GENEVA - Combating terrorism will be a top agenda item when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry makes his first official visit to Bangladesh, which is still reeling from the July 1 attack claimed by Islamic State at a Dhaka cafe.
The siege left 20 hostages dead, 17 of them foreigners.
Police in Bangladesh said Saturday they killed the suspected mastermind of the attack and two other militants during a raid on their hideout just outside Dhaka.
Since that attack, “there has been an intensification of dialogue and deepening of the partnership with law enforcement and the military” and the United States is seeking to see what more it can do with Bangladesh, said a senior State Department official in a background briefing for reporters.
What Kerry publicly says Monday in Dhaka will be closely scrutinized there and abroad to gauge whether the visit is a success in terms of enhanced bilateral cooperation in countering violent extremism.
Increasingly sophisticated terrorist attacks in Bangladesh have targeted foreigners, secular bloggers and other activists, as well as members of religious minorities -- a worrying development in a Muslim country known for combining devotion with tolerance.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has blamed the killings on domestic organizations.
“The Sheikh Hasina government has really had a sort of head-in-the sand approach to this,” said Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “This has been going on for a few years, and the government has wanted to, sort of, blame the political opposition rather than admitting to any kind of extremist problem.”
In a rare interview, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the United States characterized his country as being well-prepared to face any such threats, regardless of origin.
“Whether these influences come from ISIS or al-Qaida, if they ever do come in the future, Bangladesh is ready to fight all these enemies,” Ambassador Mohammad Ziauddin told VOA.
Bangladesh, India, the United States and others are constantly exchanging intelligence about terrorism related activities. And that cooperation is credited with halting potential attacks while in the planning stages.
“Through these exchanges of information we have been able to weed out these sleeper cells,” Ziauddin said.
“Our prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has a zero-tolerance policy for violent extremism and terrorism,” he said prior to flying home for the Kerry visit.
Bangladesh watchers note the developing country grapples with a growing terrorism threat amid an ideological divide between secularists and religious extremists.
“What Secretary Kerry should make clear to Sheikh Hasina is that unless there is political dialogue between the government and the opposition, it’s going to make it nearly impossible to develop a national consensus against extremism, which is really what is threatening the country,” said Curtis, a former CIA analyst.
It was unclear whether Kerry would meet with opposition leader Khaleda Zia or anyone else from the Bangladesh National Party (BNP).
“We do anticipate additional meetings and interactions as they get finalized,” said the senior state department official when asked by VOA whether any such meetings would occur during Kerry’s brief visit.
Zia, who served as prime minister from 1991-96 and 2001-06, has been engaged in an acrimonious political rivalry with Hasina for decades.
The quarrel between the two chiefs of the respective Bangladeshi political dynasties -- who are known as “the battling begums” – has long cast a shadow over the country’s political system.
A third force, Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest religious political party, was outlawed three years ago.
A group of U.N. human rights experts on Tuesday called on the government to annul a death sentence against a senior Jamaat-e-Islami official.
U.N. special rapporteurs Agnes Callamard, Monica Pinto, Juan Mendez and others, in a statement, also said Mir Quasem Ali should be retried “in compliance with international standards.”
Jamaat leader Motiur Rahman Nizami was executed in May following his conviction for war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence, during which Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan.
In addition to focusing on the terrorism threat and ending the ongoing political turmoil, observers say the government has to address other causes hindering economic progress, specifically “the bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism by government and corruption that continues to hinder the investment needed to create jobs and foster a stronger Bangladesh,” according to Curtis Chin, former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.
'Address social injustices'
"Much more can be done to address social injustices and inequality, but poverty is no justification for terrorist attacks,” cautions Chin, an Asia Fellow at the nonpartisan Milken Institute, an economic think tank.
Ambassador Ziauddin said an important item on Dhaka's agenda during the talks with Kerry is Bangladesh’s request for the United States to reinstate duty-free entry of the country’s textile products.
“We feel that the U.S. is fair and looks kindly towards Bangladesh, and we hope it will do this as a matter of justice and fair play,” he explained.
Bangladesh lost the privilege, known as the Generalized System of Privilege (GSP), in 2013 amid concerns about dangerous conditions in the country’s garment factories.
Bangladesh is the third-largest exporter of clothing products to the United States.
Chin noted that Bangladesh last year advanced to a “lower-middle-income status” nation, but its progress remains under growing threat.
“Textiles are not the long-term solution to Bangladesh's economic needs,” Chin said. “Bangladesh must diversify its industry sectors away from textiles and must develop a highly skilled workforce to keep pace with that diversification.”