News continues to emerge about the terrorist threat in Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim country of 160 million, and it is alarming for two reasons: one, the apparent international dimension, more significant than previously imagined, and two, the profile of the terrorists themselves.
Ever since the pace of targeted assassinations began a slow crescendo in 2015, with the murders of foreign aid workers last fall claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), the Bangladeshi government has continually denied that IS has a toehold in the country. With the July 1 siege of the Holey Artisan bakery café—in the heart of one of Dhaka’s best-protected neighborhoods—IS-linked media released images of the attack in real time, almost serving as a broadcast link for the terrorists. IS-linked media later released photos of the Bangladeshi attackers posing, smiling before IS flags, in the hours before they began their assault. Whether the terrorists had direction from IS leaders in Iraq or Syria, or whether they self-affiliated to adopt a global jihad persona for whatever reason, the linkage has been made.
But the Bangladesh government continues to focus on terrorism as a domestic problem. Bangladesh certainly has homegrown terrorist groups to worry about, such as the Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) or the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), but there’s no reason these groups cannot be both Bangladeshi and establish ties with global jihadists at the same time. The JMB is widely seen as an IS affiliate, and the ABT as having al Qaeda links. Indeed, international reporting continues to uncover links to global terrorism that should give the Bangladeshi government pause.
The latest expose from the New York Times’s terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi detailed a secretive cell within IS that focused on developing “a global network of killers” for the group’s jihad in a few select countries, including, unfortunately Bangladesh. It is a chilling must-read. The former IS operative interviewed described a purposeful strategy to prepare “a global portfolio of terrorists…to fill holes in their international network,” and most jarringly, recalled efforts “to build an infrastructure in Bangladesh.” It appears they have made quite a start.
The second alarming aspect of recent terrorism in Bangladesh concerns the profiles of the terrorists themselves. All but one of the Holey Artisan attackers, as was well-documented shortly after the siege, turned out to be from privileged backgrounds and had attended college. One had studied in Malaysia. Following the attack, Bangladeshi police announced their interest in a suspect missing from his professorship in Japan; the Bangladesh-born professor had first studied and then taught business in Kyoto, but had been missing in January, and might have been a facilitator for international terrorist groups.
At the end of July, a raid on a hideout in Dhaka resulted in the death of nine suspected terrorists—including a young U.S. citizen, who had been pursuing an MBA at Dhaka’s North South University. On July 30, the Bangladeshi police named a Bangladeshi-Canadian as the “mastermind” of the Dhaka attack. Newspaper reports have described this suspect as a JMB member and an IS member, or the link between both.
On August 4, Bangladeshi authorities announced that they had arrested two men, one a UK citizen, and the other a Bangladeshi citizen who was studying at the University of Toronto, on suspicion of involvement in the July 1 attack. (The two had been taken hostage in the Holey Artisan siege, but following the release of the hostages by police, had remained missing. With the news of their arrest, it seemed likely that they had been in detention all this time—a concern human rights groups have raised.)
Putting this all together, these twin strands suggest that much more investigative focus should be placed on the international ties to terror in Bangladesh, both to better understand how global influences link back to Bangladeshi groups, but also to try to disrupt networks as and where they form. Compared to many other troubled countries, Bangladesh had done a fairly successful job fighting terrorism over the past decade. But as events of the past two years illustrate, the nature of the challenge has shifted.
Bangladesh has been such a promising country, one that just six years ago was touted by investment banks as a “next emerging market” or a “next 11” given its growth rates and positive development achievements. It would be a tragedy to see that potential squandered.