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An ISIS Attack in Bangladesh’s Capital Should Surprise No One

By Ishaan Tharoor

 July 1, 2016 

The details remain murky. On Friday night, assailants assaulted a restaurant in an upscale neighbourhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh's teeming capital. They fired weapons and hurled grenades. Initial reports suggest that six to eight gunmen were inside the establishment, detaining about 20 hostages. At least one police officer was slain during the standoff with the militants.

Officers of the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite paramilitary police unit, filled the streets of Gulshan, a leafy district that's home to diplomats as well as the country's elite. The restaurant under siege is a bakery in the daytime and a Spanish eatery at night.

A media group online that's linked to the Islamic State took credit for the attack, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist activity. It's not clear, though, that the organization has a genuine operational presence in the country.

Speculation had immediately fallen on extremist groups believed to be operating in Bangladesh, including outfits affiliated both with al-Qaeda's South Asian wing and the Islamic State. In the past two years, horrific attacks by self-declared Islamists have targeted Hindus, intellectuals, secularist writers and bloggers.

According to one count, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for more attacks in Bangladesh through its social media accounts than in Pakistan or Afghanistan. These include the killing of Italian and Japanese expats and multiple strikes on Shia Muslims. The extremist organization had called on its fighters and proxies to launch such strikes on soft targets during the holy month of Ramadan around the world.

The government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has struggled to come to grips with the issue. It has rebuffed any suggestion that the Islamic State has a foothold in the country. And it has sought to deflect blame for its perceived mishandling of the security crisis.

Last month, a senior minister chose to pin the escalation in violence on a vague Israeli conspiracy rather than domestic problems. In police crackdowns, authorities have rounded up some 12,000 people, but most of those detained have been petty criminals and supporters of opposition parties, the Associated Press reported.

Counterterrorism experts say the Hasina government has expended more energy consolidating its position and suppressing its opponents than tackling the spread of Islamist violence in the country. A recent report from the International Crisis Group argued that a skewed judicial system and the heavy-handed rule of Hasina's ruling Awami League party, which is traditionally secular and centre-left, was laying the foundation for further militant violence and unrest.

"There is no time to lose," the report concluded. "If mainstream dissent remains closed, more and more government opponents may come to view violence and violent groups as their only recourse."

The prime minister "has blamed much of the country’s extremist violence on the political opposition, namely the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Bangladesh National Party," writes Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Centre. "This accusation may not be altogether false. ... Still, to seemingly rule out that groups other than Dhaka’s chief political foes are perpetrating Bangladesh’s intensifying extremist violence is naïve at best, and dangerous at worst."

The State Department said on Friday that it was too early to say who was involved in a hostage situation at a restaurant in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka or what the motivation might be, but it confirmed that all Americans working at the U.S. mission there had been accounted for. (Reuters)

The political environment, in other words, has left Bangladesh deeply susceptible to such havoc. "By merely shrugging off Bangladesh’s alarming levels of extremist violence, Dhaka puts the country in greater peril," writes Kugelman. "And it strengthens the forces that wish to undermine Bangladesh’s founding identity as a pluralistic, secular state."

Bangladesh, as a nation, exists on the periphery of the American imagination. Few in the United States would probably know it has one of the world's largest Muslim populations, larger than that of any country in the Middle East. But in the wake of the Istanbul terrorist attack, attention has fallen on the chosen tactics of the Islamic State and its proxies. A coordinated strike on Gulshan, the epicentre of wealth and elite power in Dhaka, has all the hallmarks of the terrorist organization's strategy.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.