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Through its misfits and propaganda, the ISIS has fueled Islamic terrorism not only in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, but also in Asia. To date, 42 Islamic terrorist groups across the world have pledged their allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. An oath that does not imply a real, direct cooperation between the various terrorist entities, but rather serves the purpose of providing the ISIS with a global dimension and platform.

In Asia there is a so-called “Province of the Islamic State” in the Caucasus, Islamic terrorist groups proliferate in Malaysia and Indonesia, Abu Sayyaf’s group is active in the southern Philippines, as is the Jamaa't al Ahrar in Pakistan, while the contagion has spread to the Xinjiang in China and throughout the Uyghur community fighting for independence from Beijing. Furthermore, Islamist groups have been spotted in Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. In other words, there is hardly any muslim community across the Asian continent that has not found al Baghdadi’s message to be attractive.

It was hence statistically unthinkable that a country with a large majority of muslims such as Bangladesh, where religious extremism against christians and hindus has thrived in the past, would be immune from Islamic terrorism. The only difference, that is until the mass killing at a restaurant in Dhaka on July 1, is that local authorities have denied the presence of any terrorist group and blamed prior assassinations on the political opposition, thus providing the legitimacy to go after them. In other words, the government has used terrorism for domestic political goals.

After a series of religiously motivated attacks, on June 7 local authorities carried out a series of mass arrests. Around 11.300 people were put in jail, but only a small portion of them, about 170, was actually accused or suspected of being a member of Islamic terrorist groups. Also in this instance, the purpose of the sweep was not to eradicate extremism, but rather to weed out Islamic political parties. One of the targets was former prime minister Khaleda Zia, accused of sedition and brought to court in March.

The repeated denials by PM Sheykh Hasina Wahed have, time after time, clashed against the evidence. Since 2015 over 30 terrorist attacks have been carried out in Bangladesh and most of them have been claimed by the ISIS (21 of them) and the others by Al Qaeda. Over 50 people have been killed. They were progressive academicians, human rights activists, militants for gay rights, people accused of being atheists, newspapers deemed blasphemous, expat workers. In most cases individual assassinations were carried out in a low-intensity form of terrorism.

isis dhaka
The Dhaka attackers

In the light of this detail, Hasina and other officials have always blamed the attacks on local groups and never on trans-national terrorism in spite of the fact that recently 26 Bangladeshi citizens accused of Islamic terrorism were extradited from Singapore, thus proving that the local network had links abroad. Denying the evidence has inevitably led to the massacre in Dhaka, claimed by the ISIS’s propaganda machine. Possibly the only truthful statement by Bangladeshi authorities is that the attack was not coordinated from Raqqa, but was the outcome of the infatuation al Baghdadi’s message has had on local wealthy kids in what has become a common phenomena of self-radicalization. As we’ve seen in France, Belgium or Turkey, it is irrelevant whether an attack that has been planned and carried out locally was actually ordered from abroad.

A country like Bangladesh, listed among the so-called “developing countries”, has a troubled history. Born out of the secession between muslims and hindus, it has always been highly unstable. Since its foundation in 1971, it has witnessed 19 coups and two former presidents were slain. Located in a geographically strategic position, it has high poverty and illiteracy rates. With a population of over 160 million, 89% of whom are muslims, it has embraced Islam as the state religion. High unemployment rates, lack of infrastructures and recurrent epidemics complete the ideal setting for the spread of terrorism. The weakness of the local security apparatus has facilitated the task for terrorists. And this has happened despite the fact that traditional Bengalese Islam is moderate and not inspired by fundamentalism or Salafism.

Yet, a series of anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering laws had to be passed in 2012 to ban five local extremist groups: Jamat ul Mujaheddin Bangladesh (JMB), Harakat ul Jihad, Shahadat al Hikma, Jagrata Muslim Janata and Hizb ut Tahrir. However, there are also other terrorist groups in the country, such as Ansar al Islam Bangladesh and Ansarullah Bangla Team linked to Al Qaeda and the Jund al Taweedwal Khalifah that, just like the JMB, is associated with the ISIS. All of these groups have developed recruitment, indoctrination and subversive activities. And they have also used the propaganda techniques developed in Raqqa to exploit the internet, twitter, blogs and social networks.

Bangladesh has also seen the overlapping of people involved both in terrorism and ordinary criminal activities and illegal traffics. A portion of the financing for these formations comes from illegal sources: counterfeit currency, donations – or rather extortions – in the rural areas, illegal money transfers, illicit financing from foreign Ngos. And since most of these activities are across the border, this is one of the factors that has helped local terrorist groups become international. The JMB, for one, has seen in the past an influx of veterans that had fought in Afghanistan. The ties with foreign entities include radical Wahabi Ngos from Saudi Arabia, Qatar (Qatar Charitable Society) and Kuwait (Kuwait Joint Relief Committee). Among the 11 Ngos that have been put under the spotlight by local authorities is the Islamic Relief; based in the UK, it has branches across the globe and strong financial backing; it has often been associated with radical Islam.

bangladesh map

As already mentioned, Bangladesh occupies an important geographic position for the ISIS. Located between hindu India and buddhist Myanmar, it is the ideal springboard to spread Islamic extremism to neighboring countries. The plight of the Rohingya in Burma can be exploited, as they already have contacts with the Jamat ul Mujaheddin Bangladesh. As far as India is concerned, tensions can be fueled in the muslim states of Assam, Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh. The potentially strategic role of Bangladesh has led the ISIS to designate its own emir for the country. His name is Sheykh Abu Ibrahim al Hanif, nom de guerre of Tamim Chowdhury, a Canadian of Bengali descent. The latter could have played a key role in the attack in Dhaka. After landing in Bangladesh three years ago, he rose to a prominent role within the JMB and then linked up with the ISIS. In a recent interview, Hanif claims that his terrorist activity targets both Bangladesh and India. His statements are in line with those of Ayman al Zawahiri from Al Qaeda that claims that thee Indians are part of the “Zionist-crusaders war on Islam”, and thus a legitimate target.

In the background is the struggle for hegemony between Al Qaeda and the ISIS. Osama bin Laden’s group has been based in the mountain region between Afghanistan and Pakistan for over a decade. Al Baghdadi’s presence in the area jeopardizes the monopoly of his competitor. Several terrorist groups, as in Indonesia, have split along those lines. Furthermore, there are about one thousand Asians fighting with the Islamic State, 1.800 according to intelligence sources. A combat unit called “Malay Archipelagos Unit” has been formed in Syria and Malay and Indonesians fill its ranks. Some of them have now returned home from the Middle East and represent the advance guard of Islamic terrorism in the continent. They basically replace the veterans that had once fought under the banner of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. According to the Minister of Defense of Singapore, the ISIS has seen its sympathizers increase in Asia over the past three years. The shift to the Islamic State has led Zawahiri to announce the birth of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in 2014, in an area that comprises India, Myanmar and, of course, Bangladesh.

From a demographic standpoint, Asia will soon become the continent hosting the majority of muslims across the world. There are 200 million muslims in Indonesia, the globe’s largest Islamic country, 180 million each in Pakistan and India and 160 million in Bangladesh. Among the countries fighting Islamic extremism, the only one that seems to have carried out an effective fight is Indonesia, where Al Qaeda started to strike in the 1990s.

In the eyes of both the ISIS and Al Qaeda, Bangladesh is the breeding ground for a future expansion in the region. The choice of the local government to deny the evidence has jeopardized the fight against terrorism. We hope that the recent attack in attack, that left 20 people dead, including 9 Italians, could bring upon a change in the struggle against Islamic terrorism. The iron fist was used against the JMB in the past, its leaders jailed and convicted to capital punishment. However, domestic political goals are still influencing how security officials respond to the terrorist threat.

In May the leader of a radical Islamic party, the Bangladesh Jamat Islami, Motiur Nizami was sentenced to death for the genocide committed during the war of independence in 1971. Besides from sparking the rage of extremist movements across the country, this execution has hit the only political party that aimed to create and Islamic state through a democratic process. There is reason to believe this will push other members of the party, and especially its youth and student wing Islami Chadra Shibir, to go underground.

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