The Obama administration did not characterize Monday’s brutal slaying of a USAID worker as terrorism on Tuesday despite al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent taking credit for the crime.
Xulhaz Mannan, 35, and Mahbub Tonoy, 25, were in their apartment in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Monday at about 5:30 p.m. when attackers posing as delivery couriers gained entry. They were attacked with machetes by men in their 20s who yelled “Allahu Akbar” on their way out the door.
The attack followed the pattern of AQIS attacks that began in February 2015 with the machete murder of an American citizen, writer Avijit Roy, on a Dhaka street. Roy ran a blog featuring atheist, humanist and nationalist writers.
AQIS, which formally launched in 2014 after al-Qaeda brought various militant groups from India to Bangladesh and Myanmar under its umbrella, has explicitly detailed why they’ve picked certain writers and activists as their targets — those they believe have insulted Islam and stand in the way of submission to Shariah law. ISIS has tried to adopt this method of ambushing intellectuals or atheists, though Bangladesh denies fighters allied to the Islamic State are active in the country.
Mannan was an LGBT activist before going to work at the U.S. Embassy as a protocol officer. He later worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and founded the magazine Roopbaan, which was going to hold a Rainbow Rally earlier this month that was canceled due to death threats.
Tonoy was an LGBT activist and stage actor who had worked for the magazine over the past year.
In a statement posted on their Twitter accounts Tuesday, AQIS said they killed “the pioneers of practicing and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh.”
“Xulhaz Mannan was the director of Roopbaan (a cult comprised of the gays and the lesbians) while Samir Mahbub Tonoy was one of its most important activists,” the statement from spokesman Mufti Abdullah Ashraf said. “They were working day and night to promote homosexuality among the people of this land since 1998 with the help of their masters, the US crusaders and its Indian allies.”
AQIS promised to “follow up with additional details” soon. They included a digital signature for extra verification of the authenticity of their claim.
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about President Obama’s response to the slayings.
“This is a murder that the United States government strongly condemns… Mr. Mannan served the U.S. embassy in Dhaka with distinction and he worked on behalf of his fellow Bangladeshis as a voice for justice, equality of human rights for all, including for the local LGBT community,” Earnest replied.
“And while his death is obviously a significant tragedy, there are also reports that indicate that he was targeted because of his advocacy for these human rights, and that makes his death even more tragic than it seems. Mr. Mannan set an example of dignity, courage and selflessness, and his legacy will live on in the causes that he championed.”
Earnest “strongly” urged the government of Bangladesh to bring the perpetrators of “this senseless crime” to justice.
“I can tell you that the U.S. government has already been in touch with the government of Bangladesh to make clear that this investigation is a priority and we are please to see that so far, the government is moving forward with the kind of thorough criminal investigation that we would expect them to conduct,” he said.
A reporter pointed out to Earnest that these are only the latest in a string of several killings, and asked if Obama believes the Bangladesh government should have a tougher response.
“At this point, our expectation is that the government of Bangladesh should engage in a serious criminal investigation to determine who was responsible and to bring those individuals to justice,” the press secretary replied. “They’ve committed a heinous crime and they should be held accountable for it.”
Over at the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner was asked pointedly if the U.S. government considers Mannan’s murder a hate crime or act of terrorism.
Toner noted that AQIS’ claim of responsibility “does state that its attack was motivated out of hatred and out of intolerance against these individuals because of their activism on LGBTI issues, and was directed against the LGBTI community in Bangladesh.”
“We don’t have any reason to believe this was not the case,” he added. “We don’t, obviously, have any reason to confirm it absolutely at this point.”
Al-Qaeda’s murder of Roy, the Georgia resident hacked to death for his atheistic blog, has received scant mention from the administration. After his February 2015 slaying, then-press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at the State Department that they condemned the murder of “a journalist, a humanist, a husband, and a friend” who “was taken from us in a shocking act of violence.”
“This was not just an attack against a person, but a cowardly assault on the universal principles enshrined in Bangladesh’s constitution and the country’s proud tradition of free intellectual and religious discourse,” Psaki said. Pressed on why Roy was killed, Psaki said she didn’t “have anything to ascribe in terms of a motive in this case.”