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World

Attack Highlights Growing Extremist Threat In Bangladesh

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

We begin the hour in Bangladesh, where the capital city of Dhaka is still reeling from an attack last night on a restaurant popular with diplomats and tourists. At least 20 hostages were killed. Nikita Sampath is a recent graduate of Boston University working in Dhaka. She visited the restaurant just hours before the attack.

NIKITA SAMPATH: I went in there to just get myself a croissant, and I bought myself a few cookies. I was sitting there for about 20 minutes and, well, there I saw a Bangladeshi national and some Asian people and - as well as European people. It's the diplomatic area, and there are embassies all around. And this is my first time going to the restaurant, but it's something that strikes you, the presence of foreigners.

SUAREZ: Sampath learned of the attack of the early hours of the morning and by daybreak, heard the sounds of the recounterattack by police.

SAMPATH: I was only in the morning around 7:40 a.m. when Bangladeshi forces entered the cafe when I started hearing gunfires. I heard them intermittently for about an hour and then I also heard three loud blasts going off.

SUAREZ: One American was killed in the attack. Abinta Kabir was a student at Emory University from Miami, Fla., according to the university. Also killed was another Emory University student, Faraaz Hossain, from Dhaka. The attack is the latest and most dramatic in a series by Islamic militants over the past two years. To find out more, we reached Shehryar Fazli, an analyst for the International Crisis Group. He joined us by phone from Pakistan. And I started by asking him what we know at this point.

SHEHRYAR FAZLI: We don't know much about who's responsible. And certainly, the claim by the Islamic State has been met with a great deal of skepticism, both in Bangladesh and internationally.

But what we do know is that although this is certainly an escalation - in that earlier attacks, while very brutal, have targeted individuals - this is the first attack recently that targeted a much larger gathering in a hostage siege-like situation.

SUAREZ: Bangladesh has had a long history of political strife, and as you mention, a recent rise in religious and political violence. How does this attack connect to these others?

FAZLI: It's just important to note that Bangladesh's self-styled jihadist groups have been operating for a very long time now. In the early 2000s, they conducted regular attacks in the country, including on a single day in August 2005, coordinated attacks in 63 districts.

Now, that led to a government crackdown on these groups. And although they were largely suppressed, they weren't entirely dismantled. There was a feeling that they were down but not out.

SUAREZ: Help me understand the defensiveness around Islam in this context because Bangladesh - even from its days as East Pakistan - has always been a confessional state. Islam is recognized in the constitution. Almost 9 out of 10 Bangladeshis are Muslim. What is there to fight about?

FAZLI: Well, you know, Bangladesh was actually born on principles of secularism, but that was always contested. So the first military government that was in power from the mid-70s onwards in the 1980s, amended Bangladesh's constitution to remove that provision of secularism and instead made Islam the founding principle of the state. Now, there's been back and forth (unintelligible) on that, where this current party in power today reinserted secularism into the constitution while also still having Islam as the state religion.

SUAREZ: As you look at the evolving situation in Bangladesh, is it a case of international religiously-flavored extremism infiltrating the country or already simmering tensions and groups that feel themselves opposed to the civil order in Bangladesh sort of latching on to these broader trends?

FAZLI: I think the international networks like al-Qaida, al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent and possibly Islamic State are certainly looking to exploit the situation. And that has raised concerns about new entrants into this jihadist landscape. But there's no doubt that Bangladesh has some very serious homegrown organizations that are shaping the agenda here.

SUAREZ: Shehryar, I want to ask you about the news from Bangladesh hitting closer to home. This is not just some abstract proposition for you, is it?

FAZLI: A part of my family is Bangladeshi, and we're directly affected by the siege. And I unfortunately woke up to the news this morning from a cousin in Dhaka that that side of my family lost a young relative. An event like this is inevitably going to affect you just by one or two degrees of separation.

SUAREZ: Shehryar Fazli is senior South Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group. He joined us from Pakistan. Thanks so much for being with us.

FAZLI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.