‘This murder is an attack on Bangladesh’

On March 3, less than a week after suspected Islamic extremists killed Avijit Roy and left his wife Rafida Ahmed gravely injured, David Meale, the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Dhaka, sat down with the Dhaka Tribune’s Asif Islam to discuss the US government’s response to the murder. In an office at the American Centre in Baridhara, David Meale was joined by Political Officer Andrei Cotton, Senior Law Enforcement Advisor William Koertje and Press Officer Monica Shie to discuss the FBI’s role in the coming murder probe, the US government’s assessment of extremist violence in Bangladesh, and the road forward

DT: Should we take your government’s involvement in the Avijit Roy murder investigation to mean that the US sees this case as a national security concern? 

Meale: The US government has an interest in this case that is two-fold. Of course we have an interest in the murder of a US citizen: The highest priority of our diplomatic missions is the protection of American citizens outside the United States.

But this murder and the attack on the wife of Mr Roy is an attack on freedoms in Bangladesh. We see it as an attack on Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is a country of strategic importance to the United States. We are very concerned about what happens here. We want to see its democratic development and anything that threatens it, that curtails freedom of speech and other freedoms for people here, is of great concern to us.

DT: What are the terms of reference for FBI assistance into the probe? 

Meale: The first thing to note is that we want to be helpful to Bangladesh in investigating a murder that occurred on its own soil. We’re looking to be helpful in any way to the authorities here. As far as terms of reference and details on how this plays out, we’re in the early stages.

DT: Will the FBI report to the US Department of Justice with their findings, will they report to the Bangladesh government, will they share their findings with the Bangladeshi public?

I don’t have details to share with you today about exactly what will be done, what information will be released, and where it will go.

Of course we are interested, from the perspective of the Department of Justice, in acquiring details about this case.

We will be very interested in finding out the results of this investigation, to understand what it means for getting justice for the family and to understand what it might mean for protecting Americans overseas.

DT: I understand that it’s early days, but do you see the US Department of Justice seeking to prosecute? 

Meale: At this stage, it’s too early to speculate on what kind of legal action might result. But let me note, it is possible in some cases for an investigation like this involving harm to US citizens abroad to lead to a filing of charges in the United States.

DT: There are strong indications that the attack was carried out by Islamic extremists. Does your government believe this is the case?

Meale: The indications so far, based on sources that were not developed by the US government, are that this was an act of political violence.

I cannot draw conclusions in the name of the US government about what exactly the motive was, let alone declare guilt, or even declare anyone to be an outright suspect.

Your foreign minister just travelled to Washington for an event on countering violent extremism led by our White House…

And yes, we are concerned about this case in that context.

DT: So when they come now, what sorts of lines of inquiry might the FBI be looking at?

Koertje: I cannot speak for the FBI.

Shie: Much of the assistance is technical, let me get you the exact language. Just a moment…

Cotton: The FBI is a very skilled, well-resourced organisation that has experience dealing with transnational types of crimes.

DT: They certainly have tremendous capability. But I am not exactly clear what the FBI’s role might be...

Shie: OK, so let me give it to you (quoting from her smartphone): The FBI will be able to provide valuable technical assistance with regard to transnational aspects of the investigation.

DT: In the wake of this murder, will the FBI seek to establish a field office or a presence beyond the purview of assisting in this particular investigation?

Meale: At this stage the only discussion has been: How can we help in this investigation? The scope of the FBI’s role is to make this investigation and any follow-on action as effective as possible to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Cotton: We have broad and close cooperation that goes back several years, and the ability to assist in this investigation grows out of the close security cooperation that we have.

Meale: The untold story is that this partnership, assistance doesn’t seem odd to us. This is a natural outgrowth of how we have built a very constructive relationship with the government of Bangladesh in this area. In policing, more broadly in counter-terrorism…this is a very healthy part of our bilateral relationship and here we have a situation that is very tragic and because we have built that relationship, our two governments which have a common concern, about crime, about international crime, about violent extremism are well positioned to easily and quickly join forces together to hopefully be doubly effective in dealing with this.

DT: Here we have a murder and we have an attempt to snuff out free speech in Bangladesh, probably by Islamic violent extremists. Does the US see this murder primarily as a crime or something more sinister, more difficult?

Meale: At this stage the motivation for our offer to assist and the assistance that we are going to carry give has been due to the murder of an American citizen.
There is broader concern in our government about the implications of this crime since it does appear to be an act of political violence, since it does appear to be an attack on free speech.

Bangladesh is an important country to the United States, so our view of the crime is a bit more broad than what is driving the FBI’s role.

DT: Do you believe the upsurge in violent activities in Bangladesh has followed in the wake of conflict in Iraq or Syria? 

Meale: There has been an upsurge of violence in this country in the last forty days, that has occurred in light of the political impasse that is presently challenging Bangladesh.

I have no information to suggest that what has occurred involving our citizen and the attack on his wife has anything to do with the ongoing political impasse here. I want to make that clear.

DT: With regard to the Avijit Roy murder, do you have any information about whether it is connected to international Islamic violent extremism?

Meale: I don’t have any information, I just don’t. We are at the early stages of the investigation and there is a lot of information in the [local] media about what the government [of Bangladesh] says it has discovered already.

DT: Would it be appropriate to say the US government does not have a position about whether Bangladeshi extremism is connected to global extremism?

Meale: I think you have to look at different violent acts and look at what subsequent investigations have yielded.
What is clear is that Bangladesh and the United States both have a common concern with the issue of violent extremism.

DT: Does violent extremism here belong to a network of violence or is it a home-grown problem in a local context?

For your reporting of our views, I think it is very important to emphasise that one really cannot generalise about Bangladesh’s situation. That is really what I am trying to get across.

Source: Dhaka Tribune