Police in Bangladesh have arrested a home-grown Islamist militant over the killing of two gay rights campaigners amid a surge in violent attacks against liberal activists and other minorities in the south Asian nation.
Xulhaz Mannan, 35, editor of the first and only LGBT publication, Roopbaan, named for a Bengali folk character who symbolizes love and equality, and fellow activist Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, 25, were killed in an apartment in the capital Dhaka late last month.
Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for Mannan and Tonoy's brutal murders — writing in a statement that their members killed the two men because they were "pioneers of practicing and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh."
Police arrested Shariful Islam, 37, a member of the banned local militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), in connection with the murder. According to Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, ABT is inspired by or affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.
ABT was banned by Bangladesh authorities after the group pulled off a bank heist last year. They were also responsible for some of the murders and attacks on atheist bloggers between 2013 and 2015.
The Bangladeshi government, however, has consistently denied that Islamic State or al-Qaeda have a presence in the country.
Monirul Islam, chief of the counterterrorism unit of Dhaka Police, told a news conference on Sunday that the suspect was arrested in the southwestern district of Kushtia.
The Muslim-majority country of 160 million people has seen a surge in violent attacks over the past year. Free thinkers, writers, activists, bloggers and religious minorities in Bangladesh have been targeted.
IS claimed responsibility for some of the other recent attacks, including the killing of two foreigners late last year. But police insist home-grown militant groups are behind the recent attacks.
Western security experts also doubt that there are any direct operational links between Islamic State, based in the Middle East, and militants operating on the ground in Bangladesh. But they do say that a "call and response" of claims and statements of support for militant attacks through their propaganda channels allows them to create the impression of being in league together.
Last week, eight Bangladeshi men were detained in Singapore for planning attacks in their homeland. The men had allegedly formed an extremist cell, and were sharing radical propaganda and videos. They called themselves the Islamic State in Bangladesh (ISB), according to Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs. Singapore officials said the group had a hierarchical structure with a leader, deputy leader, and people overseeing finances. The ISB had reportedly identified several possible targets in Bangladesh.
Human rights activists urged mainstream politicians in Bangladesh to abandon sectarian hostilities that date back to the 1971 war of independence, and to engage in a constructive dialogue that would deprive Islamist extremists of cover for their attacks.
"The Sheikh Hasina government needs to take an unequivocal stance on issues such as secular thought or gay rights, and ensure that those behind these attacks are properly prosecuted," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"The government seems much more obsessed with cracking down on political opposition than on ensuring that criminals with machetes stop axing down those that don't agree with an extremist view of Islam."
Being gay in Bangladesh is technically illegal.
Reuters contributed to this report