The US and a Reemerging ISIS in Bangladesh

People visit a memorial at the former location of Holey Artisan Bakery on the one year anniversary of the cafe attack on July 1, 2017 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. On July 1, 2016 a brutal attack claimed by Islamic State killed 18 foreigners and four Bangladeshis at Holey Artisan Bakery. They then held staff and patrons hostage for 10 hours.
People visit a memorial at the former location of Holey Artisan Bakery on the one year anniversary of the cafe attack on July 1, 2017 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. On July 1, 2016 a brutal attack claimed by Islamic State killed 18 foreigners and four Bangladeshis at Holey Artisan Bakery. They then held staff and patrons hostage for 10 hours. (Photo: Allison Joyce / Getty Images)

With the destruction of the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is increasingly making inroads in Asia. The U.S. State Department recently confirmed this when they designated ISIS Bangladesh and ISIS Philippines as terror organizations.  The questions remain: To what extent is ISIS reemerging in Bangladesh? How complicit is the Bangladeshi government in its growth there? How does this affect the West?

According to the U.S. State Department:

“In August 2014, a group of Bangladeshi nationals pledged allegiance to ISIS. The group launched its operations in September 2015 when gunmen belonging to it shot and killed an Italian aid worker in Dhaka. ISIS has since claimed numerous attacks carried out across the country. In July 2016, the group claimed responsibility for an assault on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka that killed 22 people.”

These were only a few of the attacks carried out by ISIS in Bangladesh. Aside from these, according to CNN, since 2015, ISIS Bangladesh took responsibility for murdering a Japanese man, placing a bomb near a place of worship during a Shiite procession, having gunmen burst into a Shia mosque, murdering Hindu priest Jogeswar Roy, murdering Shia cleric Hafiz Abdul Razik, murdering Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, murdering a Hindu businessman and murdering a Hindu monk.

In fact, an Italian investigative journalism website reports that since 2015, there have been more than 30 terror attacks in Bangladesh and most of them were implemented by ISIS Bangladesh while the rest were carried out by al-Qaeda, noting that over 50 people were killed in these terror attacks.

Given this reality, the State Department asserted that designating groups like ISIS Bangladesh as a terror organization is part of their plan to defeat ISIS globally. Such a recognition actually assists in that aim for it acknowledges that local forces play a pivotal role in spreading ISIS across the globe and due to such measures, the State Departments claims to have made “significant progress toward that goal” of defeating ISIS, the statement added.

This effort “is destroying ISIS in its safe havens, denying its ability to recruit foreign terrorist fighters, stifling its financial resources, negating the false propaganda it disseminates over the internet and social media, and helping to stabilize liberated areas.”

It is of utmost importance to recognize the role played by local forces in the rise of ISIS globally. With the rise of ISIS in Bangladesh, the atmosphere for minorities has worsened within the country for while minorities have faced much persecution throughout the country’s history, the propaganda emanating from ISIS encourages locals to be even more hostile towards minorities and reinforces prejudiced beliefs. The effects of the ISIS propaganda upon Bangladeshi society is best illustrated by the atrocities against minorities in Bangladesh.

Recently, a college student was stabbed during the Hindu Holi festival, a nine-year-old Hindu child was raped, a Hindu was hacked to death and a Hindu family was attacked so that their land could be seized. In addition, political dissident Aslam Chowdhury faced political harassment and repression because of his advocacy for minority rights.

Shipan Kumer Basu, the president of the World Hindu Struggle Committee, emphasized that Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and tribal people in Bangladesh are treated horrendously. According to him, Hindus in particular face murders, rapes, physical assaults, torture, disappearances, land seizures and the desecration of holy sites on a daily basis in Bangladesh.

Although ISIS is not responsible for every case of minority persecution in Bangladesh, Basu believes the fact that the Bangladeshi government denies that ISIS is active within the country while at the same time giving the terror group freedom to operate within the country and then blames the ISIS atrocities on their political opponents contributes to fostering persecution against minorities. This policy enables the ethnic cleansing of minorities from Bangladesh for the dictatorial rule of Sheikh Hasina is maintained via enabling ISIS and encouraging grave human rights abuses against minorities within the country, he argues.

“The ISIS associate together with the Awami League are considered the largest organized political power for Islamic religious, political and social movements in Bangladesh,” Basu noted. “We ask that international human rights organizations and the U.N. support us. We as the minorities of Bangladesh face Muslim attacks simply because we are Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and tribal people. This cannot be tolerated.”

How does this affect us in the West?  

Traditionally, Bangladeshi Islamist groups posed a greater threat to the minority groups as well as liberal secular political activists in their country than they did to us in the West. However, with the emergence of ISIS, that is now changing. Bangladeshi terrorist Akayed Ullah was responsible for the New York Subway Bomb blast that injured 5 people and he was inspired by ISIS.  In Melbourne, Australia, a Bangladeshi female terrorist stabbed a man in his sleep and she was also inspired by ISIS. If ISIS is permitted to continue to operate in Bangladesh, the number of Bangladeshis who wage terror attacks in the West is likely to rise.

But why does ISIS want a base of operations in Bangladesh of all places? ISIS views Bangladesh as a strategic base of operations because of its geographic location. The country is located between Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country that has a significant Muslim population in Rakhine state that is waging an insurgency against the government and India, a Hindu majority country with a significant Muslim minority that is in a struggle with Muslim Pakistan over the Kashmir region. From Bangladesh, ISIS can easily wage terror attacks and assist local Islamist groups in both India and Myanmar.

In addition, because the Hasina government already systematically persecutes the minorities in her country and Sheikh Hasina is in a precarious political situation since the sham elections of 2014 to the point that she arrested the main opposition leader as a means to stay in power, ISIS understands its presence is likely to be tolerated in Bangladesh as a ploy to help the local government. At the same time, because Sheikh Hasina is perceived in the West as a secular leader not connected to ISIS, ISIS bases in Bangladesh are unlikely to be targeted, which allows the organization to plan attacks in the West more at ease. For this reason, Bangladesh is considered to be an ideal place to operate from the perspective of ISIS and thus ISIS in Bangladesh is likely to emerge increasingly as a threat to the West.

 

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Rachel Avraham
Rachel Avraham is a senior media research analyst at the Center for Near East Policy Research. She is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab media.”

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