Al Qaeda and ISIS are vying for dominance in Bangladesh
Bangladeshi government denies ISIS operates within the country
Over the weekend ISIS dispelled any doubts that it was behind the terror attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In doing so, the group provided another example of its growing footprint in Asia – and opened up another theater in its contest with al Qaeda.
Both groups have been trying to raise their profile in Bangladesh by taking advantage of growing Islamist militancy there. They have co-opted or affiliated with home-grown jihadist groups. Al Qaeda has formed a branch – al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent - which includes Bangladesh. And elsewhere in Asia, ISIS is trying to establish a growing presence as it comes under pressure in its heartland.
Late Saturday, ISIS released photographs of the alleged attackers and of the scene inside the café before Bangladeshi forces moved in. Photographs posted by ISIS-affiliated media outlet Amaq include gruesome scenes that appear to be from inside the café. The decor matches that of the Holey Artisan Bakery; the victims appear to have died from neck wounds – which is consistent with what Bangladeshi authorities have reported about the scene.
- 21: Hostages killed
- 13: Hostages rescued
- 2: Police officers killed
- 4: Terrorists killed
- 1: Terrorist in custody
- 11: Hours of siege
The photographs of the attackers, smiling and holding their guns, were clearly taken before the assault – suggesting at least co-ordination with ISIS in Iraq or Syria even if not proving direct operational control.
The assault was of a different nature and scale to anything claimed by ISIS in Bangladesh before. In the space of a few hours as many people were killed as had died in terror incidents in Bangladesh in the previous 18 months.
Al Qaeda responds
As if in answer to the ISIS statement, al Qaeda shot back Sunday with its own call to action. A message from the leader of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Asim Umar, was released on Sunday inciting Muslims to kill Hindu police and officials in India.
“Even if you come out carrying merely knives and swords then – history bears witness – Hindus cannot withstand you,” he said in the Urdu-language audio.
AQIS has also begun publishing an online magazine called Resurgence that has called for attacks in Bangladesh, while al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has called on Bangladeshi clerics to lead protests and encourage martyrdom.
Political divide fuels militancy
Bangladesh has seen growing Islamist militancy since 2013, in reaction to a crackdown by the secular government against the main Islamist party – the Jamaat e Islami. Four of its leading figures have been executed for crimes allegedly committed during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.
That militancy has led to the murders of secular bloggers and gay rights activists, as well as Hindu priests, over the past two years. Many of those attacks have been claimed by a group called Ansar al Islam, the Bangladesh part of AQIS.
By comparison, attacks attributed to ISIS sympathizers have targeted foreigners. In late 2015, ISIS claimed that its gunmen – “Soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh” – were behind the murders of an Italian aid worker and Japanese citizen in Bangladesh.
Like those killings, the Dhaka attack appears to have been carried out by Bangladeshis. But it was far more ambitious and ISIS – at some level - appears to have had foreknowledge of the plan. The sole surviving attacker may provide greater detail about that relationship, but equally the assailants may have been foot soldiers, with communication carried out at a higher level.
Government denies ISIS
The evidence of ISIS involvement runs counter to repeated claims by the government that there is no ISIS presence in Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed said in February: “No (ISIS) exists in Bangladesh, but a few home-grown outfits in the name of Islam are conducting terrorist activities.”