In less than four years, Bangladesh has seen at least 15 bloggers, writers, and activists killed for their progressive and secular views. There have also been an unusually high number of fatal attacks on foreigners and worshippers.
The spate of killings of writers and intellectuals known for their progressive views is not random. The names of nearly all of those killed in recent years appeared on a list of 84 people created by a group of conservative Muslim clerics who accused the bloggers of “atheism” and writing against Islam. The clerics submitted the list to a special government committee in 2013, and openly stated that many bloggers are “apostates” and should be “killed”.
Bangladesh is a non-religious parliamentary democracy, in which the right to free expression is enshrined by Bangladesh’s constitution. Yet the government, the judiciary and police forces have not taken sufficient measures to deter extremists from targeting the bloggers and the publishers. On the contrary, authorities have blocked critical websites and arrested multiple bloggers from the black list. In 2015, just days after secular blogger Niloy Neel hacked to death at his apartment, Bangladesh’s Chief of Police warned that “free-thinkers and bloggers should not cross the limit of tolerance while expressing their views on religion”. Many are skeptical of police efforts to investigate the murders.
The reluctant option of an exile
These circumstances have prompted many bloggers and online activists to take refuge in safe havens abroad. However, this has not been easy for them, or their families. Blogger and online activist Mahmudul Haque Munshi, who is in exile in Germany, wrote in his blog Swapnokothok (Dreamweaver) earlier this year about choosing exile:
He went on to describe the guilt he feels in leaving his country:
The killings went on in 2016. Nazimuddin Samad, a student of law in the Jagannath University and a vocal critic of religious extremism was killed in April this year. Also in the same month, Rezaul Karim Siddique, an English professor at Rajshahi University, was found hacked to death near his home.
Many of these killings have been claimed on the Internet or on social media by accounts believed to be linked to ISIS, Ansar Al Islam or Ansarullah Bangla Team. These groups have also claimed responsibility for what appear to be random killings of regular citizens.
Terror at the Holey Artisan Bakery
On the night of 1 July 2016, five young men in their twenties, some educated abroad and coming from affluent families, stormed into the Holey Artisan Bakery in the upscale Gulshan area in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which is frequented by foreigners. They took several dozen hostages, both foreigners and locals, and opened fire on police.
The next morning, a joint force combining the Bangladesh Army, paramilitary group Border Guard Bangladesh, the police and the elite force Rapid Action Battalion raided the Holey Artisan Bakery to end the hostage crisis. Some hostages were released, and others managed to escape, but 29 people were killed, including 20 hostages (18 foreigners and two locals), two police officers, five gunmen, and two bakery staff. This was the worst terror attack in the country’s history.
Amaq News Agency, which is affiliated with ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Photos of the attackers, sporting the signature ISIS red keffiyehs and black punjabis and the bloody images of the slain hostages emerged on the Internet. On the 7 July, militants attacked police guarding the congregation at Sholakia, where the largest Eid prayers in Bangladesh were taking place, leaving three dead. Later on that month police raided a terrorist den in the capital Dhaka and killed nine militants. The police reported they found bombs, ammunition and two black ISIS flags from the den.
The police have maintained that they all are not from ISIS, but members of the banned local militant outfit Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, Bangladesh. Law enforcement authorities also have published a list of about 200 individuals who were reported missing over the last year and a half and who are feared to have dangerous motives. Some of the missing men were traced to flying abroad to Malaysia and Turkey and then their trail mysteriously disappears.
In the course of the following months the police continued to raid the homes of suspected militants, hoping to deter further attacks. Recently it has emerged that Canadian Bangladeshi Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury (alias Abū Ibrāhīm al-Hanīf) orchestrated the 1 July militant attack and he sought and won approval for it from ISIS. He was killed in a raid by Bangladesh police on 26 Septembe 2016. On 24 December 2016 police conducted another raid and captured a number of militants. Two militants died as they detonated their suicide vests.
The killings of innocents have stopped for now, but the danger looms large as the militants are active underground. Months after the Gulshan attack, Dhaka’s restaurants remain empty and foreigners have cancelled their travel to Bangladesh and amid increased security measures. 2016 was a landmark year for militancy in Bangladesh and it remains to be seen what the future holds.