At 8.45 pm on July 1, the last Friday before Eid ul Fitr, an Islamist attack broke out in Gulshan, the diplomatic, expatriate and upper-class heartland of Dhaka. It developed into a hostage situation, with the assailants exchanging gunfire with the police. Two of the first responders were fatally wounded, and many others injured and hospitalised. Rumours abound on social media as shocked and distressed citizens gave in to voyeurism, but ten hours into the attack, neither the Bangladesh prime minister nor her ministers had addressed the nation. Their deafening silence echoed the tepid response of the Awami League government to rising terrorism.
As freethinkers continued to be slaughtered by Islamists, the government line, made unequivocal with each repetition, blamed the victims and appeased extremist ideology. A staunch refusal to acknowledge the growth of fundamentalist violence, dismissing them as isolated incidents when they occur, implies a desire to delude the public rather than solve a very real problem. Emboldened, Islamists of various stripes broadened their targets to foreigners, secular Muslims and sexual and religious minorities. There has particularly been an alarming rise in attacks on Hindus in rural areas, most recently Shyamanondo Das, who was hacked to death with machetes early on Friday in Jhenaidah District, adjacent to West Bengal.
The government has failed to display any kind of intention or plan to tackle such terrorist hate crimes. This inability to ensure security, the most basic responsibility of any government, has led to daily migrations of the Hindu population to India. National and international reporting has been skewed towards the urban killings. This, coupled with the lack of concrete law enforcement steps, has meant that an escalation in the capital was foreseeable.
When up to nine armed terrorists took over the Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan with shouts of “Allahu Akbar”, their actions marked a major turning point in the crisis in Bangladesh. The trajectory to date suggests that, regrettably, it marks a turn for the worse. The attack revealed how woefully unprepared the state is, a fact that is unforgivable since there have been warnings aplenty as Islamist violence has shown no signs of subsiding. Ansar-al-Islam, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, and ISIS both claimed responsibility as the situation developed, with the latter releasing several updates to support its assertion. A US intelligence official told CNN that it was more likely that AQIS – Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent – had conducted the attack. The geographical proximity to Pakistan, where AQIS has its roots, gives credence to this.
The Bangladesh government, however, has previously rejected such claims, insisting that the butchering has been the work of home-grown outfits. Nothing suggests that the alleged links to global terrorist organisations have been scrutinised thoroughly before being discredited, nor has the possibility that domestic operators are aligning themselves with worldwide networks, either as a fear tactic or to profess legitimacy, been discounted. In the case of the latter, questions about whether the central command is local or foreign, i.e. whether the local outfits are operating without oversight or not, cannot be answered without a concerted effort to inspect the crimes.
Islam has been politicised by the Awami League’s opponents, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, birthed and nurtured Islamism, and directly and indirectly encouraged extremism. But when the government blames them without investigating the spate of attacks, it is refusing to address the issue. The deep-seated animosity that defines the partisan politics of Bangladesh prevents either side from rising above the blame game to offer proactive and productive solutions. BNP-Jamaat have never accepted responsibility for their misdeeds or distanced themselves from Islamism, marrying themselves to it more firmly instead; nor has the Awami League been held accountable for its ineptitude in arresting the deterioration of law and order, especially in relation to fundamentalist violence.
The attack itself raises several concerns. The restaurant in the upscale neighbourhood near embassies and international clubs, is frequented by foreigners. Located on a cul-de-sac, Holey is primed to launch a war of attrition from. Any surveillance conducted when settling on this target would have revealed that it could be closed off by responders, leaving no way out for assailants. Should this indicate a newfound inclination for suicide attacks amongst terrorists who have, until now, escaped after blitz attacks on individuals, it would signal a worrying development.
New modus operandi
The manner of the attack is a deviation from the modus operandi of the heretofore targeted killings. Whether this is a permanent departure remains to be seen, but the resolve of Islamists is not on the wane. The scale implies they are more determined than ever. Guns replaced knives, a hostage-rich location replaced targeted individuals, a significant disciplined group replaced pairs or small clusters. The finances and resources required for planning and carrying out such an attack provide further causes for concern. If the government follows its own precedent, then these concerns will not be quelled, and the fears arising as a result of such a brazen attack will not be allayed.
Foreign friends extending a hand to the government need to be reminded to do so to serve Bangladesh’s interests. The US opposed Bangladesh’s independence and actively supported the undemocratic Pakistani military regime’s oppression. Bangladeshi-American relations only improved during successive military dictatorships in Bangladesh from 1977 to 1990. This period also saw the rehabilitation of Jamaat by the then newly formed Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and the removal of secularism and introduction of religion in politics – a practice that has flourished since. The West’s collusion with radical Islam is largely omitted from the War on Terror discourse, thus overlooking the West’s culpability in global Islamist terrorism. To similarly ignore the history of Islamism in Bangladesh when discussing the current bane is perilous.
The Awami League can no longer obfuscate, deny and deflect. It cannot seek to derive political benefit by making concessions to conservatives and fanatics. The terrorist threat is as grave as it has ever been in Bangladesh, perhaps graver than ever. The government has to acknowledge this and assume its responsibilities. There needs to be a commitment to deal with Islamism, political Islam and Islamist violence sincerely and effectively.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a columnist for the Dhaka Tribune, and author of the socio-political short story collection Yours, Etcetera. His Twitter handle is @ikhtisad.