It’s late and I’ve been away most of the evening, but I would be remiss not to at least say something here about the events unfolding in Bangladesh. A group of attackers, “six to eight” according to reports, took perhaps 20-35 hostages in a bakery/cafe in downtown Dhaka and killed at least two police officers Friday evening. Police were able to storm the cafe early Saturday morning and free a number of hostages during the standoff, and reports now appear to indicate that the attack may be over. Several bodies were reportedly found inside the cafe but from what I can tell it’s not clear whether these bodies were those of the attackers or some of the hostages (police are reportedly saying that all the gunmen were killed, so perhaps the bodies people are reportedly seeing are their bodies). Regardless of whose bodies were found where, it’s being openly acknowledged that at least some of the hostages were killed, though no death toll has been released (reports are that 12 hostages were rescued, so you can start to do the math although there are conflicting reports as to just how many hostages were actually taken).
ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, which for some reason the US government is “investigating” even though, if this was a local attack carried out by ISIS sympathizers, that claim of responsibility is pretty much all the evidence you’re going to get of any link to ISIS. Bangladesh has seen its share of ISIS activity over the past couple of years, though its prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has claimed, “Baghdad Bob”-style, that ISIS has no presence in her country. One other possibility here is that the attack was carried out by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, which has been responsible for some of the recent religious killings that Bangladesh has seen (see next paragraph). But AQIS has to date exclusively carried out either single-target killings or attacks against military installations, and has even gone so far as to condemn the kind of larger scale, more indiscriminate violence that was used in this attack. So this doesn’t look like an AQIS attack, which of course doesn’t mean that it’s not an AQIS attack, just that ISIS seems more plausible.
Bangladesh has particularly been riding a wave of religious violence over the past few months, most of it perpetrated by either ISIS or AQIS. For example, a 75 year old Buddhist monk was hacked to death inside a Buddhist temple in southeastern Bangladesh in mid-May, an atheist law student was hacked and shot to death in Dhaka in early April (AQIS seems to have been behind this one), a Sufi Muslim was hacked to death in northwestern Bangladesh in early May, a Hindu monastery worker was hacked to death in northwestern Bangladesh in mid-June, and I could go on but you get the picture. The bodies are really starting to pile up:
At least 39 people have been killed in attacks with machetes, guns and bombs since February 2013. The killings, mostly with machete blows to the back of the victim’s neck, have been accelerating lately, with five people murdered in April, four in May and at least three so far in June.
On Sunday, a Christian grocer and the wife of a police superintendent who had been cracking down on militant attacks were killed in separate strikes. On Tuesday, a Hindu priest was killed in southwestern Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi government claims to know the leaders of the group or groups carrying out these attacks, but these groups also seem to have some amount of grassroots support among the population, perhaps among people who feel repressed by the country’s secular but very authoritarian government. That grassroots support is a big part of the reason why ISIS has been talking openly about expanding into Bangladesh for months now. The group sees Bangladesh as its foothold into South Asia, a country with some fairly deep underlying instability that can be exploited, but where there are no particularly dominant local Islamist networks and no real al-Qaeda presence that could crowd ISIS out of the market. ISIS has struggled to make inroads into Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, but Bangladesh has so far been another story.