Think Again: Islamism and Militancy in Bangladesh


Islamist militancy in Bangladesh rarely draws the attention of scholars and policy analysts for a number of reasons. First, South Asia programs in the United States produce very few Bangladesh experts. In fact, most South Asia programs in the United States focus upon North India as well as a smattering of South Asian languages (e.g. Tamil).  Second, most students of those programs who study the Bengali language will do their language training in India’s state of Bengali rather than Bangladesh.

Within the U.S. government, expertise on Bangladesh is even thinner. The U.S. Department of State, which does not have a South Asia cadre, has few Bangladesh experts because such expertise has little reward in the bureaucracy. Think tanks similarly entertain very little focus upon Bangladesh, with few exceptions because their funders typically find little interest in the ostensibly obscure South Asian state. Finally, few scholars and analysts travel to Bangladesh and when they do, they rarely venture beyond the confines of the country’s capital, Dhaka.  These reasons have combined to ensure that Bangladesh has not garnered the scrutiny it merits.

In fact, as both the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in South Asia have locked their sights on South Asia, Bangladesh deserves special attention.

Reasons Not to be Insouciant about Bangladesh

Recently, Atif Jalal Ahmad and Michael Kugelman sought to explore whether or not the Islamic State will infect Bangladesh. While they offer the usual disclaimers of uncertainty, the authors made a series of fundamental misjudgments about Bangladesh.

First, it is not clear why they believe that Bangladesh has not been “infected” by the Islamic State. Indeed, going by the numbers, none of South Asia’s major countries have yielded strong public bastions of support. Even in Afghanistan, the Taliban commanders that have thrown their support to the Islamic State seem to have done so because they have grown exhausted with the organization’s domination by Pakistani intelligence. Elsewhere, criminal elements in Pakistan are hoisting the Islamic State flag to conceal their criminal activity and garner impunity or as an intimidation tactic. India has had relatively few recruits march off to Syria and Iraq—so far the numbers are single digits. In contrast, Bangladesh has produced considerably more ISIS recruits than has India despite having about equal numbers of Muslims. Authorities have arrested several Bangladeshis who are living in the United Kingdom who were recruiting fighters from Bangladesh. Just last month, Indian intelligence intercepted a group of jihadi recruits on their way to meet an ISIS handler in Bangladesh.

However, ISIS is just one threat to this important state of some 169 million people, nearly 90 percent of whom are Muslim. In fact, Bangladesh has a long dalliance with numerous kinds of political violence, including that which can be described variously as inter-party, communal, sectarian, hartal (strike)-related, and political assassinations. While it is nowhere as violence prone as its neighbors, according data from the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD), between March 1986 and December 2014, there have been 1,049 terrorist attacks. This no doubt understates the case given that Bangladesh does not garner the attention in international media that its more popular neighbors do and international media is a key input to the GTD.



  1. Christine Fair is a biased person who writes against Muslims; especially against Pakistan and now, she picked up Bangladesh. Indian interests funds the organization she works in. Washington is full of writers who get paid by special interests and she is one of them.

  2. My gut response to the article is this that this is a highly unsubstantiated piece. Author’s claim that in UK several people are recruting Bangladeshis to join ISIS while not giving the exact number or even a gusstimate does not augur well for the credibility of the author’s theory. Moreover, what is also not clear from this article is that whether those Bangladeshis that are joining ISIS are ‘infecting’ Bangladesh. Perhaps, these guys are going overseas to fight for ISIS in the Middle East.

    Bangladeshis fighting for foriegn Islamist forces (they fought with the then politically convenient Mujahideen, now Taliban in eighties and also for PLO etc for example.) is nothing new. But these engagements have not necessarily translated themselves into a Islamic militant movement in Bangladesh itself.

    However, What should be of concern is that if the pretend-secularists of Bangladesh continue to fail the nation and persist to brually suppress dissents and keep themselves afloat with support of foreign countries especially that of the neighbouring big brother possibility of a violent nationalist backlash with Islamic orientation (not Islamic fundamentalist though – Bangladeshis do not have stomach for fundamentalism) cannot be ruled out completely.


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