Since Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in response to the high-profile attack on a popular Dhaka café by Islamist militants last July, the country has fortunately not witnessed another major attack on the same scale. Yet sixteen months on from the siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery – during which terrorists massacred 20 civilians with sharp weapons before Bangladeshi commandos stormed the building – fears over violent extremism in the south Asian nation remain ever-present.
Despite thousands of arrests and the deaths of top militant leaders at the hands of state security forces, signs of heightened political tensions and evidence of militant activity just below the surface have raised concerns over the potential for separatist violence and a new wave of attacks, in a country which until recently had little past experience of dealing with terrorism.
Whilst Bangladesh’s improved law enforcement capabilities have almost certainly prevented further bloodshed over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has faced criticism over its somewhat contradictory approach to confronting terrorism. At the same time as pledging to tackle Islamist militants head-on, the government has been accused of facilitating an environment in which extremist ideology can flourish.
This report asks if Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism crackdown will ultimately prove successful in keeping a lid on militant activity, and asks whether the government in Dhaka is doing enough to combat the radical ideology which fuels such violence.
The issue of terrorism in Bangladesh first caught the world’s attention in 2015, after an unrelenting wave of small-scale attacks targeting secular bloggers, university professors, foreign citizens and members of religious minority groups. In all, more than 20 people were shot dead or hacked to death in a two-year period by Islamist militants, with attacks often taking place in broad daylight.
The level of violence was unprecedented in what is usually considered one of the most secular and tolerant Muslim-majority countries, especially in comparison to regional neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have long been blighted by sectarianism, religious intolerance and suicide bombings. The attacks made global headlines and hit the tourism industry and Bangladeshi economy hard.
PM Sheikh Hasina’s government blamed the attacks squarely on domestic jihadist group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which it said were linked to its political opponents and seeking to destabilize the country. This was despite claims of responsibility for some of the attacks by trans-national jihadist groups including the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Neither claim could be proven concretely, however the government’s investigation into the attacks was roundly criticized at the time as few people were brought to justice over the killings.
The attack on the Dhaka café in July 2016 – often described by analysts as ‘Bangladesh’s 9/11’ – was seen as a game changer, and prompted the government to take concrete action. A sweeping security crackdown followed and large-scale police raids led to the arrest of thousands of suspected terrorist sympathizers across the country, whilst a number of senior militant leaders were killed during security operations. Nine suspected militants were killed in the Kalyanpur neighbourhood of Dhaka just three weeks after the café attack, whilst on 27 August last year police claimed to have killed the head of ISIS in Bangladesh – Tamim Chowdhury – during a raid in Narayanganj.
A newly-formed Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU) of the Dhaka Metropolitan police took on hundreds of new recruits was granted a national mandate several months after the café siege, and has overseen counter-terrorism operations across the country. Authorities have clamped-down hard and have received much praise for their actions.
However, a number of small-scale suicide bombings earlier this year reignited fears and indicated a possible shift in tactics away from the knife attacks witnessed in the past, towards more sophisticated and well-planned operations of the nature seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whilst the threat appears to have been contained for now, these developments show there is little room for complacency – especially given that some of the driving factors behind Bangladesh’s surge in terrorism over the last few years remain unresolved.
The initial wave of machete attacks on secular bloggers and foreign citizens came after a period marked by what some analysts describe as a ‘creeping Islamism and sectarianism’ in Bangladeshi society. The rise of religious intolerance was evidenced by two attacks on Shia targets in late-2015. First, a bomb blast targeting a procession outside a Shia shrine left two people dead, before a few weeks later a Shia mosque in Bogra was attacked, killing one person and wounding several others. These attacks on Shia targets – a minority group in Sunni-majority Bangladesh – raised suggestions that some in Bangladesh were becoming increasingly sectarian in mindset.
Longer-term factors have also played a role. Following the country’s 1971 independence war, senior leaders from the Jamaat-e-Islam party were convicted many years later on charges of crimes against humanity, with several of them sentenced to death by hanging. These events have stoked anger and exacerbated tensions in Bangladeshi politics which remain close the surface to this day. The Jamaat-e-Islam party is part of the current opposition alliance to the ruling Awami League, which has been in power since 2009. Divisiveness has been a key feature of the political scene in recent years, which has only worsened as the government has linked the terrorist JMB group to opposition parties.
In this sense, the government’s counter-terrorism campaign must be viewed in the broader domestic political context. The debate over naming perpetrators and ascribing blame following terror attacks has become a heavily politicized issue. Despite numerous claims of responsibility from international terror groups – including for the Dhaka café siege – Sheikh Hasina’s government has continued to deny the presence of ISIS or AQIS within the country’s borders, referring only to the JMB group and domestic political forces looking to ‘destabilize the government’.
This language has facilitated a corresponding crackdown on opposition political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), exacerbating concerns that Hasina’s administration is becoming increasingly authoritarian in its approach to governance. More worryingly, absolving ISIS and AQIS of responsibility allows them to act with impunity – if indeed they are directing attacks within Bangladesh – and establish a firmer foothold under-the-radar.
Whilst launching a crackdown and condemning Islamist terrorism, the government’s approach has also been contradictory. At the same time as appearing to clamp down on terrorist elements, PM Sheikh Hasina has several times in the past warned secular bloggers for criticizing religion, saying ‘I don’t consider such writings as free-thinking but as filthy words. It is not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions’. Some have labelled this as victim-blaming, and say it constitutes a sympathetic attitude towards terrorism, facilitating recruitment and legitimizing extremist ideology. At the very least, many argue that it is an attempt to stifle debate and restrict freedom-of-speech in a country which had been considered relatively open.
Despite these problems, a high-profile attack on the scale of the Dhaka café assault has not been repeated, to a degree validating the government’s strategy and indicating its improved counter-terrorism capabilities. The tide of less-sophisticated lone-wolf attacks has also slowed markedly. However, this type of attack is extremely difficult to guard against as perpetrators make use of easily-obtainable weapons and often have no known links to militant organizations.
When incidents do occur, the government continues to blame local groups such as JMB. And it is true that concrete links between domestic militants and ISIS or AQIS have not been proven, despite claims of responsibility. Yet the politicization of terrorism remains a concern, and a clear distinction must be made between political parties and militant groups unless there is concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.
The government’s denial of ISIS presence in the country raises fears that the violent ideology of transnational jihadist groups is being underestimated. As ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq, it may look to further its recruitment in south Asian countries, including Bangladesh. As we have seen recently in the southern Philippines, local groups can be heavily influenced by such ideology and act upon it, whether concrete links to international groups exist or not.
As a result, the authorities in Bangladesh must remain vigilant and alert. The anti-terror crackdown has undoubtedly made progress, but this alone is not enough. Violent ideology must be countered and criticized, meaning that the space for those who wish to defend secular ideals – as well those who wish to defend various strains of religious thought – must be protected in Bangladesh if violent extremism is to be defeated in the long-run.
A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.