The roots of the current wave of militancy in Bangladesh go back to the 1990s, Ali Riaz, a professor at the Illinois State University, told me. “It had a direct connection with [the war in] Afghanistan when Bangladeshi volunteers in the conflict came back.” These returnees operated mostly along the borders with Myanmar and India’s northeast; their proliferation within Bangladesh was limited. But that changed.
In 2005 the outlawed Jamaat-ul-Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB) succeeded in detonating nearly 500 bombs in 63 of 64 of Bangladesh’s districts within an hour of one another. The explosions had limited impact, but the experts I spoke to pointed out that the logistics of pulling off an operation like that in a country with more navigable rivers than roads were impressive. “It was a show of force and showed the reach of JMB,” Riaz said.
But the government at the time—led by the Bangladesh National Party,
which was in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), an Islam-rooted party—had denied the existence of the problem, Riaz said. These denials, in addition to moral, and in some cases logistical, support from some elements in the government, allowed JMB to grow, Riaz said.
But in 2006, things changed. The BNP-led government was replaced by a military-backed caretaker government that cracked down on militants. “The government came up with a very robust counterterrorism strategy,” Riaz said. “They went after militants.”
The Awami League, which came to power in 2009, continued that approach. But the fight began to falter around 2012. At that point, according to Riaz, “the government seemed to move resources to chasing political opponents rather than militant groups. Whatever the reason that drove them to this shift … [it] created the space where militant groups started to flourish.”
Within that context, by 2014, the Islamic State was strengthening its ability to attract young people as far from its core territory in the Middle East as Europe, North America, and Asia. Its major rival in South Asia is al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), al-Qaeda’s branch in the region. And it was the Islamic State that claimed responsibility for last Friday’s attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery.
“As of now, what I see is ISIS and AQIS have made inroads into Bangladesh,” Riaz said, adding they are being supported by local groups. Fair said JMB has “essentially repurposed” itself by trying to link itself to ISIS. Indeed, she believes while ISIS and AQIS are definitely present in Bangladesh, it’s highly unlikely ISIS directly planned last Friday’s attack.
She points out that each attacker appears to pose in separate photographs before the attack with the same gun, an AK-22, which is, in essence, a training gun for the AK-47, the weapon of choice for militants the world over. Most victims of the attack were reportedly stabbed to death; and pistols, as well as three AK-22s, were recovered from the scene—not the hallmark, Fair says, of an ISIS-directed attack.