U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Bangladeshi officials Monday that the United States had evidence of contacts between the Islamic State (IS) and militants in Bangladesh, following months of denials from Dhaka about any such links.
“[W]e made it very clear … that there is evidence that ISIL (using another acronym for IS) in Iraq and Syria has contacts with about eight different entities around the world, and one of them is in South Asia,” Kerry told reporters during a one-day visit to Dhaka, his first visit as secretary of state.
“And they are connected to some degree with some of the operatives here, and we made that very clear in our conversation. There was no argument about it,” Kerry said, according to a transcript from the U.S. State Department.
IS has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Bangladesh, including last month’s siege at a café in Dhaka where 20 hostages – including a U.S. citizen – were killed. But Bangladeshi officials have rejected any alleged IS connection, blaming home-grown militant groups including Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (JMB) for the acts.
Kerry met with Bangladesh’s prime minister, foreign minister, home minister and opposition leaders to discuss bilateral issues, including matters of security, international peacekeeping, climate change, human rights and democracy, state department officials said.
Kerry said the two countries agreed to boost bilateral counter terrorism efforts between their intelligence services and law enforcement agencies.
Responding to a reporter’s question about IS links to Bangladesh, Kerry said “we had a very candid conversation,” adding that he did not think that the Bangladeshi government had “its head in the sand” over the issue.
In his meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Kerry told her that IS had been cornered in Syria and Iraq and that its non-Arab fighters were returning to their countries of origin, her press secretary told reporters.
Hasina told the top American diplomat that Bangladesh needed American support to combat terrorists and asked for U.S. cooperation in sharing intelligence on the threat, her spokesman said.
“The two leaders agreed to work together to combat terrorism,” press secretary Ihsanul Karim said.
Following his 10-hour stop in Dhaka, Kerry flew to India on Monday night.
Tamim Chowdhury: IS’s emir in Bangladesh?
Dating to last year, Bangladeshi officials from the prime minister on down have denied that Islamic State or any other transnational terror group had any links to home-grown militant groups, or that IS or al-Qaeda has a presence in their country.
Since February 2015 a series of killings has gripped Bangladesh, targeting secular bloggers, intellectuals, and religious minorities, among others. Dual U.S.-Bangladeshi citizen and secular blogger Avijit Roy and Xulhaz Mannan, a gay-rights activist who worked in Dhaka for the U.S. government, were among those killed in smaller-scale machete attacks.
Yet the mass killing of 20 hostages – mostly foreigners – at the Holey Artisan Bakery café in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter on July 1 took the terror threat to a new level.
Kerry’s visit took place two days after Bangladeshi security forces shot and killed three suspected JMB militants in a raid on a house on the outskirts of Dhaka, including a Canadian citizen, Tamim Chowdhury.
Bangladeshi officials said Chowdhury, 30, led a faction of JMB known as Neo-JMB and they believed he was the “main mastermind” of the café attack. Earlier, police identified him as one of 10 “masterminds” behind the attack.
But, according to a recent edition of IS propaganda magazine Dabiq, Chowdhury was the leader of IS’s Bangladeshi network – an allegation that Bangladeshi officials rejected, even after his death. The edition, which came out in April, referred to Chowdhury by a different name – Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hafiz – and described him as “the Amir [Emir] of the Khilafah’s soldiers in Bengal,” a reference to Bangladesh and IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East.
On Sunday, Bangladeshi authorities identified the two other suspects killed alongside Chowdhury. One was Towsif Hossain, a student at the Kuala Lumpur campus of Australia’s Monash University who came from a well-healed neighborhood in Dhaka and had been missing since February, police told Reuters. One of the five men killed after allegedly attacking the Holey Artisan Bakery, Nibras Islam, also was a student at the campus in Malaysia, Reuters said.
The other alleged militant slain in Saturday’s raid in Naryanganj district, Fazle Rabbi, came from Jessore district and had been missing from his family since April, police told Reuters.
‘Their twisted quest for fame’
Bangladeshi newspapers the Dhaka Tribune and Daily Star newspaper reported Chowdhury, a resident of Windsor, Ontario, was born in Canada on July 25, 1986, the son of merchant mariner who emigrated from Bangladesh’s northeastern district of Sylhet. The Tribune noted that Chowdhury majored in chemistry at the University of Windsor.
Bangladeshi police said that Chowdhury arrived in Bangladesh in October 2013 from Abu Dhabi.
Professor Amarnath Amarasingham, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who specializes in counter-terrorism, told the National Post of Canada that he had heard that Chowdhury had emerged as a leader of the regional affiliate of IS after arriving in Bangladesh.
In an interview published in the Dhaka Tribune on Sunday, Amarasingham spoke about the implications of Chowdhury’s killing.
“Symbolically, it won’t much matter to his supporters who will see him as a martyr for the cause, continue to recruit and continue to plot attacks if possible,” the academic told the newspaper.
“Operationally, I think it could be quite significant. If as seems likely, the network in Bangladesh is small, the death of key operatives over the last several months will basically kill the movement. We will have to wait and see,” he added.
Since news of Chowdhury’s death spread, Bangladeshi immigrant communities in Canada condemned the violence allegedly espoused by the former resident of Windsor.
The Windsor Islamic Council, which earlier had confirmed that Chowdhury was a son of the city, said on Saturday that it had no knowledge of his background, according to the Canadian Press.
In a statement posted on its website, the council said it had adopted a policy of not talking about “the lives of violent extremists.”
“This policy stems from [a] deep conviction that talking about the lives of such individuals only dignifies their heinous acts and serves their twisted quest for fame,” the statement read.
“[W]e do not only condemn and reject all forms of violence in the name of our noble faith, but renew our commitment and determination to expose the criminal and anti-Islamic nature of extremism and terrorism,” it added.