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Here’s What You Need to Know About Growing Extremist Violence in Bangladesh

9 minute read

On April 25, a group of men posing as couriers murdered a Bangladeshi gay-rights activist and his friend at an apartment building in the capital Dhaka. The killing of 35-year-old Xulhaz Mannan, who edited Bangladesh’s first magazine for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people, and his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, a 25-year-old actor, was the latest in a series of attacks by suspected Islamist extremists.

It was the first time the extremists appeared to have targeted an individual because of their sexuality, marking a fresh expansion in a campaign of killings that dates back to 2013, when anti-Islamist street protests centered on a Dhaka intersection known as Shahbag Square shook the South Asian nation. The rallies, which saw tens of thousands of secular activists demand capital sentences for Islamist leaders found guilty of war crimes during the country’s 1971 fight for independence from Pakistan, sparked what initially appeared to be revenge attacks against activists involved in the protests. But the list of targets has since broadened to include members of Bangladesh’s religious minorities and two foreigners — an Italian aid worker and a Japanese man who ran an agricultural project in rural Bangladesh.

At the same time, international concern has grown about the presence in the Muslim-majority country of transnational terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, whose affiliate in the region claimed responsibility for the murder of Mannan. The same affiliate took credit for the murder of a blogger earlier in April, while ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of a 58-year-old academic days before Mannan’s murder.

Here are four things to know about the killings:

1. The first killing occurred in February 2013
Ahmed Rajib Haider, a secular-minded blogger involved in the Shahbag protests, was found murdered in northern Dhaka in early 2013. He was among the group of secular bloggers and other liberal activists who had helped organize the rallies. The murders began to attract international attention next year, in February 2014, when machete-wielding assailants attacked and killed Avijit Roy, a prominent Bangladeshi-American writer and secular blogger, as he walked back from a Dhaka book fair with his wife. A series of fatal attacks on bloggers followed through the course of 2015. Extremists also killed Faisal Arefin Dipan, who had published books by Roy. The killings came after what analysts and bloggers in Bangladesh say was a campaign by the extremists to paint those connected with the Shahbag movement as “atheists” and anti-Islamic — in others words, as standing against the beliefs of the majority of Bangladeshis. Speaking to TIME last year, Arif Jebtik, a secular blogger and a practicing Muslim, said he had been among those targeted by the campaign, with his name appearing on numerous anti-Islamic blog posts that began to surface online in 2013 and 2014. “I never wrote them,” Jebtik said.

Soon, the extremists expanded their list of targets to include two foreigners, 50-year-old Italian citizen Cesare Tavella and 66-year-old Japanese citizen Kunio Hoshi. A Christian priest survived an attack in October 2015. In early 2016, a Hindu priest was killed in the north of the country.

2. Analysts say the killers have been emboldened by the government’s response
While condemning the blogger killings and promising action against the murderers, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also criticized those who speak out against religious belief. In an interview with TIME in September 2015, she said her government was committed to defending people of all faiths. But she also distanced herself from those who identify with no religion. “Personally, I don’t support it, I don’t accept it. Why not? You have to have your faith. If anybody thinks they have no religion, O.K., it’s their personal view … But they have no right to write or speak against any religion.”

In an earlier interview with Reuters news agency after Roy’s killing, Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed said his mother couldn’t come out in support of secular writers and activists because of opposition from religious parties in the country. “We don’t want to be seen as atheists. It doesn’t change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism,” he said. “But given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for [Roy, who wrote against religion]. It’s about perception, not about reality.”

The result, say analysts, is a fertile environment for the extremists. “What seems to be clear is that the government’s own stance on these issues has also emboldened [the extremists],” says Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at the New Delhi–based Centre for Policy Research and the author of 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. “[The government has been] saying that people should not give offense and such things. If you are talking about holding a secular constitution and so on in that country, then this is exactly the wrong line to take.”

Zafar Sobhan, the editor of the English-language Dhaka Tribune newspaper, adds: “[The government’s response is] simply not good enough. Not only have they not done nearly enough to protect those under threat, but the investigations after the atrocities have also been slipshod and halfhearted.”

“Worst of all, public statements that people need to watch what they say and write and that it is unacceptable to speak critically of religion send entirely the wrong message,” he says. “The government needs to take this as a law-and-order problem. People cannot be allowed to be murdered in cold blood. It doesn’t matter who they are, what they believe, or what they might have said or written.”

3. Hasina’s government has also played down the threat from international terrorist groups
Despite claims of responsibility in a number of attacks by ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliates, the government denies that international terrorist groups are operating in Bangladesh. Last year, it banned Ansarullah Bangla Team, a homegrown militant group blamed for a series of deadly attacks on secular bloggers. Following Mannan’s murder, authorities continued to express doubts about the involvement of ISIS or al-Qaeda, with Hasina blaming the country’s Islamist opposition parties. “Everybody knows who were behind such killings … the BNP-Jamaat nexus has been engaged in such secret and heinous murders in various forms to destabilize the country,” she said.

Analysts, however, have grown increasingly concerned about the influence of international terrorist groups in Bangladesh, which was recently the focus of articles in ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq.

“Whether ISIS, for example, has a physical presence is contested, but it is now very difficult to contest now that they have some kind of franchise there and they have identified the franchise,” says Ali Riaz, an expert on Bangladesh’s politics at Illinois State University, pointing to recent ISIS propaganda that identified the leader of its operation in Bangladesh. “What is clear is that the law and order and situation in Bangladesh has continued to deteriorate.”

“I don’t know why the government is digging in its heels on this point,” says Sobhan, the Dhaka-based editor. “But more worrisome than their denial of any transnational element is their insistence that this is all the work of their domestic political enemies. In the end whether ISIS or al-Qaeda are in Bangladesh or not is beside the point, the point is that someone is doing this and they need to be stopped. But shutting down avenues of investigation, and making it clear to law enforcement what you don’t want them to find evidence of, as the government is doing, doesn’t strike me as helpful.”

4. Given the government’s response, many fear a continuation of the killings
In addition to editing an LGBT magazine, Mannan worked at the U.S. government’s international development agency USAID and his murder was condemned by a number of senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who called on Hasina to bring his killers to justice in a phone call on April 28.

Despite the growing international pressure, Riaz says he remains skeptical about the prospects of an improvement in the situation in Bangladesh. “Things might change, but I worry that it’s more likely they might not. The government seems to be in a state of denial about what’s happening in Bangladesh. That is clear in the statements from the Prime Minister and other officials. Unless that changes, I don’t see how the situation gets better. Their denial creates an enabling environment for extremism and we can see that in the expansion of the killings.”

The government, adds Riaz, must take a stronger line against the killers and not mince its words when it comes to supporting those targeted by the extremists.

It’s a point echoed by Sobhan. “One thing I will agree with the government on is that the goal of the killers is to spread terror and destabilize the country. They are going after soft targets, and there is a clear ideological consistency to their targets: freethinkers, those critical of organized religion, non-Muslims, LGBT activists, etc. But they have been very clever,” he says. “They are targeting not just those who they consider their ideological foes but also groups who traditional, conservative Bangladeshis also might be less sympathetic to. This is why it is incumbent on the government to take a stronger stand in support of the targeted groups, even the unpopular ones.”

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Write to Rishi Iyengar at rishi.iyengar@timeasia.com