The Islamic State is claiming responsibility for an attack Tuesday that bore chilling hallmarks of al-Qaeda attacks in Bangladesh that have targeted non-Muslim writers and thinkers.
Like previous victims of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the ISIS victim was hacked to death on a city street. The similar M.O. comes as ISIS is trying to muscle in on al-Qaeda territory in the region.
The victim’s “crime”? Being a prominent, longtime convert from Islam to Christianity.
Hossain Ali, 68, had recently retired as inspector of the Directorate of Family Planning, according to local media. He and his family had converted to Christianity in 1999.
Each morning, Ali took a walk near his home in the Kurigram district in northern Bangladesh. At about 7 a.m. on Tuesday, multiple attackers approached Ali on a motorbike and began assaulting him with knives. As they fled the scene, officials said, they threw Molotov cocktails to frighten locals.
He was described as a freedom fighter in Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War.
The country’s Daily Star newspaper ran a grisly photo of Ali’s bloody body lying in the street, surrounded by a crowd of somber children.
ISIS issued an official statement on its letterhead declaring that Ali was murdered as “a lesson to others.”
And the Amaq Agency, an ISIS news outlet that first issued the claim of responsibility for the Brussels terror attacks on Tuesday, reported in a headline without an accompanying story:
“Breaking: Islamic State soldiers assassinate a Christian preacher in Kurigram, northern Bangladesh.”
Three Islamist students were arrested as suspects in the slaying and Bangladesh officials, who have been accused in past killings of not paying enough attention to the threats faced by non-Muslims at the hands of terror groups, said they hadn’t determined a motive.
Some media reports referred to the terrorists as “miscreants.”
Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh, the local wing of AQIS, has circulated a timeline graphic of their murders: assassinations of bloggers and thinkers deemed to have insulted Islam.
In February 2015, 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.
One of the other victims, Ananta Bijoy Das, contributed to mukto-mona.com. A science writer whose numerous books included one on evolution, Das was hacked to death by four men wielding machetes and cleavers in May as he went to work in the city of Sylhet.
Washiqur Rahman Babu posted a Charlie Hebdo Muhammad cartoon and used the hashtag #IamAvijit. He was hacked to death at the end of March 2015.
Niloy Chatterjee, who blogged under the name Niloy Neel, had been getting threats from AQIS and went to the cops — trying several police stations but not finding anyone to help. “Officers at one of the stations said the place was not under their jurisdiction,” he wrote of the odd brush-offs. At one stop he was told to just leave the country.
In August, Neel was hacked to death in his home in broad daylight by several men wielding machetes. His wife was home at the time.
Faisal Arefin Dipan, who was Avijit Roy’s publisher, was slaughtered in his Dhaka office in October. AQIS said in a statement afterward that he “frequently published books in which the honor of the prophet was violated,” thus was “worse than the writers of such books.”
“Your nominal ‘freedom of speech’ is only tamed when it comes to spreading vile and waging war on Allah and His Messenger and defaming the Islamic religion,” the terror group added. “…The mujahideen will pay you back with appropriate response to your crimes.”
But ISIS has been moving in on AQIS’ territory with a wave of attacks on foreigners in Bangladesh beginning last fall. These progressed from the shootings of two Italians and a Japanese man to a knife attack on a Hindu leader in November.
The government of Bangladesh has downplayed any ISIS presence in the country, asserting the Muslim-majority country is not a haven for extremism.
ISIS calls the country “Bengal,” rejecting the “nationalist” country name from the 1971 revolution.
In the issue of Dabiq magazine published after the November Paris attacks, ISIS boasted of the “revival of jihad in Bengal” and claimed that after the caliphate was declared jihadists “realized that there was no room for blind partisanship towards any organization” such as al-Qaeda.
AQIS was announced by Ayman al-Zawahiri in September 2014 to united South Asia jihadist groups under the al-Qaeda banner. They’ve even issued assassination guidelines for which people to target next.
ISIS took a shot at Zawahiri in the Dabiq article, writing that “the mujāhidīn realized that the unity of the Ummah could only happen through a leader with true authority, not an unwise man in some unknown hiding place releasing outdated video messages with pledges of allegiance to a dead man and scolding others for not doing the same!”
“In the end, it is the responsibility of the Muslims in Bengal to support the Khilāfah,” ISIS added. “It is also the duty of all mujāhidīn in Bengal who support the Islamic State to close their ranks, unite under the soldiers of the Khilāfah in Bengal, and aid them in every possible way.”