The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has assumed responsibility for killing an Italian aid worker in the streets of the Bangladeshi capital on Monday, a claim that, if verified, would mark the first ISIL attack in the third largest Muslim-majority nation.
Cesare Tavella, a 50 year-old employee of a Dutch NGO working in the South Asian country, was gunned down while jogging around Dhaka’s diplomatic zone, according to police spokesman Muntasirul Islam. Details are still sketchy, Islam said, but witnesses who spoke to reporters and the police said three unidentified “youths” had followed Tavella on a motorbike before shooting him several times.
Soon after, a statement allegedly from ISIL surfaced on social media claiming responsibility. An ISIL "security detachment" using “silenced weapons” had killed Tavella, whose name the statement misspelled and who is referred to as a “Crusader infidel.” The attack was meant as a warning to citizens of Western states, including Italy, that have joined the anti-ISIL coalition striking the group’s strongholds in Syria and Iraq: “We say to the nationals of the Crusader alliance: you will not be safe in [Muslim lands]. This is the first drop of rain.”
Bangladeshi police and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have both said they are working to verify ISIL’s claim of responsibility, but the attack has already exacerbated fears that "lone wolf" supporters would soon plant its black flag in Bangladesh. It comes amid an alarming rise in violence in the country of 160 million, which has long wrestled with myriad hardline factions — both of the domestic variety, namely the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and transnational, especially Al-Qaeda — but has not yet seen ISIL gain a foothold.
Monday’s attack was the latest troubling sign that security was deteriorating — a situation groups like ISIL will be keen to exploit. This year, four secular bloggers have been murdered, and a hit list naming dozens more targets has reportedly been circulated. Just days ago, Australia’s foreign ministry urged the country’s national cricket team to postpone a scheduled test in Bangladesh due to “reliable information” suggesting “that militants may be planning to target Australian interests.” The British foreign ministry had released a similar advisory to its nationals.
It isn’t clear whether those warnings were linked to Monday’s attack, but Bangladeshi intelligence has begun to root out individuals with ties to ISIL operating in the country. Last September, Bangladeshi authorities arrested a British citizen of Bangladeshi origin who was working to recruit fighters on behalf of both ISIL and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. Then in January, a deputy police commissioner in Dhaka announced that police had arrested several members of an ISIL cell in Bangladesh who were allegedly plotting attacks in the country.
In the perennial shadow of other turbulent South Asian nations, namely Afghanistan and Pakistan, “Bangladesh is a potential problem that people are just not focusing on,” said Christine Fair, an expert on armed groups in South Asia at Georgetown University.
Part of the explanation for why Bangladesh has stayed outside the media spotlight could be that that transnational groups have historically struggled to gain traction and carry out attacks there. In a recent analysis for the Jamestown Foundation, New Delhi-based researcher Animesh Roul pointed to the country’s “entrenched secular traditions, its effective security service, a widespread popular suspicion of imported forms of Islamism (particularly those connected to Pakistan) and generally limited levels of public support for even ‘democratic’ or ‘moderate’ Islamist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami,” a political party in the country with ties to the country’s dominant armed faction, the JMB.
But Fair said reporting and research on Bangladesh’s armed factions has long been scant, even more so as ISIL’s surge across Syria and Iraq grabs headlines, and that there could be more cause for concern than meets the eye. In the past, public polling has indicated troublingly high levels of support for groups with ideologies akin to ISIL, including a 2009 University of Maryland survey that found 47 percent of Bangladeshis had a positive view of Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda. A relatively high number of Bangladeshi citizens are also believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to take up arms with ISIL, Fair said. The figure is far higher if you include members of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the West, especially in the U.K., where recruiters have worked to lure disaffected Bangladeshi youth to Syria and Iraq.
In some ways, Bangladesh could be seen as a test of ISIL’s ability to infiltrate Muslim-majority countries where the central government remains strong and largely secular. In each country where ISIL has taken over territory or inspired satellite affiliates, the group has exploited power vacuums formed when sectarian or oppressive governments have crumbled. Experts say it is unclear how that approach will translate somewhere like Bangladesh. Fair noted that there is also already a preponderance of likeminded factions in the country that possess wider support, namely the JMB, which is able to operate above the surface through its political ally, Jamaat-e-Islami (if indirectly).
The current government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has herself allegedly been targeted by the JMB in the past, appears to recognize a burgeoning security threat, Fair said. (Her predecessor and rival, Khaleda Zia, head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, had previously been accused of turning a blind eye to these groups, in part due to her reliance on Jemaat-e-Islami for political support.) But Fair noted that cracking down on hardline dissidence has not historically been the answer. “You think this might be a deterrent, but it never really works out that way,” she said. Often, “what it does is drive this stuff down under the public eye. It goes subterranean.”
Still, most experts say ISIL’s potential in Bangladesh remains largely theoretical at this point, even despite ISIL's alleged first strike on Bangladeshi soil. Ali Riaz, a professor at Illinois State University who recently worked on a study probing the affiliations of "terror" suspects in Bangladesh over the past two years, suggests that transnational groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda currently "have a very low support base, organizationally speaking. It’s almost nonexistent.”
But, Riaz added, “that should not make anyone complacent.”