BANGLADESH Airline plot shows local militant threat will persist, but direct Islamic State influence in the country likely to decline over coming year


Airline plot shows local militant threat will persist, but direct Islamic State influence in the country likely to decline over coming year

The counterterrorism Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) said on 1 November that it had arrested a pilot for Biman Bangladesh Airlines, along with three accomplices, for plotting to hijack a commercial aircraft. An RAB official said in a 4 November court statement that the pilot planned to crash the aircraft into the Prime Minister’s house, or fly it to an Islamic State (IS) base in Syria. The group, which included two relatives of the pilot, were linked to former members of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahidden (JMB) Islamist militant group. Indeed, the pilot’s father was arrested in an anti-militant operation in September, and the security forces also linked the group to a separate senior JMB leader who died during a police raid that month.

Some hardline JMB individuals and factions have aligned themselves with IS in recent years, including those who conducted other high profile attacks, such as the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka in July 2016. It is therefore plausible that IS-aligned JMB supporters would seek to carry out a spectacular, high-profile attack of this kind, particularly as IS is urging its sympathisers around the world to conduct such operations while it seeks to retain its position as the world’s leading jihadist group despite recent losses in Syria and Iraq. However, RAB’s claim does not in itself indicate that IS has increased its coordination with JMB, or that it is providing more active support for attacks in Bangladesh.

The authorities did not suggest that the plot was in an advanced stage of preparation. Indeed, they may have exaggerated the threat to justify their ongoing crackdown against Islamists. Dhaka may also hope to win international support for its crackdown by highlighting its successes against militants, and by exaggerating the threat they pose; both Australia and Canada recently warned of heightened risks for their citizens in Bangladesh, illustrating that international attention remains focused on this issue. Dhaka’s efforts to retain such support may also explain why the announcement of the plot came alongside a series of other highly-publicised arrests, including of a JMB member reportedly responsible for a bombing in Chittagong naval base in 2015, and of a member of the al-Qaeda-aligned Ansarullah Bangla Team group accused of killing Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy in the same year.

We do not assess, therefore, that the events point to an increased risk of a major, IS-directed JMB attack. Indeed, IS’s direct influence in the country is likely to decline over the coming year, in part because IS’s manpower and territorial losses are reducing its ability to reach out to supporters globally. This means that most pro-IS Bangladeshi militants are eventually likely to revert to focusing on more local agendas, such as attacking the security forces and their ideological opponents. Sporadic, low-level attacks against government targets and secular figures will therefore continue to pose the most common threat, although the potential for one-off attacks on international-linked targets will remain.

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