While the Bangladeshi government continues to deny the presence of ISIS within its borders, increased violence against religious minorities and foreigners attributed to pro-ISIS militants has many asking if Islamist militancy is on the rise in that country.
The murder of a Hindu priest in February is the third death for which ISIS claimed credit. Other murder victims have included a Japanese farmer and an Italian aid worker in September and October of 2015. The Sheikh Hasina government rejected arguments that ISIS was behind the violence, pointing instead to domestic militant groups, which have become more and more aggressive, reportedly in reaction to the government’s crackdown on Islamist activity since 2013. It was in 2013 that two leaders of the long-standing Jamaat-e-Islaami party were tried for war crimes dating to Bangladesh’s war of Independence in 1971.
Since then, various political administrations have maintained relationships with Islamist groups to varying degrees in order to build coalitions and stay in power. Conversely, with the rise of Islamism in South Asia since the end of the cold war, numerous Islamist groups, both peaceful and violent, have proliferated. A common theme among these groups is envisioning the rebirth of a South Asian caliphate based on a much disputed hadith called Ghazwa-e-Hind.
This has also contributed to the infiltration into Bangladesh of trans-national Islamist groups, from Hizb ut-Tahrir to al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS), as well as the proliferation of homegrown militant groups, best illustrated by Ansar Bangla Team (ABT). ABT gained international attention for reportedly orchestrating the murder of secular blogger Avijit Roy in March 2015.
Accusations against foreign governments, like Pakistan, complicate matters further. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services stand accused of supporting Islamist activity in the country for likely a two-pronged purpose: establish an Islamic state in Bangladesh as is hoped for in Pakistan by Islamists there; and use Bangladesh as a launching pad for anti-Indian activity.
This is not completely far-fetched. Most terrorist attacks in India can be traced back to Pakistan-based terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad - alone - or in collaboration with minor Islamist groups in India. To do the same from existing jihadi training camps on the Bangladeshi side of the Indian-Bangla border stands within reason.
The Bangladesh Chronicle reports ISIS members have met militant groups like JMB, Huji, Hizb ut -Tahrir, and ABT in hopes of making Bangladesh an Islamic state by 2020. Bangladeshi militants appear to be giving their oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an uploaded video on YouTube from August 2014 entitled “Muslims in Bangladesh give bayah to the caliph Ibrahim (Hafizahullah).”
Bangladesh’s official statements denying ISIS’s presence may be a strategic attempt to prevent alarm, while its intelligence and law enforcement divisions continue their investigations and arrests behind the scenes. Arrests of extremists are ongoing, and include pro-ISIS sympathizers, Hizb ut-Tahrir activists and Jamaat-e-Islaami protesters. The latter political party was banned in 2013 by the Bangladesh High Court, which is now reviewing the legitimacy of Islam’s position as the official national religion in an otherwise secular state in an attempt to curb rising extremism.
While these moves are all necessary to protect Bangladesh’s secular status, none address the ability of these militant groups to collaborate, and engage with each other, when recruiting. Bangla-language extremist websites, YouTube videos, Twitter, and other social media platforms give extremist groups access to a wide audience and leave law enforcement always playing catch-up, as they were forced to do following the murder of the Hindu priest in February.
In November 2015, Bangladesh blocked Facebook, Messenger, Viber, WhatsApp, Line and Tango – in an effort to preempt Islamist retaliation after death penalties that were upheld against two Jamaat-e-Islami leaders convicted in 2013 of war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.
The benefit of such bans is questionable given the availability of proxy servers and backdoors. Nevertheless, despite denying the existence of ISIS in the country, Bangladesh is attempting to act against extremism on many fronts. It remains to be seen, however, if South Asia will become the newest extension of Islamist extremism that ISIS and other militant groups are working toward.