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Analyst: Bangladesh Not Positioned to Fight Domestic Terrorism


People place flowers at a makeshift memorial near the site, to pay tribute to the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O'Kitchen Restaurant, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 5, 2016.

People place flowers at a makeshift memorial near the site, to pay tribute to the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O'Kitchen Restaurant, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 5, 2016.

A specialist in South Asian political and military affairs says Bangladesh is in a poor position to manage escalating terrorist attacks in the country.

Speaking on VOA’s Asia Weekly podcast, Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, attributes the problem to the high degree of politicization within the Bangladeshi police and judiciary.

What Bangladesh "fundamentally suffers from is that the two parties, the Awami League and the BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party], have two different narratives of what the nation is," Fair said, describing the country as "evenly divided."

"The BNP, more right of center, acknowledges the place of Islam in politics, and the Awami League undermines that," she said.

The government could turn to outside help in combating and investigating attacks, she said, but when assistance has been provided from countries like the United States, the results have been mixed. Atop this, there's the problem of poor crime scene mismanagement, she said; even if help is provided in a given case, the evidence authorities may be seeking may no longer be there.

Fair spoke after Thursday's attack on a police post in Kishoreganj, about 140 kilometers from Dhaka, which occurred as hundreds of thousands were gathering at a festival marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. One police officer was killed in a bomb blast and another was stabbed. Reports from the scene also indicated a woman was killed and more than a dozen people were wounded.

Authorities said two of the attackers were killed and a third was captured. Officials haven’t linked the assailants to any particular organization, but the Islamic State (IS) group had released a video earlier claiming there would be more violence in Bangladesh.

People help an unidentified injured person after a group of gunmen attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

People help an unidentified injured person after a group of gunmen attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

Bakery siege

This attack came about a week after gunmen entered the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, where 20 hostages were killed. The previous day a Hindu priest had been hacked to death, some two weeks after authorities rounded up 12,000 suspected criminals.

While IS claimed responsibility for the bakery attack, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan told AFP the attackers were members of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, a domestic group that’s been banned for more than 10 years. Khan said there was no connection to IS.

According to an AP report, some of the men who carried out the bakery attack had been missing for months, alarming their families. The men also appeared to have come from privileged backgrounds, had grown up loved and were educated at top schools.

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pays homage in front of the coffins of the victims who were killed in the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O'Kitchen Restaurant, during a memorial ceremony in Dhaka, July 4, 2016.

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pays homage in front of the coffins of the victims who were killed in the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O'Kitchen Restaurant, during a memorial ceremony in Dhaka, July 4, 2016.

Counterterror abilities

So does the government have a handle on things? And is it doing enough to keep the streets safe?

Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, a filmmaker in Bangladesh, said,“Bangladesh has never been ready for this kind of military attack. We don’t know how to combat it.”

Georgetown's Fair said that even though authorities have rounded up thousands of suspects in an effort to curb violence, “the government is much more interested in breaking the backs of the BNP, which is the primary rival party, and its partner, Jamaat-e-Islami. So the Sheikh Hasina government has been very sensitive to any kind of criticism that her efforts to smash the back of Jamaat have had these negative effects.”

Fair said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is facing criticism from the international community for waving aside the notion that IS or other groups were making inroads in the country.

She is also under pressure for “essentially stifling freedom of speech and ... aggressively cracking down on the media that was critical of her and what she was doing."

"One of the immediate criticisms [of the large-scale roundup] is that they were basically BNP party workers, as opposed to people that are involved in terrorism,” she said.

That point wasn’t lost on Farooki.

“When they decide to run an operation to arrest the Islamic militants, then we think this is right,” the filmmaker said. “But when they end up arresting 12,000 opposition workers or supporters, then here comes the question, because they are not the Islamic militants.”

Fair raised a question about Sheikh Hasina’s motives: “Is she really interested in taking on this terrorism menace, or is she interested in continuing [a policy] to eliminate all of her political foes?”

“Support for Jamaat-e-Islami is actually really high in Bangladesh,” Fair said, “so [Sheikh Hasina’s] approach of basically trying to eviscerate a party that has considerable support suggests that she is kind of out of touch. Not only that, the idea that everyone [in Jamaat] is involved in terrorism or is a culprit in war crimes is also quite absurd.

"So she has put herself in a situation ... where ordinary pious Muslims that [want a] different kind of state really don’t have a political channel through which they can act. ... [And this] gives fear that she is actually providing an incentive for some of these violent entrepreneurs to do what they have done.”

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    Steve Miller

    Steve Miller comes to VOA after nearly a decade in South Korea, where he worked as a university professor and was a mainstay on local, national, and international radio and television programs. While in Asia, Steve produced one of the highest rated Asia related news podcasts, which was syndicated in four countries and now has a new home at Voice of America. In addition, he traveled extensively throughout the region sharing his adventures online with his audience.

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