The Rise of Extremism in Bangladesh

Who Is Responsible For The Killings?

People attend a mass funeral as the body of Rajib Haider, an architect and blogger who was a key figure in organising demonstrations, arrives at Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka, February 2013.  Andrew Biraj / Reuters

A wave of targeted murders in Bangladesh since 2013 has given observers reason to believe that the country might be the next victim of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). In a little over two years, Islamist extremists have killed dozens of bloggers, secular activists, members of minority Muslim sects, Hindus, and even a Buddhist monk in Bangladesh. The victims are tied together by their diversity and their subsequent existential challenge to monolithic, orthodox visions of political Islam.

Western governments fear that these attacks mark the spread of ISIS to Bangladesh, with one well-known local Islamist terrorist group having coalesced around the Islamic State’s flag. But William B. Milam, a former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan, argued in May in The New York Times that “the recent string of vicious killings in Bangladesh is less a terrorism issue than a governance issue: It is the ruling Awami League’s onslaught against its political opponents, which began in earnest after the last election in January 2014, that has unleashed extremists in Bangladesh.”

He’s right that the Awami League has harshly targeted its opponents; this is nothing new in Bangladesh, where politics is usually a winner-takes-all game. Yet the Awami League is not to blame for the recent surge in extremism, which began long before the party took power in 2009.

Buddhist monks participate in a protest against the murder of a monk in Bangladesh, in Mumbai, India, May 2016.
Buddhist monks participate in a protest against the murder of a monk in Bangladesh, in Mumbai, India, May 2016.   Danish Sidiqqui / Reuters

Two distinct groups have claimed attacks since 2013. One of these extremist groups—the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which is now affiliated with ISIS—has been active as far back as 2005, when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) ruled the country. In fact, the JMB was behind a streak of violence in August of that year, which culminated in a wave of bombings.

At the time, the JMB appeared to be operating with support from at least some elements of the ruling BNP. After the bombings in August, the BNP, according to

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