Is ‘Islamic State’ operating in Bangladesh?

After the recent murders of two foreigners in Bangladesh, the question arises as to whether “Islamic State” is operating in the country. The evidence points in one direction, the government in another.

Japanese businessman Kunio Hoshi was killed in Bangladesh on October 3, 2015.

Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella was walking down a street in one of the diplomatic zones in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, when he was shot from behind. The three unknown assailants Koni Murderfled the high security area on a motorcycle. The incident took place on the evening of September 28, 2015, two days after the Australian cricket team delayed its visit to the country due to increased security concerns.

Another foreigner, Japanese businessman Kunio Hoshi, was killed in a similar attack in the north of the country on October 3, 2015. He had been living there for more than a year and was a popular figure among locals.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has ruled out any presence of the ‘Islamic State’ in Bangladesh

‘Islamic State’ claims responsibility

The so-called Islamic State (IS) international terrorist group has reportedly claimed responsibility for both murders. The US-based SITE Intelligence group and Middle East Media Research Institute, both of whom monitor radical Islamic websites, have meanwhile verified these claims.

Western countries took this extremely seriously. Some of them issued travel alerts and security advisories for foreigners living in Bangladesh. Marcia Bernicat, the US ambassador to the country, expressed her country’s willingness to support Dhaka in its fight against terrorism.

“We have everything we need to fight the emergence of ISIL in Bangladesh,” she said last week using another acronym referring to the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the UK embassy in Bangladesh posted the following message on Twitter:

However, neither the police, nor the government of the country was willing to confirm that IS was responsible for the murders. Instead, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blamed her political opponents, claiming they sought through this conspiracy to “tarnish the image” of her government.

Hasina’s son and advisor, Sajeeb Wazed, unsurprisingly echoed the same sentiment. He claimed that BNP and Jamaat, the two parties which form the country’s main political opposition alliance, were behind the attacks.

“They have done this in a desperate attempt to turn foreign governments against our country and destabilize it,” he wrote on his official Facebook page on October 7, 2015.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), immediately rejected the allegations saying that the government was “trying to hide its own failures” by blaming others. At a press conference in Dhaka on October 08, 2015, the party urged the government to create ‘national unity’ with all political parties and citizens to ‘combat militancy.’

‘IS presence proved’

While Sheikh Hasina appears determined not to see any evidence of IS operatives in Bangladesh, local media are full of it.

Nur Khan, a terrorism expert and researcher based in Dhaka, is unequivocal in his analysis of the situation: “The presence of IS in Bangladesh has already been proven. Police and intelligence agencies have taken a good many suspected members of the terror group into custody in the last 18 months. The local media have also published news, information and photographs of their activities.”

“We also know that some Bangladeshis have traveled to Syria to join IS. The police have confirmed this many times in the past,” he continued.

Shahidul Alam Khan, a retired Army Brigadier General and terrorism expert, argues that it is too early for any conclusions about the recent murders of the two foreigners. A proper and thorough police investigation is the top priority, he says.

“It’s clear that these murders were well planned. Even if IS is not involved, its sympathisers are operating in Bangladesh. And ordinary militants are there as well,” he told to DW.

Rita Katz, Director of the SITE group, urged the Bangladesh government not to ignore the claims made by the Islamic State. She claims to have firm evidence that the terror group is operating in the country. She posted a series of tweets on October 09, 2015, describing her standpoint on the issue:

Four secular bloggers and two foreigners have been killed in Bangladesh this year. Islamist groups have claimed responsibilities for those murders. Ali Riaz, an expert on militancy in Bangladesh based at Illinois State University, is worried about the recent killing spree in his home country.

He told the AFP news agency, “these killings are very ominous signs. There is a pattern that these are being carried out by militants, which makes everyone concerned. The future of Bangladesh is at stake because if these killings continue, it’ll have a ripple effect on the country’s political stability and its economy.”

Riaz’s concerns are shared by many in Bangladesh who fear that the so-called Islamic State is stepping up its attempts to establish a foothold amongst Islamist militants in the country.