DHAKA, Bangladesh — Until a few weeks ago, Anne Merton, an Australian, traveled freely around her adopted country, taking a bicycle or rickshaw to work, where she runs a job service in Dhaka’s slums.
But for Merton and many others, life in Bangladesh’s crowded capital has changed significantly since a string of terrorist attacks this year, including shootings claimed by the Islamic State that left two foreigners dead and a third, an Italian missionary, seriously wounded.
Many have stopped walking or bicycling to work in favor of company cars. An international AIDS conference was postponed and other events canceled. Those that were held, such as this month’s Dhaka Lit Fest, had heightened security. Aid organizations from Japan and Australia have begun quietly sending their workers and volunteers home.
Those who remain have been buying groceries online and going home before dark. The U.S. Embassy is no longer permitting its personnel and their families to be in most public places such as thoroughfares, sidewalks and large gatherings, including those held at international hotels.
“I’m trapped in my apartment,” said Merton, 61. “I haven’t felt safe.”
She said the only places she can sit outside are the city’s private clubs, where she socializes with other expatriates behind high walls with armed guards. She and her husband are considering leaving the country.
“It’s changed my life,” she said. “Turned it upside down, really. I don’t know that I can return to what it was.”
In February, an Atlanta-based Bangladeshi American blogger named Avijit Roy was leaving a book fair in Dhaka with his wife when he was hacked to death by assailants wielding cleavers.
Police said the killers were Islamist fundamentalists who objected to Roy’s secular writings on faith and culture. Since then, three other bloggers have been killed, as well as Roy’s publisher, Faisal Arefin Dipan, who was slain in his office Oct. 31.
Fears that the security situation in Bangladesh is spiraling out of control intensified in recent days when the Islamic State asserted responsibility online for attacks on three foreigners, a Shiite religious procession and a police checkpoint.
An Italian aid worker was shot and killed Sept. 28 while jogging in the diplomatic enclave, and a Japanese agriculture worker was fatally shot Oct. 3 in a rural area. On Nov. 18, Piero Parolari, an Italian missionary, was shot and wounded in the northern district of Dinajpur. Other priests received death threats, and the Hindu leader of a religious forum was attacked by knife-wielding assailants Tuesday.
The Islamic State boasted of its alleged expansion into Bangladesh, which it calls “Bengal,” in an article titled “The Revival of Jihad in Bengal” in its online English magazine, Dabiq, released last week.
“These blessed back-to-back attacks have caused havoc among the citizens of the crusader nations and their allies living in Bengal and forced their diplomats, tourists, and expats to limit their movements and live in a constant state of fear,” the article said. It mocked the Bangladeshi government and called on all Muslims in the country to support the Islamic State’s cause.
The government of Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, has made an effort to play down the presence of the terrorist group in the country.
“We feel the Islamic State is not strong in Bangladesh,” said Gowher Rizvi, an international affairs adviser to Hasina. “We have a very liberal Muslim society, and by and large, there is no extreme fundamentalism in this country. The idea that suddenly [the Islamic State] is active here has seemed remote.”
He added, “We are, of course, alert to all possibilities, and we take any threat from terrorists very seriously.”
Yet there have been signs that affiliates of the Islamic State are operating here.
On Wednesday, police detained a member of a local militant group accused of spreading death threats on the Internet in the name of the Islamic State. On Tuesday, a Dhaka court indicted four men on terrorism charges. One of the men was identified as a regional coordinator for the Islamic State. When the men were arrested in January, police found Islamic State leaflets and jihadist videos on their laptops.
The government had previously blamed the attacks on Hasina’s opponents, theorizing that they were carried out to disrupt the country’s ongoing war-crimes trials. The tribunal was set up to prosecute atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan and has been widely criticized by the international community as unfair. Two of those convicted of war crimes were hanged Sunday morning.
The country’s beleaguered opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), denies the charges.
“It’s a blatant lie,” said S.M. Asaduzzaman Ripon, a spokesman for the BNP.
Many of its top leaders are on the run or have been imprisoned by Hasina’s government since Hasina was reelected in 2014 after a controversial poll that the BNP boycotted.
Bangladesh, a Muslim-
majority country of about 160 million, is rapidly modernizing, its economy growing about 6 percent a year, bolstered by farming and a thriving garment industry. It has embraced a moderate form of Islam since the war of independence.
Yet there always has been a division in the country between those who want a secular government and those who favor an Islamist state. The conflict plays out in the streets, where political protests and strikes turn violent.
Splinter extremist groups have existed at least since the 1990s, when jihadist fighters returned from Afghanistan, said Abdur Rob Khan, a professor of international relations at North South University in Dhaka.
A militant group set off hundreds of bombs throughout the country on the same day in August 2005. Since then, the government has tried to rein in the small-scale networks.
“Definitely there is militancy in this country. We used to claim it was mostly homegrown,” Khan said. “But things are different now. It looks like the discourse is changing. Although [the Islamic State] isn’t physically here, IS supporters are here, and they’re owned by IS.”
The government has arrested four men in the blogger killings who allegedly were part of a militant group inspired by the writings of al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, many of the country’s leading intellectuals continue to live in fear. Some of them have begun curtailing their work for fear of attracting attention — or ending up on a hit list. Khan, for example, used to routinely appear on evening talk shows. He rarely does so now.
One evening, as darkness fell, Dhaka residents strolled along the city’s redeveloped Hatirjheel-Begunbari Lake, which opened just a few years ago. The multicolored lights on newly constructed bridges glowed. People held hands on park benches and bought spicy snacks and cotton candy from traveling vendors.
“Dhaka is a very vibrant place, so life goes on,” said Mahfuz Anam, the editor and publisher of the Daily Star, the country’s largest English-
language newspaper. But “these incidents are extremely worrisome. Suddenly the whole society looks vulnerable. We are [grappling] with how to respond.”
At the lake, a college mathematics lecturer named A.K.M. Nazimuddin, 28, gazed out at the lights on the water, holding hands with his wife, Farjana.
It was a lovely evening, he said, but they wouldn’t linger long: “Something could happen at any time.”
Azad Majumder contributed to this report.