Think Again: Islamism and Militancy in Bangladesh

"It is easy to get Bangladesh very wrong. Dangerously wrong."

Islamist militancy in Bangladesh rarely draws the attention of scholars and policy analysts for a number of reasons. First, South Asia programs in the United States produce very few Bangladesh experts. In fact, most South Asia programs in the United States focus upon North India as well as a smattering of South Asian languages (e.g. Tamil).  Second, most students of those programs who study the Bengali language will do their language training in India’s state of Bengal rather than Bangladesh.

Within the U.S. government, expertise on Bangladesh is even thinner. The U.S. Department of State, which does not have a South Asia cadre, has few Bangladesh experts because such expertise has little reward in the bureaucracy. Think tanks similarly entertain very little focus upon Bangladesh, with few exceptions because their funders typically find little interest in the ostensibly obscure South Asian state. Finally, few scholars and analysts travel to Bangladesh and when they do, they rarely venture beyond the confines of the country's capital, Dhaka.  These reasons have combined to ensure that Bangladesh has not garnered the scrutiny it merits.

In fact, as both the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in South Asia have locked their sights on South Asia, Bangladesh deserves special attention.

Reasons Not to be Insouciant about Bangladesh

Recently, Atif Jalal Ahmad and Michael Kugelman sought to explore whether or not the Islamic State will infect Bangladesh. While they offer the usual disclaimers of uncertainty, the authors made a series of fundamental misjudgments about Bangladesh.

First, it is not clear why they believe that Bangladesh has not been “infected” by the Islamic State. Indeed, going by the numbers, none of South Asia’s major countries have yielded strong public bastions of support. Even in Afghanistan, the Taliban commanders that have thrown their support to the Islamic State seem to have done so because they have grown exhausted with the organization’s domination by Pakistani intelligence. Elsewhere, criminal elements in Pakistan are hoisting the Islamic State flag to conceal their criminal activity and garner impunity or as an intimidation tactic. India has had relatively few recruits march off to Syria and Iraq—so far the numbers are single digits. In contrast, Bangladesh has produced considerably more ISIS recruits than has India despite having about equal numbers of Muslims. Authorities have arrested several Bangladeshis who are living in the United Kingdom who were recruiting fighters from Bangladesh. Just last month, Indian intelligence intercepted a group of jihadi recruits on their way to meet an ISIS handler in Bangladesh.

However, ISIS is just one threat to this important state of some 169 million people, nearly 90 percent of whom are Muslim. In fact, Bangladesh has a long dalliance with numerous kinds of political violence, including that which can be described variously as inter-party, communal, sectarian, hartal (strike)-related, and political assassinations. While it is nowhere as violence prone as its neighbors, according data from the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD), between March 1986 and December 2014, there have been 1,049 terrorist attacks. This no doubt understates the case given that Bangladesh does not garner the attention in international media that its more popular neighbors do and international media is a key input to the GTD.