During his visit to Dhaka on Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that elements of the dreaded Islamic State are “connected” to operatives in Bangladesh. Kerry’s blunt assertions come in the wake of a shocking attack earlier last month on a café in Dhaka, in which 22 people were killed—mostly non-Muslims and foreigners. This directly contradicts the narrative of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, which has blamed homegrown terrorists and denied the role of a foreign hand. It is the Islamic State which took responsibility for the Dhaka café attack. The Dhaka cafe incident comes in the wake of a series of atrocities that has included killings of people from sexual and religious minorities, foreigners, and atheist intellectuals. Last month, Bangladesh’s Information Minister Hasanul Huq Inu made the stunning claim that Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had trained up to 8,000 Bangladeshi jihadis in the last two years and sent them back to launch a violent campaign. “They are trying to avenge 1971, they can’t get over it,” the minister said. “First, they hit India at Mumbai, now they hit us here in Dhaka with these homegrown jihadis who they have trained.” Bangladesh’s intelligence community has furnished several details of Pakistan-trained terrorists. Although the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for several of these attacks, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has consistently denied their presence in her country. Both Kerry and Hasina may not be entirely wrong. Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan also claimed last month that there was no direct involvement of the IS in recent attacks. But he acknowledged that homegrown Islamist outfits may be trying to establish links with the dreaded terror group through the social media. With the IS, self-radicalisation is a frightening reality. In the age of the internet, especially with the advent of social media, one does not need to physically motivate misguided youth with radical ideas. Whether the IS has spread its organisational tentacles in the country is up to Bangladesh’s security apparatus to investigate.
Beyond the real security concerns, at stake here is the secular character that many Bangladeshis want to espouse. The country’s war of Independence in 1971 is often used as an anchor for modern-day struggles in Bangladesh to maintain its secular identity. These struggles reached their zenith during the Shahbag protests in 2013 that demanded the death sentence for senior Jamaat-e- Islami leaders accused of numerous war crimes in collusion with the Pakistani forces. The ruling Awami League government has used these struggles to not only prosecute people involved with war crimes but also perpetuate its “secular” credentials. In response to these targeted murders allegedly committed on behalf of the Islamic State, the Bangladesh government had last month arrested thousands of individual suspected of involvement in the slayings of secular activists and religious minorities. “The basic conflict in Bangladesh is between modernism and Islamism,” said Saeed Naqvi, a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. “Bunched together as Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), the Islamists constitute about 30 percent of the country living in an 'Islamic' past, divorced from the magic of its syncretism.” The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, declares itself to be a secular party that is protective of minority Hindus and Buddhists. But analysts contend that her government’s security response has been stymied by a political standoff with the Islamist-leaning and reactionary BNP that boycotted the last general elections. Moreover, the reactionary party is suspected by the government of links to local militant groups, particularly the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh.