Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Dhaka and the growing Islamic State threat

It is establishing a South Asian presence, and that is a worry for India

There is a dispiriting familiarity to the terrorist attack in Dhaka. A well-planned and coordinated attack in an upscale neighbourhood of a major city for maximum impact with the intention of causing mass casualties—this is a script we have seen play out before, in Mumbai and elsewhere. With Islamic State (IS) claiming responsibility—and against the backdrop of the rising tide of extremism in Bangladesh over the past few years—the attack makes the extent of the challenge facing Dhaka—and, by extension—Delhi, apparent.

Bangladeshi home minister Asaduzzaman Khan has refuted IS’s claim, stating that the attack was carried out by members of a home-grown group that has been banned for a decade, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). The government’s stance smacks of obfuscation.

The operational details of the attack are important from a ground-level security perspective. But whether IS had any logistical ties to the attack or not is almost beside the point when it comes to the issue of the group’s growing influence in Bangladesh. About a year ago, IS named Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif—a pseudonym—as its emir in the country. In an interview in the IS house magazine Dabiq earlier this year, al-Hanif spoke of IS drawing recruits in Bangladesh. And Praveen Swami has highlighted the links between IS and the JMB in The Indian Express, with Dabiq praising the JMB late last year and JMB regional commander Shakhawatul Kabir setting up an IS recruitment cell.

The Dhaka attack thus raises two points. The first is the evolution of transnational terrorism and the manner in which it has blurred the lines when it comes to organizational links. Digital avenues of radicalization mean that organizations like IS are brands that disaffected youth—whether lone-wolf attackers as in the Orlando shooting last month or socioeconomic elite as in Dhaka—can aspire to and claim. The contours of IS or Al Qaeda’s presence in a region or involvement in a terrorist strike have thus become less defined. But that does not make their role in propagating and shaping radicalism any less relevant.

The second is the witches’ brew of political patronage and extremism that has rendered Bangladesh vulnerable. Over the past year and a half, more than 30 individuals—members of minority communities and sects of Islam, liberal activists, gay rights advocates—have been assassinated by JMB and the Al Qaeda-backed Ansar-al-Islam.

The government has been far too eager to blame the opposition alliance of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami, denying the involvement of IS and Al Qaeda. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also been alarmingly equivocal in her condemnation of such attacks; she has instead spoken against hurting religious sentiment. This lack of spine creates space for extremism.

The opposition, meanwhile, has blamed the government’s coercive tactics and excesses in the trials pertaining to war crimes committed in the 1971 war for the rise in Islamic militancy. This is a canard. The Awami League’s actions have indeed been troubling at times. But it was under the stewardship of the BNP-Jamaat government in the first half of the last decade that radical Islam was first politicized. The alliance continues to flirt with such elements, weaponizing religion against Hasina’s government.

There are no easy solutions when Bangladesh’s political atmosphere has been so thoroughly vitiated. And that leaves Delhi with a problem on its hands—particularly when al-Hanif has made his intention to use Bangladesh as a base for attacking India clear. Border security and intelligence sharing with Bangladeshi agencies are obvious measures. A Bangladeshi official’s claim that Indian intelligence services had passed on warnings about the risk of an IS strike last month is a positive indicator—but also deeply worrying given that the warning said Bangladeshi extremists were training in India.

The failure of successive administrations to upgrade India’s intelligence architecture in the wake of the 2008 attack is now more of a liability than ever. With IS establishing a presence across the border, there must be movement on this front. And the Narendra Modi government must operate with subtlety; there should be no chest-thumping of the kind that followed the cross-border operation in Myanmar to embarrass the Hasina government.

IS has suffered a string of reverses in its home territory of Iraq and Syria. As it comes under increasing pressure there, its drive to prove its continued potency with strikes elsewhere will increase. Dhaka was a warning shot.

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