Washington: The slaying in Bangladesh of a US Agency for International Development employee has intensified US concern that the strategically located South Asian country with traditions of religious tolerance is under threat from Islamic extremists. Bangladesh’s government denies that transnational jihadist groups have been behind a spate of bloody attacks on secular writers, bloggers, foreigners and religious minorities. But the Bangladeshi branch of al-Qaida on the Indian Subcontinent claimed Monday’s killing of USAID employee and gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan. That claim has not been verified, but it adds to fears that local extremists with international aspirations could enable groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group to gain a foothold in a country wracked by prolonged political turmoil because of a bitter divide between the ruling party and the opposition.
The No 2 US diplomat said yesterday that despite the government blaming the political opposition for the attacks, evidence to date suggests extremist groups, either local or affiliated with IS or al-Qaida, are responsible for the killings. “This gives us concern about the potential for ISIL or Daesh to take root in Bangladesh,” Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, using alternative acronyms for IS. “That is the last thing we want.” The assaults on minorities and moderates, typically by young men wielding knives or machetes and spewing hateful language, began in 2013 and have increased in frequency in the past
Among the fatalities was Bangladeshi-American writer Avijit Roy, who was attacked on a street in the capital, Dhaka, in February 2015. Human rights groups fear for others facing militant death threats as the Bangladeshi government has appeared unsympathetic to their plight perhaps because it does not want to alienate Muslims offended by the atheistic writings of some bloggers. While authorities have arrested suspects in some of those cases, none has been prosecuted, and authorities have yet to identify the masterminds. The State Department says the US is considering providing sanctuary to some individuals at risk, although it remains unclear whether that will happen. Human rights groups have been calling for that since December.
A broader concern for Washington as it struggles to counter Islamic State worldwide is that Bangladesh could become a hotbed for religious extremists, despite its traditions of secularism, free speech and respect for its Christian and Hindu minorities, and successes in reducing poverty and raising life expectancy among its 160 million people.