Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Twelve things you need to know about the recent killings in Bangladesh

Four men, accused by police of killing Italian NGO worker, Cesare Travella in Dhaka on 28 September,
were detained secretly and illegally for between 10 and 14 days before being presented to the media.
In a country where torture by police is systemic, can one believe their 'confessions'?

The twelve points below attempts to analyze what is going on in Bangladesh in relation to:

  • the murders in late september and early October of two non-Bangladeshis, and the bombing of a Shia procession (which resulted in deaths of two Bangladeshis) in mid-October - all of which have been claimed by Islamic State (IS);
  • the Bangladesh government's claim that IS does not exist in Bangladesh and there was no involvement of Islamic State in any of these incidents;
  • the various claims made by the Home Minister and anonymous police sources that BNP and Jamaat leaders are behind the killing.
  • the recents arrests by the Bangladesh government of four people whom they claim were behind the first murder; and
  • the connections, if any, between these killings - and the murders early this year, and indeed just this week, of so called 'aethist bloggers' and their supporters;

1. Understanding the chronology leading up to the killing of Cesare Travella

It is important to understand the chronology of events leading up to the murder of Italian citizen Cesare Tavella who was shot to death in Dhaka's diplomatic zone on 28 September.

On Saturday 26 September, Cricket Australia announced it had received advice from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) that it had “reliable information to suggest that militants may be planning to target Australian interests in Bangladesh.”

- During the day on Monday, 28 September, UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office revised its travel warning to Bangladesh. Prior to that day, the warning had only stated that 'there is a general threat from terrorism,' but on the 28th, the travel warning was re-drafted to state specifically that 'In late September 2015, there is reliable information that militants may be planning to target western interests in Bangladesh.

- On the same day, the US also revised its travel warning to state 'There is reliable new information to suggest that militants may be planning to target Australian interests in Bangladesh. Such attacks, should they occur, could likely affect other foreigners, including U.S. citizens'

- Both the British High Commission and the US embassy say that these warnings were drafted during the day of the 28th but only uploaded shortly after 7pm - which was after the murder of Cesare, but before they had come to know about it. One assumes that the basis of these warnings was the same intelligence in the hands of the Australian government.

- At about 6.15 pm on Monday 28 September, the Italian Aid worker, Cesare Tavella, 50, was shot dead on Road 90, of Gulshan 2, an upmarket part of the capital city on a road that is technically part of the diplomatic quarter.

- on the very same evening, ISIS issued a statement, which was first reported by the SITE intelligence group, claiming responsibility for the killings. An informal translation of the ISIS statement states that:
"this is an announcement by the soldiers of the Khilafat in Bangladesh that we killed a crusader after our soldiers followed him in Dhaka and shot him using silencers till he was dead. This is a warning to all nationals of crusader nationals : you will never find security in Muslim countries. And the rain starts with one drop."
So, the killing of Cesare came soon after the Australian, United States and United Kingdom governments received information that 'militants' - short hand for 'Islamic' terrorists - were planning a violent act against foreigners in Bangladesh and then within hours of the murder it is reported by Site International (see below) that Islamic State had claimed responsible for the killing.

2. What was the 'intelligence'?

The exact nature of the intelligence is not publicly known. However a well placed Bangladeshi source has confirmed to Bangladesh Politico that on 27 September - that is the day before the killing of the Italian NGO worker - US and other country's intelligence officials had informed members of the Bangladesh government delegation which had come to New York for the UN General assembly that they had intelligence that 'Islamic State had become active in Bangladesh'.

A statement made by US Ambassador Bernicat seems to confirm the accuracy of the information given to Bangladesh Politico - and this has been further substantiated by the New York Times which quotes Gowher Rizvi, an adviser to the prime minister, saying that the government was briefed on either the 26th or 28th

It is likely that the intelligence given to the Bangladesh authorities about ISIS involved the same information that resulted in the Australian government suspending the country's cricket side's visit to Bangladesh.

3. So does this mean that IS was responsible for the killing?

Here is the following sequence of events: (a) Warning by Australian foreign ministry about 'threat to Australians' by militants: (b) Warning given by US and other intelligence agencies to Bangladesh government in New York that 'Islamic State was active in Bangladesh'; (c) warnings drafted by US and UK governments for their websites that 'reliable information' that 'militants' were planning attacks against foreigners in Bangladesh (d) the killing of Italian man in gulshan (e) immediate claim by IS of its involvement.

Any reasonable deduction from this sequence would be that the most likely cause of the murder of Cesare is an attack by people linked to IS. It is of course possible that the international intelligence was wrong, that IS has opportunistically claimed responsibility, or that the timing of the murder is coincidental and is not linked to the international intelligence. However, going by what was known, IS involvement in the murder was the most likely explanation.

Of course, deductions like this need to be confirmed by competent, independent investigations - about which more below.

4. Further incidents claimed by IS

Five days later another killing took place - the murder of the Japanese citizen Kunio Hoshi, 65, who was shot dead in Rangpur, in the North of the country. Again, IS made an immediate claim stating:
'In a blessed operation, the soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh, a security platoon targeted a citizen of the crusade coalition against Islamic State, the Japanese's crusader Hoshi kunio after he was under precise surveillance, where he was liquidated with the aid of fire-arms in the city of Rangpur, praise be to God. The series of security operations will go on against the citizens of the crusader coalition who shall have no peace in the countries of the Muslims, God willing.'
And then more recently, the bombing of a shia shrine, in which one person was killed at the scene (and another dying a few days later) was also claimed by IS to be their operation.
Breaking news ; series of bombings targets worship place for the rejectionists which injures nearly 100 people dead or wounded. In a blessed operation, its purpose was eased by God, the soldiers of the caliphate in Bangladesh were able to detonate some explosive devices in the temple of of the infidels whilst they were doing their infidel ceremonies in the city of Dhaka which killed nearly a hundred. Thank to God.'
5. SITE intelligence group and the IS claims of responsibility

Information about IS claims were first made by the US based SITE intelligence group. The Bangladesh law enforcement authorities have denied the authenticity of SITE's information. They have said that (a)  it was 'grey propaganda' from a former Mossad (Israeli intelligence agency) official, and that none of the known IS sites contained the IS claim (b) that bangladesh law enforcement authorities tried to contact the organization to get information, but did not provide any useful information; (b) that in fact the IS claims were uploaded from Bangladesh

The head of the organization, Rita Katz has responded to these claims. She says that
- that she was never contacted by the law enforcement officials in Bangladesh
- that the tweets uploaded in Bangladesh were done so 12 hours after the original IS tweets
- the original IS tweets were in arabic and came from official IS releases

More recently in a statement Rita Katz has said:
"The claims have been authenticated and found credible by SITE's rigorous verification process. Furthermore, all of the aforementioned claims were also featured in numerous IS media channels, including Telegram Messenger and the group’s publically available al-Bayan reports. Citizens and government officials in Bangladesh can even read the claims in their own language on a pro-ISIS Bengali blog." [the link to the blog now does not work]
It goes onto say that
The Bangladesh government's denial of ISIS’ attack claims and its continuous attempts to defame SITE's impeccable record do not change the fact that ISIS did claim responsibility for the aforementioned attacks. 
If true, it is pretty extraordinary that Bangladesh detectives did not make direct contact with SITE intelligence, to assess exactly the basis of SITE's claims - assuming that they themselves were unable to confirm them. If the police had trouble contacting the organization (in some reports they claim they did not get a response back from SITE, in others they say that the information they were given back was inadequate) they could have used their embassy in the USA, or gained the assistance of the US government.

Whatever ones view about SITE and the various controversies about it which have been aired in the Bangladesh media, the organization seems to have a good reputation for accuracy. I would suggest therefore that one must assume that IS did make the claims - as SITE intelligence have stated - and that the Bangladesh government and law enforcement agencies sought to discredit SITE for their own reasons (see below).

Of course, as to whether ISIS were actually involved, is a different question altogether.

6. Presence of IS in Bangladesh

If we take the law enforcement agencies at face value (and see below why one cannot do that) there have been dozens of arrests of people linked to Islamic state over the last year.

In September 2014, the police brought the UK citizen Samium Rahman,  before the media with great fanfare,  claiming him to be a recruiter for Islamic State. He was arrested along with two other Bangladeshi men who it was claimed  he was trying to recruit. Assuming the allegation to be true, then Samiun had been in Bangladesh for a number of months before he was arrested - and one assumes could have sought to recruit others.

In January 2015, police claim to have arrested four men, including according to news reports 'a regional coordinator for the militant group who told police they had been trained in Pakistan". The report when onto say that, "We arrested them in the city early on Monday, carrying a huge number of leaflets related to militancy for training, a laptop and other materials."

And in May 2015, the police claimed to have arrested the 'IS coordinator' in Bangladesh saying that '"We arrested him with hundreds of training related videos for Islamist extremists, and also a large number of books on al Qaeda and IS translated into Bangla." According to the Reuters news article reporting this arrest, 'Bangladeshi police have arrested more than a dozen people in recent months suspected of links with Islamic State.'

As far as we know the Bangladesh government is not skeptical of its own law enforcement agencies, so one must assume that the government accepts all the various claims that it make about the involvement of IS. It is therefore difficult to understand how the government is now saying that there is no IS in Bangladesh - unless of course its position is that whilst IS was active in Bangladesh just a few months ago, the government's actions have removed it!

7. What might 'IS involvement' mean?

IS involvement does not necessarily mean that there has to be an 'IS team' in Bangladesh - that is to say that IS sent a team to Bangladesh to conduct operations (though of course Bangladeshis, particularly those from Britain, are known to have travelled to support IS in Syria).

All 'involvement' needs to mean is that there are individuals in Bangladesh who have linked up with the IS network, and have agreed to conduct certain kinds of terrorist operation. The level of coordination need not be significant and it could be as simple as a group of people being 'inspired' by IS, who have made contact with the IS network, resulting in conversations that led to these incidents.

Considering the fact that Bangladesh governments have uncovered over the years the active engagement of a number of Islamic militant organizations - including JMB (active during the period 2001-2006) and the Ansarullah Bangla Team (which has claimed responsibility for the blogger killings earlier this year) - it is not difficult to imagine that IS might also have found a foothold in Bangladesh.

Moreover, it has been reported that during the visit of the Indian prime minister in May, the Bangladesh government was warned that JMB had made links with the Islamic State.

Ali Riaz, an expert on South Asian politics at Illinois State University, puts it well in the New York Times article, where he is quoted as saying that he was “seriously skeptical” that major jihadi groups had an “organizational presence” in Bangladesh, but that homegrown cells were eager to form affiliations. “If opportunity arises and pathways are found, these local groups will become the I.S. franchise in no time,” he said.

8. The government's counter-intuitive blame game

As a government whose law enforcement authorities have arrested dozens of people linked to Islamic State and which has proudly burnished internationally its anti-extremist/militant credentials (as a way to counter-balance the perception of some western countries to it its lack of democratic legitimacy) its denial of IS involvement seems somewhat counter-intuitive. Why would the government not want to be seen to cooperate internationally against the greatest Islamic extremist menace of them all, Islamic State?

The New York Times suggest that this could be due to the government's lack of trust with the United States. Perhaps there may be some truth to that - with the Bangladesh government not wanting to be part of some axis against the Islamic State. However, the answer to this conundrum, is probably found by looking at who the government is blaming.

For Sheikh Hasina, her government, and their proxies, there is rarely a crisis that fails to provide an opportunity for them to attack the country's two main opposition parties either directly by name or as "anti-liberation forces", and to blame them for whatever nastiness that is happening in the country. And this is the greatest of all opportunities.

As soon as the prime minister returned from the United Nations in a press conference.
They [BNP-Jamaat] must have had a hand in these [killings]. there's no doubt about it'
She then went on:
'How do you expect them to sit idle when we are trying the war criminals? They will continue their efforts to take revenge. ... These elements were in power for 21 years after 1975. Now that we're trying them, naturally there will be some reaction.'
As to IS involvement, she said:
“Now I can say here no outfit like IS or like that can carry out their activities here. Our intelligence agencies are very much alert.
Since then minister after Awami League leader have denied the possibility of any link of IS to these killings, and have at the same time blamed the opposition parties.

The killings provide the Awami League government a fantastic opportunity to further twist the knife into the opposition parties - by blaming them for it.

9. The possible role of opposition parties?

It is of course true that the mainstream opposition parties - the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat - have motive to cause instability in the country. They have both been subject to repressive government measures, including wide scale arrests, disappearances and extra judicial killings. From being parties that could well have won the January 2014 elections had they been free and fair, they are now almost absent from political life, and there can be little hope in the foreseeable future that they will become - or allowed to become - a viable opposition again. There is therefore no doubt at all that the main opposition parties have deep resentments towards the government. Moreover, both parties have at the very least given a green light to violence in the past - for example during the first few months of 2015 - and perhaps even deliberately orchestrated the violence. So as with the law enforcement agencies operating under the current governing party, killing is certainly not beyond the opposition parties.

For the Jamaat-e-Islami, there is also the added issue of the International Crimes Tribunal prosecutions. Already two of their leaders have been executed, and it looks like another one is about to be (Mujahid) and several others (including Motiur Rahman Nizami) could well be within the next six months. The Jamaat therefore arguably have additional motive to weaken the government. (Though Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a BNP leader is currently due to be executed, the BNP has shown no interest in showing any support for its former colleague)

However, it would be very much against the interests of these two political parties to be involved in such killings. For them, to assassinate foreigners in Bangladesh would not just be very high risk, but suicidal. They would know that it would provide the perfect excuse for the government to repress them even further - which is exactly what they are doing now. The parties would know that if real evidence emerged (see below about that) that the parties were linked to terrorist activities involving killing of foreigners it would be the end of them in the eyes of the international community. And both parties desperately need the international community's acceptance of them as victimized political parties, if they are to survive at all in Bangladesh.

The Jamaat-e-Islami also, as far as one can understand, have factored in the executions of their leaders, and moved on as a party. Obviously, the party would much rather their leaders were not executed, and they are fighting legally to prevent this and no doubt lobbying hard. But at the same time the party is practical; it is not going to put everything at risk by starting a program of executing foreigners.

This is not to say that there could not be individuals with some kind of links to the BNP/Jamaat who in some way could be involved with these incidents; but they would be at a low level, and working without any level of authorization from the opposition political parties.

10. If the government blames BNP/Jamaat, the police will find BNP/Jamaat.

Inside Bangladesh's law enforcement agencies there are no doubt some capable detectives, who without political interference understand how detective work should be done, but the law enforcement institutions have now become so politicized that in cases whether there is a political imperative from on high to find a particular kind of accused, independent investigation is impossible.

As discussed above, from the Prime Minister down, the clear message has been given: the people who killed the two foreigners and were involved in the bombing of the Shia procession were not IS, but were from the opposition parties, whose motive was to destabilize the government. In such a situation, there is no way that the police, having heard what the prime minister and many other ministers have said would actually 'follow the evidence'. The government wants the police to pin the murders on the opposition parties; so the police will pin it on them.

On Monday 26 October, Dhaka Metropolitan Police presented four men to the media. Three of the men, they said, were present when Cesare Travella was killed, with one of them shooting him dead. Another man gave his bike for the operation.

The police said that the arrested men had told them that they were working under the instruction of a 'Boro Bhai', strongly suggesting that this person was part of the opposition parties. The next day the Home Minister said that this 'Boro Bhai' was a BNP ward commissioner, who was named - though he corrected himself the next day by saying that this person was 'one of the suspects'.

At the time of writing, three of the men have given 'confessional' statements to the magistrates.

However, it has now come to light that the four men shown to the media on 26 October, were picked up by law enforcement authorities between 10 and 14 days before hand and kept in secret detention. (In addition, on 20 October, the brother of the BNP ward commissioner alleged to be the mastermind is reported to have been picked up by Law enforcement agencies - and he remains disappeared. More on this to come.)

These detentions are highly illegal, since the law requires any detained person to be brought to the magistrate within 24 hours. Why were these men detained secretly and illegally in police custody? It has been consistently reported by local and international human rights organizations, as well as noted by the country's supreme court in a number of cases, that torture by law enforcement agencies is widespread in Bangladesh (in 2014, a local human rights organization reported that 13 people died from custodial torture). Any time in police custody (which is always without any legal representation) even when it is on  judicial remand, provides a real risk of torture. When, as in this case, the accused are  secretly/illegally detained by law enforcement authorities, for a two week period the likelihood of torture is very high indeed.

It is therefore very likely that these four men were subject to torture during their two weeks of detention - and the confessions that they have given must be seen in this context. In fact one of the accused men who gave a confessional statement on 26 October, told his family during a jail visit that he was not in any way involved with the incident but only confessed because he was tortured.

The 'disappearances' at the hands of law enforcement agencies have become very common in Bangladesh - but are rarely reported, and rarely subject to journalistic inquiry. It tends only to be in the more significant cases where there is a chance that journalists will investigate. And so it has been reported that the UK citizen, Samiun Rahman, accused last year by the police of being an IS recruiter, was apparently secretly detained for a week. Another British citizen, Tawhidur Rahman, accused of involvement in the blogger killings, was secretly and illegally detained for three months before being presented to court. These cases are however just the tip of an iceberg.

The police constantly deny that the accused are in, or have ever been in, illegal detention. However the evidence is often overwhelming that this is the case. One has to ask if the police are willing to deceive about detentions, can they be trusted to tell the truth about what information they supposedly obtain from the men they detain?

11. Will the government get away with this?

It could very well. There are three possible obstacles.

First is good independent investigative reporting. Bangladesh's media right now however is as restricted as it has ever been, and government papers, as well as those that are nominally independent simply parrot on their front pages what anonymous detective branch officials tell them. There is very limited willingness to look behind and investigate detective branch claims.

Second is the Bangladesh courts. Bangladesh courts appear quite willing to accept confessions from detained people where there is significant evidence that they have been in illegal detention for weeks.

Third, is the international community. One must doubt that the international community is buying these arrests as part of a legitimate evidence based investigation. However, it is unlikely that they will intervene publicly. For them, the Awami League government, for all its faults - including using the issue to take action against the opposition parties - is probably the best government it can expect in Bangladesh that will take action against militancy.

12. And how does this tie in with the 'blogger' killings?

Earlier this week, the publisher of the previously slain writer and blogger Avijit Roy was himself hacked to death, bringing to five the number of blogger, writers or their associates who have been killed this year. In each case Islamic militant organizations, the Bangladesh based Ansarullah Bangla Team or the AQIS affiliate Ansar-al-Islam (which may in effect be working together or the same organization) have claimed responsibility. In all the cases, the method of killing was rudimentary, hacking to death with knives.

Are the killings, claimed by IS, in any way connected with the killing of the five 'blogger' killings?

It is unlikely that there are direct connections. First the modus operandi is very different in each - whilst the 'bloggers' have been hacked to death with knives, the foreigners were shot to death in a more sophisticated operation.

Secondly, the purpose of the killings seems to be different. From all the social messaging by Ansarullah Bangla Team as well as from the statements in court of those arrested on the scene following one of the blogger killings,  it is clear that the purpose was to silence the articulation of atheist views. Whatever the purpose of the the killing of the foreigners, and the bomb attack on the shia procession - perhaps to create instability, or to act as a calling card for the Islamic State - it had nothing to do with freedom of speech.

Thirdly, very different Islamic groups, which are now in competition with each other, have claimed responsibility.

It is likely that the only thing the connects these two kinds of killings are that people with a militant islamic ideology are behind them.

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