In less than four years, Bangladesh has seen at least 15 bloggers, writers, and activists killed for their progressive and secular views. There have also been an unusually high number of fatal attacks on foreigners and worshippers.
The spate of killings of writers and intellectuals known for their progressive views is not random. The names of nearly all of those killed in recent years appeared on a list of 84 people created by a group of conservative Muslim clerics who accused the bloggers of “atheism” and writing against Islam. The clerics submitted the list to a special government committee in 2013, and openly stated that many bloggers are “apostates” and should be “killed”.
Bangladesh is a non-religious parliamentary democracy, in which the right to free expression is enshrined by Bangladesh’s constitution. Yet the government, the judiciary and police forces have not taken sufficient measures to deter extremists from targeting the bloggers and the publishers.
On the contrary, authorities have blocked critical websites and arrested multiple bloggers from the black list. In 2015, just days after secular blogger Niloy Neel hacked to death at his apartment, Bangladesh's Chief of Police warned that “free-thinkers and bloggers should not cross the limit of tolerance while expressing their views on religion.” Many are skeptical of police efforts to investigate the murders.
Blacklisted bloggers choose exile
These circumstances have prompted many bloggers and online activists to take refuge in safe havens abroad. However, this has not been easy for them, or their families. Blogger and online activist Mahmudul Haque Munshi, who is in exile in Germany, wrote in his blog Swapnokothok (Dreamweaver) earlier this year about choosing exile:
আমি কখনো ভাবিনি আমাকে আমার মাতৃভূমি ছাড়তে হবে। [..] মোবাইল নাম্বার ওপেন ছিলো ব্লগে তাই কল করে হুমকি ধামকি দিতো কিছু মানুষ। ব্লগে পোস্ট দেয়া হতো সরকার চেঞ্জ হলে কোন দশজন ব্লগারের লাশ পড়বে। আমার নাম থাকতো সেসব লিস্টে। আমরা পাত্তা দিতাম না। কারন ব্লগের লেখালেখির কারনে ব্লগার খুন হবে এটা ছিলো এক ধরনের হাস্যকর চিন্তা তখন। সেই হাস্যকর চিন্তাটাই সত্যি হয়ে দেখা দেয় ২০১৩-র ১৪ই ফেব্রুয়ারি। আমার খুব কাছের একজন মানুষ, একজন ব্লগার থাবাবাবা কে হত্যা করা হয় কুপিয়ে তাঁর বাসার সামনে।
I never thought that I would leave my country. […] My mobile number was mentioned in my blog so I got frequent calls threatening me. On other blogs, writers would say which ten bloggers would be killed if the current government falls. My name was on those lists. But I didn't let it bother me. Because back then killing bloggers for their writing was an unthinkable and laughable idea. But that laughable idea became a reality on 14 February of 2013, when one of my close friend, blogger Thaba Baba (Ahmed Razib Haider) was hacked to death in front of his home.
He went on to describe the guilt he feels in leaving his country:
আমার মনে একটি অপরাধবোধ আছে। যে যুদ্ধটা আমরা করছিলাম, সে যুদ্ধটা ছেড়ে চলে আসার অপরাধবোধ। কিন্তু এ কেমন যুদ্ধ? ছায়ার সাথে মানুষ কিভাবে যুদ্ধ করে? [..] যারা চাইছিলেন আমি দেশে থেকে যেন মারা যাই, তাঁদের বলতে চাই, আপনাদের চাওয়াটা পুরন হবে না। আমি বেঁচে থাকবো, আমার করার আছে অনেক কিছু। সব শেষ না করে মরে গেলে তো হবেনা।
I have a guilty feeling. The fight we fought but then abandoned, leaving the battlefield. But how is this war? How can you fight with shadows? […] Those who wanted me to die in vain, I would like to tell them, you will not win. I will live, I have to do a lot of things. I cannot die before achieving some of that.
The killings went on in 2016. Nazimuddin Samad, a student of law in the Jagannath University and a vocal critic of religious extremism was killed in April this year. Also in the same month, Rezaul Karim Siddique, an English professor at Rajshahi University, was found hacked to death near his home.
LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan, along with theatre activist Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, were killed on 25 April 2016. Mannan was the founder and editor of the country's first news website for LGBT citizens.
Ansar al Islam #Bangladesh /AQIS claims responsiblity for the murder of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tanoy. pic.twitter.com/Jing4yRsf7
— Tasneem Khalil (@tasneem) April 26, 2016
Many of these killings have been claimed on the Internet or on social media by accounts believed to be linked to ISIS, Ansar Al Islam or Ansarullah Bangla Team. These groups have also claimed responsibility for what appear to be random killings of regular citizens.
The attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery
On the night of 1 July 2016, five young men in their twenties, some educated abroad and coming from affluent families, stormed into the Holey Artisan Bakery in the upscale Gulshan area in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which is frequented by foreigners. They took several dozen hostages, both foreigners and locals, and opened fire on police.
The next morning, a joint force combining the Bangladesh Army, paramilitary group Border Guard Bangladesh, the police and the elite force Rapid Action Battalion raided the Holey Artisan Bakery to end the hostage crisis. Some hostages were released, and others managed to escape, but 29 people were killed, including 20 hostages (18 foreigners and two locals), two police officers, five gunmen, and two bakery staff. This was the worst terror attack in the country's history.
Amaq News Agency, which is affiliated with ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Photos of the attackers, sporting the signature ISIS red keffiyehs and black punjabis and the bloody images of the slain hostages emerged on the Internet.
On the 7 July, militants attacked police guarding the congregation at Sholakia, where the largest Eid prayers in Bangladesh were taking place, leaving three dead. Later on that month police raided a terrorist den in the capital Dhaka and killed nine militants. The police reported they found bombs, ammunition and two black ISIS flags from the den.
The police have maintained that they all are not from ISIS, but members of the banned local militant outfit Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, Bangladesh.
Law enforcement authorities also have published a list of about 200 individuals who were reported missing over the last year and a half and who are feared to have dangerous motives. Some of the missing men were traced to flying abroad to Malaysia and Turkey and then their trail mysteriously disappears.
In the course of the following months the police continued to raid the homes of suspected militants, hoping to deter further attacks. Recently it has emerged that Canadian Bangladeshi Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury (alias Abū Ibrāhīm al-Hanīf) orchestrated the 1 July militant attack and he sought and won approval for it from ISIS. He was killed in a raid by Bangladesh police on 26 Septembe 2016. On 24 December 2016 police conducted another raid and captured a number of militants. Two militants died as they detonated their suicide vests.
Timeline: Militancy in Bangladesh https://t.co/P64GY0K2Yq
— Norrfika (@norrfika) December 3, 2016
The killings of innocents have stopped for now, but the danger looms large as the militants are active underground. Months after the Gulshan attack, Dhaka’s restaurants remain empty and foreigners have cancelled their travel to Bangladesh and amid increased security measures. 2016 was a landmark year for militancy in Bangladesh and it remains to be seen what the future holds.