A cleric was shot dead and three others critically injured in a recent attack on a Shia mosque in Bangladesh. The ‘Islamic State’ (IS) claimed responsibility for the killing.
The incident came after a string of attacks on Shia community, Christian priests and foreigners across Bangladesh. However, the government still sticks to its view that IS militants are not involved in any of these attacks.
While the Shia community along with other minorities in Bangladesh are on the alert, security analysts and experts find themselves at loggerheads about the alleged presence of IS in the country. Some analysts think home-grown militant groups may be carrying out these attacks to gain credibility in global terrorism.
The latest shooting had occurred at Al Mostofa mosque of Haripur village near Northwestern Bangladesh on November 26 during evening prayers.
According to witnesses, the Isha prayers were nearly complete when masked gunmen entered the mosque and began shooting indiscriminately. The elderly muezzin was shot dead and three others including the Imam of the mosque were critically injured.
“The attackers escaped within seconds after the incident,” Abu Zafar Mondol, leader of the Shia community and chairman of the Bangladesh Imamia Social Welfare Foundation in the village, told Asia Times.
Local police recovered eight bullet shells from the crime scene. Soon they arrested three suspects including two madrasa teachers.
Investigating officer Kamruzzaman Miah told Asia Times that there has been no breakthrough in the investigation yet although they suspect the banned militant outfit Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) may be behind the attack.
The US-based jihadist monitoring group SITE claimed on November 27 that IS has claimed responsibility for the shooting.
IS had made similar claims for a series of blasts on October 24 which targeted Shia Muslims in Dhaka during a religious procession. That attack had left one dead (http://atimes.com/2015/10/terror-experts-question-islamic-state-involvement-in-bangladesh-bombing-despite-claim/).
Although the Bangladesh police says they have not found any links between IS and the bomb blasts, they have shared with the media about killing the main suspect behind the incident, a man identified as ‘Albany’, during a raid at an alleged JMB den on November 25 (http://www.ndtv.com/world-news/bangladesh-police-kill-shia-shrine-blast-chief-suspect-1247876).
Islamic State had also claimed responsibility for murder of two foreigners, publishers and attacks on bloggers over the past few months.
The series of events have left the Shia community shaken.
Following two attacks on their community, members of the community are feeling more insecure. Mondol says worshippers were so scared that most of them did not want to attend consecutive prayers after the incident.
According to Mondol, there are nearly 120 people from Haripur and adjoining villages who follow the Shia ideologies. “We never faced any problems from Sunnis who live alongside us and are our neighbours. This attack came as a shock to us,” he said.
To allay their fears, the local police set up a police camp near the mosque. On November 30, local administration organized a peace rally and discussion to highlight solidarity among local residents.
Other communities are also feeling insecure. On November 18, an Italian priest Piero Parolari was shot at by gunmen on motorbikes as he was riding his bicycle in the northern city of Dinajpur. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/18/italian-priest-shot-bangladesh-gunmen)
Prior to Piero, a Bangladeshi Baptist pastor named Luke Sarker was attacked by some young men with sharp weapons in his home in the northwestern district of Pabna. (http://www.voanews.com/content/ap-bangladesh-pastor-escapes-knife-attack/2993244.html). Five people were arrested for suspected involvements in the attack.
A number of priests from Christian faith also claim to have been receiving threats via text messages and letters.
“Some of these attacks and threats may be caused by militant outfits,” Advocate Subrata Chowdhury, vice president of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, told Asia Times. But, according to him, the alarming rise in the rate of attacks on members of minority communities in Bangladesh is because “powerful and influential people are trying to take advantage of the militant connection.”
He explained that enemies or rivals are carrying out attacks on unsuspecting people and can now blame this on militancy. “This is an alarming situation. Rule of law is required. But sadly, this is not being followed in Bangladesh at the moment,” he said.
While not waiving off the potent involvement of IS in Bangladesh, security analysts say this could add “new dimensions” to extremism in Bangladesh.
Referring to the attack in the Shia mosque, Major General (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Strategic Strategies, told The Daily Star “This is a whole new dimension of threat as we never witnessed this sort of sectarian angle of terrorism in Bangladesh. If it [such attacks] continues, it will pose a threat to security, and the government should apply all efforts to stop it.”
Brig Gen (retd) Shahedul Anam Khan, a security expert, said: “The spectre of terrorism and extremism is trying to gain foothold in Bangladesh.”
He recalled the activities of banned militant outfits like Harkatul Jihad Al Islami (HuJI) and JMB that had carried out attacks and later claimed responsibilities while trying to “flaunt the flags of Al Qaeda in Bangladesh”.
HuJI had claimed responsibility for the April 14, 2001 bombings at the Pahela Baishakh public gathering at Ramna Park which had killed 10 people. HuJI is also blamed for two murder attempts on present Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2000.
It is alleged that the outfit was also involved in the grenade attack on the Awami League rally on August 21, 2004 in Dhaka.
JMB, on the other hand, carried out the serial bomb blasts on August 17, 2005, when nearly 500 small bombs were detonated at 300 locations in 50 major cities and towns of Bangladesh within half an hour. The incident had left two dead.
“There are extremist groups in Bangladesh whose ideas are similar to that of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. Most likely these groups are trying to make their actions credible [to their international counterparts],” said Anam Khan.
He suggested, “The Bangladesh government needs to go after any and all extremist groups. Their resources base and main planners need to be revealed.”
Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based freelance journalist and editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, a leading English daily in Bangladesh.
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