Disquiet in Bangladesh

The country is not seen as a safe place anymore. The government's credibility is at stake for murders anyone with a firearm could commit.

The murder of an Italian (on September 28) and a Japanese national (on October 3) within the span of one week has raised the heckles in Bangladesh again. Both were ‘soft targets’ – the Italian was working for a charity in Dhaka and the Japanese was into grass farming in the northern district of Rangpur.

The Islamic State reportedly claimed responsibility for the murders and a statement attributed to it said “more such attacks” against citizens of countries involved in the crusader coalition would follow. But Bangladesh and Indian intelligence have doubted the authenticity of the IS claim as they failed to find any footprint of the West Asia-based radical group in Bangladesh. The US has, however, said it is taking the IS claim seriously – as have some other Western countries.

Neither of the two murders bear the trademark IS style: beheading of victims captured on video for subsequent uploading on social media. Both murders were identical. Three rounds were fired from pistols/revolvers by assailants “brushing past” the targets on a motorcycle. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has blamed her political rivals, BNP-Jamaat alliance, for the killings, saying this was an attempt to “destabilise” Bangladesh. Her son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, has now buttressed that allegation, saying he has it on authority from “sources inside the BNP in London”.

Unnamed Indian intelligence officials have told their media that the murders were the handiwork of Jamaat which is determined to discredit the Hasina regime, what with many of its senior leaders waiting for the gallows after being recently convicted for “crimes against humanity” during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

The officials seem to have picked up some coded telephone chatter between London, Dhaka and Chittagong, that points to a “domestic conspiracy” rather than an Islamic State action. An American or a Russian national would be a more probable target if the IS was looking to hit citizens of countries in the crusader coalitions – not an Italian or a Japanese. They were killed because they were soft targets.

One local BNP leader has been arrested in Rangpur for suspected involvement in killing of the Japanese, Hosio Kunio. Awami League spokesperson and minister Mohammed Nasim went to the extent of asking why the murders happened just when BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia was with her son Tarique Rahman in London, where the latter has lived in an exile for the last six years to evade prosecution in Bangladesh. The BNP has described these charges as “irresponsible” and “uncalled for” and said it will hamper investigations.

But Bangladesh police detectives say they are trying to find a link between the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) putting its team’s tour to the country on hold on the basis of “credible threats to Australian interests” and the murder of the Italian aid worker, Cesare Tavella, just when the ACB security chief was visiting the country to check on the situation.

What triggered the ACB decision? Were they informed by the Australian government or its foreign office to put the tour on hold? While there is no real evidence yet, there are strong suspicions that domestic considerations to discredit the Hasina government – rather than the cause of global jihad – led to the twin murders. Undoubtedly, the Islamic State wants its presence to be felt in South Asia; and for which, they may well consider teaming up with a network of local Islamic radical groups (as the al-Qaeda has done before) to carry out attacks. These attacks could give it a trans-regional mileage and shake up regimes like Hasina’s, which has earned kudos for its determined campaign against terror.

Immediately after Kunio’s murder, Bangladesh detective police nabbed Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) military wing chief Mohammed Javed from the port city of Chittagong. Next morning, he was killed in a mysterious grenade explosion while allegedly directing the policemen to an arms cache of the group.

Extra-judicial executions
While some of these militants have died under mysterious circumstances after arrest and Bangladesh agencies have been accused of extra-judicial executions and torture, the government’s commitment to hunt down Islamist radicals has never been in doubt. However, the capability of its security agencies has left much to be desired.

It is easy to blame the government for the murder of secular bloggers but it is difficult to imagine how any government can protect thousands of bloggers in the forefront of an ideological battle against Islamist radicals who pick on soft targets after they have run out of other options like mass agitations.

And, when such soft targets are foreigners, it has a ripple effect. Bangladesh is not seen as a safe place for anything anymore – tourism, investment, or even cricket tours. The government’s credibility is at stake for murders anyone with a firearm could commit. And for an opposition which has tried to sabotage railway tracks during agitation that could lead to huge loss of life, a few targeted assassinations are not impossible to pull off.

The impact is evident. Hundreds of foreign tourists have cancelled their bookings in the week after the twin murders, especially at a time when the Bangladesh tourism industry was looking to recover the losses it sustained earlier in the year during the violent BNP-Jamaat agitations.

What India needs to monitor closely is whether the Islamic State has indeed developed a jihadist coalition with local groups backed by the likes of Jamaat to give it clout beyond West Asia, and whether South Asian radical groups have already joined them. For, if that is really the case, New Delhi would be as vulnerable as Dhaka .

(The writer is a veteran journalist and author)

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