare the ground for the rise of the Islamist threat.

To sum up, political instability, rise of Islamist militancy, and deteriorating security situation is not only a matter of the entrenched conflict between two political parties (BNP versus AL) but also an outcome of the country’s stressed civil-military relations. As such, any insensitive punishable measures by the ‘Five Eyes’, like restrictions in counter-terrorism cooperation, could further disturb Bangladesh’s sensitive relations between civilians and soldiers. Additionally, it could also create anti-sentiments towards foreign interference, especially if the GoB feels that cooperation in counter-terrorism with foreign agencies will weaken their position towards their own security apparatus. In result, potential tensions in relations with other countries are more likely.

(B.) The historical legacies need to taking into account

The claim of misuse of foreign intelligence ignores the historical legacies which are of tremendous importance to grasp today’s political patterns in Bangladesh. Generally, one should be aware that political psyche, behaviour and culture is largely determined by the experience of the war of independence (‘liberation war’) against the West Pakistani forces who are responsible for conducting large-scale massacres and target-killings among the people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1970/71. Most remarkably, in this context were the reports of US Consul General Archer Blood, especially his last cable on 6 April 1971, the so called ‘Blood Telegram’. In the legendary document, the diplomat denounced the complicity of the then US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in the mass murdering of Bangladeshis. Obviously, Blood’s reporting was inconvenient for Washington. Until today, the ignorance of Blood’s alarming documentation and the recall from his post is perceived as a major wrongdoing of the US towards Bangladesh. Many people are still asking why Washington did not stop the genocide in East Pakistan. Apparently, the silence of Mr. Nixon was the trade-off for Pakistan’s help to arrange the US-China rapprochement (1972 Nixon visit to China). This experience determines without any doubts a crucial element in the ‘collective memory’ of the people. Especially, within the AL which was the driving force of the independence movement. In result, this traumatic cognition is partly causal for a cautious approach of GoB in interpreting any restrictive policy towards Dhaka by other states, especially the US. 

Final thoughts – The need to continue security cooperation with the GoB

Taking into consideration the issues of civil-military relations and cognitive memory, it would be disastrous for the future course of counter-terrorism in Bangladesh, if the ‘Five-Eyes’ would withdraw its support for Dhaka. The crucial point is that Bangladesh lacks a coherent counter-terrorism approach. The tortuous nets between political parties and Islamist groupings make the sharing of intelligence even more difficult. On top of that, Bangladesh’s weak and dysfunctional institutions are another challenge for security cooperation. The intense political polarisation of the country is not only hampering the effectiveness of political-administrative institutions but also keeps the disintegration within security sector agents going.

Consequently, the misuse of shared information will most likely remain as an issue as long there are no healthy military relations featured by an effective civilian control. Undoubtedly, this creates cautiousness among the ‘Five Eyes’in its current interaction with Dhaka in counter-terrorism. When it comes to cooperation with states featured by a unstable process of democratic transition and political instability, the ‘Five-Eyes’ prefer to work directly with the security agents together instead with civilian (understood as elected representatives) authorities. In other words, taking into account the ties of the intelligence alliance with other countries, especially Pakistan, it seems that intelligence sharing and other security related cooperation via military-to-military contacts is the preferred modus operandi. This did not only strengthen the military’s role in politics in Pakistan but also weaken the ability of the government to exercise decision-making power vis-à-vis the soldiers.

Despite uncertainties, it is crucial that the international community continues to give full support to the GoB in its struggle against militant Islamic fundamentalism. The dictate of the moment is that the government with its security agencies must work out a concrete and comprehensive strategy to counter the domestic and global Jihadist threats. Until now, this did not happen, at least not in an effective, visible way. Moreover, the GoB is reluctant to confirm the presence of international terrorist groupings, foremost Islamic State (IS).

Two reasons could be responsible for Dhaka’s difficulties in dealing with home-grown and international terrorism: First, the country’s difficult civil-military relations which are featured by personalized decision-making procedures on security related matters of PM Sheikh Hasina. In this context, the establishment of an institutionalized relationship with the armed forces is essential. At the moment, it appears that Ms. Hasina either does not see the ‘right moment’ for introducing new mechanisms and/or her administration as well as the parliament has no necessary capacities (like functional and effectives committees for civilian control, properly equipped and staffed/skilled ministries) to establish a functional, institutionalized relationship with the country’s security forces. Secondly, another additional major roadblock making the implementation of a successful counter-terrorism concept unlikely is the difficult relations between and within the different security agencies. In the past, factionalism within the security apparatus was one of the major rationales behind the numerous coups and coup-attempts which the country had to experience.

To sum up, the ‘Five Eyes’ should continue its intelligence and security cooperation with Bangladesh’s civilian authorities. This would help the GoB to carry out an appropriate strategy in countering Islamist fundamentalism and to strengthen democratic procedures in the country.

About The Author:

Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf, is Senior Researcher (member) at the South Asia Institute (SAI), Heidelberg University, and Director of Research at SADF (Coordinator: Democracy Research Program). He was educated at the SAI and Institute of Political Science (IPW) in Heidelberg. Additionally he is a visiting fellow at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST, Islamabad), affiliated researcher at the Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU, Durham University), and a former research fellow at IPW and Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi, India).

He is the co-author of 'A Political and Economic Dictionary of South Asia' (Routledge; London 2006), co-editor of 'Politics in South Asia. Culture, Rationality and Conceptual Flow' (Springer: Heidelberg, 2015), 'The Merits of Regionalisation. The Case of South Asia' (Springer: Heidelberg, 2014) and 'State and Foreign Policy in South Asia' (Sanskriti: 2010), and Deputy Editor of the 'Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics' (HPSACP).

Furthermore, he has worked as a consultant for the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Germany, and is member of the external group of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force, Federal Foreign Office, Germany.

He can be reached at his official email id: swolf@sai.uni-heidelberg.de

[1] Namely the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), Canadas Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), New Zealands Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), the United Kingdoms Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the United States National Security Agency (NSA). 

Publication Details:

AIDN: 001-11-2015-0414

Wolf, Siegfried. "FEATURED | Why the ‘Five Eyes’ Should Not Turn Blind: A Decisive Moment for Counter-Terrorism in Bangladesh." IndraStra Global 01, no. 11 (2015):0414. http://www.indrastra.com/2015/11/FEATURED-Why-Five-Eyes-Should-Not-Turn-Blind-CT-in-Bangladesh-by-Siegfried-O-Wolf-0414.html. | ISSN 2381-3652 |


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IndraStra Global: FEATURED | Why the ‘Five Eyes’ Should Not Turn Blind: A Decisive Moment for Counter-Terrorism in Bangladesh
FEATURED | Why the ‘Five Eyes’ Should Not Turn Blind: A Decisive Moment for Counter-Terrorism in Bangladesh
The ‘Five Eyes’ are an intelligence sharing network, known for its exclusive cooperation among each other. However, in order to face the challenge of international terrorism, they adopted increasingly the practice of sharing intelligence with non-‘Five Eyes’ members, like Bangladesh. But instead of using intelligence information for a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, Bangladesh’s Government is suspected to have misapplied this information against political opponents accompanied with severe human rights violations.
IndraStra Global
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