The deadly Dhaka café siege that occurred earlier this month has justified the anxiety that many have been feeling over the waves of attacks that have been sweeping across Bangladesh as of late. The country has seen a rising tide of violence against both foreigners and locals, from bloggers to atheists and religious minorities. These attacks, most of them low-tech and involving small groups of militants, reached new heights when a group of gunmen, who were armed with sufficient automatic weapons and grenades, stormed a popular café on July 1st, ultimately killing 20 civilians and two policemen. Possibly the most concerning aspect of the tragedy: few were surprised by it.
According to the Guardian, Western intelligence has been nervous about a major operation in Bangladesh for at least 18 months, putting increasing pressure on Dhaka to move efficiently against the militant networks causing increasing levels of havoc. There has been widespread apprehensions about the potential for extremist Islamic terrorism to take root in the Muslim-majority country, with endless political strife and economic exclusion fostering conditions of discontent and disillusion. Both the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda have been targeting Bangladesh as an area of potential expansion. As with elsewhere in the Islamic world, the development Bangladesh has experienced has not ended the threat of radicalism, with those least equipped to thrive in the new economic order facing the risk of being targeted by extremist recruiters – successfully.
However, as these networks continue to attack anyone deemed to be an enemy of extremist Islam, little has been done to quell the violence. Instead, the government of Hasina Sheik has looked to maneuver the situation to gain political advantage. From blaming the political opposition to denying outright the existence of links between organizations such as IS and al-Qaeda, and Bangladeshi militant networks, despite their claims of responsibility for successive killings. Indeed, true to this narrative, IS claimed responsibility for the Dhaka siege, posting photos online via Amaq, it’s propaganda agency, whilst a senior minister insisted the jihadists were members of a homegrown militant outfit. “They are members of Jamaeytul Mujahadeen Bangladesh,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said, “they have no connections with the Islamic State.”
This leaves the question of whether Bangladesh will be able to adequately respond to the rising levels of violence it faces. Sitting in a pivotal position between the Asia Pacific and South Asia, the threat of increasing extremist activity is a local, regional, and international security concern.
The Dhaka siege makes it more difficult for both local authorities and international observers to remain idle against the rising violence, despite the continuation of a rhetoric that downplays this threat.
There has been significant US and UK involvement with Bangladeshi security services, with the controversial Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) receiving some aid. However, the RAB is synonymous with systematic human rights abuses. Furthermore, a teenager, who was accused of being involved in the Dhaka siege, died in custody this week with his family vehemently insisting he was just a hostage, and human rights advocates have alleged torture by security forces. Whether these allegations are true or not, the capacity of security services in Bangladesh to deal with militant activity effectively remains shaky, at best.
The warning signs for the Dhaka siege were clear. For as long as Bangladesh is unable to provide space for political dissent and pluralism, for as long as it fails to coordinate a strong and assured response to rising radicalism, people would be wise to fear similar attacks in the future. Denying the existence of this threat will make it no less real.