The Bangladeshi army revealed today that it had foiled a coup attempt linked to Islamist extremists last month.
Army officials said they uncovered a plot by 16 serving and retired military officials who conspired to overthrow the elected Sheikh Hasina government in order to establish an Islamist regime. While Bangladesh has a history of military coups, this is the first known attempt by Islamist extremists within the military to overthrow the government.
The coup attempt has been linked to the Hizbut Tahrir (HUT), an international organization that seeks to establish a global caliphate and was banned in Bangladesh in 2009. A Bangladeshi army official said at a press briefing today that the main plotter who is still absconding, Major Ziaul Huq, was involved with HUT, while media reports suggest that the HUT distributed leaflets touting that mid-level army officers were bringing change to the system. The prime minister was quoted as blaming the coup on “vested quarters” trying to destabilize the country and overturn democracy.
Cohesion and stability of the Bangladeshi military has been under question since a violent mutiny took place almost three years ago that killed more than 70 people, including 51 army officers. The exact circumstances that led to the mutiny are unclear, although most accounts say that disgruntled soldiers from the border guard force rebelled against their superiors because of low pay and lack of promotion prospects. The unrest lasted two days and spread to 12 towns. It ended with the mutineers surrendering their arms and releasing their hostages after negotiations with the government. One member of Hasina’s cabinet called the mutiny a “deep-rooted conspiracy” by people intent on destabilizing the country.
This most recent coup attempt has occurred at the same time the government has put on trial several religious political leaders, including the former chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party, for their alleged role in siding with the Pakistani military and committing war crimes during Bangladesh’s fight for independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Bangladesh has faced challenges from violent Islamist groups since 2005, when the Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh conducted a synchronized bombing campaign in which 400 bombs exploded simultaneously in almost every district of the country. Hasina, who came to power following elections in December 2008, has cracked down on extremist groups and emphasized the democratic principles of the country’s founding. However, the recent coup attempt points to the need for the government to remain vigilant against Islamist extremists seeking to undermine the country’s democratic institutions and tolerant traditions.
The U.S. should back Hasina’s efforts to stem Islamist extremism in Bangladesh as the country struggles to define the role of Islam in society and governance. Preventing Bangladesh—the world’s third-largest Muslim country—from falling prey to a volatile mix of radicalization and political unrest should be a top priority for Western policymakers.