Extremist Groups Target Diversity in Bangladesh

Photo: AP Images

The recent attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh where 20 people were brutally murdered finally brought international attention to a disturbing trend in one of the world’s largest Muslim countries. For decades, Bangladesh has suffered from an increasing trend in violent extremism from several groups, both domestic and international. But this latest attack is significant because the bakery was chosen specifically as a way to target a large group of foreigners, and ISIS claimed responsibility for it.

Bangladesh’s battle with violent extremism is as old as the country itself. Since the country’s formation in 1971, it has struggled to maintain a national identity that accommodates Muslim and secular aspects. This has grown increasingly difficult over time – and with the Awami League, the secular party, in control of the government, tensions are at an all-time high.

In the political realm, this identity crisis has led to a dynamic where the two largest political parties—the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which promote secular nationalist ideals and Muslim nationalist ideals respectively—have sought to curry the favor of the largest Islamic party, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJeI) in order to gain a majority and secure short term political gains. The BJeI has a history of connections to organized violence, including the 2013 widespread attacks on Hindus, other minorities, and their property.

Political organization is not the only explanation for the rise of violence. A study by a group of Georgetown University scholars describes three additional historical factors that have led to the mixture of different violent groups in Bangladesh today: the return of Bangladeshi citizens to the country after fighting in the Soviet-Afghan war; the formation of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization—an extremist Muslim group from neighboring Myanmar whose activities have spread to Bangladesh; and Bangladesh’s increasing role as a hub for Pakistan “…to train, hide and dispatch Islamist terror groups into India…” These developments, combined with a government that could not present a united front to extremists, allowed several violent groups to entrench themselves in the country.

In addition to domestic and regional groups, more recently Bangladesh has faced growing influence from international groups, such as ISIS and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). The attacks linked to these groups target not only minority groups but also foreigners. To complicate things further, the two groups appear to be fighting against one another for resources and recruits. Despite ISIS claiming responsibility for the attack in Dhaka and growing evidence of greater presence in the country, the government has not publicly acknowledged the problem.

At the intersection of these violent groups and the society they inhabit, there is a perplexing trend at work. The same study by Fair conducted a survey on socio-economic status and justifications for violent acts with data from 2,000 Bangladeshis. The conclusions from the survey found that, while there was no correlation between increased piety and increased justifications for violence, there was a significant relationship between higher socioeconomic status and increased justification for violence. It is interesting to note that among the attackers on the Holey Bakery, many were enrolled in prestigious schools and were from well-to-do families. This trend suggests that confronting extremism at its roots is not something that can be solved by spending on socio-economic development and increases the complexity of the government’s task.

It is unclear how the government will form an effective solution to what has become a systemic problem. Seth Oldmixon, the founder of Liberty South Asia, told The Cipher Brief that “…improving security capabilities is not enough. The country’s political parties must also abandon the practice of making alliances with religious extremists for short-term political gain and unite behind the country’s founding principles.” Additionally, Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center suggested that the U.S. could play an important role: “Washington, which has long overlooked the growing militant threat in Bangladesh, should boost its counterterrorism cooperation with Dhaka to help support these efforts.” Both experts agree that the ideology underpinning the violence is deep-rooted and will be difficult to confront.

The violent groups in Bangladesh target the country’s historical diversity. The government will need a solution that unites around this diversity rather than allow itself to be splintered by it.

Will Edwards is an international producer at The Cipher Brief.