MILITANCY in Bangladesh is becoming more complicated and deadly. This reality was highlighted once again on July 1, when Islamic State-linked militants stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery, in Gulshan, an upscale district in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, killing 20 restaurant patrons and two senior police officers. After a nearly 12-hour standoff, Bangladeshi troops killed six attackers, freeing 13 hostages and detaining one suspect. The attack, the deadliest in Bangladesh this year, highlights the evolving transnational extremist threat that continues to plague the country and threaten its economy, despite its government’s efforts to quell it.
The men who conducted the attacks—all Bangladeshis in their late teens or early 20s—do not fit the prevailing perception of militants as poor, disaffected and uneducated. Most of them hailed from affluent families and studied at some of the country’s top private universities. In fact, one assailant was the son of a politician in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League. Their wanton act of destruction was thus not driven by material deprivation, a motive often used to explain extremism among young men. The Islamic State claimed responsibility, even posting pictures of the hostage scene on its website to prove its involvement. Considering the jihadist group’s social media-based recruiting prowess, it is hardly surprising that it could attract young, educated and affluent recruits.
The Islamic State’s involvement illustrates its continued success in spreading its influence beyond Syria and Iraq. Besides Dhaka, the Islamic State claimed a rash of attacks ravaging the Muslim world over the past week, including bombings at holy sites in Saudi Arabia. As the US-backed coalition pounds Islamic State strongholds in Raqqa and Fallujah, the group has begun to radiate beyond the reaches of its self-proclaimed caliphate to improve its chances of survival, establishing local affiliates in other countries. That the militant group posted pictures of the hostage scene on its news site indicates coordination with its Bangladeshi affiliate, led by a Bangladeshi-Canadian man named Tamim Chowdhury (known by his nom de guerre, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif).
An intransigent threat
Despite the evidence to the contrary, Hasina forcefully denied that the Islamic State was behind the attack. Instead, her home affairs minister blamed a local extremist group, Jamaat al Mujahideen. The administration’s denial is, in part, a tactic to protect Bangladesh’s reputation among foreign investors, who need reassurance that the world’s most notorious Islamist extremist organization has not taken root there. Bangladesh relies on foreign investment to power its $26 billion garment industry, which accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s exports and includes factories owned by Gap, Inc. and H&M. Already, Japanese retailer Uniqlo has advised its staff in Bangladesh to stay indoors and suspended all but critical travel to the country.
Furthermore, the attack reveals that Hasina has only a tenuous grip on her country’s security. Just last month, after militants killed a police officer’s wife, Hasina ordered her security forces to launch a sweeping nationwide crackdown, which yielded over 18,000 arrests. It was her boldest effort yet to stamp out the intransigent militant threat that has produced some 40 attacks against bloggers, activists and religious minorities in the past three years. The July 1 rampage indicates that Hasina’s campaign against extremism is faltering.
Following the attack, Hasina’s administration tried to shift some blame to Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, alleging that pro-Pakistan elements were responsible. As Hasina continues to centralize power and marginalize opposition parties, the space for legitimate dissent in Bangladesh will remain constricted, giving existing militant groups a narrative of oppression that they can exploit. So far, there has been scant evidence linking the attack to Jamaat-e-Islami, which Hasina’s administration banned in 2013. But the party’s youth wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, has been involved in violence in the past: two members died in a shootout with police on July 1 after hurling homemade bombs at them and, in Nov. 2015, two others were arrested in connection with the murder of a blogger.
Extremist competition in Bangladesh
In the wake of the Dhaka attack, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent leader Asim Umar urged Muslims in India to wage lone-wolf attacks against Hindus. Umar’s call suggests that the rivalry between al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and the Islamic State in South Asia may be escalating. Al Qaeda’s Bangladeshi affiliate, Ansar al-Islam, boasts some 200 members under the leadership of a retired army officer. Meanwhile, though Hasina’s targeted campaign has largely marginalized Jamaat al Mujahideen (undermining the government’s accusation that the militant group sponsored the recent attacks), Chowdhury’s Islamic State franchise has emerged as a successor.
Chowdhury’s organization is said to have a connection with a militant faction of Islami Chhatra Shibir, the youth wing. In addition, some of the 25 or so Bangladeshis who have returned from fighting in Syria are members of Chowdhury’s cadre, offering one explanation for the spread of Islamic State ideology in Bangladesh. Furthermore, Chowdhury’s organization attracts well-educated, affluent professionals—including doctors, architects and engineers—much like the perpetrators of the recent attack.
Compared with previous attacks, the July 1 incident marks an escalation in carnage. But it is simply another link in a chain of extremist incidents that will continue to rattle Bangladesh as the country tries to combat extremism while sliding into authoritarianism.
© 2016, STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE