Best Defense

ISIS in Bangladesh: There’s still time to stop it, but only if action is taken

In November 2015, the Islamic State declared its intent to extend its operations to Bangladesh.

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By Sarah Kaiser-Cross
Best Defense guest columnist

In November 2015, the Islamic State declared its intent to extend its operations to Bangladesh, threatening: “The soldiers of the Khilafah will continue to rise and expand in Bengal and their actions will continue.” Unfortunately, ISIS efforts seem to be working. While ISIS’s ideological appeal far outweighs its operational capacity in Bangladesh, eight “affiliated” attacks have occurred under the group’s mantle since the autumn of 2015. What do the eight attacks in Bangladesh in the last six months tell the world about ISIS in South Asia?

First, that the spread of ISIS ideology to South Asia will result in increasing attacks targeting religious minorities and foreigners. ISIS is rooting its domestic appeal in social fault lines already present within the state. Bangladesh has not previously been targeted as fertile ground by jihadis, allowing ISIS to control much of the narrative. Though ISIS is struggling to retain its territory in the Middle East, its successful establishment of terror cells to carry out attacks abroad will perpetuate attacks by disenfranchised local terror groups and lone wolves. These types of attacks are the most difficult to prevent and the most effective for spreading terror.

Second, the government’s success in attacking local terror networks unintentionally enabled ISIS ideology to gain momentum. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wazed has staunchly denied that there are any ISIS operatives in Bangladesh, laying blame for these developments squarely at the feet of her political opponents. Such claims are a tough sell in light of ISIS claims of responsibility and arrests of ISIS leaders in Bangladesh. Members of now fractured political militias view ISIS as a rebranding opportunity. Aspiring ISIS militants, many of who are former members of local militias, carried out the attacks, though ISIS claimed responsibility.

Local disenfranchised organizations like Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, and Ansar-al-Islam are beginning to take advantage of the benefits of allying with ISIS, including the potential expansion of foreign funding. Since November, Dabiq has devoted a section of the journal to the military successes in Bengal, justifying the killing of “kufar” (infidel) targets. Such “success” likely motivates donors. ISIS’s global success is bolstered by its ‘religious’ agenda as well as its ability to conduct small-scale terrorist attacks that produce maximum results. The nature of lone terrorist attacks lends itself to Bangladesh’s unique domestic situation: a small group of disenfranchised militants can kill a single person yet achieve maximum devastation and publicity.

The inescapable conclusion is that there is time, but it should not be wasted. ISIS has not yet succeeded in carving out a permanent place in Bangladesh. Policymakers should make great efforts to ensure it does not become an eventuality. The United States should initiate intelligence sharing agreements with Bangladesh and other regional partners to more effectively target emerging terror cells. Equally important, the international community should assist Bangladesh in monitoring elections. This would serve to reinstitute a semblance of domestic peace, reinforce the Bangladeshis legal process, and foster an environment for moderate voices to reemerge. Rather than waiting for extremist ideology to blossom in Bangladesh, policymakers should take heed and help to nip this development in the bud.

Sarah Kaiser-Cross is the Senior Research Manager at The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), where she tracks political violence in South and Southeast Asia. She has lived and worked throughout the Middle East. Sarah has an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. in Global Policy Studies from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, where she received the Emmette S. Redford award for her analysis of Chinese influence on U.S. interests in the Arabian Gulf. 

Image credit: Sarah Kaiser-Cross

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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