Countering Islamic State’s activities in Bangladesh
The battle for Mosul is a sign that the so-called Islamic State’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria are coming under threat. As a consequence, we’re likely to see an increased focus on its periphery affiliates around the world. In South Asia, those range from formal Wilayahs such as Khorasan, where ISIS poses a more direct threat, and countries like Bangladesh, where the group is attempting to gain a foothold. It’s in those aspiring Wilayahs that ISIS’s propaganda plays a crucial role, attempting to project a presence on the ground and encouraging emerging affiliates. To minimise that threat, it’s important that we seek to counter the group’s messaging by undermining its credibility and reliability at a local level.
Over the last year, ISIS’s propagandists have been increasingly highlighting its actions in Bangladesh, notably with prominent articles in Dabiq 12 and the most recent issue of Rumiya 2, which carried a feature article on the 1 July Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka—the worst act of terrorism in Bangladesh’s history—in which ISIS fighters killed 29 people, 18 of which were foreigners, and injured 50 others. However, what’s striking is how ISIS seeks to frame its violence in Bangladesh as justified retribution against the attacks by jets and drones on the Caliphate ‘in order to give the Crusaders a taste of their own medicine’ (PDF). The first attack ISIS claimed responsibility for in Bangladesh was the murder of an Italian in the capital’s diplomatic quarter, designed to show that ‘crusader citizens will never enjoy any peace or security in any part of the Muslims’ lands, bi-idhnillāh, as long as they continue to be at war with the Islamic State’.
ISIS explained (PDF) that foreigners from ‘crusader’ nations were targeted as an act of retribution: ‘let the Crusader nations know that as long as they fight the Islamic State, their citizens will not be able to enjoy any peace and safety in any part of Bengal’. Speaking about future attacks, the group stated:
'‘The mujhadin will target expats, tourists, diplomats, garment buyers, missionaries, sports teams, and anyone else from the Crusader citizens to be found in Bengal until the land is purified from the Crusaders and all other kuffar and the law of Allah is established in the land’.
However, framing Islamic State’s actions in Bangladesh as violence targeted against the ‘Crusaders’ contradicts the vast majority of the group’s violence. At the start of the same article in Rumiyah 2, ISIS outlines, in chronological order, the 24 separate attacks it has claimed in Bangladesh over the last two years, boasting the percentages of the groups targeted: 12% Rafidah, 19% Murtaddin and Atheists, 27% Christians, and 42% Hindus and Buddhists. It’s notable that the vast majority of these attacks are aimed at ordinary Bangladeshis, while only four attacks targeted foreigners.
The divergence between ISIS’s narrative of vengeance against ‘crusaders’ and the on-the-ground reality presents viable options for local anti-ISIS messaging focused on exposing the group’s say/do gap. Exposing the disparity between what an adversary says and how it acts can be devastatingly effective in undermining their credibility. After all, it’s a technique that ISIS (and al-Qaeda before it) have consistently used to great effect in their propaganda. Bin Laden, for instance, liked to describe what he saw as the hypocrisy of the USA branding him a terrorist, while highlighting American actions that have killed innocent men, women and children, such as the dropping of atomic bombs during World War Two.
Through identifying the discrepancies in ISIS’s messages and actions, counter-messaging opportunities emerge to turn the group’s words against it in local messaging campaigns. In Bangladesh, a good start would be to shatter ISIS’s ‘retribution’ justification for its violence by showing the reality that it’s been ordinary Bangladeshis, not foreigners, who’ve borne the brunt of ISIS’s brutality. The same situation has been observed in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Such a campaign seeks to expose the hollowness of ISIS’s anti-‘Crusader’ messaging. Highlighting ISIS’s internal contradictions undermines the group’s credibility as a messenger, and thus the reliability and resonance of their messages in general. It serves to challenge ISIS’s system of meaning and undermines their ‘monopoly on the truth’.
Anti-ISIS messaging carried out at a local level can do much to undermine the group’s narrative and efficacy. As the group continues to come under sustained assault and cedes more territory, such efforts will be even more important in order to tackle ISIS’s increasing efforts through its emerging affiliates.