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The Struggle Over Bangladesh's Future

Interviewee: Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
Interviewer: Eleanor Albert, Online Writer/Editor
July 25, 2016

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On July 1, militants attacked a restaurant in one of the Bangladeshi capital's affluent neighborhoods, taking dozens hostage. Twenty-nine people died, including the five gunmen and eighteen foreign victims. This incident was the most deadly in a recent rise in violence linked to Islamist extremists and occurs amid a polarizing political debate over Bangladesh's identity and what the role of Islam should be, says CFR senior fellow Alyssa Ayres says. "The July 1 attack suddenly pitches Bangladesh into the larger battleground of international terrorism," Ayres says, emphasizing the decision of the militants to affiliate themselves with a global terrorist movement at the time of the attack. "The Islamic State dimension comes on top of an already tense political climate," she says.

People attend a candle light vigil for the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O'Kitchen Restaurant, Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 3, 2016. (Photo: Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

There has been a recent rise in extremist violence in Bangladesh. Why?

The rise of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh has been noticeable in the last year and a half. But the July 1 attack was different because of the overt desire by those terrorists to affiliate themselves with global terrorism as the attack was unfolding. Prior attacks in Bangladesh were harder to link explicitly to international groups. Though responsibility was sometimes claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, these claims were widely disputed in Bangladesh, where the government tended to blame domestic groups. The July attack was different, not only in terms of scale but also in terms of communication. Islamic State-affiliated media tweeted scenes from the attack as it was underway, and later posted photos of the attackers with an [Islamic State] flag, making it hard to deny a connection. The July 1 attack suddenly pitches Bangladesh into the larger battleground of international terrorism.

"The rise in Islamist extremism in Bangladesh highlights a fraught political debate in that country about what its future should be."

In addition, the rise in Islamist extremism in Bangladesh highlights a fraught political debate in that country about what its future should be. There is a schism between those who want a secular, liberal future for their country and their opponents. At the founding of Bangladesh in 1971, marked by the liberation of Bengalis from subordination by then-West Pakistan, one of the principles of its first constitution was secularism. Yet there are many, particularly among the Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious organization that used to be recognized as a political party and an ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who would rather see the country be more overtly Islamist. This schism has led to violence—from street protests and to the increasingly frequent targeted assassinations of atheists, religious minorities, and foreigners over the last year and a half. The July 1 attack widens this national, ideological schism to an entirely new degree.

Is there an event that marked the beginning of this new spate of violence?

Over the past three years there has been a growing face-off between secularists and Islamists. The current Bangladeshi government is led by the secular, liberal Awami League and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who was voted into office in 2008 and reelected in 2014. The ruling party ran on an election platform in 2008 with the promise to set up a war crimes tribunal to prosecute those accused of gross human rights violations in 1971 during Bangladesh's war for independence.

In early 2013 Bangladesh's war crimes trial handed down its first verdicts sentencing individuals for war crimes. The second verdict sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, the assistant secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami, to life in prison on charges on five counts of crimes against humanity. [Editor's note: The Bangladesh Supreme Court later changed Abdul Quader Mollah's sentence from life imprisonment to the death penalty; in December 2013, he was the first person tried by the country's war crimes tribunal to be executed.]

In response to the life sentence delivered to Mollah, secular, liberal youth started occupying Shahbag Square in Dhaka, demanding the death penalty for Mollah and others being tried for war crimes. They occupied the square for a month and a half, leading all-night vigils and bringing up the spirit of Bangladesh's independence struggle. The war crimes tribunal is about who fought for the country and who fought against it. The Shahbag movement brought these issues to the fore.

"The Islamic State dimension comes on top of an already tense political climate."

The first targeted assassination of a blogger came on February 15, 2013, with the hacking to death of Ahmed Rajib Haider, a noted blogger and Shahbag activist. Then in April 2013, an Islamist group, Hefazat-e-Islam, which means protection of Islam, launched what they called a long march from the southern port city of Chittagong to the capital of Dhaka. Violent clashes erupted along the way as around one hundred thousand people joined the march. Hefazat-e-Islam released a set of thirteen demands in response to the Shabhag movement, including calls to end candlelight vigils in the public square and no mixing of men and women. The Hefazat members, in their demands, made public the idea that "atheist bloggers" were a bad lot who needed to be punished.

The violence in Bangladesh is caught up in these domestic politics. The clashing of secular and Islamist-leaning domestic sides that do not see eye-to-eye became much more violent in 2015 with an uptick in targeted assassinations. The Islamic State dimension is an addition on top of an already tense political climate.

What is Bangladesh's experience dealing with radical extremism and sectarian violence?

Bangladesh has a terrorism problem, but it also has a fairly successful record fighting this problem. My best guess is that the main reason Sheikh Hasina and her government refuse to concede that there is any influence of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda or from any other external force is because they see themselves as valiantly fighting against the scourge of terrorism—and admitting the presence of international terrorists would be like admitting defeat on this central effort. People were worried about terrorism in Bangladesh in the mid-2000s, especially fears about the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and their capabilities. In August 2005, the JMB coordinated a series of nearly five hundred synchronized explosions in every district in the country. These explosions demonstrated a national capability for terrorism.

What followed was a crackdown on whatever was seen as an enabling environment that had allowed terrorism to emerge in the mid-2000s. In addition to the homegrown JMB, some terrorist groups also focused their efforts on separatism in parts of India's northeast. The Awami League government pushed them out, refusing to allow them to take haven in Bangladesh's northern hilly areas. From 2008 forward, the Bangladeshis were making a strong effort to fight terror and had accomplished quite a bit.

Does the tense political climate between the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh National Party limit the current government's ability to address violent extremism?

The government is walking a tight rope. On the one hand, it wants to preserve Bangladesh's tradition of secularism and cultural pride. At the same time, it is caught up in a fight with the opposition that impedes national unity and a singular focus against terrorism. Instead of fighting one ideological battle successfully, the Bangladeshi government has several on its hands at the same time.

"The tragedy is that having done many things right, [Bangladesh] is still struggling with the problem of extremism."

The government has every right to seek accountability for the past. In situations of horror, the pursuit of truth, accountability, and reconciliation is important for a country. Many called the violence of 1971 a genocide. But some people view the war crimes tribunal not as a search for accountability, but rather as a politically motivated targeting of the opposition—people who did not want the creation of Bangladesh as a country.  

Regardless, the standoff definitely affects the government's counter-extremism efforts. You have a context of very contentious political polarization that terrorists have exploited and used for their own grievances.

To what extent is there an influence of the Islamic State in Bangladesh and are there concerns about the group gaining a foothold in the country?

Nobody knows for certain the extent of the Islamic State’s influence in Bangladesh, but at the very least the Holey Artisan [bakery] attack shows that it has attracted support among a section of educated Bangladeshi Muslims. Four of the five attackers in Dhaka were from educated, wealthier families, and only one appears to have been madrassa-educated and come from a less privileged background.

In the last year, the Islamic State in some of its propaganda literature has talked about its presence [in Bangladesh]. After the Islamic State claimed the assassinations of Italian and Japanese aid workers in separate incidents last fall, people were alarmed. Still, I don't think there was a sense that Bangladeshis were traveling to Iraq and Syria en masse to get training and come back and plot attacks.

There is additional information now about the men who carried out the Holey Artisan attack. They had been missing since February. The government is now appealing to parents to let them know if their children are missing so that the authorities can investigate. Where did these young men go? Did they go to Iraq or Syria? They could have just as easily gone underground and been trained somewhere in Bangladesh.

How should the Bangladeshi government and its partners tackle this rise of radicalism?

In many ways, the tragedy of this situation is that despite Bangladesh's many problems, such as high levels of poverty, it has actually done many things right to help prevent terrorism.

If you compare Bangladesh to Pakistan, a fair comparison because they were one country until 1971, you would find that Bangladesh has higher human development indicators on almost every count, except for per capita income. They have delivered a lot to their citizens, all while being poor.

Women have a higher participation rate in the workforce. The government has focused on economic development and in particular the growth of its ready-made garments sector. Though Bangladesh has problems with workforce safety concerns, it has also created jobs that have helped people transition out of working in penury and poverty and into better remuneration in the workforce. It has invested in health and education. It is making the right investments in human capital. The tragedy is that having done all these things right, it is still struggling with the problem of extremism.

Over the years Bangladesh has tried to fight the problem of extremism, but the latest attacks show that it hasn’t been enough. After the Dhaka attack, the country has woken up and realizes that it has to deal with countering violent extremism more effectively. Independently, there are other issues in the country with a crackdown on the press and a squeezing out of civil society and public debate. Have these issues aggravated the problem of growing extremism? Probably. Does it precipitate it? Maybe not. The challenge is to sort through the varying and overlapping strands and think of what should change.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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