WASHINGTON — The revelation from the U.S. State Department on Thursday that the Islamic State terrorist network issued a threat targeting garment buyers in Bangladesh in October — as part of new travel warning to the Asian country — sent shockwaves through the fashion industry.
“In October 2016, Da’esh threatened to target “expats, tourists, diplomats, garment buyers, missionaries and sports teams” in the most ‘secured zones’ in Bangladesh,” the U.S. agency said.
Da’esh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
The announcement marked what may be the first time the global fashion industry has been knowingly targeted by terrorists. It came as a broader warning issued to U.S. citizens Thursday of “continuing threats from terrorist groups” in Bangladesh and a change to the U.S. embassy’s status in Dhaka to “partially accompanied,” allowing only “employed adult family members of U.S. government personnel to remain in or return to Dhaka.”
“The U.S. government considers the potential threat to U.S. government personnel in Bangladesh to be serious enough to require them to live, work and travel under strict security guidelines,” the agency said, warning U.S. citizens to take “stringent security measures.”
U.S. government officials and their families are not allowed to visit public places in Bangladesh, use any “uncovered means” of transportation or attend large gatherings in the country.
In a separate move, the U.K.’s Foreign Commonwealth Office issued its own travel warning on Bangladesh on Thursday, saying “there is a heightened threat of further terrorist attacks,” which could be “indiscriminate, although foreigners, in particular Westerners, may be directly targeted.”
Bangladesh came under siege last year when the country was rocked by a series of terrorist attacks, including an attack later claimed by ISIS on a restaurant and café in Dhaka that killed 20 foreign hostages and raised concerns among global brands and retailers.
But the threat of terrorist attacks aimed squarely at foreign garment buyers is unprecedented, according to industry veterans.
“I don’t recall that there ever was a threat that specifically targeted garment buyers or people in our industry,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association. “That obviously is pretty shocking and a huge concern, of course, for all companies who are traveling and doing business in Bangladesh.”
Hughes said the threat is a “blow” to Bangladesh, which is a key supplier of apparel to the U.S.
“There has been a sense that things were getting back to normal after the earlier terrorist attacks [in July],” she added.
Nate Herman, senior vice president of supply chain for the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said there has been an “unspoken agreement” among protesters to leave untouched the garment industry in Bangladesh, which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s export earnings.
Security concerns and danger are not a new issue for garment buyers, who often make trips to hot zones around the world. After the 9/11 terrorists attacks, there was a travel advisory for Pakistan, a key apparel and textile supplier, and it is still considered a fairly unsafe place to travel.
Herman said the bombing at the café in July in Bangladesh killed several Italians involved in the apparel industry.
“No matter what happens in Bangladesh, the garment industry has never been targeted,” Herman said. “When there were protests over elections a few years back and where there were protests over wages, the garment industry was never touched. This [a specific terrorist threat on the industry] is brand new.”
Bangladesh’s apparel industry has been in the global spotlight over the few years in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse in April 2013 that claimed the lives of 1,133 workers and injured more than 2,000. Since then, U.S. and international brands and retailers have been working through two initiatives to inspect factories and improve safety and conditions in Bangladesh factories.
The country is the second-largest apparel exporter in the world, after China, employing more than four million workers. It is the fourth-largest apparel supplier to the U.S., with imports reaching $5.3 billion for the year ending Oct. 31.
Buyers canceled or postponed their trips in the immediate aftermath of the ISIS attack on the café that killed 20 people in July. Hughes said January is typically a time when many buyers travel because it is right after the holidays and a good opportunity before the Chinese New Year.
“For many companies who are monitoring the international situation, they may put a ban or delay on any travel to hot spots around the world,” she said.
It is unclear whether a Dhaka apparel summit, slated for Feb. 25, will go on in light of the new warnings and threats. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to attend the opening ceremony.
The event is being touted by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association as a daylong conference that will “bring together some of the best global minds to formulate strategies toward a more sustainable apparel supply chain and also to drive innovation and prosperity” and to complement the global Sustainable Development Agenda 2030.
“The threat puts a chill on business for buyers or companies who may now review some of their sourcing strategies,” Hughes said. “It obviously puts an additional risk factor for Bangladesh.…I don’t think it means everyone will flee Bangladesh.…On the other hand, I cannot ever recall that our industry was specifically targeted by terrorists. I don’t want to downplay that and say this is business as usual. It’s not.”