War criminals and bloggers' murders
On February 15, 2013, blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death in front of his house in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. Soon after his murder, an Islamist group claimed that Haider was an atheist who had made "blasphemous" comments about Prophet Muhammad and Islam on social media.
Haider was killed at a time when thousands of people had taken to the streets demanding capital punishment for a number of top Islamist leaders accused of war crimes during the country's War of Independence in 1971. The unprecedented protest was organized by a group of secular bloggers and activists, who mobilized the people through Facebook. It was also the first of its kind demonstration representing the power of social media in the South Asian country.
Atheists are targeted
Since Haider's assassination in 2013, five more secular bloggers have been slain in Bangladesh. All of these activists were self-proclaimed atheists and critics of religious fundamentalism. Islamist groups claimed responsibility for each of these killings on Twitter, releasing press statements in English and Bengali languages stating the reasons for their deaths. The jihadist organizations have said they killed the activists for their "blasphemous activities."
Social media is considered a threat
Bangladesh is not a developed country but due to growing Internet connectivity, the number of people using social media and expressing their views publicly has been on the rise.
Bangladesh has now more than 30 million Facebook users, and secular bloggers and activists are making good use of it, criticizing religious fundamentalism and promoting secular values. After the murder of American-Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy in Dhaka on February 26, 2015, it became clear that the country's Islamists felt threatened by the secular writers' social media activism.
Bloggers are not the sole target
Islamic militants have carried out 34 attacks over the past 14 months in Bangladesh. "Islamic State" (IS) has claimed responsibility for at least 15 of these attacks, whereas Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist group, has claimed responsibility for eight. The IS attacked mostly foreigners and religious minorities, whereas Ansar al-Islam targeted atheist bloggers, freethinkers and gay activists. The recent killing of two LGBT activists is another proof of the expanding influence of Islamists in the Muslim-majority country.
Government denies IS existence
Recently, IS published a six-page interview with its chief in Bangladesh in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, detailing why the South Asian country is strategically important for them. The militant group said it intended to carry out attacks in India and Myanmar using Bangladesh as a base. Despite these claims, the Bangladeshi government has always denied the presence of international terror groups on Bangladeshi soil.
Activists accuse the nation's security agencies of inaction against Islamic groups. The general response from the police, they say, borders on apathy. After the murder of atheist activist Nazimuddin Samad earlier this month, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said her government shouldn't be held responsible if someone got killed for criticizing Islam. The premier has generally shied away from condemning the killing of secular activists, with the exception of the assassinations of gay activist Xulhaz Mannan and his friend Tanay Majumder.
Secularism is a strong force
Religious fundamentalism is still not as deep-rooted in Bangladesh as in some other South Asian countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. The secular culture is extremely potent. However, in the past few years, extremist religious groups have successfully created an environment of fear in the country. That is the reason why most Bangladeshis do not publicly protest the killings.