- Trip to Dhaka comes after increase in violent attacks
- Three militants killed in raid, Dhaka police say on weekend
Secretary of State John Kerry said U.S. and Bangladesh intelligence and law enforcement agencies will work more closely together to fight extremists after a spate of attacks on locals and foreigners alike raised concerns the Islamic State is spreading its network here.
In meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and others during the one-day visit, Kerry said he had “made it very clear” that the Islamic State was growing in South Asia as it weakens in Iraq and Syria. The group claimed responsibility for an attack on a restaurant popular with foreigners on July 1 that killed 22 people.
“There is evidence that ISIL in Iraq and Syria have contacts with about eight different entities around the world and one of them is in South Asia and they are connected to some degree with some of the operatives here,” Kerry said. “There was no argument about it.”
The globe-trotting Kerry has never visited Bangladesh, and his decision to stop here reflects how the Bangladesh attacks have sharpened U.S. focus on the predominantly Muslim country as a potential Islamic State breeding ground.
The Dhaka attack, which the assailants broadcast on the Internet and was later claimed by Islamic State, spooked investors who have helped make Bangladesh the world’s second largest garment manufacturer behind China. That has raised fears that annual growth, projected to be more than 6 percent this year, may falter.
Kerry was under heavy security in Dhaka, with soldiers lining the motorcade route everywhere he went and cars and pedestrians cleared away. Thousands of bystanders in the crowded city stopped to watch as Kerry’s procession of armored SUVs passed by.
The U.S. wants to ensure the group doesn’t expand its network outside the Middle East to places like Bangladesh as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi forces drove the group’s fighters from Fallujah in June and are next seeking to confront it in Mosul.
Kerry urged Bangladesh to strengthen worker rights, including giving people the right to collective bargaining, saying marginalized people are ripe targets for extremists.
Police also continue to investigate the disappearance of dozens of young men feared to have been radicalized by Islamic State. Some of the men who staged the attack on the bakery grew up in wealthy families and had shown no signs of extremism before the attack. Five of six of them were killed in the standoff that followed.
Three more militants, including the mastermind of the July attack, were killed in a raid just days before Kerry arrived, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police said in a statement on August 27.
In a video released days after the attack, Islamic State promised more assaults. “This will repeat, repeat and repeat until you lose and we win,” a man says in the video. The group has claimed responsibility for several other incidents in Bangladesh.
While officials acknowledge Islamic extremist groups in Bangladesh may have links to outsiders, the government denies that Islamic State is operating there on its own. Instead it says the extremism is largely homegrown and has been fomented by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party.
Investigators identified that militants involved in the restaurant attack were homegrown, and found no members of Islamic State in Bangladesh, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said at an event on Aug. 5.
“There is no room for militancy and terrorism in the country,” Khan said, according to the state-run news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha. “Investigators in the meantime have identified all members of home-grown militant outfits and necessary actions are being taken.”
Khan didn’t answer phone calls from Bloomberg.
Hasina’s government points to a wave of killings that targeted some 40 secular and moderate bloggers and others as further evidence of the opposition’s agenda. The opposition denies the claim and says her government is using the fear of extremism to harass or limit its supporters as part of a campaign that has included thousands of arrests.
Kerry is expected to meet opposition leaders who argue the government has used the extremist threat to crack down on political opponents. They include BNP leader Khaleda Zia, whose party boycotted parliamentary elections in 2014.
“One silver bullet cannot solve this kind of security problems -- it requires multiple approaches to tackle militancy or terrorism,” said Ahsan H. Mansur, executive director of Dhaka-based Policy Research Institute, “There is a political side to it. The government should try to take a politically inclusive approach to address the fundamental problem. The government should listen to disenchanted forces because these people may end up as militants.”