The Real Source of Terror in Bangladesh

By William B. Milam, May 19, 2016


On Friday, a doctor in western Bangladesh was hacked to death. Last weekend, it was a Buddhist monk, in south eastern Bangladesh. The week before, it was a Sufi Muslim leader, up north. Less than two weeks earlier, it was an L.G.B.T. activist. Just days before that, an English professor (English professor A.F.M. Rezaul Karim Siddique, who was hacked to death on his way to work in April).


Some of these attacks have not yet been claimed, but they follow a gruesome pattern: There have been at least 25 violent, sometimes public, killings of religious minorities, secularists and free-speech advocates in Bangladesh since February 2015. A dozen more people have been assaulted in similar ways and survived.


Of these attacks, more than 20 have been claimed by the Islamic State, about half a dozen by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and one each by the indigenous Bangladeshi extremist groups Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and Ansar al-Islam.

The surge is worrying Western governments, which fear that local Islamist terrorists may now be competing for the attention of international jihadist networks or cooperating with them. Several Western countries have responded with antiterrorism measures: Japan is providing aviation security; the United States has called for strengthening cooperation with the Bangladeshi authorities to counter terrorism and violent extremism.


This is a predictable reaction, but it is misguided, and dangerous, because it proceeds from the wrong diagnosis.

 The recent string of vicious killings in Bangladesh is less a terrorism issue than a governance issue: It is the ruling Awami League’s onslaught against its political opponents, which began in earnest after the last election in January 2014, that has unleashed extremists in Bangladesh.


A zero-sum mentality has been the rule of Bangladeshi politics since the end of the military dictatorship in 1991. Between then and 2007, the country’s two main parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (B.N.P.), traded power every term. Whichever one was leading the government focused on enriching itself and weakening the other. That left the private sector largely alone to invest in economic expansion and NGOs to provide education, health care and other social services the government wasn’t delivering.


In some respects, the government’s failure to do its job served the country well: The economy has grown by an average of 5-6 percent annually over the last two decades; Bangladesh has outdone India and Pakistan on various social development indicators, such as health care and education. But the country’s political culture steadily deteriorated.


Major protests broke out in late 2006, after the then-ruling B.N.P. tried to rig elections scheduled for 2007. The army took over for a time. The Awami League was voted back into office in 2009 and in 2011 used its vast majority in Parliament to remove from the Constitution a clause providing that general elections be overseen by nonpartisan caretaker governments.


The B.N.P. boycotted the 2014 election, largely in response to that amendment, and since winning that one-party election the Awami League has been hellbent on turning Bangladesh into a one-party state. The B.N.P. has become the primary — really, the only — target of the government’s so-called law enforcement efforts. The Awami League routinely deploys the judiciary and the police against its political opponents and any dissenting voices in civil society.


High-ranking B.N.P. members have been framed on spurious corruption charges, among other things. According to the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch, the government has silenced critics by resorting to enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings. Journalists who dare cover any of this are being charged with sedition and treason.


The Awami League’s relentless campaign against the political opposition and civil society has allowed violent radicals of all stripes to let loose. Concentrating the state’s limited judicial and police powers on the B.N.P. and its supporters reduces the resources that can be devoted to preventing terrorism and crime. Using illegal means to quiet perceived opponents undermines the rule of law, creating an atmosphere of impunity that emboldens extremists.


The first machete killing — of a secularist blogger — occurred in February 2013, before the last general election. The Awami League reacted as you would expect from an incumbent party: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina left her office to offer condolences to the family and vowed to catch the culprits. But since the party was re-elected, its response to similar attacks has become constructively evasive.


It is not clear whether Awami League leaders are even paying their respects to the victims’ families. At the same time that the leaders deny the presence in Bangladesh of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent or the Islamic State, they accuse the B.N.P. — or what is left of it — of conspiring with the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami to destabilize the government. Ms. Hasina repeated this charge most recently a few weeks ago, after the killing of the L.G.B.T. activist and U.S. Embassy employee Xulhaz Mannan.


More pernicious still is the government’s wavering on free expression. On the eve of a Hindu holiday in September, Ms. Hasina told a group of Hindu leaders that people had the right to practice their own religion but not “to hurt others’ religious sentiment.” At a Bengali New Year celebration last month, she reportedly said the writings of bloggers criticizing Islam were “filthy words” and asked why the government should take responsibility if those writings “lead to any untoward incidents?” Islamists could be forgiven for interpreting these statements as a free pass to attack people they consider to be enemies of scriptural Islam.


Bangladesh has a history of fringe extremist groups. Some of those are a legacy of the war in Afghanistan, in which some Bangladeshis fought; others are byproducts of the Wahhabi influence that Bangladeshi workers in the Persian Gulf brought back when they returned home. But before the string of attacks that started last year, the last known terrorist attack in Bangladesh (by Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh) dated back to 2005.


It’s difficult to gauge the current terrorist threat in Bangladesh, especially any links between local and international groups. Whatever its exact nature, however, it is largely the result of the government’s repression against mainstream dissent. Responding to this wave of attacks as though it were principally a security issue, rather than a governance problem, would only make matters worse.


William B. Milam is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and a former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan.