Washington: Bangladesh's government denies that transnational jihadist groups have been behind a spate of bloody attacks on secular writers, bloggers, foreigners and religious minorities. But the Bangladeshi branch of al Qaedada on the Indian Subcontinent claimed Monday's killing of USAID employee and gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan.
That claim has not been verified, but it adds to fears that local extremists with international aspirations could enable groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group to gain a foothold in a country wracked by prolonged political turmoil because of a bitter divide between the ruling party and the opposition.
The No. 2 US diplomat said Thursday that despite the government blaming the political opposition for the attacks, evidence to date suggests extremist groups, either local or affiliated with IS or al-Qaida, are responsible for the killings.
"This gives us concern about the potential for ISIL or Daesh to take root in Bangladesh," Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, using alternative acronyms for IS. "That is the last thing we want."
The assaults on minorities and moderates, typically by young men wielding knives or machetes and spewing hateful language, began in 2013 and have increased in frequency in the past year. Among the fatalities was Bangladeshi-American writer Avijit Roy, who was attacked on a street in the capital, Dhaka, in February 2015.
Human rights groups fear for others facing militant death threats as the Bangladeshi government has appeared unsympathetic to their plight — perhaps because it does not want to alienate Muslims offended by the atheistic writings of some bloggers. While authorities have arrested suspects in some of those cases, none has been prosecuted, and authorities have yet to identify the masterminds.
The State Department says the US is considering providing sanctuary to some individuals at risk, although it remains unclear whether that will happen. Human rights groups have been calling for that since December.
A broader concern for Washington as it struggles to counter Islamic State worldwide is that Bangladesh could become a hotbed for religious extremists, despite its traditions of secularism, free speech and respect for its Christian and Hindu minorities, and successes in reducing poverty and raising life expectancy among its 160 million people.
"Bangladesh has always been this country that we have upheld as a model Muslim democracy and that seems to be falling apart," said Lisa Curtis, an expert on South Asia at the Heritage Foundation think tank. She described the assassinations as attempts to change the complexion of Bangladeshi society or Islamize it.
In February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gave an unusual mention to Bangladesh in his congressional testimony on worldwide threats. He said that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's efforts to undermine the political opposition "will probably provide openings for transnational terrorist groups to expand their presence in the country."
Hasina has become the country's dominant force, marginalizing the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP, which boycotted the last national elections held in 2014. She has pursued war crimes prosecutions leading to death penalties for several leaders of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, which is allied to the BNP, over alleged involvement in atrocities committed during its 1971 war of independence, when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan.
The opposition denies involvement in the attacks and says it is being scapegoated for security failings. Hasina blamed the opposition for Mannan's killing, but hours later, Ansar al-Islam, an affiliate of al-Qaida on the Indian subcontinent, said it had killed the activist and his theater actor friend because they were "pioneers of practicing and promoting homosexuality."
U.S. officials say they cooperate well with Bangladesh on counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing, and that despite Bangladeshi denials of the involvement of transnational jihadist groups, in recent months U.S. and Bangladeshi officials have discussed how to alleviate the risk of those groups establishing themselves in the South Asian country.
Both al-Qaida and IS have made clear they want to assert themselves in Bangladesh.
In 2014, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri issued a call for jihad there, and Bangladesh has been a focus of recent articles in the Islamic State group's online magazine, Dabiq.
This month's edition includes an interview with the purported leader of IS fighters in Bangladesh, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, who says Bangladesh has a "strategic geographic position" for global jihad. He says a strong base there will facilitate guerrilla attacks inside India, and provide a "stepping stone" for jihad in Myanmar.