On late Thursday night, terrorists barged into Holey Artisan Bakery restaurant, an upscale eatery in the Gulshan diplomatic zone in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The terrorists took about 20 people hostage as negotiations lasted for over ten hours. Bangladesh security forces stormed into the cafe and freed at least 13 people. The attack was later claimed by the Islamic State. The terror group had recently carried out an attack on Istanbul's Ataturk Airport, killing 38.
Naimul Karim, Daily Star reporter from Bangladesh told Firstpost,"This is the first of this kind, very unique and scary. There have been many hackings since 2013. But what makes this terror attack unique is that it happened in the Gulshan diplomatic zone — an area where on a daily basis, security is beefed up and citizens are stopped at least once. This is a restaurant that many foreigners go to. It has taken us aback, for something of this scale to happen in the Gulshan area."
Friday's attack took place near the Nordic Club, where expatriates gather, as Bangladesh observes the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. French ambassador Sophie Aubert said the restaurant was "very popular" with diplomats and other foreigners in Dhaka.
This attack follows a series of killings targeting foreigners in Bangladesh that have been claimed by the Islamic State group. Earlier on Friday, a Hindu temple worker was hacked to death in western Bangladesh and a Hindu priest was stabbed and critically wounded early on Saturday in the southwest of the country. Police also shot dead two Islamist students suspected in last month's murder of a Hindu priest and arrested a top Islamist militant who masterminded an attack on a Hindu lecturer last month.
Sheikh Hasina can't deny it any longer
Right after the killing of two foreign nationals in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh Prime Minister had stated that there were no caliphate cells in Bangladesh.
"I can say that no group like the Islamic state is active here. Our intelligence is on alert and have no evidence of any operations by such groups in Bangladesh."
Bangladesh, since 2013 has witnessed a sharp spike in murders of secularists, activists and individuals from minority communities — all carried out by Islamist militants. The Islamic State has claimed a majority of these attacks, however local authorities blame home-gown militants and continue to deny the presence of the international terror group on Bangladesh soil. In a bid to deter such attacks, Bangladesh police armed villagers against Islamist militants. "We want to change the scenario. We want the people to be cautious, safe and united against militancy and other crimes," said Ehsan Ullah, police chief in the western district of Magura, which has a large Hindu population, to AFP. Naimul Karim, in an earlier article for Firstpost had said that militants have managed to be consistent with their attacks because of the "encouragement they receive from 'confused' statements made by the government." After a spate of killings in the LGBTQI community of Bangladesh, Hasina had released a statement attributing the killings to the writings by those killed and that the government bears no responsibility.
Nur Khan, a terrorism expert and researcher based in Dhaka told DW that the "presence of IS in Bangladesh has already been proven...We also know that some Bangladeshis have traveled to Syria to join IS. The police have confirmed this many times in the past."
In Islamic State's mouthpiece/editorial, Dabiq, Bangladesh referred to as Bengal makes 68 appearances in the 14th issue. And 'Bengal', according to Dabiq is important because of its "strategic geographic position" that would help in performing attacks in India causing "tawaahhush (chaos)".
"The mujāhidīn in Bengal then resumed their terrorism of the Rāfidī mushrikīn in the region."
In the magazine, there is a long profile of Abū Jandal, who grew up in Dhaka and moved to Syria. Jandal comes from an affluent family with deep connections in the Bangladeshi military.
"Abū Jandal was among the first of the mujahiddīn in Bengal (Bangladesh) to support the Islamic State and pledge his allegiance to the Khalīfah (hafidhahullāh)."
Dabiq also has seven pages in its last edition dedicated to a long interview with Shaykh Abū Ibrāhīm al-Hanīf — "the amīr of the Khilāfah’s soldiers in Bengal."
This itself should be a strong indicator that there is a burgeoning presence of the Islamic State and other terror outfits in Bangladesh. Simon Tisdall writes in The Guardian that one of the reasons for the spike in Arab jihadi ideology in the state is "linked to the increased use of social media" but also that Bangladesh has a "fractured political space" where criticism and debate are restricted — and this shows in the Hasina government's reluctance to tackle the recent surge in killings being carried out by the Islamist hardliners.
Political divides, lost lives
Hasina has focused on avoiding blame for the recent killings of liberals and secularists by Islamist hardliners, blaming the attacks as a "conspiracy" to oust her government by Khaleda Zia's BNP. Hasina has been letting this hate and radicalism simmer and the government's unclear stance is also worrisome for India (which incidentally is also battling Islamic State radicalisation and home-grown militancy). As Seema Guha points out in this Firstpost article, "mushrooming of jihadi groups can have an impact on India's sensitive north-eastern states." According to Sunil Raman, Indian authorities are perplexed by the amount of jihadist literature in circulation in Bangladesh. However, Islamic State has to compete with al-Qaeda's presence in the subcontinent, which only means that the two terror outfits could be in competition in the subcontinent as well.
According to VR Raghavan in Internal Conflicts: A Four State Analysis, India-Nepal-Sri Lanka-Myanmar, the silence on the part of the Bangladesh government and its 'confused' statements and repeated finger-pointing have encouraged the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and violence in the State and have pushed "radical Islamists" to make Bangladesh into an Islamist State. "The growth of radical Islam in Bangladesh owes a lot to the failure of parliamentary politics and weakening of civil society," he writes. According to him, 50000 militants belonging to more than 40 groups control large areas of Bangladesh and are funded partly by political parties. Ali Riaz in Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web, says that Islamists in Bangladesh are not a "homogenous and monolithic entity" and their only agenda is to create an "Islamic revolution" — and liberal democracies cannot provide a solution to the "moral crisis" of a nation.
Terrorism in Bangladesh, is perhaps both homegrown and externally influenced (by Islamic State or Al-Qaeda), and the state has to address the problem of radicalisation (from within and outside), growing unrest and discontent with the government.