Until a few years ago, arriving in Bangladesh from West Bengal, India, was a slightly confusing experience. The 10-hour train ride cuts eastward across the lush Bengali countryside between Calcutta and Dhaka, leaving passengers in a mostly identical city, albeit a few decades in the past.
The journey across the border, in space and time, revealed another chaotic, decadent megalopolis, ultra-populated by millions of Bangladeshis quite similar in dress, culinary tastes and cultural references to the Indians across the border. Bangladesh is a country of 180 million people, poor in infrastructure and jobs but rich in raw minerals (natural gas in particular). It was considered a good-natured anomaly among large Islamic states in South Asia: Burqas are rare in the city, the threat of Islamists bordered zero and people are intrigued by “videshi,” any foreigner who for one reason or another (usually business or diplomacy) decided to reverse the migration of Bangladeshis, who leave in search of work, and settle in “our golden Bangladesh,” as it’s honored in the national anthem.
Over the last five years, the scene has monstrously transformed by a streak of violence and tensions that passed largely unnoticed in a world dealing with ISIS and terrorism in the West. The conditions became hospitable for an advanced, unrestricted Islamic extremism in the country.
In 2010, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, head of the Awami League (a center-left expression of the country’s secular Muslim majority), opened a very belated prosecution of war crimes committed in 1971, when East Pakistan broke away from the west, forming Bangladesh.
Several members of the opposition parties stood trial, particularly members of Jamaat e Islami, who had collaborated with Pakistani forces. People like Abdul Kader Mullah, the “Butcher of Mirpur,” and Motiur Rahman Nizami, leaders of the party, were sentenced to death. Members of the Bangladesh National Party were accused of nefarious alliances with the “traitors.” The zeal of the legal system, used as a blunt weapon to annihilate the opposition, led by Khaleda Zia, laid the foundation for a war of growing intensity between two halves of the population. It led, in 2013, to the Shahbagh Square movement, when thousands of students and lay proteseters demanded the blood of the war criminals.
Satisfied with the court’s decision on the 1971 cases, the Shahbagh movement became the target of Islamic extremist revenge. The attacks were lightning fast, and the weapons were machetes, with small groups of two or three people overwhelming their victims and fleeing on motorcycle. The dead were academics, bloggers, “rationalists,” Hindus, Christians, LGBT activists and, more recently, aid workers Cesare Tavella, an Italian, and Hoshi Kunio, a Japanese, in 2015.
International Islamic terrorist organizations coveted Bangladesh’s internal turmoil, with the steadily declining al-Qaeda and ISIS fighting a media war from a distance, vying ex post facto for credit for the murders. Until now, the violent confrontations were attributed to domestic conflicts. Except for a tweet or a press brief, they were overshadowed by the phenomenon of global terror happening in Paris, Istanbul, Cairo, Brussels or Orlando.
In doing so, the unique characteristics of the local Bangladeshi terrorists have been systematically diminished by the pigeonholing which international observers use when asked to describe the peripheries of the world, including the Muslim world. It became a situation of “crying wolf,” with the international media talking about “ISIS in Bangladesh” and the local authorities denying it obstinately, flaunting the impermeability of the country to the extremist wave, now dramatically disproved by the facts of Dhaka.
The slaughter at Holey Artisan Bakery in fact came two weeks after a police counteroffensive, which in a week led to the arrests of thousands of people suspected of ties to terrorism. In response, the commandos who killed 20 people Friday in Gulshan diplomatic district showed that Bangladeshi terrorists are able to organize and carry out a complex hostage operation, making a mockery of local security forces. Now, with Bangladesh never so dangerous, the government can no longer deny the presence of ISIS or al-Qaeda in the country. Perhaps now there will be national policies to combat a threat that has already distorted “our golden Bangladesh.”
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