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Bangladesh at the crossroads

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Last month in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, six men pounded on the door of Xulhaz Mannan, an employee of the US embassy. When he opened, they hacked him and a friend to death with machetes. A group affiliated with Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, condemning the men for their gay rights activism.

Brutal attacks like this are increasingly common in Bangladesh. According to a recent internal memo from the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, there have been 30 similar extremist attacks since January 2015, resulting in 23 deaths and more than 140 injured. Western governments are increasingly worried, saying the country of 168 million people is starting to come undone.

As a state, Bangladesh is not very old. It was born by breaking away from Pakistan in 1971 in a brief and violent civil war. In that conflict, the Pakistani army or its proxy Islamic militia Jamaat-e-Islami killed 300,000 to 500,000 people by independent estimates. After that, Bangladesh largely slipped off the radar screen for most of the Western world. Only the occasional cyclone would grab our brief attention.


Yet, as unlucky as the country seemed, the last 40 years have been good to Bangladesh on many fronts. It is not blessed with many natural resources, but it does have people. Their low wages began to attract garment manufacturers who built factories and paid taxes. The GDP per capita tripled. Hospitals were built, and schools improved. Life expectancy increased by a stunning 20 years, and child mortality rates dropped by a factor of four.

Politically, Bangladesh did not do as well. Each newly elected government competed to out do the last in terms of corruption and nepotism; their efforts only interrupted by the occasional coup and counter-coup. Not surprisingly, Transparency International ranks it among the world's most corrupt countries, and the Social Progress Index places it near the bottom for personal rights and freedoms.

Nonetheless, Bangladesh has been a relative success story in comparison to much of the rest of the Muslim world. While Indonesia was wracked by ethnic violence, the Middle East and Afghanistan suffered through war after war, and Pakistan descended into chaos, Bangladesh quietly stumbled forward, just functional enough to lift 60 million people out of extreme poverty.


My first trip to Dhaka was over a decade ago, as a diplomat. My agenda was overwhelmingly focused on aid — how much western money should be sent to help the country leave the ranks of what the World Banks calls the “Least Developed Countries.” Then the city was large, sprawling, and flat. There were no high-rises, few visible factories, and more rickshaws than automobiles.

The sprawl was still there when I returned last month but so too were shiny glass-shod hotels, towering office buildings, and large garment factories. The streets were clogged with traffic, the airport was busy, and almost no one was talking about aid or poverty. The topic now is economic growth: Is it moving fast enough? Will it continue? And will the new violence threaten this progress?

A fire requires three elements: fuel, heat, and oxygen. In the last two years, all three have come to Bangladesh, and the resulting flames are starting to get out of control.

The oxygen is coming from the collapse of the democratic process. Since the civil war, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP, and the Awami League have dominated politics. The BNP are an Islamist party, and these are not good days for them. They boycotted the last election, which handed the Awami League a massive majority. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is using her newfound power to crush all opposition groups — to such an extent that some observers argue Bangladesh can no longer be considered a democracy.

Hasina has jailed journalists, closed TV stations and newspapers, charged opposition politicians with sedition, corruption, and fraud. Perhaps most notably, Hasina decided it was time to settle scores dating back to the civil war and launched a war crimes trial against leaders of the now banned Jamaat-e-Islami movement, men who had since been rehabilitated into politicians.


Earlier this month, a trial that Human Rights Watch described as "neither free nor fair" found the 73-year-old head of the party, Motiur Rahman Nizami, guilty of genocide, rape, and killing intellectuals during the civil war. He was hanged just days after the verdict. His supporters and other opponents to the government have been effectively pushed off the public stage, onto the streets, and into the shadows.

Fuel for the conflagration is unemployed young men. In Bangladesh, one of the lowest rates of employment is found among well-educated (and therefore relatively well-off) youth. While economic growth has been impressive, it has only barely kept up with birth rates, and opportunities for more advanced careers beyond the garment factories are too few.

And the ignition is coming from the Middle East. Saudi-funded Wahhabi mosques and madrassas have been preaching the same radical theology that has set Pakistan and Afghanistan alight. Bengali diaspora working in Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, have returned with more conservative religious views and brought Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

In a recent article published by the Islamic State’s English language magazine Dabiq, the “Amir” in Bangladesh explained the country’s strategic importance as a launch pad for jihad against the Indian “masses of cow-worshiping, pagan Hindus” to the west and Burmese Buddhists to the east. ISIS believes the barriers to achieving that goal include the Bengali government, moderate Muslims, foreigners, and any religious minority.

A senior Western ambassador in Bangladesh described al Qaeda and ISIS to me as "the sexiest thing going" for radicalized youth who have seen the traditional opposition organizations crushed by the government. The fundamentalist propaganda coming from the Middle East, increasingly being published in Bengali, offers them the dramatic promise of a more meaningful life fighting the enemies of Islam. That is far more interesting than supporting a local political candidate who will probably end up in jail on well-earned corruption charges.


The results of all this have been sporadic but noticeable and deadly. Many of the first attacks used knives and machetes. In January of last year a Hindu lecturer at a medical college was stabbed to death by four young men as she waited for a rickshaw. Her crime had been to insist that her students obey the institution's dress code and not wear hijabs.

But guns have begun to emerge as well: In September of last year an Italian aid worker was shot while jogging through Dhaka's diplomatic quarter. Five days later an elderly Japanese businessman was killed while visiting his rural agricultural business in northern Bangladesh.

The violence continues to escalate. A series of bomb attacks have been launched against Hindus and minority Shias. Only one of these was a suicide attack, but in recent months police have begun to find suicide vests when raiding radical cells.

The government has moved slowly to douse the flames. In public they downplay the violence and adamantly deny the presence of the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Even in private, they will only go so far as to concede there may be "sympathizers." A UN security analyst based in Dhaka explained that this was likely due to two factors. The government does not want to lose face by admitting they have a problem on their hands, one that they have evidently not been able to contain. They may also be motivated by a desire not to open a second front with Bengali Islamists who are already being agitated by the war crimes tribunals.


Bangladesh is a fragile state, and it could crumble easily. The government systems are not especially robust. While they inherited the same British colonial system that India did, Bangladesh was never more than an outlying province of the Raj and was neglected accordingly. Since independence, the judiciary, and the police in particular, have struggled to develop.

Against this backdrop of fragility, the unwillingness of Bengali officials to acknowledge the growth of violent extremism in Bangladesh or to do much about it looks like a disaster, according to western diplomats. They fear a strategy of ignoring it and hoping it will go away or of more deliberate appeasement will only end badly. As a result, there has been a steady flow of American, Canadian, and European officials to Dhaka, hoping to cajole the government into action.

In late March the United States Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Authority sent senior officials to push the Bangladesh government towards more cooperation. Earlier this month it was the turn of US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal. She was also there to talk about improving collaboration on counter-terrorism and extremism.

There are also reports Canada (which is increasingly concerned about the radicalization of their Bengali diaspora) recently sent the head of its intelligence agency to Bangladesh. In March, the United Kingdom banned cargo on direct flights from Dhaka, and the Australian Embassy has been designated "non-accompanied" meaning it is no longer safe enough to bring families.

While things in Bangladesh could likely get worse, few predict it will get as bad as Pakistan or Syria for example. Bangladesh is a relatively homogenous country, and there are few social, cultural, or religious divides large enough to threaten widespread violence.

But the growing extremism is scaring investors and threatening the economy. Bengalis have grown accustomed to high levels of economic growth (predicted to reach 7 percent this year) that has given people the constant hope of greater affluence, renting a bigger apartment, or purchasing a new motorbike. If that promise of a better life evaporated, one of the precious few islands of peace in the Muslim world could be completely destabilized.

Scott Gilmore is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the founder of the nonprofit Building Market, and a former diplomat.