Bangladesh may be the next proving ground for global jihadist groups
Even for Bangladesh, where gruesome killings of secular writers and liberal activists have become all too common, back-to-back slayings in recent days seemed to mark a troubling new turn.
The killings of an LGBT activist and U.S. government employee, along with a friend, in the capital on Monday were claimed by the South Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda. Two days earlier, Islamic State said it was responsible for the death of a low-key university professor who was hacked with machetes in the northern city of Rajshahi.
The claims have puzzled terrorism analysts, who say there is little concrete proof of the rival militant organizations’ strength in Bangladesh. But Al Qaeda and Islamic State have both sought to gain a foothold in this predominantly Muslim nation of 160 million people, and experts worry that Bangladesh is ill equipped to respond if it becomes a battleground for global jihad.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has cracked down on Islamist political parties and been accused of silencing critics in the media and civil society. The prime minister initially deflected blame for the deteriorating security situation and accused her political opposition, including the Jamaat-e-Islami party, of being behind Monday’s killings.
“It’s not a matter of law and order. … When the country is moving forward, such killings are staged in a planned way just to destabilize the country,” Hasina said.
Hasina softened her rhetoric on Wednesday, saying she hoped law enforcement agencies would “be able to hunt down the criminals after investigations.”
But the spree of killings of writers, activists, foreign nationals and other soft targets — usually by groups of machete-wielding men who manage to flee the scene — have alarmed Dhaka. Four such incidents have occurred this month.
Few suspects have been arrested, and police believe many perpetrators have left the country.
Western diplomats have privately expressed outrage over the continuing violence, particularly Monday’s killings of LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan and his friend, Tanay Majumder, in what police described as a meticulously planned attack.
The pair had been surveilled for several days, according to law enforcement officials. Mannan, who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development in addition to editing Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine, represented a ripe target for Islamist extremists.
In statements after the attack, the militant group Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladeshi branch of Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, said the men were trying to “promote homosexuality” and vowed to target anyone who stood in the way of their goal of achieving Islamic sharia law.
The statements suggest that Islamist extremists “are taking it up a notch, and you don’t know where they’re going to target next,” said one security analyst in Dhaka, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the government.
It’s still unclear whether Al Qaeda or Islamic State have any firm links to extremists in Bangladesh, but the country increasingly looks like fertile ground for fundamentalists. Hasina’s secular Awami League government has banned the main Islamist party from politics and been accused of using a special court to jail and execute Islamist opponents for crimes allegedly committed during the country’s 1971 liberation war.
That has coincided with a spate of killings of secular writers and liberal voices that has gathered pace since February 2015, when Bangladeshi-born American writer Avijit Roy was hacked to death in Dhaka.
Ansar al-Islam has taken responsibility for at least six previous deaths of bloggers, activists and a publisher. It has become the most prominent regional affiliate since the terrorist organization announced in September 2014 that it wanted to “raise the flag of jihad … across the Indian subcontinent.”
At the time, the announcement was seen as a bid by the terror network to rebrand itself in the face of Islamic State’s growing prominence and tap into South Asia’s hundreds of millions of Muslims. Ansar al-Islam’s Twitter statement on Tuesday referred to “the U.S. crusaders and its Indian allies,” a rare direct reference to India, home to a large Muslim minority that has generally not been a breeding ground for militant Islam.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for several killings, including those of an Italian aid worker in Dhaka and a Japanese social worker in northern Bangladesh last year, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist activity online. Last November, Islamic State’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, published an article titled “The Revival of Jihad in Bengal,” and said it had named a regional leader in the country.
The Bangladeshi government denies that global jihadist groups are active in the country, blaming homegrown radicals for the attacks. But Dhaka police commissioner Asaduzzaman Miah acknowledged Wednesday that the killings required “special attention.”
“These planned killings are now a matter of concern,” Miah said. “It needs special effort.”
U.S. officials have refrained from criticizing Bangladesh’s response publicly. The U.S. ambassador to Dhaka, Marcia Bernicat, met Wednesday with top Bangladeshi security officials and stressed the need for the countries to fight terrorism together.
“They can’t do this job alone; none of us can,” Bernicat said. “We all have to do this together.”
Times staff writer Bengali reported from Lahore, Pakistan, and special correspondent Kader from Dhaka.
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