Bangladesh: Islamic State Province or Battlefield of Words?


Matteo Besana, ICCT

5 Oct 2016

When the Islamic State (IS) released its first video “made in Bangladesh” in September this year, observers argued that it constituted one more piece of evidence proving IS’ increasing foothold and the rising influence of transnational jihadism in the country. To be sure, the polished video material disseminated by IS’ “Bilad al-Bengal media office” and new IS nasheeds in Bangla are reminiscent of the propaganda material we know from other jihadist theatres. Yet, the Bangladeshi government still squarely refuses to acknowledge the organisation’s presence in the country, instead blaming local groups for recent attacks. While this may just be another case of injured pride and refusal to acknowledge the facts, it is worth considering why realities on the ground may not be as clear-cut as they seem.


Being both a secular democracy and a Muslim-majority country, Bangladesh has often been cited as a success story in a volatile region. Unlike Pakistan or India, the country has received only scant attention from scholars of security studies, despite strong popular support for political Islamism and a history of Islamist violence. However, Bangladesh became the centre of media interest when a series of terror attacks that had intensified during the last two years culminated in July 2016, with gunmen storming and laying siege to the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, killing 22 people, including nine Italians, seven Japanese, an American and an Indian. Amaq, an IS-affiliated news outlet, quickly claimed IS responsibility for the attack and distributed images of the foreign victims while the siege was still going on.


Analysing terrorist attacks in Bangladesh of the past two years, a shift in the targets and modus operandi can be seen: initial attacks largely targeted secular bloggers in gruesome but unsophisticated attacks, in which most of the victims were hacked to death. However, as the attacks continued, the targets widened to include members of religious minorities and foreigners, and the attacks themselves developed into more complex operations using guns and explosives.


Pointing to the Islamist nature of recent attacks, observers and the media have pronounced an increasing influence of IS in the country. This conclusion seems to be supported by the claims of responsibility on the part of IS, or local organisations who claim an affiliation with IS, for many of the recent attacks. However, it may be unwise to jump to conclusions when gauging the extent of IS’ foothold in the region, as different actors spread competing narratives about ownership of the attacks in order to further their own political goals.


Firstly, local Islamist extremist groups, which have been present in the country well before IS and al Qaeda, and which have been through periods of hibernation and re-emergence, may be trying to re-brand themselves under the banner of transnational Islamist terrorism. Groups such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team and its successor Ansar al-Islam (both allies of AQIS) and Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB, which has pledged allegiance to IS) may claim affiliation as a strategic choice to gain relevance, jumping on the bandwagon of transnational Islamist terrorism to up their game. However, the extent of operational support that is actually behind these claims remains unclear and does not necessarily point to a further extension of an emerging transnational threat.


Secondly, claiming attacks is also beneficial from the vantage point of transnational terrorist organisations, such as IS and al Qaeda, which want to spread an image of global expansion, especially at a time of declining influence in the Syrian/Iraqi theatre. While IS is thought to have some presence in the country, the extent of that presence remains unclear and exaggerating its influence in the region would presumably be in the organisation’s strategic interest.


Thirdly, and conversely, the Bangladeshi government is trying to downplay the foothold of transnational terrorism in the country by refusing to acknowledge the presence of IS or al Qaeda, preferring instead to attribute the attacks to local extremist groups which, as they claim, are close to the political opposition. Bangladesh has been experiencing deep political polarisation since the Awami League party took power in 2008 and adopted a ”winner takes all approach” through, for instance, depriving opposition political parties of their top leadership by prosecuting them for war crimes committed during the 1971 War of Independence. Hence, framing the attacks as a domestic problem can be a means for the government to discredit political opponents while simultaneously conveying the image that Bangladesh remains safe from transnational terrorism.


In this battlefield of words, sober analysis is needed to gain a clear and accurate picture of the threat level that transnational Islamism poses to the country. Subscribing to either narrative without considering the others, risks over- or underestimating the actual threat and may therefore lead to a flawed policy response.


Matteo Besana is an All-Round Intern at ICCT. Before joining ICCT, Matteo studied Journalism at the University of the Arts in London.