The Attack on Zafar Iqbal and the Logic of Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh Today

Dr. Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, a prominent secularist author and intellectual was attacked with a knife at the back of his head on March 3, 2018. A day after the attack, counterterrorism officials said that the youth who carried out it could be a member of the banned militant outfit Ansar al Islam. On the same day, however, Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader termed the attack a “conspiracy” and alleged that BNP patronised the conspirators. BNP official Rizvi retorted to this remark swiftly and harshly and blamed Awami League for the attack instead. Needless to say, it is highly unlikely that either Awami League or BNP was directly involved in these attacks. The attack matches the pattern (hitting in the back of the head with a concealable knife) seen earlier in missions of Ansar al Islam. The attacker Foyzur Rahman, a youth aged about 25, told the Rapid Action Battalion that he considered Prof Iqbal an enemy of Islam.

The most recent “enemy of Islam” killing spree started mostly around 2013 and has continued throughout the last years. Interestingly enough, this coincides with the period when calls for the ban of political Islam became popularized among secularists and a large number of Islamist politicians were found guilty of war crimes. It is important to note, however, that political Islam and militant Islam are not the same. Those who have attacked Zafar Iqbal are likely subscribers of the militant offshoot of Islamism, not the political mainstream. The political leaders of the leading Islamist parties of the country (Jamaat-e-Islam and Islami Oikya Jot) are more interested in capturing power by winning the election in coalition with BNP and thereby lobbying the large party into implementing Islamist policies, as it did during its 2001-06 rule. The militant islamists, however, do not believe in this route to power. Their political goal (if any) is a violent takeover of the government.

While it is probably true that some sort of a pipeline between Jamaat and its student wing’s activities and militancy exists, the two groups are definitely distinct and have diverging (if not contradictory) means to reach their ends. Even the ends that each of these two strands seek are different. The first envisions a political system that mimics that of Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq’s rule and the second envisions a system closer to that of Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The coexistence of both of these factions are therefore strategically necessary because, while none of the preferred outcomes of these groups are desirable from a secularist viewpoint, the bad acts the enemy of the worst in a free system. Therefore, while the disaffection from Jamaat may lead to an enlistment with the militants, the political success of Jamaat prevents that from happening. But because of the War crimes trials under the Hasina administration and the subsequent cultural and political crackdown on Islamism in the democratic space, the hopes for the success of Islamism through parliamentary means have bleaked. This may be a reason behind the rise in islamic militancy in the post-2014 years. Because the buffer of political Islam has largely become unviable due to the government’s use of selective justice and political persecution, militant Islam becomes the first refuge for anyone seeking for a radical shift to the right.

Currently leading this radical wing is Ansar-al-Islam, the group that is being suspected to be behind the attacks against Professor Iqbal. Previously known as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), Ansar al Islam began gaining strength in 2013-14 and started selecting targets by monitoring social media and hacking them to death. Ansar seeked to become the defender of Islam from those who “explicitly attack the religion”. According to Security Studies scholar Christine Fair of the Georgetown University, Ansar is working with the Al-Qaeda Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to commit individual murders of secular publishers and bloggers while, the other transnational terrorist actor in the country, ISIS has been largely engaged with planning larger scale militancy in the country through ex-JMB operatives and drawing a large number of recruit to the heartland.  In addition to coordinating the prominent attack at the Holey Artisan restaurant in 2016, ISIS has continuously drawn a considerable number recruits from Bangladesh (even more than it did from India, despite the latter having almost equal number of Muslims). Authorities have arrested several Bangladeshis who are living in the United Kingdom who were recruiting fighters from Bangladesh. According to Dr.Fair’s observation, AQIS tends to recruit poorly educated young men from seminaries, whereas IS attracts better educated, affluent young men. From the information that we have so far, the attacker on the Dr. Iqbal seems to be a member of the former group.

But even after multiple studies that indicate that both al-Qaeda and ISIS have a presence on Bangladeshi soil, the Hasina administration has continuously denied it. Instead, it has alleged that the BNP and Jamaat are conducting these attacks “to destabilize the country.” The state response to the surge of violence over the past few years has relied primarily on blunt and indiscriminate force, including alleged enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. The government’s continued marginalisation of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its forcing underground of opponents like Jamaat-e-Islami risk sapping resources from efforts to disrupt militants, according to the International Crisis Group analysis that came out days before the attack on Zafar Iqbal.

Insofar as the vacuum created in the center-right due to the use of selective justice and cultural assault on political Islam has lead to the rise of the ultra-right Islamic militancy, the current state of politics is creating further damage to the already damaged system. As the government is still focusing too much on domestic political interests in determining its policies regarding Islamist militancy, the police force and judiciary continues to struggle with the detailed investigative work necessary to disrupt networks that now tap not only madrasa students and their families in deprived rural areas but also privileged students in wealthier quarters of the capital. A political consensus on combating radicalism and free political atmosphere for moderate Islamists to exercise their rights must be created to curb the rise of militancy. The parties must realize that the threat that is embedded in this attacks is far larger than petty political confrontation and should be treated as a national security threat from foreign aggressors (the AQIS and ISIS) against the democratic institutions of the country. And while playing politics with this threat might seem like a good idea in the short term, it may lead to larger crises in the coming days.

Anupam Debashis Roy is a student of International Affairs and Economics at Howard University.


  1. “Countering Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh.” International Crisis Group. February 28, 2018.
  2. “Political Islam and Islamist Terrorism in Bangladesh: What You Need to Know.” Lawfare. January 31, 2018.
  3. Hossain, Maneeza. “The Rising Tide of Islamism in Bangladesh.” By Maneeza Hossain. Accessed March 11, 2018.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.