Will ISIS Infect Bangladesh?

The terror group’s inroads into Bangladesh should be associated more with strong brand appeal than with a formal operational presence.

In a National Interest piece last August, we argued that ISIS’s prospects in Bangladesh are relatively limited. Pro-ISIS sentiment is weak, we concluded, and the group will have great difficulty establishing a strong foothold there.

Since the article was published, ISIS has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly attacks in Bangladesh. These include the murder of an Italian and a Japanese expatriate and two separate strikes on Shia Muslims (one on a procession commemorating the Ashura holiday, the other on a mosque). ISIS also took credit for an attack on the Bangladeshi state—a deadly assault on a police checkpoint near Dhaka. According to one count, law enforcement officials in Bangladesh have attributed up to fifteen terror attacks to ISIS.

Amid all these atrocities, last month an article appeared in Dabiq, an ISIS magazine, that vowed to take the fight deep into Bangladesh (which it referred to as Bengal): “The soldiers of the Khilafah will continue to rise and expand in Bengal and their actions will continue,” it warned. Ominously, the article claimed that a new ISIS “regional leader” was in place in Bangladesh, and suggested that local jihadist factions were uniting behind him: “The soldiers of the Khilafah in Bengal . . . unified their ranks, nominated a regional leader . . . and hastened to answer the order from the Islamic State leadership.”

Taking this all into account, one might reasonably conclude that our article back in August was way off the mark.

We beg to differ.

In fact, we predicted that ISIS’s influence in Bangladesh could grow (admittedly, we may have misjudged how quickly this could happen). We pointed to Bangladesh-focused ISIS social media accounts, to several Bangladeshis who allegedly planned to join in Syria and to the arrest of an alleged ISIS recruiter in Bangladesh.

“To successfully forestall possible advances of ISIS into Bangladesh,” we wrote, “the country must be vigilant and proactive in combating any IS attempts” to court members of organizations such as the Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB)—a terror group that launched a series of rapid-fire attacks across Bangladesh back in 2005, but has since been less active in Bangladesh thanks to state crackdowns following the assaults that year.

Unfortunately, there are now signs that ISIS has indeed pursued a courtship with JMB—and perhaps successfully so. The “soldiers of the Khilafah” that the Dabiq article boasts are rallying around ISIS could include JMB fighters demoralized by their weakened state, and eager to be associated with a more dynamic and galvanizing force like ISIS. Tellingly, a series of threats directed at Christians in Bangladesh in recent weeks (mostly priests but also a nun and several aid workers)—claimed to have been issued by both ISIS and JMB.

Another terror group that some analysts believe could be gravitating to the ISIS cause is Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), the outfit tied to a vicious and ongoing campaign of violence against secular and atheist bloggers. ABT, however, is ideologically influenced by Al Qaeda, ISIS’s rival. ABT took its name from the Iraq-based Al Qaeda outfit Ansar Ul Islam and is inspired by the teachings of U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a top Al Qaeda official in Yemen before being killed by a drone strike in 2011. In fact, one should not discount the possibility that Al Qaeda—which announced a new South Asia affiliate in 2014—is reaching out to local militants in Bangladesh.

The JMB is seemingly a more desirable partner for ISIS, given its embrace of Salafism and its wider presence in the South Asia region. Last year, a bomb that accidentally exploded in a house in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal was traced to JMB. The organization has also cooperated with the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba.