Why Extremism Is on the Rise in Bangladesh

Dhaka's Secular Traditions Have Never Been More Vulnerable

Policemen patrol outside the Holey Artisan Bakery as others inspect the site after gunmen attacked, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 2016. Adnan Abidi / REUTERS

On July 1, 2016, five militants stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery, a restaurant frequented by foreigners in an upscale neighborhood of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility, but local officials blamed members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a Bangladeshi militant organization. A 12-hour siege ended with the deaths of 22 hostages, 18 of them foreigners. This tragedy, which generated headlines around the world, was the country’s deadliest single terror attack in recent history. All of a sudden, Bangladesh—long overlooked not just by the international media but also within policy circles in Washington and other key capitals, despite being the world’s seventh most populous country and third-largest Muslim majority country—was on everyone’s radar.

One year later, Bangladesh has faded from the headlines, yet terrorist attacks continue, and the country’s deep secular traditions have never been more vulnerable thanks to Islamist extremists’ increasing inroads into society.


Not even a week after the Holey Artisan attack, militants carried out another assault—this one in eastern Bangladesh during the country’s largest prayer gathering for the Eid holiday. There were no formal claims of responsibility, but officials in Dhaka once again blamed JMB. Four people died, prompting an increase in counterterrorism efforts from the government. In July and August 2016, security officials seized large amounts of explosives around Dhaka that they claimed were in the possession of operatives of JMB and also Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), another local Bangladeshi terror group. They also targeted dozens of jihadists, leading to the deaths of nearly 20 militants, including the alleged mastermind of the Holey Artisan attack, Tamim Ahmed. In late July, police claimed to have killed nine militants affiliated with JMB and reportedly planning to carry out an attack similar to the Holey Artisan attack.

After the government crackdown there were no reported attacks until March 17, 2017, when a suicide bomber attacked a camp of the Rapid Action Battalion—an elite counterterror wing of the Bangladeshi police—in Dhaka,

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