The Islamic State (IS) is expanding its reach around the globe, and its latest focus is on Bangladesh. In the newest edition of its glossy magazine, Dabiq, the head of Islamic State operations in Bangladesh, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, discussed the group’s goals for the country. The group has carried out some small attacks in the country, but it wants to conduct a large attack to boost its credentials among local jihadists and promote the interests of the larger organization. As has been the case elsewhere, however, established jihadist groups in Bangladesh pose a challenge to the Islamic State’s ambitions.
In the interview that appeared in the April 13 edition of Dabiq, al-Hanif listed a range of potential targets, including some the group has already hit in Bangladesh: Christian missionaries, Hindu figures, Shiites and foreigners in general. In a sign of things to come, he indicated that the group intends to also target the military and other radical Islamist groups.
The Potential Impact of Returning Fighters
Reinforcing al-Hanif’s threats, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the gruesome April 23 murder of English professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, who was hacked to death at a bus stop in northwest Bangladesh. It was the first attack in the country claimed by the Islamic State since the latest Dabiq issue debuted but not the first time the group has taken credit for actions there. Since September 2015, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for eight attacks in Bangladesh. In those attacks, which involved blades, small arms or rudimentary explosives (mostly crude black-powder grenades), the group hit specific targets and showed signs of pre-operational surveillance and nascent bombmaking capabilities. The group has not shown itself to have a competent bomb maker at its disposal in Bangladesh, but this could change: Authorities believe at least 30 Bangladeshis are fighting for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Many other foreign fighters who are of Bangladeshi descent are there as well. Were some of these fighters to return home, they could apply what they learned on the battlefield with devastating effect.
Foreign citizens with Bangladeshi backgrounds could also play a role in the evolution of terrorism in the country. Touhidur Rahman, a British citizen, was arrested in Bangladesh in 2015 and charged with funding and organizing a wave of assassinations of secular bloggers. The Ansarullah Bangla Team, a local group loyal to al Qaeda’s branch in the Indian subcontinent, carried out these killings. This pattern of foreign involvement has appeared elsewhere in South Asia. In 2008, David Headley, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin, provided crucial surveillance support for Lashkar-e-Taiba’s attack in Mumbai that killed nearly 170 people. Because foreign sympathizers are the target audience of Dabiq and other Islamic State propaganda, al-Hanif’s comments could have a major influence on the future of terrorism in Bangladesh.
According to al-Hanif, Bangladesh is strategically important for several reasons. It provides a location from which to expand future operations into eastern India and Myanmar. In the southwestern Myanmar state of Rakhine is a humanitarian crisis surrounding the Muslim Rohingya minority group that has been largely unexploited by transnational jihadist movements. The Islamic State may see it as fertile recruiting ground. Moreover, Bangladesh is one of the largest suppliers of military troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions, many of which are happening in Muslim-majority countries. Though Bangladeshi troops are rarely involved in overseas combat missions, al-Hanif has tied them into the larger narrative of a crusader army invading and abusing the Muslim world. And Bangladesh has already shown itself to be fertile ground for radical Islamist activity. Many radical groups have carved out niches there, including the Ansarullah Bangla Team and the group that succeeded it in targeting secular bloggers, Ansar al-Islam. Jamaat-e-Islami, the militant group that until recently held seats in the Bangladeshi parliament, is also well established. For the Islamic State, followers of these groups represent a vast pool of potential recruits.
But the presence of long-established radical groups also presents a challenge to the Islamic State. It is important to remember that the group devotes as much attention to attacking Muslims it considers apostates as it does to attacking non-Muslim targets. In his interview, al-Hanif criticized other ideologically similar groups in Bangladesh, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, for not being radical enough. This is an approach the Islamic State often takes. Clearly, the group views other jihadist outfits already operating in Bangladesh as rivals rather than allies.
Though it will not be easy for the Islamic State to become the country’s top jihadist group, there are methods it could use to do so. In West Africa, Indonesia and the Philippines, the group has expanded its reach by persuading established terrorist groups, or factions of groups, to pledge allegiance to it in return for materiel and logistical support. There are signs that this process is already underway in Bangladesh. For one, Islamic State-linked attacks in Bangladesh bear a striking operational similarity to previous jihadist assaults there, suggesting that the group has partnered with terrorists already operating in the country. Reports have also tied the Islamic State to members of Jamaat al Mujahideen, a Bangladeshi militant group that recently resurfaced after lying dormant for years.
Nevertheless, the Islamic State’s expansion will not come easy in Bangladesh, where jihadist groups have a long history of infighting. In fact, the second-most common target of terrorist attacks in Bangladesh is other extremist groups.
The biggest impediments to the Islamic State’s expansion in Bangladesh will be al Qaeda’s branch in the Indian subcontinent and its allies. The two groups are already struggling in Iraq and Syria for leadership of the global radical Islamist movement, and this will create another front. Al Qaeda has a head start in Bangladesh, especially in the capital, Dhaka, thanks to leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In 2014, al-Zawahiri outlined the same plan al-Hanif is laying out now: to use Bangladesh as a point from which to expand into India and Myanmar. Al Qaeda also has a number of local allies with which the Islamic State will have to contend. Police have largely dismantled the Ansarullah Bangla Team, but its successor, Ansar al-Islam, took credit for the April 6 murder of a blogger.
And there are other groups that have been in Bangladesh even longer, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, and they have no intention of losing their support bases to the Islamic State. Jamaat-e-Islami has refrained from attacks in recent years to focus on making political gains, but lawmakers have increasingly ostracized its members. Frustrated, it may focus on committing terrorist attacks, posing a further challenge to the Islamic State’s plans for control.
To fight back, the Islamic State will resort to large, spectacular attacks against foreign targets in Bangladesh to woo local jihadists to its camp. Recruiting experienced bombmakers and operational planners from abroad would go a long way in helping it do so.
In Bangladesh, a major production hub in the international textiles trade, there is no shortage of foreign targets. The Islamic State has already proved it can operate in Dhaka, where it assassinated an Italian aid worker in the city’s diplomatic enclave in September 2015. For any of the groups, a replication of the January attack in Jakarta, Indonesia, claimed by the Islamic State — which featured an armed assault and crude bombs — could be enough to capture the vanguard of jihad in the country. Though the poorly prepared attack paled in comparison to previous assaults in Indonesia, a similar operation would be much more significant in Bangladesh, where an attack of that nature would still represent an escalation in terrorist activity. Any of the previously mentioned terrorist groups could carry out an attack of similar magnitude; the addition of experienced homegrown or foreign militants, however, could dramatically increase the damage.
Al-Hanif’s promise to expand Islamic State operations in Bangladesh should be taken seriously, especially his vow to take on rival extremist groups. If provoked, al Qaeda and other groups already operating there will retaliate, dramatically raising the threat of terrorist activity in the country. The Dabiq interview is exactly the kind of back-page news that could develop into front-page headlines if the threat is overlooked.