An al Qaeda affiliate has claimed responsibility for the brutal murders of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two openly gay rights activists in Bangladesh. A Twitter account associated with Ansar al Islam said its members killed the two men because they were "pioneers of practicing and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh."
The two men were at Mannan's apartment building in Dhaka, the country's capital, when a group of men came to the building's door, purporting to be courier service personnel. After Mannan let them in, the men hacked them to death and seriously wounded the building's security guard.
Mannan was an editor of Bangladesh's first and only LGBT publication, Roopbaan, named for a Bengali folk character who symbolizes love and equality. He helped organize the annual "rainbow rally" in Dhaka, which is usually held on April 14. This year, authorities cancelled the rally, citing "security concerns."
Mannan also worked for USAID, the American government agency that manages humanitarian assistance abroad and foreign aid. Mannan's murder is troubling for those who assumed his status as a government worker would protect him.
"There's a complete state of shock," a security analyst who knew Mannan personally told Reuters. "People are really scared." The analyst added that the killing was having a such a serious impact on people that some were even considering moving abroad, concerned that Bangladesh was no longer safe.
Marcia Bernicat, the US Ambassador to Bangladesh, wrote in a statement that she was "devastated" by the murder of Mannan. "Xulhaz was more than a colleague to those of us fortunate to work with him at the US Embassy. He was a dear friend," Bernicat said. "We abhor this senseless act of violence and urge the Government of Bangladesh in the strongest terms to apprehend the criminals behind these murders."
A Mannan's funeral on Tuesday, his brother stressed that free speech was a right that Islam should always seek to protect.
"A true Muslim will always consider that he has freedom of expression," Minhaz Mannan Emon said. "We should respect that opinion … Particularly I, on behalf of the family, hope that no other family loses their child or brother like us in the future."
Mannan had written about his experiences as a gay man in Bangladesh, where homosexuality is illegal. According to ABC, Mannan wrote in a 2014 blog that Bangladesh was "a county where the predominant religions say you are a sinner, the law of the land says you are a criminal, the social norms say you are a pervert, the culture considers you are imported."
Roopbaan was not officially allowed to publish in Bangladesh. "It was a publication mainly for the community and was not sold for outsiders," a supporter of the publication told Reuters. Another added, "We don't know when the next edition will be published – all of us are saddened and devastated."
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. Over the weekend, Rezaul Karim Siddique, 58, a Bangladeshi English professor was hacked to death in northwestern Bangladesh, supposedly for his "atheism.". The Islamic State claimed responsibility for Siddique's death.
Earlier this month, Nazimuddin Samad, 28, a so-called "atheist blogger" who condemned religious fanaticism, was murdered near Jagannath University, where he studied law.
Bengali authorities have consistently dismissed statements by either IS or al Qaeda affiliates claiming responsibility for attacks on Bangladesh soil, and have repeatedly stressed that neither terror group has organizational bases in Bangladesh.
For example, after IS claimed the murders of two foreign nationals in Bangladesh last year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ruled out the possibility that IS was active in Bangladesh. "Until now, IS or global terror groups like it have not been able to operate in Bangladesh," Hasina said. "Our intelligence agencies are active… we will not allow any such activities in Bangladesh."
After news broke of Mannan and Tonoy's deaths, Hasina promised to hunt down and prosecute those responsible, according to Al Jazeera.
She has pointed a finger at the country's opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and its allegedly "allied armed groups".
"The BNP-Jamaat nexus has been engaged in such secret and heinous murders in various forms to destabilize the country," Hasina said, referring to the outlawed, fundamentalist group, Jamaat-e-Islami. "Such killings are being staged in a planned way."
The BNP described Hasina's accusations as "ridiculous and unfortunate."
"How can the government come to the conclusion without any proper investigation?" the BNP's secretary general told Al Jazeera.
Western security experts 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.
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."
Reuters contributed to this report.