US secretary of state John Kerry said on Monday (29) there was evidence to link the extremists behind a recent series of deadly attacks in Bangladesh to the Daesh (Islamic State) group.
Kerry’s statement followed the July 1 attack on a cafe in an upscale district of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, in which 22 people were killed – mostly non-Muslims and foreigners, including one American.
It directly contradicted the narrative of prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, which has blamed home-grown militants and denied a foreign hand in the hostage taking at the Holey Artisan Bakery that was claimed by Daesh.
The cafe raid was the most shocking of a series of atrocities that included killings of atheist intellectuals, people from religious and sexual minorities and foreigners, raising fears over the stability of the mainly Muslim nation of 160 million.
But speaking after meeting with prime minister Sheikh Hasina on a one-day visit to the capital, Dhaka, Kerry said there was “no argument” that extremists operating in Bangladesh had links to counterparts in Syria and Iraq.
He said that Daesh had contacts around the world, including in south Asia, adding: “They are connected to some degree with some of the operatives here, and we made that very clear in our conversations. There was no argument about it.”
Kerry, however, defended Hasina’s administration against accusations that it is in denial about the nature of the extremist threat it faces.
“I don’t believe that the government of Bangladesh has its head in the sand. I do not believe that,” he said.
But as Kerry’s motorcade headed to the US embassy for meetings with opposition leaders, a government minister directly contradicted him.
“I told him that there is no such terrorist or militants from outside or who are connected with the (Islamic State), but there are militants inside our country and they are home-grown,” home minister Asaduzzaman Khan told reporters.
Bangladesh’s secular government has continued to enjoy the West’s support despite mounting concerns over its handling of the escalation in militant activity. Kerry said the US stood firmly behind Bangladesh in its fight against Islamist militants, and both countries have agreed to increase cooperation between their respective intelligence agencies.
But he also said democracy was a key to combating extremism, as Bangladesh comes under pressure over a crackdown on opponents that has seen thousands of activists arrested.
“Just as important, we understand that to defeat terrorists, we must uphold, not betray, the democratic principles we cherish and they abhor,” Kerry told labour activists and union leaders after the talks with Hasina.
“Democracy still provides the most resilient and reliable platform we have for preventing and responding to violent extremism.”
Kerry was speaking just hours after Bangladesh police shot dead two suspected members of the local militant Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) group during a gunbattle with security officers in the northern town of Sherpur.
The shootings came two days after police killed the suspected mastermind of the cafe attack during a gunbattle near Dhaka.
Police named the suspect as JMB leader Tamim Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi-born Canadian. Chowdhury is reported to have been featured in a Daesh journal called Dabiq that identified him as its top operative in Bangladesh. The militant group also published “selfies” of the cafe attackers on its propaganda channels while the hostage crisis was continuing.