It will perhaps be less than correct to describe it as a mere alarm bell. For Bangladesh, it was a great cautionary signal to take remedial measures. The deadly July 1 siege of Dhaka’s upscale Holey Artisan Bakery and O’Kitchen in the high-security diplomatic zone of Gulshan 2, where the Islamist militants slaughtered over 20 innocent people, mostly foreigners, should jolt out of complacence all those who tried to downplay the growing radicalism in the country.
A large chunk of the victims were Italian. Nine of them, including Nadia Benedetti, had spent many years in Dhaka for business. They were all engaged in Bangladesh’s readymade garment sector for years. There were also seven Japanese nationals among the dead, including the 80-year-old railway expert Hiroshi Tanaka, who was a consultant for Dhaka’s Metrorail project. India lost Tarishi Jain, an 18-year-old girl, a student of the University of California, who was in Dhaka on a vacation to meet friends and her father, Sanjeev Jain, an apparel businessman.
Among the three local hostages who were killed was Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain, 20, a student of the University of Atlanta, Georgia, and his friends Ishrat Akhond, 45, a well-known art provocateur, and Abinta Kabir, who lived in the United States. Abinta, Tarishi and Faraaz were close friends, and the militants killed them reportedly because the girls were not dressed conservatively enough. Faraaz refused to walk out leaving his friends in danger, and he, too, got killed.
On the morning of July 7 came another deadly attack, this time on an Eid rally near the historic Sholakia Eidgah in eastern Kishoregonj district, some 150 km north of Dhaka. At 9:45 a.m., just as the prayers were about to begin, suspected Islamist militants attacked the congregation with bombs, guns and machetes. Two policemen and a woman were killed; one of the attackers was shot dead by the police.
A group of three assailants first hurled bombs at a police checkpoint near the 3,00,000-strong gathering. The police responded with gunfire to prevent the attackers from coming close to the congregation. The civilian who died in the attack was identified as Jharna Rani Bhoumik. The police arrested two attackers and recovered a pistol and machetes from the scene. One of them has been identified as Abu Mukaddem of northern Dinajpur. At least 20 people were injured in bomb blasts and gunfire.
For quite some time, against the backdrop of the murders of freethinkers, secular intellectuals, bloggers, online activists and liberal activists by suspected Islamists, a debate was raging on whether these instances of extremist violence had any links with the Islamic State (I.S.). Following persistent claims by SITE, a terror-monitoring group based in the United States, which pointed to claims of responsibility made by the I.S. and Al Qaeda with respect to murders, including those of leaders of religious minorities, the government maintained that there was no “organisational presence” of either the I.S. or Al Qaeda in Bangladesh. It claimed that strikes were made by “home-grown” terrorists affiliated with some banned groups and allegedly operating at the behest of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The aim was apparently to destabilise the government. The experts who watched the developments on the ground did not disagree with the government’s claim but insisted that the radicals were certainly inspired by the I.S. or Al Qaeda.
The I.S. claimed responsibility for the murder of the Italian citizen Cesare Tavella, who was shot dead in the Gulshan diplomatic zone in late September 2015, and again for that of the Japanese citizen Kunio Hoshi a few days later in the northern Rangpur district. The July 1 attack came after the government’s announcement in June that it had joined a Saudi-led alliance formed to protect the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina from terror attacks and would send troops.
Bangladesh witnessed Islamist militancy for the first time when the Pakistan Army created armed outfits with local Bengali-speaking recruits and formed the Razakars, Al Badr and Al Shams militias when the country was fighting a war of liberation in 1971. They massacred hundreds of people, including the nation’s top intellectuals.
The present radicalism, many observers say, is also linked to the ongoing war crimes trials, which the Sheikh Hasina government initiated. The trials were carried out in the face of attacks from the Jamaat and its political patrons at home and abroad and persistent criticism from powerful international quarters and Pakistan. They led to the execution of several top Jamaat leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Who are the terrorists?
There was a general impression among the secular intelligentsia, and also among law enforcers, that radicalised young people carrying out assassinations were brainwashed in the madrasas funded by foreign sources across the country. But the impression was not fully right. The jehadi mentors had changed their strategy and brainwashed young people from reputed English-medium and privately run educational institutions that only the wealthy could afford.
In the aftermath of the Gulshan cafe siege, photographs of suspected militants surfaced in the public domain. First they were circulated by SITE. Friends, relatives and acquaintances have identified one photograph as being that of Nibras Islam, a 22-year-old, as his Twitter page claims. He was a student of Dhaka’s Turkish Hope School. Nibras snapped contact with friends after moving to Malaysia to join Monash University. He then just “vanished” after coming back to the country early this year. Police said this young man was the kingpin of the group of attackers.
Another, Meer Saameh Mubasheer, was due to take his A-level examinations when he went missing from Dhaka’s Gulshan area in February. His friends said Mubasheer was a silent type and his family was “strictly religious”.
It was a rude awakening for Imtiaz Khan Babul when he saw his son’s picture among the photographs of suspected terrorists on the Internet. His son, Rohan Ibne Imtiaz, had been missing for more than six months. Imtiaz Khan Babul is a local-level leader of the ruling Awami League. Rohan also joined Malaysia’s Monash University after graduating from Scholastica, one of the leading English-medium schools in Dhaka.
Another youth was identified by the police as Khairul Islam Payel, 20, who was known among his militant friends as Badhan. He was the son of a day labourer and passed Alim (equivalent to Higher Secondary Certificate, a public examination written by students of intermediate college in Bangladesh) from a madrasa. He too had gone missing for months. Another slain terrorist has been identified as being from northern Bogra.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promptly authorised a para-commando assault on the terrorists holding hostages at the Gulshan cafe. Operation Thunderbolt, carried out by army commandos, was planned well and was fairly successful. Yet, intelligence authorities had undeniably failed to get wind of the siege, which must have been planned ahead in meticulous detail.
The Gulshan siege, in which some Westerners were attacked, might have been designed to deal a blow to the country’s economy by scaring away foreign investors and aid workers. The recent attacks on Hindu and Buddhist priests may have been meant to touch a raw nerve in India.
Two suspected members of the I.S. were recently arrested in Dhaka. The arrested men allegedly recruited members for the militant outfit. One of them, Aminul Islam Beg, was a graduate in computer science and engineering from a Malaysian university and headed the information technology department of a multinational company. The other was Sakib bin Kamal, 30, a former teacher at an English-medium school in Dhaka.
A background check on the militants who have been arrested or killed by security forces in recent years revealed that many of them were from affluent and educated sections of society. The first blogger victim, Ahmed Rajib Hyder, killed in 2013, was attacked by a group of students from Dhaka’s top North South University.
While earlier terror attacks in Bangladesh targeted individuals, the Gulshan cafe attack targeted a wider group of victims. Experts say that the savagery of the attack and the mode of operation bear the stamp of international terrorist outfits such as the I.S. and Al Qaeda.
Bangladesh is said to have developed a “fundamentalist economy”. Several researchers have said that some Islamist political parties have so far invested in 13 different economic sectors, including finance, insurance, retail, education, real estate, communication, media, health care and pharmaceuticals. The flow of terror financing is therefore smooth. There is also a constant inflow of foreign funding in the name of Islamic charity.
The Gulshan carnage has left the nation terrified and perplexed. It is time Bangladesh moved away from debates over whether terrorists operating in the country are home-grown or affiliated to the I.S. or Al Qaeda. It must acknowledge that there are groups ideologically linked with such international outfits. The parents of the two key militants who were among the six killed in the Gulshan cafe siege have apologised to the nation, the rest of the world and the bereaved families. They have also demanded that the authorities should find out who brainwashed, armed and funded their sons.
Why this radicalisation?
Why this radicalisation? The answer, according to many local thinkers, can be analysed as follows.
The global growth of militancy, the spread of political Islam in countries with which Bangladesh’s majority population shares a religious affinity, and the influence of the Wahabi doctrine are responsible. The trials of war criminals, violently opposed by Islamists; the return of Al Qaeda-trained Bangladeshi jehadi fighters from Afghanistan; the mushrooming of private educational institutions, including madrasas, funded by Islamist forces; and resentments against the West for perceived “injustices” to Muslims have all combined to radicalise a section of society. The global networking made possible by the Internet has helped terror groups. Indeed, more attacks are likely. But Bangladesh, unlike other Muslim-majority countries, has the resources to resist extremism, even if it means a prolonged fight.
The liberal Bengali Muslim heritage is still a force to reckon with. The sentiments associated with the 1971 war of liberation, the legacy of linguistic nationalism and the liberal democratic culture that still prevails in the country cannot be easily beaten into submission by fundamentalist forces. A large section of clerics also shun Islamist terrorism.
After the Gulshan cafe carnage, a post on a social networking site said: “A country where a Hindu colleague doesn’t drink openly during Ramadan because his Muslim colleagues are fasting. A country where a Muslim doesn’t order meat because her Hindu friend can’t eat meat during Puja. A country where Eid’s moon and Buddha’s flowing lantern are equally celebrated. A country where the locals treat foreigners like gods; sometimes to the point it’s embarrassing…. What happened last night [July 1] at Holey Artisan doesn’t represent Bangladesh. This is not us. May this never be us again.”
Bangladesh is caught in a fight between what this part of the world stood for through centuries and what is being imposed on it today.