Memorial to victims of the July 1 attack in Dhaka. (Photo by Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
After gunmen stormed a cafe in the diplomatic zone of Dhaka and killed 20 people last week, the response of the Bangladeshi government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was a familiar one. Authorities denied that the Islamic State or al Qaeda may be behind the slaughter — and that was despite IS claiming responsibility for Friday's bloodshed.Attacks motivated by religious extremism have not sprouted up overnight in Bangladesh.
At least 40 people, including secular bloggers, scholars, religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country, and gay rights activists have died at the hands of extremists since 2013 — many sliced to death with machetes on bustling streets, in broad daylight.The Dhaka massacre raised the scale of the killing, but does not come from nowhere. Prime minister Hasina's government has helped create an environment that's ripe for extremism, some observers said, and is refusing to see reality. On Wednesday, IS released a new video threatening more attacks in Bangladesh and saying the cafe attack was a "glimpse" of what was to come.According to Ali Riaz, a Bangladeshi political science professor at lllinois State University, the gravity of the Dhaka attack should prompt the government to start fighting the issue at its roots instead of "rehashing the same old story."
"Why are youths being radicalized, and why is Bangladesh in this situation in 2016?" Riaz asked.Created in 1971 following a civil war between liberal secularists who wanted independence from what is now Pakistan, and religious social conservatives who didn't, Bangladesh remains deeply divided. The scars of the bloodshed can still be seen in many aspects of social and political life in the country, now run by the daughter of its founding father.
While radical Muslim militant groups in Bangladesh have quietly existed since the mid-1990s, it's only in the last year and a half that they have gained prominence, according to Riaz, incidentally around the same time as the threat of IS has grown globally.The July 1 attack, aside from its scale, wasn't all that different from those that came before it, Michael Kugelman, the senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Cente, said. Like Riaz, he argues it should serve as a wake-up call for the Bangladeshi government, which has consistently downplayed the threat of extremist violence and terrorism in the country, and handled it with what he calls a "confused and contradictory" policy.Leaders will, on the one hand, deny there's a threat and assure the public there is nothing to worry about, he said, or display the opposite reaction by cracking down "viciously against the political opposition on the pretext of cracking down on terror.""The environment in Bangladeshi society over the last few years has been increasingly receptive to the type of ideology that drives these attacks," said Kugelman, who describes a climate that has been "very enabling of violent extremism."
The government has been widely criticized, for example, for victim-blaming when murdered secular writers are seen to have insulted Islam, with even the prime minister publicly asking why any writing against the religion should be tolerated.
"But, if anyone writes filthy words against our religion, why should we tolerate that?" said Hasina in April, as quoted in Bengali-language newspaper Prothom Alo. "But, I consider such writings as not free thinking but filthy words."The ruling Awami League government, which returned to power in 2014 after a controversial and violent election that was boycotted by both opposition parties, has also routinely blamed attacks on secular writers and religious minorities on local militant groups backed by her political opposition, like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, which the government says is responsible for Friday's attack.
Last month, under pressure to act following a spate of such killings, the government arrested over 11,000 people, 194 of whom police subsequently said may have military ties, while the rest were detained for other types of crimes. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — the opposition party, which tends to represent more conservative views — however, said the raids were designed to lock up its leaders and activists, with 2,100 reportedly arrested. The BNP has allied in the past with Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political party with some hardline factions, in a constant and intense struggle for power among the three parties."In the aftermath of Friday's attack, it appears increasingly difficult to make the argument that these modest local terror groups aren't getting some type of support from more sophisticated groups because the previous attacks were terrible, but they were relatively primitive in terms of how they were done," said Kugelman. "In this case … you have a well-coordinated attack that involved heavily armed men, multiple gunmen, holding dozens of people hostage — you don't see those types of attacks carried out by local groups, or at least local groups acting on their own. They'd need help."
The standoff between hostage-takers and police lasted about 12 hours, ending only when commandos stormed the building to rescue the remaining hostages and killed six suspected attackers (one of those killed by the troops may have been a hostage shot by mistake.) But they were too late to save 20 people who already lay dead on the floor, many of them hacked to death with what police say were "sharp weapons."
IS, through its affiliated Amaq news agency, claimed responsibility for the attack, posting pictures of five grinning young men, holding automatic weapons in front of a black flag, who the organization said were involved and have since been officially confirmed as the suspected gunmen.But Bangladesh's Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan has denied the involvement of IS, repeating the government's position that home-grown militants were behind the attack just as they have been in the past.This is despite the fact that IS often features the country in its propaganda and has claimed to be behind numerous attacks on individuals."If I fix a poster of IS here and stand with a machine gun, will it establish that IS is here?" Khan asked Reuters, responding to a question about the photos of the alleged attackers.
'If I fix a poster of IS here and stand with a machine gun, will it establish that IS is here?'
But even the Awami League's supporters, who brought the party to power on a tough-on-terror platform, are growing increasingly disenchanted by Hasina's handling of the recent violence. Only one person has been brought to trial for the spate of killings and police have allegedly ignored requests for protection from those who believe their lives are at risk.According to Kugelman, the recent violence in Bangladesh, a country with a "well-earned reputation for tolerance and pluralism that has only recently come under threat," is a product of both the broader political climate when it comes to international terrorism, with an increasing propensity for disaffected young people to be seduced by the appeals of extremist violence, and partly, the country's own political turmoil."You have a ruling party that is obsessively concerned with its hold on power and (…) has taken all kinds of nasty measures to sideline dissent," he said."The space for dissent is shrinking, and there are no political opposition parties, so to speak," Riaz agreed.This climate of restrictions "is helpful for the militants to cash in," he said.
A process has also been underway to prosecute those allegedly involved in conspiring with the Pakistani military during Bangladesh's liberation war. Hasina promised to bring those responsible, many of whom are now members, even senior leaders, of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, to justice — but some say it's also served as an impetus for extremism.In 2013, sentences seen as too light provoked mass protests, and then counter protests. And the violence has persisted at every juncture. When Motiur Rahman Nizami, the fourth leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party to be executed since 2013, was hanged in May on charges of genocide, rape, and the massacre of intellectuals during the independence war, clashes erupted between police and activists. The trials were seen by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, as deeply flawed."It tends to be largely members of the JI, including leaders, who have been targeted and executed, and the opposition would certainly consider that a crackdown because it believes the entire war crimes court and legal process is essentially a series of show trials in one big kangaroo court," said Kugelman.For now, Hasina's government has shown no signs of changing its tack on the response to what is undeniably religiously-motivated terrorism, possibly with ties to international networks. "An incident of this magnitude should encourage some introspection," Riaz said, "finding what went wrong and addressing those issues."Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk