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Bangladesh cafe attack one year on: 'Dhaka continues to downplay jihadist threat'

On July 1, 2016, an IS-claimed attack on a Dhaka cafe killed 29 people, including 18 foreigners. Expert Siegfried O. Wolf tells DW that Bangladeshi authorities continue to downplay the severity of the jihadist threat.

DW: The Bangladeshi government has arrested several people in connection with last year's cafe siege and attack in Dhaka. Have the authorities' action yielded any results in curtailing the threat posed by the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) and other jihadist groups in the South Asian country?

Siegfried O. Wolf:The Bangladeshi government denies the existence of IS in the country. The current threat posed by IS in Bangladesh, however, is not due to the organization's physical presence but the jihadist ideology it is propagating that is contributing to religiously motivated violence, radicalization and the recruitment of jihadists by domestic extremist groups. In my view, the IS threat in Bangladesh remains largely unchallenged and the government still undermines the threat.

Read: Bangladesh detains jihadist over café siege

How did the cafe assault impact Bangladesh's image in the international community?

I don't think it has had an impact because the international community largely ignores the rise of Islamist extremism and terrorism in Bangladesh. The attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery should have been a "wake-up" call for Dhaka and the Western governments. The West has shown some concern, but it is mainly the international media that highlights the issue and criticizes Bangladeshi authorities for their inaction and the use of counterterrorism narrative against political opponents.

Siegfried Wolf Südasienexperte Uni Heidelberg (Siegfried Wolf)

Siegfried O. Wolf: 'Islamists have successfully silenced critical voices and they now increasingly dominate public opinion'

How would you assess Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's anti-terrorism policies?

The government's anti-terrorism policies only focus on maintaining order in the country. The security measures have been successful, at least temporarily, in undermining the activities of several individuals and militant groups. But a comprehensive approach that takes into account political, economic and social factors behind religious radicalization and militancy is missing.

It is vital that Bangladesh's anti-terrorism policies look into the issue of a deep entrenchment of radical Islamists in the country's administrative institutions and economy. Prime Minister Hasina is dealing with a complex movement that has penetrated all spheres of society due to the failure of state institutions.

In the past few months, the attacks on liberal bloggers, writers and activists have subsided in Bangladesh. Shouldn't we give some credit to the government for that?

There has been a drop in statistical terms. In the past, liberal thinkers in Bangladesh were free to express their views. The country's intelligentsia, civil society and media were secular and modern in their outlook and could freely oppose extremism. This is no longer the case. Islamists have successfully silenced critical voices, and they now increasingly dominate public opinion. The fact that less people have been killed in the past few months is more a result of fear and self-censorship than the government's counterterrorism measures.

- Opinion: Bangladesh paying a high price for ignoring terror threats

- Is Bangladesh safe for foreigners?

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How potent is the Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) group in Bangladesh?

In the past few decades, several jihadist groups have emerged in Bangladesh. Many of them have connections to al- Qaida and the Taliban. These groups were inspired by the 1980s Afghan jihad against the Soviet forces and later against the US. But the current generation of militants in Bangladesh seems to be more inclined toward IS than al-Qaida. Despite the fact that IS seems to be more active now, we cannot underestimate the influence of al-Qaida on Bangladeshi terror organizations.

How are the regional Islamism dynamics playing a role in the rise of extremism in Bangladesh?

Regional factors are contributing tremendously to the rise of extremism in Bangladesh. For example, the suppression of Rohingya Muslims in neighboring Myanmar is causing the radicalization of many Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Islamist groups in Bangladesh are exploiting the situation to their benefit.

Additionally, Bangladeshi Islamists are exploiting the communal violence in India to promote their jihadist ideology and justify the need for the establishment of an Islamic state in Bangladesh.

Read: Bangladesh's secular activists concerned about textbook changes

The Islamization in Pakistan and close links between radical Islamic groups in both countries are also factors behind a spike in religious extremism in Bangladesh.

Last but not least, due to its geo-strategic location, Bangladesh has become a pivot for cross-border terrorist groups operating in South and Southeast Asia.

Siegfried O. Wolf is director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) and a South Asia expert at the University of Heidelberg.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.

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