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In the past 18 months, a series of attacks on secular bloggers, public intellectuals, Hindu and Buddhist priests, and a few foreigners has shaken Bangladesh. The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for much of the bloodshed. The group’s formal claim aside, it is not entirely clear whether it masterminded the attacks. What is clear, however, is that the government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed has continued to deny that the terrorist group has a presence in her country at all.
After a strike on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka’s tony Gulshan neighborhood that led to 20 deaths last week, Hasina publicly condemned the “heinous attack” and promised to stamp out terrorism in the country. However, in her 12-minute speech, she still failed to acknowledge the presence of ISIS in Bangladesh. She did at least seem to grudgingly accept that the Gulshan attack represented an escalation from what she referred to as prior “stray killings.”
Hasina’s reticence is somewhat surprising. As the leader of the largest secular party in the country, she should have few qualms about taking an unequivocal stance against rising religious zealotry. (Since 2013, extremists have killed over 30 individuals; few, if any, of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.) Instead, Hasina has passed the blame onto the principal opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and one of its allies, the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami. “The BNP–Jamaat nexus has been engaged in such secret and heinous murders in various forms to destabilize the country,” she asserted. Even foreign countries aren’t free of suspicion: “The British government should take more steps on the ground. Jamaat has a strong influence in East London.”
Such statements are part of a strategy that has successfully marginalized Jamaat-i-Islami and the BNP. Dhaka has relied on dubious legal measures as well. According to a Bangladeshi human rights organization, Odhikar, there have been as many as 202 disappearances of dissidents and opposition politicians since 2009. The Rapid Action Battalion, a government paramilitary force, critics claim, is responsible. The normally feisty press in Bangladesh is also under siege. As of earlier this year, the government had lodged as many as 79 cases against the editor of the prominent newspaper, The Daily Star. Its sister Bengali-language newspaper, Prothom Alo, faced as many as 25 defamation cases. Meanwhile, a widely criticized International Criminal Tribunal has sentenced as many as nine key Jamaat-i-Islami members to the death penalty. Four have already died.
At the same time, Hasina and her party, the Awami League, do not want to be seen as entirely hostile to Islamist sentiment for electoral reasons. (In 2008 parliamentary elections, the Jamaat-e-Islami secured 4.48 percent of votes. Other Islamist parties secured additional 1.79 percent.) And so, the ruling party has reportedly developed a warm relationship with the Hefazat-e-Islam, an obscurantist religious group that demanded the introduction of an anti-blasphemy law in 2013. In the end, the law did not pass. However, the ostensibly secular Awami League relegated itself to a passive spectator when the Hefazat-e-Islam promised bloodshed in April of this year after the Bangladesh Supreme Court considered a legal challenge to the role of Islam as the state religion of Bangladesh. (The court, in the end, dismissed the petition on a technicality.)
In the Awami League’s view, this fence-sitting has little to do with the ISIS-related violence of the past year and a half, which was in itself inconsequential. In fact, Hasina even partially exculpated a terrorist who attacked a blogger who had written about the prevalence of superstitions in the country. She argued that while freedom of expression was valuable, it should not amount to a license for hurting “religious sentiments.”
For the first time, ISIS claimed responsibility for taking hostages and for targeting a large group of foreigners.In the absence of a strong government response, however, terrorists have become bolder. ISIS, for example, initially targeted secular activists. Then, in October of last year, it moved on to attacking religious minorities including Bangladesh’s small Shia community. The move was an attempt to sow sectarian discord in a country that has long avoided denominational disharmony.
The most recent attack was yet another escalation. For the first time, ISIS claimed responsibility for taking hostages and for targeting a large group of foreigners. More to the point, the group carried out its brazen strike in a diplomatic enclave of Dhaka that is known as a high-security area. To launch such a successful attack there, the terrorists would have had to make it through the multiple rings of security that envelop the capital city and particularly a posh neighborhood.
What is also striking is that, although ISIS promptly assumed responsibility for the killings, it did not make any demands on the government even as it detained over 30 people. Most likely, the militant group just wanted to demonstrate that it had the ability to strike with impunity.
It is not yet clear if the latest bloodshed will be a wake-up call for Dhaka. Despite Hasina’s apparent resolve to crack down on terrorism, her aversion to acknowledging ISIS’ presence in the country was telling. The prior killings, no doubt, were atrocious. However, this attack leaves no doubt that ISIS’ reach is expanding. The terrorists involved in last week’s attack and in previous ones were upper middle class, urbanites. And with such pockets of support, ISIS is sure to be readying itself for the next plot.
The rest of the world should recognize the seriousness of the problem and work with Dhaka and civil society groups to counter the conditions that have spawned these terrorist groups. This may also be an opportune time to broaden intelligence cooperation with Bangladesh, to work with the regime to bolster the capabilities of its security forces, and to enable it to secure its very porous borders. Indeed, if anything, the attack highlighted the failure of the country’s intelligence and security services. The problem may have stemmed from those services’ politicization under this regime as well as earlier ones. Human rights and civil society organizations have repeatedly claimed that these entities have increasingly come under the thumb of the Awami League.
Perhaps this tragedy will convince the regime to refrain from further diminishing the autonomy of these bodies, improve their training, and enhance their professionalism. Even though the hostage crisis ended swiftly, the various units involved could not prevent the brutal murder of 20 people before the matter was brought to a close.
Finally, although it will be no easy task, Bangladesh will need to devote greater resources to making its borders stronger. The terrorists responsible for this incident were all from within Bangladesh. However, they have obvious links with transnational terror groups. In this context it is important to recall that one of the domestic groups, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-Islami was an original signatories of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the West.
The government and the international community’s continued cynicism could not only further destabilize this hitherto moderate Muslim nation, but also allow ISIS to expand its domain into the wider South Asian region.