By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
The recent killing of two foreign development workers in Bangladesh has evoked strong reactions from the international community. The consecutive murders in just four days have raised fears of Islamic militants targeting foreign interests in Bangladesh. The South Asian nations are increasingly becoming vulnerable to attacks from various Islamic militant outfits which have changed their terror tactics currently focusing on foreign nationals engaged in developmental activities to gain maximum international media attention.
In a major untoward incident on September 28, unidentified assailants gunned down an Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella in Dhaka’s high security diplomatic zone, Gulshan. Fifty years-old Tavella had been working as project manager at the Netherland-based church cooperative ICCO Corporation for ensuring food security and development of people living in rural areas of Bangladesh.
Attacks on foreigners in Bangladesh are unusual but the country has recently been witnessing a sudden spurt in such acts of violence. A radical Islamic group affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) reportedly said a “security detachment” had tracked and killed Tavella and threatened more such attacks.
The Bangladesh authorities did not take the claim at face value and insisted on proper verification. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan called Tavella’s killing a “planned murder” and assured that the police would investigate if it was part of any sinister design to create instability in the country.
In another such incident on October 3, a Japanese national named Kunio Hoshi was shot dead in Rangpur district. Sixty five year-old Hoshi was running a grass farm project in this northern district. The Islamic State (IS) claimed that they had carried out the attack and warned that the nationals of “crusader coalition” would neither have “safety” nor “livelihood in Muslim lands”. It may be noted here that Bangladesh is home to the fourth largest Muslim population in the world.
The foreign countries took serious note of the two killings saying they had information on “increased attacks” by radical Islamic groups, while the Awami League (AL) government was trying to allay their security fears. The government played down the claims of IS saying there is no presence of such jihadi outfits in the country and described the killings as “isolated incidents”.
Following the killing of foreign nationals, a security alert has been sounded throughout the country. The law enforcement agencies in a high-level meeting on October 3, decided to enhance security at homes and work places of foreign diplomats and nationals in Bangladesh. The government directed the chiefs of police stations across the country to continuously communicate with the foreigners in their respective areas.
Reports suggest that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who had just returned home after attending United Nations (UN) General Assembly, asked the police to immediately identify the culprits. She said that the killings appeared to be an attempt to tarnish Bangladesh’s image at a time when the country “reached honourable position among the world leaders”. It may be added here that Hasina was conferred UN’s prestigious “Champions of the Earth”(Policy Leadership category) award on September 29 for her government’s stupendous efforts in tackling the climate change induced effects.
Meanwhile, the western nations including US, UK and Canada alerted their citizens in Bangladesh urging them to remain vigilant in their movements in the country. Besides, many foreign embassies have restricted the movements of their diplomats.
The international community has expressed deep concern over the fast deteriorating security scenario in Bangladesh. Amidst rising religious intolerance and bigotry, four secular-rationalist bloggers had been hacked to death this year for allegedly espousing atheism in this Muslim-majority nation. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Anasarullah Bangla Team (ABT) was blamed for their gruesome murders and many of their operatives and henchmen were arrested recently in connection with the bloggers’ killing. In the last week of September, the proscribed ABT threatened to kill “atheist” bloggers, activists and writers of Bangladesh origin in foreign nations.
However, this is for the first time that the IS owned up responsibility of a high-profile attack in Bangladesh indicating the jihadi outfit’s increasing ambitions in South Asia. There had been clear evidence of IS’ low-key activities, including arrest of at least 12 operatives in recent months though the security forces have not found the existence of any official branch of the dreaded terror group so far. Bangladesh’s security experts believe that the killing of the two foreign nationals could be terror outfit’s first attack in the country. The AL government has been finding it difficult to cope with the challenges posed by resurgence of religious extremism and Islamic terrorism in the recent period.
The killing of foreign nationals by suspected IS militants and the postponements of the Australian cricket team’s scheduled tour to Bangladesh are serious setbacks for the government and other stakeholders in the country. Despite initiating stringent measures and pursuing a policy of zero-tolerance towards terrorism, the Bangladeshi jihadi elements seem determined to destabilise the democratic polity with the larger objective of establishing a Shariah-state in country where almost 90% of the population practise Islam.
The killing of foreigners especially belonging to Western nations may have a debilitating impact on Bangladesh’s economy. The country’s thriving readymade garment (RMG) sector, the major foreign exchange earner and employer, heavily depends on Western clients who frequently visit Bangladesh to inspect the manufacturing units and facilitate lucrative deals. But the string of violent attacks on foreign aid workers could jeopardise the commercial prospects of the RMG sector.
Moreover, being an aid-recipient country, Bangladesh must ensure safety and security of huge numbers of foreigners engaged in diverse developmental activities in the country. The killing of a Japanese national is a matter of serious concern as Tokyo has been Bangladesh’s one of the biggest development partners for several years. Japan has immensely contributed to the improvement of Bangladesh’s transport infrastructure. It is imperative that Dhaka guard against the jihadi groups’ retrogressive ideology and barbarity that could impede Bangladesh’s progress and prosperity.
The rise of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh also has wider security implications for South Asia particularly neighbouring India. Although the Indian intelligence agencies have strongly denied the purported links between the two killings and the IS, these incidents have however got the country worried. In fact, the senior intelligence officials apprehend that radicalised individuals or group influenced by IS ideology could strike in India where a section of youth has evinced interest in “IS content and posts online”.
The security agencies are continuously monitoring the activities of suspected elements especially their online correspondence to thwart the nefarious designs of the international terror networks. India may also assist Bangladesh in its endeavours to curb the menace of Islamic terrorism which is a common threat to peace, stability and security of both the South Asian nations.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]