Terrorism increased significantly in Bangladesh in 2016, with the extremist group Islamic State (IS) claiming as many as 18 attacks in the South Asian nation, the U.S. State Department said in a report published Wednesday.
Both IS and al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for “a significant number” of terrorist attacks in Bangladesh – a nation of more than 163 million people, about 87 percent of whom are Muslim – the State Department said in its 445-page “Country Reports on Terrorism 2016.”
“Bangladesh experienced a significant increase in terrorist activity in 2016,” according to the report. “The Government of Bangladesh has articulated a zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism, made numerous arrests of terrorist suspects, and continued its counterterrorism cooperation with the international community.”
Among 18 incidents claimed by IS in Bangladesh, the most lethal attack carried out last year was the July 1-2 siege of the Holey Artisan Bakery, the report said. The attack left 29 people dead, including 20 hostages, two police officers and the five militants who had stormed the café in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter, the report said.
The country launched an aggressive counter-terrorism crackdown following the café siege. At least 70 people have been killed since then in police raids on suspected militant hideouts.
Authorities continued to insist that Islamic State has no presence in the country despite its claim of responsibility for the cafe attack and photos it released of the perpetrators.
“All of them are the people of Bangladesh. They brand themselves in different names at different times,” Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said of the attackers, in an interview with BenarNews ahead of the first year anniversary of the attack.
“The forces that opposed Bangladesh’s independence through a freedom struggle have been committing these sorts of incidents one after another in a bid to get stronger,” he said, referring to faith-based opposition party Jamaat-e-Islam.
In 2016, the report went on to say, Bangladesh suffered several other small-scale attacks for which there were no public claims of responsibility, including a bomb blast at an Eid-gathering in Sholakia, north of Dhaka, that killed four people – including two police officers – and injured seven.
The extent of IS’s presence in Bangladesh could affect the country’s garment industry, which employs millions of people and earns more than $20 billion a year in exports, political observers said, explaining that any sign of a major militant influence in the nation could force Western brands to look elsewhere for cheaper labor.
The report said Bangladesh took steps to further strengthen control of its borders and ports of entry by cooperating with the United States and sharing law-enforcement information with Interpol, although the country does not have a dedicated list of suspected terrorists.
“Despite lacking laws specific to foreign terrorist fighters, Bangladesh has arrested suspected foreign terrorist fighters or facilitators of such fighters on other charges under existing law,” the report said.
IS remains No. 1 terrorist threat worldwide
The yearly report from the State Department documents terrorist activity in countries around the globe and national responses to the threat.
“In 2016, terrorist groups continued to exploit ungoverned territory and ongoing conflict to expand their reach. ISIS remained the top terrorist threat in 2016, directing and inspiring terrorist cells, networks, and individuals around the world,” the report said, using another acronym for IS.
Of the terrorist attacks that took place in 104 countries in 2016, about 55 percent of them occurred in five countries – Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
In the Philippines, “the emergence of ISIS affiliated extremist groups, persistent kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), attacks on government forces, and bombings, all indicated that domestic and international terrorism remained a serious problem,” the report said.
It listed the southern Philippines in its section on terrorist safe havens, defined as “ungoverned, under-governed, or ill-governed physical areas where terrorists are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, transit and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both.”
In Southeast Asia, the coastlines of the Sulawesi and Sulu seas are also terrorist safe havens, according to the report, which noted that the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia had increased efforts to police these waters that lie between their three countries.
The number of islands and maritime traffic in this region make it hard to secure, the report said.
“Traditional smuggling and piracy groups supported terrorist networks, including the movement of personnel, equipment, and funds. Kidnapping-for-ransom remained an ongoing threat and a source of funding for terrorist networks in the region,” it said.