Al-Qaeda's Assassination Campaign Against 'Blasphemous' Bloggers

As Westerners come under fire for drawing cartoons of Muhammad, Bangladeshi bloggers are being killed with hatchets for professing disbelief in the Islamic prophet or simply promoting a secular society.

And as the West is focused on locating ISIS operatives and cells, al-Qaeda's new chapter in southeast Asia is conducting the assassinations at an alarming rate -- three victims in less than three months.

Ananta Bijoy Das, a science writer whose numerous books included one on evolution, was hacked to death by four men wielding machetes and cleavers Tuesday as he went to work in the city of Sylhet.

Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh warned in a May 5 tweet that included photos of Bangladeshi secularist bloggers, "We DON’T forget and InshaAllah We will NOT forget others. Next target is Loading... Stay tuned !!"

The group considers itself a "brother" of al-Qaeda, as Ayman al-Zawahiri has united South Asia jihadist groups under al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. The chapter was announced last September after what al-Zawahiri said was two years of set-up work with regional Islamist leaders, with a consultative council already operating for a year before the official announcement.

"Alhamdulillah, All the Brothers of Operation team are safe," an Ansar al-Islam spokesman tweeted Tuesday.

"How can they be blogger? How can they be scientific writer?...while their target is only #Islam, nothing else," he said of Das in a separate tweet.

AQIS issued a statement announcing they were "delighted" to be responsible for "one Islamophobic atheist blogger sent to hell." They accused Das of "taunts" to Islam.

In English, AQIS added: "We want to say to atheist bloggers! We don't forget and we will NOT forget others who insult our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Allah (S:) Another file closed! Stay tuned for next target......"

Das knew his life was in danger, and tried to get a visa to go to Sweden for a press-freedom event. Swedish officials denied the request last month, afraid that the writer wouldn't return to Bangladesh.

The Swedish chapter of PEN said it invited Das to speak May 3 in Stockholm on the increasingly grave threats to secular writers in his country and stay for two weeks, coinciding with World Press Freedom Day events.

“You belong to a category of applicants where there is always a risk involved when granting a visa that you will not leave Schengen area after the visit," Swedish officials said in the visa rejection. "Furthermore, the purpose of your trip is not urgent enough to grant you visa.”

Das appealed the decision. "This should have been dealt with by the Migration Court in Gothenburg within the next few weeks," Swedish PEN said in a statement. "But it was too late."

"He never got the opportunity to tell his and the others’ story for his Swedish colleagues on World Press Freedom Day. It is our duty to know why," the group added, vowing to pursue "a detailed and credible explanation" of why officials denied a visa to Das.

In February, Bangladeshi-American secularist blogger Avijit Roy was hacked to death on a Dhaka street. “The target was an American citizen.. 2 in 1. #America recently martyred 2 of our brothers in #Khurasan & #Shaam. #Revenge+#Punishment,” Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh tweeted afterward.

Roy was a dual U.S.-Bangladesh citizen who lived in Georgia and was in Bangladesh for a month. His wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonna, was with him at the time of the attack and was severely wounded, with one of her fingers severed by the pair of machete-wielding attackers.

His blog in the 90 percent Muslim country, mukto-mona.com, translates to “free thinking” and featured atheist, humanist and nationalist writers. He was also an author whose books included The Philosophy of Disbelief and The Virus of Faith — further stoking outrage of Islamists.

Das contributed to mukto-mona.com.

After Roy's murder, secular blogger Washiqur Rahman wasn't going to take it from the Islamists. He posted a Charlie Hebdo Muhammad cartoon and used the hashtag #IamAvijit. Rahman was hacked to death at the end of March.

Two suspects out of three attackers were seized at the scene of the crime: students at an Islamic school who said they were acting on orders to kill Rahman.

Al-Qaeda issued a video at the beginning of this month saying AQIS was behind those assassinations and more, including the February 2013 murder of secularist Bangladeshi blogger Rajib Haider.

“Praise be to Allah, these assassinations are part of a series of operations initiated by the different branches of al-Qaeda on the orders of our respected leader Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri (may Allah protect him),” AQIS leader Asim Umar said. “It is equally part of our commitment to fulfill the oath of Sheikh Osama [bin Laden] (may Allah have mercy on him).”

The assassination campaign, Umar stressed, is teaching "a lesson to blasphemers in France, Denmark, Pakistan and now in Bangladesh."

The Committee to Protect Journalists plans to release -- in five languages including Arabic -- a first-of-its-kind report Tuesday on the global threat to cartoonists. "The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must take urgent steps to ensure the security of critical bloggers in Bangladesh given this series of murders," said CPJ Asia Program Research Associate Sumit Galhotra. "Authorities can show their commitment to curbing this violent trend by finding Ananta Bijoy Das's killers and bringing them to justice."

State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Tuesday that the U.S. condemns Das' murder, "the latest in a recent string of attacks against writers and bloggers in Bangladesh."

"We offer our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends," Rathke said. "We hope that the Bangladeshi authorities will find and bring the perpetrators to justice, and that all Bangladeshis strive to ensure space for the peaceful expression of ideas without fear of violence, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Rathke wouldn't answer a question at the press briefing about who is killing off bloggers.

"There is an investigation ongoing which the Bangladeshi authorities will lead, so I would refer you to them for any information of that sort," he said.

Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi writer in exile, tweeted Tuesday of Das' murder: "Another freethinker writer-blogger was hacked to death in Bangladesh this morning. Bangladesh is worse than Pakistan."

She received a reply from a person using the Twitter handle @JihadforKhilafa: "U r also among the 84 who r on the hitlist. count ur days ;)"