Bangladesh endured its own Mumbai-like suicide attack over the weekend when heavily armed terrorists targeted a bakery frequented by foreigners and took them hostage before being were gunned down by security forces. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility; whether or not the group that has ravaged Syria and Iraq was involved in the Dhaka attack will be established in the days to come but this conscious targeting of foreigners appears geared to exacerbate the conflict between the State establishment and extremist forces that have long waged a bitter and bloody battle.
The Sheikh Hasina government’s counterterrorism policies will be under a lot more international pressure following this attack. That sort of scrutiny does occasionally helps as with the case of the Lashkar-e-Toiba after the Mumbai attacks, when the Pakistani establishment was forced to rein in the violence of the group if not its infrastructure. Ms Hasina’s government unfortunately has nowhere that kind of leverage as a range of Islamist groups have been relentlessly challenging the authority of her government, and have, over the last year, launched several brutal, often unspeakably violent attacks on bloggers, atheist activists, publishers, Hindus, Shias and foreigners.
Extremism and terrorism have proved almost impossible to tackle in Bangladesh as they themselves are a product of the deep dysfunction in the country’s politics and State institutions. Ms Hasina’s Awami League party and government is both a product and a driver of that dysfunction. Created via a bloody civil war in 1971, Bangladesh has a very violent political culture and a gridlocked politics dominated by two warring parties and, as pointed by the International Crisis Group (ICG), it has extremely partisan State structures whereby institutions like the civil service, police and judiciary are manned or manipulated by party faithful. Hasina’s government is opposed to violent Islamists but it has also presided over widespread repression of opposition parties like Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami. This and the partisan nature of the criminal justice system has bred alienation and enhanced the appeal of extremist organisations and terror groups. Furthermore, as a politically-freighted bureaucracy is too invested in the continuation of a regime and prone to overreach, the Hasina government has also cracked down on the media and sections of the civil society, further undermining its legitimacy.
Bangladesh is experiencing a crisis of public institutions of which terrorism is one manifestation. The focus now will be on finding the conspirators but the country desperately needs a new form of politics and a sequence of steps that will manage social tensions. Right now that sounds like wishful thinking.