A Bangladeshi minister Wednesday reacted sharply to congressional testimony from the American intelligence chief, who told senators that transnational terrorist groups could expand their presence in Bangladesh through exploiting attempts by the ruling Awami League to undermine the political opposition.
U.S. National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper also challenged statements consistently issued by Bangladeshi officials about terrorism. They have maintained that the Islamic State (IS) has no foothold in Bangladesh and have blamed the opposition for being behind attacks on foreigners, members of religious minorities, as well as secular bloggers, writers and editors.
“The ruling party undermining opposition parties is out of the question,” Information minister and government spokesman Hasanul Haque Inu told BenarNews in rejecting the on-the-record comments made a day earlier by Clapper.
“Legal and registered parties are enjoying all rights of democracy. The government never blocks them from enjoying that,” Inu said.
On Tuesday, Clapper and heads of American intelligence agencies appeared before hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, briefing senators on their assessments of worldwide threats.
“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s continuing efforts to undermine the political opposition in Bangladesh will probably provide openings for transnational terrorist groups to expand their presence in the country,” Clapper said in his part of the testimony that touched on South Asia, according to a transcript.
“Hasina and other government officials have insisted publically that the killings of foreigners are the work of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami political parties and are intended to discredit the government,” he added, referring to the BNP’s ally in the opposition.
Clapper went on to note that IS had claimed responsibility for “11 high-profile attacks on foreigners and religious minorities.” Other extremists in the country, including Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), had also claimed responsibility for a series of murders targeting progressive bloggers and writers, Clapper said.
Amid growing insecurity and a rising wave of extremist sentiment, five bloggers and one editor have been murdered in separate machete-attacks dating to February 2013. Last year, two foreigners, and three members of the minority Shiite and Christian communities were also killed by suspected militants.
Regional IS branches emerging?
Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, who heads the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, also testified before Congress about Bangladesh.
“As the Paris attacks demonstrated, ISIL has now become the most significant terrorist threat to the U.S. and our allies,” Stewart told senators on Tuesday, using another acronym for IS.
Last year, the group expanded globally from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, setting up new branches in Libya, the Sinai desert, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Caucuses, he said.
“[B]ut we assess that other branches will likely grow increasingly dangerous as we move into 2016,” Stewart testified, according to a transcript. “Emerging branches include those in Mali, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Tunisia, Somalia, and possibly other countries. Spectacular external attacks demonstrate ISIL’s relevance and reach and is a key part of their narrative.”
Responding to Clapper’s comments about ABT and al-Qaeda, Monirul Islam, the joint commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, told BenarNews that his department had no information about an AQIS presence in Bangladesh.
“But Ansarullah Bangla Team is a follower of al-Qaeda,” Islam said. “For a long time, they have tried to become involved with them. But we have no information that Ansarullah finally has any connection with al-Qaeda.”
Meanwhile, the issue of terrorism came up during a meeting on Tuesday between a U.S. congressman and Bangladeshi Ambassador to the United States Mohammad Ziauddin, the state-run Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS) reported Wednesday.
Prime Minister Hasina has vowed “zero tolerance against all forms of extremism and terrorism and is personally committed to uproot[ing] extremism and terrorism from the soil of Bangladesh,” BSS quoted the ambassador as telling Congressman Sander M. Levin (D-Michigan).
According to Ziauddin, Hasina’s government also was working with the U.S. and other countries to combat the threat both within and outside Bangladesh’s borders.