The politics of intelligence reform in Bangladesh

Bangladesh on 26 March 2014
Location : Bangladesh | Source : New Age Bd. Image Source: Tellatic

IN MOST countries, intelligence reform tends to be crisis-driven. Bangladesh is no exception. A glaring example would be the reform initiatives taken after the disastrous mutiny in the Bangladesh Rifles in 2009, in which the country lost at least 75 people, including 57 serving army officers. In the aftermath of the mutiny, the BDR was dissolved to form the Border Guard Bangladesh. The reformed border force got a new leadership, and its intelligence outfit — the Rifles Security Unit — was replaced with a three-tier intelligence structure, which includes the Border Security Bureau, the Regional Intelligence Bureau, and the Unit Intelligence Bureau.

The probe reports on the BDR mutiny criticised lack of intelligence sharing and suggested a new coordination structure to avoid any intelligence failure. In July 2009 the government established the National Committee for Intelligence Coordination to synthesise the efforts of various intelligence agencies. It is the most powerful committee, chaired by the prime minister, and coordinated by her security advisor. The committee comprises the cabinet secretary, principal secretary to the Prime Minister’s Office, and the respective director generals of the National Security Intelligence, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, and the inspector general of police. The heads of the Rapid Action Battalion, the Special Branch, and the Criminal Investigation Department are required to assist the committee in performing its activities.

The intelligence coordination mechanism in Bangladesh is quite unique, when compared with the American, British, and Indian intelligence coordination structures. In the United States, the director of national intelligence is responsible for the coordination of various civilian, military, and signals intelligence agencies. In the United Kingdom and India, the joint intelligence committee — located in the cabinet secretariat — is responsible for the coordination of domestic, external, and defence intelligence agencies. Therefore, a cabinet secretary in the British and Indian system of JIC acts as a counterpart of the American DNI. Each of these coordinators has direct access to the head of the government — whether the prime minister in the UK or India, or the president in the US. With some minor differences between the American system of coordination and their British and Indian counterparts, the principal responsibility of the intelligence coordinators in all these states is to provide immediate and long-term intelligence assessments to ministers and senior officials on vital issues of defence, foreign affairs, and national security.

At least two factors can reveal why the Bangladeshi case is unique, and does not resemble either of the UK of the US or the Indian model. First, by designating the prime minister’s security adviser as the coordinator of the NCIC, Bangladesh has rejected the British and Indian models, where a serving bureaucrat in the cabinet secretariat assumes the role of intelligence coordinator. Second, the coordination structure in Bangladesh is also sharply different from the American case, in which the position of the director of national intelligence is separate from that of the national security adviser. Despite these bureaucratic differences, the Bangladesh case looks almost similar to the American, British, and Indian cases in one aspect: it attempts to integrate intelligence on foreign, defence, and internal security matters by bringing together the principal civilian and military intelligence outfits. 

In response to growing incidence of domestic terrorism and the US demand for intelligence sharing in the war on terrorism, Bangladesh has also initiated incremental changes toward reforming the counterterrorism intelligence capacity. This is evident in the creation of a counterterrorism wing at the DGFI in 2002, which was later evolved into a counterterrorism intelligence bureau in 2006. The turf battles between various agencies became apparent, when the NSI opened up a counterterrorism cell in 2004, and RAB was raised in the same year as a paramilitary police force with a separate intelligence wing. While officials from the DGFI, NSI, and RAB speak about intelligence sharing among them, the three organisations, with contrasting authorities, assert their status as the lead counterterrorism agency in the country. 

Although terrorist financing is now a global concern, it is not until recently that the Bangladesh government has taken important initiatives to modernise the legal frameworks for combating money laundering and terrorist financing. It is quite clear that external pressures from the US treasury, the Sydney-based Asia-Pacific Group on Money Laundering, and the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force have played a strong role in reforming the national strategy on anti-money laundering and countering of terrorist financing. 

At least two aspects of the counterterrorism intelligence reform deserve further analysis. 

First, although civilian law enforcement and intelligence agencies constitute the first line of defence against terrorism, Bangladesh has gradually seen growing participation of the armed forces and the military-led intelligence in the domain of counterterrorism. The militarisation of the counterterrorism apparatus is premised on the belief that existing capabilities in the law enforcement agencies are inadequate in the fight against transnational organised crime and terrorism. This is perhaps one reason why RAB, being a paramilitary force, has never seen a civilian police official to direct its intelligence wing. Such organisational structure appears to have several benefits: it not only allows greater integration of intelligence between RAB and the DGFI, but also better assists in the operational style of RAB, which is sharply different from the civilian policing structures. 

Second, the growing role of the military in the domain of counterterrorism indicates successive governments’ penchant for adopting a war model of counterterrorism, which is sharply different from the criminal justice model of anti-terrorism. In the war model, terrorism is seen as a form of unconventional war and low-intensity conflict, which requires the deployment of military and paramilitary forces. By contrast, the criminal justice model stresses that terrorism is an act of crime for which the perpetrators need to be arrested, imprisoned, and gone through a judicial prosecution system. 

One might also argue that since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has adopted a hybrid model of counterterrorism, which has largely relied on the criminal justice model, while selectively employing the war model against the ethnic separatist groups, radical left groups, and Islamist militants. The adoption of the hybrid model is evident in the way the civilian police is tasked with controlling petty crime, robbery, and financial crimes, whereas the military and paramilitary forces have been tasked with fighting ethnic insurgency, left-wing terrorism, and most recently, radical Islamist movements. 

There are several flaws in the current reform initiatives. First, the domestic and international human rights communities have consistently claimed that existing reform initiatives have focused too much on capacity building and coordination structure, and too little on maintaining human rights standards. It is in this context, the fight against serious crime and terrorism has often involved the use of torture, enforced disappearance, and extrajudicial killings. Second, as the role of financial intelligence grows over time, banks and other financial institutions have to comply with more and more reporting requirements. The commercial and private banks are already burdened with the existing reporting loads. It remains to be seen the extent to which the Bangladesh Bank, with its limited resources, can deal with the demands for financial crime analysis. Another lacuna in the intelligence set up is the exclusion of the central bank’s financial intelligence unit from the national intelligence coordination structure. This is certainly caused by a lack of understanding the importance of financial intelligence and its role in national security. 

Finally, a far greater problem relates to the absence of a national security and intelligence strategy in Bangladesh. In the absence of such a strategy, the security and intelligence community lacks any rigorous direction and tasking, which has adversely affected the collection, analytical, and dissemination stages of the intelligence cycle.

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