Bangladesh reluctantly combats extremism
THE taking of hostages by gun men in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter is the latest in a string of attacks that have sparked international alarm and prompted the United States and Bangladesh to promise more cooperation against violent extremism in the Muslim-majority nation. But the two governments still tiptoe around the divisive issue of whether transnational terror groups like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) group are involved in the mounting bloodshed, which has included a wave of killings of liberals, foreigners, and religious minorities.
The identities of the attackers in Dhaka on Friday were not known, but ISIS claimed its fighters carried out the assault, issuing a statement through its media arm, Amaq, that was reported by the monitoring group SITE. ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates have claimed responsibility for many of the previous attacks, typically by smaller groups of machete-wielding assailants, that have claimed nearly two dozen lives since 2013. The frequency of at- tacks has increased in recent months.
The violence has stoked fears over the rise of radicalism in the traditionally moderate country and cast a shadow over the achievements of its 160 million people in economic development and fighting poverty. In Bangladesh, at times considered a bulwark against religious extremism, “the trend suggests an almost gang-like campaign by rival Islamist extremist groups to attract supporters by outdoing each other in violently defending their views of Islam,” as The Christian Science Monitor reported in April:
Moreover, the rash of often public executions, most of which have gone unsolved, raises fresh concerns that Islamist extremism might find a growing niche in the Muslim-majority country known widely for a multiparty democracy, progressive advances in poverty reduction, and microfinance. Bangladesh’s government has blamed domestic groups aligned with political opposition parties, and maintains that groups like ISIS and al-Qaida have no presence in the country. Critics contend that stance in part reflects the country’s deeply polarised politics and the government’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
The United States, a key aid donor and export market for Bangladesh, has voiced growing concern over the violence, particularly after a former US Embassy employee and gay rights activist was killed in April. The killing was claimed by Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladesh division of al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent. Bangladesh’s response to the violence was top of the agenda at annual high-level talks in Washington last week. The two sides shared the view that violent extremism is a global problem, and looked at ways they could improve cooperation through intelligence-sharing and programs to combat radicalisation.
But Marcia Bernicat, the US ambassador to Bangladesh, said after the talks that they did not delve into what kind of reach that groups like ISIS may have inside Bangladesh. She said Bangladeshi officials steadfastly deny that ISIS or al-Qaida is in the country, but she thinks officials recognize the influence of those groups through social media is a danger that they have to address. Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Mohammad Shahidul Haque said the FBI is currently based in Bangladesh providing support in iden- tifying people who are in danger of turning radical. He said Bangladeshi authorities have made arrests and initiated legal cases in dozens of terrorist and extremist attacks.
But the question of who is behind the attacks remains a sensitive one. The government has accused local terrorists and opposition political parties — especially the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Islamist ally Jamaati-Islami — of orchestrating the violence in order to destabilize the nation, which both parties deny. But speaking after the talks in Washington, Haque said: “The government is not blaming anyone. The government is trying to find out who is really involved in this.”
Analysts contend that the shrinking democratic space in Bangladesh could be creating conditions for more extremism and pre-occupying over-stretched law enforcers. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has tightened her control after easily winning 2014 elections that the opposition parties boycotted, alleging unfair conditions. — Courtesy: The Christian Science Monitor