The call of the leadership of the so-called Islamic State to kill those whom it views as crusaders is beginning to resonate far from the theater of conflict.
After threatening to kill nationals of the coalition fighting IS, official IS media claimed the recent murders of an Italian and a Japanese in Bangladesh.
Controversy surrounds the identity of the masterminds and perpetrators of these killings. Bangladeshi authorities deny IS involvement and attribute the murders to a conspiracy to destabilize the country by homegrown Islamists, including activists of Islami Chhatra Shibir.
Instead of dismissing the IS threat, it is paramount to research and investigate it – and respond before it gets worse. Neglecting the threat will affect investment, growth and stability.
A determined leader in the fight against terrorism, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh should take note of the emerging IS influence supplanting that of al-Qaeda in her country. A victim of terrorism herself, the prime minister should lead an effort to fight IS propaganda in Bengali proliferating since June 2014.
The IS claims
Cesare Tavella, 50, an employee of a Netherlands-based NGO, was shot dead in a diplomatic enclave of Dhaka on Sept. 28 by men on a motorbike. Kunio Hoshi, 66, a farm owner, was killed in the same way in Rangpur, in the north of Bangladesh, on Oct. 3.
IS claimed Tavella’s killing in a Sept. 28 communique, "Eliminating a Crusader Italian Foreigner at hands of the soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh," according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
"In a unique operation for the soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh, a security detachment carried out the targeting of the crusader foreigner (Tavella Cesare) after tracking him in one of the streets of the city of (Dhaka) where they killed him after being targeted with silenced weapons and unto Allah is all praise and gratitude," the statement said.
The communique added: "And we say to the citizens of the crusader coalition that you will not be secured in the homes of the Muslims and that the first of the rain is one drop…."
The attack was also reported by Attamkin, a blog that translates IS content into Bengali, and IS English editions of its al-Bayan provincial news bulletin acknowledged the killing of an Italian citizen in Dhaka on Sept. 29.
Five days after Tavella’s murder, on Oct. 3, Hoshi was shot dead in northern Bangladesh. IS also claimed this attack in a statement titled "Elimination of a Japanese Foreigner at the Hands of the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh," which was distributed on Twitter the same day.
“In a blessed operation by the soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh, a security detachment targeted one of the citizens of the Crusader coalition states against the Islamic State, the Japanese foreigner Hoshi Kunio, after precisely tracking him. He was eliminated by firearms in the city of Rangpur, and unto Allah is all praise and gratitude.”
It added, "The series of security operations against the citizens of the Crusader coalition states will remain ongoing, and there will neither be safety nor life for them in the homes of the Muslims, Allah permitting."
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, was online when the two claims were published by IS-linked accounts on Twitter, the primary means of dissemination for IS messages.
The claim about Tavella was published on Sept. 28 at about 1:20 p.m. EST, and IS’s claim about the Japanese national was posted on Twitter at 11:20 a.m. EST on Oct. 3, Katz said.
Bangladeshi authorities say that statements claiming the killings were uploaded to a Bengali language blog “on a sub domain run by several persons in Bangladesh” almost five hours after the killing in Dhaka, and shortly after midnight on Oct. 4, from Rangpur.
The claims were posted on official IS twitter accounts first, a SITE investigation shows.
“Since April 2015, this Bangla blog, using the Google blogging platform, blogspot.com, has been posting ISIS releases translated to Bengali. The releases are copied from ISIS official media for dissemination and recruitment of Bengali community,” Katz said, using another acronym for IS.
“ISIS claims of both the Japanese and the Italian were posted on Twitter at least 12 hours before the Bengali blog posted them,” she said. “The fact is that ISIS officially claimed credit for the attack. That fact can’t be argued or dismissed, and needs to be fully accepted by the Bengali police.
“Furthermore, since we have been tracking ISIS, none of their claims of attack have been disproven, and that is important for authorities to factor into their investigations.”
The terrorist threat to Bangladesh is both offline and online. Since announcing its “caliphate,” IS media has been published in Bengali on social media. The number of Bangladeshis at home joining IS to fight in Syria is very small, but the number of supporters of IS among the Bangladesh diaspora living in Europe has increased.
Unlike those in the margins of society who joined the fight in Afghanistan, those going to Syria include youths from the social mainstream.
Ashequr Rahman, a 21-year-old Bangladeshi, left Dhaka on Feb. 21 to attend a conference in Turkey and was scheduled to return home on Feb. 27. He did not return but crossed the Turkish border to join IS in Syria. Ashequr was a student at Dhaka's Military Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), a university run by Bangladesh’s military.
IS media is seeking to politicize, radicalize and militarize Bangladeshis. IS Furat Media published an article on Bangladesh for Dabiq, the IS propaganda magazine. Written in Bengali, the article titled “Khilafat Ghoshona o Bangladesh” (“The Declaration of the Caliphate and Bangladesh”), called for prison breaks to free Islamist militants.
Hoping that Bangladesh will be the epicenter of jihad in South Asia, the article called Bangladeshis to give an open pledge of allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In addition to advising Bangladeshis to abandon democracy and nationalism, silence the secularists and atheists and behead those who they think insult Allah and the Prophet, Bangladeshis were urged to spread the message of IS through the social media.
Bangladeshis are not immune to the online and offline threat. Although internet penetration is low, due to the use of mobile phones, the damage to Bangladesh society from the online threat is huge. In addition to building their intelligence and investigative prowess, the authorities must invest in preventive and rehabilitation programs. If they do not, the threat will grow.
At this point the Bangladeshi counter radicalization efforts are not robust and of a scale needed to fight the spread of the ideology. Another weakness of the Bangladeshi strategy is the failure to develop a rehabilitation program. In prisons, terrorists and criminals coexist and learn from each other. Despite discussions and plans, no concrete strategy to rehabilitate terrorists exists.
Lone wolf strikes
After years of denial of the existence of terrorist groups, Bangladesh was decisive in the way it dealt with JMB and HUJI-B While JMB and HUJI-B is planning to come back, AQIS-linked Ansarullah and its Ansar al-Islam (1-10) operational teams are seeking to compete with the newly established IS cells.
In a major breakthrough in the investigation into the recent murders, the police in Bangladesh identified cells of IS supporters. The cells are working with professional killers, and, unless neutralized, will likely use their own operation capabilities.
Rather than IS dispatching fighters to Bangladesh, the strategy has been to inspire and instigate locals and recruit them for this style of lone wolf and solo strikes. Not only Muslim countries but Western countries are increasingly suffering from this threat. From Australia to Tunisia, and throughout Europe and the U.S., dozens of lone wolf cells and solo operators are mobilized by IS.
Such attacks are exceptionally difficult to stop after being launched but could be prevented by an effective policy response: investing in counter radicalization to prevent radicalization, and de-radicalization to rehabilitate those radicalized. Building the strategic capabilities beyond the intelligence, law enforcement and military response will enable Bangladesh to manage and respond to the current and emerging IS-centric threat.
Rohan Gunaratna heads the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.