The country's past as a recruitment hotbed for global Islamist jihad returns to haunt its future as it grapples with a new wave of terror
Bangladesh is still coming to grips with the exceptional brutality of its worst terrorist outrage, the horrific Black Friday attack at Dhaka's Holey Artisan cafe on July 1. Twenty hostages, including 18 foreign nationals and two policemen, were killed when the six terrorists, said to be an IS-affiliated group, took them hostage. Indian teenager, Tarishi Jain, was among those who were shot, had their throats slit and bodies mutilated.
Five of the six terrorists were shot dead after security forces stormed the cafe following a 10-hour standoff. The sixth survived and is being interrogated by security forces.
What has shocked Bangladeshis is the profile of the terrorists. Mostly in their early 20s, they were products of the country's upper middle class elite (one was the son of a senior member of the ruling Awami League party. Some are even believed to have been regulars at the two-storeyed cafe located in Dhaka's upscale Gulshan area.
The attack marked the debut of what has been the prototype home-grown terrorist in recent times, well-educated and well-versed in using social media tools, fitting the cosmopolitan profile terrorist outfits like Al Qaeda and IS have used in recent terror attacks from Paris to Istanbul. "Gone are the madrasa recruits from the impoverished rural countryside," says Humayun Kabir, senior research director at the Dhaka-based think-tank, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.
The attack was the culmination of a wave of atrocities by unidentified machete-wielding assailants against the country's religious minorities. Hindus, Buddhists and Christians priests, bloggers, writers, publishers and moderate Muslims. Islamic extremists have killed over 40 people in such attacks since 2013. Over 16,000 people were arrested in a crackdown in June this year but clearly it was a little too late.
Typically, the government's response has been one of disbelief. "Anyone who believes in religion cannot do such an act," Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina said on July 2. "They do not have any religion. Their only religion is terrorism."
A day after the attack, IS posted photographs showing five of the youth posing in front of the group's black flags, claiming credit for the attack. Bangladesh officials, however, are still calling it the work of local militants.
If Black Friday exposed the chinks in the country's security system, it also exposed the government's refusal to recognise the Muslim radicals in their midst. "Hasina used to scoff at claims of homegrown Islamist terrorists linked to the global terror network," says columnist Syed Badrul Ahsan. "She blamed opposition leader Khaleda Zia for harbouring terrorists."
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal had termed the spate of killings over the past year as isolated incidents. He clearly had no inkling of what was coming. "It was a time bomb waiting to explode," says liberation war veteran Sachin Karmaker.
Bangladesh's history of state-backed radicalisation dates back to the late 1970s and can be traced specifically to the close ties between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami whose leaders had participated in the genocide of 1971.
In the 1980s, 8,000 Bangladeshi youth, many of them left and socialist-leaning, volunteered to fight for the Palestine Liberation Organisation, a year after Yasser Arafat visited Dhaka to a warm welcome from media and political circles. Most of them returned home after the defeat and expulsion from Lebanon in 1982. Soon after 9/11, over a thousand Bangladeshi nationals who had joined the Taliban, fled to Pakistan when the American coalition invaded Afghanistan. Since then, Bangladesh has been convulsed with the attempts of the Afghan veterans to launch a jihad in their native country.
Counter-terrorism security agencies have had some success in the past, which the present Hasina regime, in power since 2008, has had too, dismantling some terror cells. The Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) spilled over into the neighbouring Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. Since then, possibly with the full knowledge of domestic security agencies, hundreds of Bangladeshi fighters, most of them poor rural youth, have joined secret wars in 36 countries, from Chechnya in Russia to Aceh in Indonesia.
The new phase of Bangladesh's war with itself began in the wave of the recent machete attacks. In most cases, the purpose of the attacks and the identities of the perpetrators remain a mystery. An international outcry forced the government to respond by banning a dozen Islamist outfits, including the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), believed to be behind the blogger attacks. However, the fact is that both the Hasina and earlier Khaleda Zia governments have harboured Islamist groups at some point and refrained from antagonising the clerics. Both have also backed off from implementing policies like women's empowerment and a national education policy (religious parties call it anti-Islamic).
Counter-terrorism specialists say Bangladesh is unprepared for this new form of terrorism. Online recruiters use social media to recruit their targets. Sleeper cells in the heart of the cities and towns run on small budgets, secret safehouses hide would-be jihadists while the familiarisation and adaptation jigs are on. Recruiters spend cash to procure weapons and bombs from gun-runners. It's during the internship that the future jihadists carry out the hit-and-run machete attacks. The reward for a good performance is a promotion to the sleeper cells, explains Kabir.
An unknown number of militants have escaped police dragnets to join IS in Syria and Iraq. The Bangladesh Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence Bureau, a CIA-trained outfit, does not know the exact number as yet. It does not know how many may have travelled to the terror hotspots to join IS . It does not know how many have returned either. Just as it doesn't know how many attackers like the Black Friday six are waiting to strike.
First published in India Today magazine, July 7, 2016
Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is an award winning investigative journalists and Special Correspondent of The Asian Age, published from Dhaka, Bangladesh