November 9, 2015 | Commentary on Bangladesh, Terrorism, Homeland Security

Why the Extremist Threat in Bangladesh Needs to be taken Seriously

The increasing political polarization between the ruling Awami League government and opposition Bangladesh National Party has opened the door for a dangerous wave of Islamist extremist attacks in the historically moderate Muslim democracy. The United States must use its leverage with Bangladeshi leaders to prevent further instability and to keep Bangladesh – the third largest Muslim majority country with a population of nearly 160 million – on the democratic path. Preventing the political unraveling of Bangladesh is critical for U.S. counter-terrorism goals in the region as well as for Bangladesh to maintain the important social and economic gains of the past decade.

Rising Extremist Violence 

Knife attacks on two publishers and two bloggers last month in Dhaka – which killed one and seriously injured the other three — were the latest in a string of attacks, highlighting the burgeoning threat of Islamist extremists. Five other secular bloggers and activists have been murdered in Bangladesh this year. This weekend’s victims had published works critical of Islam by Bangladeshi-American Avijit Roy, one of the bloggers who was slain in February. Roy’s widow, who was also injured during the attack that took place in February,has criticized the Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for its failure to bring the attackers to justice.

Other recent terrorist incidents include abombing in late October at a public parade in Dhaka commemorating the Shia holiday of Ashura and the assassinations of two international aid workers. On September 28, an Italian aid worker was gunned down while jogging in the streets of Dhaka, and five days later masked gunmen riding on a motorbike killed a Japanese agricultural worker in northern Bangladesh.

The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the three attacks, but Bangladeshi authorities deny ISIS involvement. Instead, they blame the political opposition for attempting to destabilize the country. While it remains unclear whether local extremists are carrying out the attacks on their own or with inspiration, or even direction, from more international groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the bombing of the Ashura procession – the first-ever sectarian attack in the country — hints at outside influence. ISIS has used sectarian attacks in other countries to drum up recruits, and it is possible that international groups are connecting with local terror outfits like the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) or the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangaldesh (JMB).

The existence of ABT was revealed after the arrests of five Bangladeshi students in the February 2013 murder of secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, who had played a key role in organizing peaceful street protests against the Islamist agenda. The protests had called for the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leader Abdul Qader Mollah, who was convicted of war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence, and for the banning of JeI from politics. Bangladeshi police say the ABT has been around for several years but has little organizational structure.

Bangladeshi authorities arrested two members of the JMB in May for trying to recruit fighters for ISIS. JMB was responsible for a spectacular series of coordinated bombings across the nation in August 2005 in an attempt to usher in an Islamist revolution. Eighteen months later several JMB leaders were executed for their crimes but the group was never fully eradicated.

Political Polarization

Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi government is set to execute two more political opponents, who were also convicted for war crimes committed during the 1971 war for Bangladeshi independence. The convictions and death sentences of a prominent leader of the Bangladesh National party (BNP), Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, and a senior politician from the Jamaat-e-Islami, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, were upheld this summer, and their appeals are scheduled to be heard later this month.

Previous executions of two Jamaat-e-Islami leaders drew international criticism because of the flawed procedural framework of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) and a perception that the judicial process was politicized. While there is support for the ICT among Prime Minister Hasina’s camp, there is increasing concern within the international community that she is using the court to silence her political opposition.

The United States had previously held up Bangladesh as a model of a large Muslim country with a functioning democracy. Moreover, Bangladesh has made significant social and economic gains over the last two decades. Life expectancy has increased by 10 years, infant mortality has decreased by more than half, female literacy rate has tripled, and economic growth has averaged around 6 percent annually.

But, with the country essentially under one-party rule since the controversial January 2014 elections, the democratic process and recent socioeconomic gains are under threat. Prime Minister Hasina moved forward with the election without opposition participation. Half of the parliamentary seats went uncontested, and voter turnout was reportedly around 20 percent, significantly below the 75 percent turnout at the 2008 election.

The opposition party BNP took to the streets earlier this year in protests that turned violent when the party called for a transport blockade and sought to enforce it by firebombing buses. More than 120 people were killed over a four month period in the political clashes. While the violence has calmed for the time being, there has been no resolution to the political deadlock, and tensions continue to simmer.

Sheikh Hasina deserves credit for taking a tough stance on terrorism. However, her increasingly autocratic style of governnce and unwillingness to provide political space for the opposition parties is undermining those counter-terrorism goals by opening the door for extremist forces to exploit the increasingly polarized political environment.

Step up International Engagement

The United States and other interested countries like the United Kingdom and neighboring India must support the Hasina government in its efforts to get a handle on the rising extremist threat. Given the possibility that the recent attacks may have international connections to groups like AQIS and ISIS, it is important that the Bangladesh government conduct thorough and transparent investigations in cooperation with international authorities.

On the political front, the United States, along with European Union countries that have trade relations with Bangladesh, must adopt a more assertive role in encouraging dialogue between Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia. While Washington rightly criticized the BNP’s violent tactics earlier this year, it could do more to press the Sheikh Hasina government to adopt a conciliatory posture toward the opposition. India, which has long-standing ties to the Awami League and strongly supports Sheikh Hasina, could also play a critical role in convincing her to reach out to the BNP.

Part of this effort would necessarily involve the Hasina government addressing international concerns surrounding the legal proceedings of the ICT. Failure to do so would not only constitute a major travesty of justice, and it would further undermine democracy in Bangladesh.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

This piece was originally published in Foreign Policy