In early July, Bangladeshi police arrested a dozen members of al-Qaeda’s branch in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS). The arrests bring the emerging al-Qaeda threat in Bangladesh to the forefront and underscore the importance of U.S. engagement with the country.

The 12 suspects were arrested in three separate raids in Dhaka by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite police unit. Mainul Islam, the Bangladesh chief coordinator of AQIS, and his top adviser were among those arrested. The police also found sulfur, potassium chlorate, and other bomb-making materials. The suspects have since been questioned and sent to jail. Commander Mufti Mahmud Khan, a spokesman for RAB, said that the group was believed to be planning a jailbreak to free group members and an attack after Eid al-Fitr, the festival at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The branch, Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent, was announced by al-Qaeda’s worldwide leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in September 2014. Lisa Curtis, senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, speculates that competition from the Islamic State in the region has prompted al-Qaeda to seek to expand its appeal and recruitment base throughout the Indian subcontinent.

The July arrests are not the first indication of al-Qaeda’s presence in Bangladesh. The existence of a new extremist group influenced by al-Qaeda materials, Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), was revealed in 2013 after five students were arrested and accused of murdering secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider. In May of this year, AQIS claimed responsibility for murdering bloggers Avijit Roy and Aniqa Naz who spoke out against extremism. Evidence shows that al-Qaeda is making inroads into Bangladesh by linking to other local jihadist groups such as Harakat-ul-Jihad-I-Islami/Bangladesh (HUJI/B). The recently arrested AQIS members are believed to have been members of HUJI/B before identifying with the AQIS.

Political stability in Bangladesh is necessary to help thwart al-Qaeda’s efforts to gain influence in the country. Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister, was elected for a second term after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and about 20 other opposition parties boycotted the election in January 2014. Protests that ensued at the one-year anniversary of the election called for fresh multi-party polls and have resulted in at least 120 casualties.

Tensions between the government and Islamic groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh, may also exacerbate the situation. During her first term in office, Prime Minister Hasina established a war crimes tribunal to try political leaders who sided with Pakistani forces during Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence. The tribunal has sentenced several JI leaders to death punishment and two senior JI leaders have already been executed for perpetrating war crimes. While the convictions have garnered support from the country’s young urban population, executions of JI leaders provoked marches and riots among Islamists. There is concern that by blocking political channels Islamist groups will feel increasingly threatened and even relatively moderate or inactive Islamist groups could resort to violence to fight for their cause.

Bangladesh faces increasing challenges in its counterterrorism efforts and its attempts at political progress. Heritage’s Lisa Curtis recently testified before a congressional Subcommittee where she said:

Political deadlock between the ruling Awami League and BNP opposition is threatening economic and social progress and opening the door for Islamist extremists to gain more recruits and increase their influence in the country.

The U.S. should therefore encourage Bangladesh to reach political consensus through peaceful dialogue and create a social and economic environment conducive to combating terrorism.

Siyao Li is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.