Bangladesh: Killings of foreign nationals fuel fears of escalating militant threat

05 Oct 2015

Bangladesh: Killings of foreign nationals fuel fea...
  •   The killings of an Italian aid worker and a Japanese national claimed by Islamic State in the past week have elevated concern over the Islamist militant threat to foreign interests in Bangladesh.  
  •   The assassinations come after the Australian cricket team cancelled a trip to the country due to a security warning and several embassies have restricted diplomats’ movements and increased security provisions for staff.  
  •   The emergence of Islamic State could compound the threat of militancy from existing extremist groups in Bangladesh, while exacerbating political tensions between the government and opposition. 

Concerns over the spread of radical Islam and Islamist militancy in Bangladesh had already escalated over the past 12 months following the killings of five secular bloggers in attacks claimed by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in May and attributed to members of the al-Qaeda affiliated Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) militant group. A hit-list issued by ABT in August calls on secular Bangladeshi bloggers to be killed in Bangladesh and abroad, including in the UK, Germany, US, Canada and Sweden. Islamic State has also issued several threats against foreign nationals inside Bangladesh, most recently following the killing of a Japanese national in Rangpur district in the north of the country on 3 October. 

The extent of Islamic State’s presence in Bangladesh remains uncertain. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been quick to dismiss the group’s claims of responsibility for the attacks, rather suggesting they were perpetrated by extreme factions of the opposition Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) and political ally, Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI). Bangladesh is home to a complex network of militant organisations and despite a decade without major domestic attacks, the country has faced frequent small-scale bombings and persistent international warnings that it harbours groups with ties to international terror networks. Although significantly weakened by government efforts since 2005, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) remains active and in October 2014 the government detained JMB leader Abdun Noor along with four associates and seized large quantities of bomb making material reportedly intended for several nationwide attacks. Other extremist organisation with a proven presence in Bangladesh over the past year include Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Kalamaye Jamaat, Hizb-ut-Towhid (HT), and Kalema Dawat. JEI itself has been accused of facilitating terror financing by receiving political donations from overseas expatriate Bangladeshis and funding militant activities. However, accusations of JEI and BNP collusion in militant activity should be understood in the context of Bangladesh’s extremely divided political environment, in which the government has repeatedly used terrorism allegations as a justification for cracking down on the opposition.

Despite the plethora of militant groups in Bangladesh, there are several indicators that would support the emergence of Islamic State in the country. The nature of the attacks - targeted assassinations of foreign nationals - is not typical of the threat from terrorism inside Bangladesh. Several arrests of alleged IS members as recently as 3 October suggest the group is establishing a presence and in September 2014 a British Bangladeshi national was detained in Dhaka for militant recruitment for the group. Furthermore, the existing network of Islamist groups in Bangladesh presents a conducive arena for IS, which has proven capable of spreading via existing affiliate networks in multiple countries in North Africa and other parts of South Asia. The appeal of the group, in part linked to its success in Syria and Iraq and its effective use of online recruitment, has also helped IS establish growing support.

The two assassinations mark an alarming development for security in Bangladesh. A key indicator of IS’s expansion in the country will be whether it is able to secure the support of any existing Bangladeshi militant networks, and the supporters and valuable in-country intelligence that go with it. There is no sign of Bangladesh’s extremely divisive politics changing and the government’s posture towards JEI. This is especially since the trials and executions of JEI members over alleged war crimes during Bangladesh’s 1971 conflict with India, which the opposition claims are politically motivated. The continued crackdown of Islamist opposition groups could radicalise party supporters, especially if the Rapid Action Battalion and other security forces undertake indiscriminate and heavy-handed counter-insurgency campaigns on the back of the recent attacks.

Any emerging rivalry or even violence between Islamist networks would also prove the credible emergence of IS in the country, as well as presenting an additional security challenge for the government. The nature and pace of these developments will influence the extent to which Islamic extremism, including that posed by Islamic State, threatens security inside Bangladesh. The government has in the past managed the threat of mass indiscriminate attacks with some success, albeit at times controversially. Its capability to respond to this evolving threat will be vital to both stability and perceived security for foreign nationals inside the country.

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