For many observers of radical Islam, the first reaction to the attack on the diplomatic zone of Dhaka is that it was utterly predictable.
Over the past year, Bangladesh has seen growing violence against both foreigners and locals deemed to be enemies of extremist Islam.
Friday’s attack was an operation of a much greater magnitude. Western intelligence agencies have been nervous about a major operation for at least 18 months. Indications of a complex plan to attack a diplomatic ball last year prompted much alarm— and pressure from western capitals on Dhaka to move effectively against the militant networks.
This did not happen. The Awami League government of Hasina Sheikh has instead looked to extract political advantage from the situation, either blaming what is left of the political opposition in Bangladesh, or denying outright that militant networks linked to organisations such as Islamic State or al-Qaeda even existed in the country.
Instead of cracking down on the hardline groups which encouraged, or even sponsored, the attacks on local bloggers and minorities, the government effectively made concessions to the conservatives, with the Prime Minister implying those who had insulted religious sensibilities were in part responsible for their fate. Bloggers seeking police protection were ignored.
So who might be responsible for this attack? Late on Friday, Islamic State claimed the attack through its affiliated Amaq news agency, but the group’s involvement could not be confirmed.
Bangladesh is far from the central zone of activity of IS in West Asia, and the organisation has never had a strong presence in South Asia. Al-Qaeda, in contrast, was founded in Pakistan in 1988 and has been a permanent presence in the region since 1996. It sees the region as central to its strategy and survival.
In 2014, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced the formation of a new affiliate, al-Qaeda in South Asia (Aqisa), and said its zone of operations stretched from Afghanistan to Bangladesh.
So far, Aqisa has failed to make its mark but it is entirely possible that the attack in Dhaka is its latest attempt to do so.
The violence in Bangladesh over recent years has attracted some interest from the press but very little from policymakers around the world.
Bangladesh has not been a priority in Washington, London or elsewhere. There has been some focus on the economy — which remains relatively healthy — but few have paid much attention to the increasingly restricted space in the troubled country for political dissent.
This attack will make it much more difficult for both authorities in Dhaka and international observers to ignore the threat of extremist Islam in one of the biggest Muslim majority countries in the world. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2016