The 1 July terrorist attack in Bangladesh is the clearest signal yet that global terror networks are increasingly focusing on the Indian sub-continent.
Though officially, at least, the Bangladesh administration has disproved of any link between the jihadi assault on Holey Artisan Bakery by self-declared IS militants, the Sheikh Hasina government appears increasingly conflicted on its theory that it was carried out by 'unconnected' local terrorist groups.
Both points are not mutually exclusive. In fact, while it may be true that while the terrorists who attacked the bakery in Dhaka's Gulshan area belonged to the homegrown outfit Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) — as Bangladesh has been insisting — it does not in any way rule out the possibility that the band of seven educated, affluent young men were attracted by the Islamic State's growing appeal and consequently, the IS has found a steady and motivated recruitment pool among the country's homegrown terror networks.
As ASM Ali Ashraf, associate professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, points out in his article for Bangladesh newspaper Daily Star that "JMB was praised by IS mouthpiece Dabiq Magazine in its November 2015 issue."
He also points to the "striking similarities" between the two groups' hostility against religious minorities. In the recent past, Bangladesh, a Sunni majority country, has seen an astonishing amount of bloodshed and JMB's name has been linked with consistent murderous attacks on atheists or those who seek reform in Islam, Hindus, Christians, those from the Ba'hai community and even followers of the Shia sect. Similarly, the IS, whose core support base is also Sunni, "has targeted the Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, and Shia minorities in Iraq, and Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya."
To understand how these terror networks function, it is crucial to grasp that IS or Al-Qaeda (which operates through its arm AQIS, or Al-Qaeda in Indian sub-continent) in their quest to break new grounds and develop footprints in southeast Asia may not always require adherents to travel to the self-declared Caliphate in Syria or Iraq for arms and training.
As Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told New Yorker: “The most important thing here (Dhaka attack) is that IS has taken credit, and they don’t take credit for things they didn’t do… Now, this doesn’t mean Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is calling these guys in Dhaka and telling them what to do. It doesn’t mean these fighters were in direct contact with the top leadership or funded by them. What you can say is that linkages exist.”
A month back, for instance, an Islamic State spokesman urged sympathizers to launch lone-wolf attacks on civilians there if they are unable to travel to the group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Primarily targeted on US and European soil, the message nevertheless encouraged lone wolf attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramzaan, which starts early in June, “to win the great award of martyrdom”.
In the recent past, the Al-Qaeda has been relegated to a bit-part player and the Islamic State has been under increasing pressure from the 66-country coalition led by the US to hold on its core territories in Raqqa and Mosul. The Dhaka attack, therefore, indicates a quid-pro-quo among south-Asian terror networks and its global counterparts. While the local militant groups increasingly seek to internationalise their operations, the IS and Al-Qaeda find in countries like India and Bangladesh a large Muslim population that is demographically young, making them a prime target for fresh recruits.
Though lone wolf attacks are not really the style of Al-Qaeda, the group seems to be changing its mindset. On Saturday, a day after the terror attack in Dhaka in which 20 people were killed and over 40 injured, AQIS issued a statement "inciting Indian Muslims to rise up and to follow the example of lone wolves in Europe and kill administrative and police officers in India". AQIS, formed couple of years ago by Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is headed by Indian national Asim Umar. According to Indian Express, Umar is from Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh and was known as Sanaul Haq. He studied at the Darul Uloom Deoband seminary before moving to Pakistan in the late 1990s.
Global terror network watchdog SITE Intelligence Group — a Maryland-based organization headed by terror analyst Rita Katz — tracked the 15-minute, 32-second Urdu speech entitled 'No to the Slogan of Disbelief' which was posted on the 'Deep Web' al-Fida' forum on Sunday. It was accompanied with Arabic, Bengali and English translations.
Umar claimed Hindus in India are "imposing their faith on Muslims" and trying to make them break the foundations of Islam. "You (Muslims) are over 350 million in India. You have the best land of India. Your localities are in every province of the country. Even if you come out carrying merely knives and swords — history bears witness — Hindus cannot withstand you. They strike the fleeing enemy more and more, they turn into lions before the weak enemy and then tyrannise it to the point that it would not be able to stand up ever again."
It seems probable that Al-Qaeda is changing its tack to counter the growing popularity of Islamic State (the two are sworn enemies of each other). Lone wolf is the best strategy for global terror networks to increase their influence in locations such as India for two reasons.
One, it takes away the need for an extensive terror network that operates through above-ground membership organizations. The lone wolves seemingly act on their own without a visible command structure (as for instance, Omar Mateen did in the US in a gay bar) but they crucially advance the ideological or philosophical beliefs of an extremist group while doing so. And simply by owing allegiance to IS or Al-Qaeda, the terrorists manage to give these terror groups maximum media coverage that serves to further their influence.
Two, lone wolf attacks are extremely difficult for counter-terrorism officials to track, since they may not come into contact with routine counter-terrorist surveillance. India's Intelligence Bureau officials told Times of Indiathat terror groups like Al-Qaeda and IS were focusing on this strategy especially in India as they were not able to make much headway and also because working individually makes it difficult, almost impossible, to track the activities of a person who is planning an attack.
The challenge to India, therefore, is manifold. Delhi Police, for instance, last year busted an AQIS module with the arrest of two while NIA and state police forces have arrested 54 IS members at the stage of planning. Just last week, NIA arrested six from Hyderabad who were part of a dozen-member group swearing their allegiance to IS. One of them even called their interrogators as “kafir” or infidels.
As Bangladesh fulminates on IS links, terror has already reached our shores.