At a time when Bangladesh is trying to establish itself in the world as a self-dignified and self-reliant country, a nexus of local and international conspirators are devising a conspiracy in order to hinder this progress. —- Sheikh Hasina, Honourable Prime Minister, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Friday night’s attack at a Spanish cafe in capital Dhaka’s most secured Diplomatic quarter (Gulshan) reflected the outburst of a new security related reality that has been slowly on rise in Bangladesh from 2013 onwards. On the night, Bangladesh experienced an unprecedented scale of attack that raised the concern over the securities to a new height.
From 2013, there have been attacks on many locals and foreigners within Bangladesh. Militant organizations, both local and international, have been continuously claiming responsibilities for these attacks. However, government attributed these attacks to home-grown militants, and denied any international organization’s link to the attacks. Many individuals –bloggers, writers, publishers, and academicians – who were claimed to be atheists, were killed for allegedly insulting Islam. Also, religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Shi’ites (shias) were killed during the period.
Holey Artisan incident
Friday night’s attack at the Spanish cafe, which is situated in capital Dhaka’s Gulshan area, started at around 9:30 pm local time when seven (07) attackers entered the restaurant with bombs and guns. The siege, which lasted for around 12 hours, ended when the Bangladesh Army, Navy, Air Force, Border Guards, Rapid Action Battalion and Police jointly conducted a successful operation named “thunderbolt”, which started at around 07:40 am local time, to take control of the cafe. However, by the time, twenty (20) civilians, and two (2) police officers were already killed, while many others were injured. Among the 20 dead civilians, there were nine (9) Italians, seven (7) Japanese, an American of Bangladeshi origin and an Indian. The rest four (4) were Bangladeshi nationals. Survivors of the attack said that those who could recite the Quran were spared while those who could not recite were killed (reported by the local newspaper ‘Daily Star’). Six (6) out of seven (7) gunmen were killed during the thunderbolt operation and one (1) gunman was captured by the security forces. Although the US-based SITE Intelligence reported that Amaq news agency of the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, Bangladeshi authorities insisted that local militants carried out the siege, not ISIS.
Attacks on individuals
From 2013, more than thirty (30) people were killed prior to Friday attack. Among these killings, ISIS has, as the US-based SITE Intelligence reported, claimed responsibilities for killing of more than 15 people, whereas about half a dozen killings have been claimed by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). However, those reports made by the SITE Intelligence regarding involvements of international militant organizations in these killings were strongly rejected by the Bangladeshi government as baseless and the police are yet to find the real clues to the murders.
The first killing of bloggers took place in 2013 in the wake of Shahbagh movement. For most of those killings, the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) claimed responsibility. The ABT claims to be connected to al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). However, these militant groups were present even before 2013. The ABT claimed several attacks that resulted in the murders of bloggers and a publisher, including an American citizen.
On the other hand, responsibilities for the killing of foreigners (including an Italian NGO worker, an Italian priest and a Japanese aid worker) and attack on the Shi’ite (Shia) mosque have been claimed by ISIS. The organization, through its online magazine Dabiq, claimed that it has established contacts with the Bangladeshi militant group known as the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and that they are working together. However, Bangladesh government insisted that ISIS did not have an operational presence in the country and attributed the ISIS-claimed attacks to home-grown militants.
There were claims that ISIS was behind an attack on a Shi’ite (Shia) procession to celebrate Ashura (24th October, 2015) that killed one person and injured around 100, killing of a police officer at a police checkpoint (4th November, 2015) and a suicide attack on an Ahmediya mosque (25th December, 2015).
In each of the attacks claimed by the AQIS, attackers used machetes. On the other hand, the attacks claimed in the name of ISIS involved a variety of weapons, including machetes, pistols and crude explosives.
The extent of targets for the militants kept widening. Three people (wife of a Superintendent of Police in Chittagong, a Christian trader in Natore and mother of a lieutenant colonel in Dhaka) were killed in a single day on 5th June of this year in manners similar to the previous attacks. Hours after the Christian trader’s killing, the US-based SITE Intelligence reported that ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
Government blames opposition
The weeklong police crackdown during mid-June of this year launched in order to arrest militants countrywide was welcomed from all domestic corners, initially. However, with arrests of around 11,000 people, the crackdown was put to question by many opposition parties, including the other big political force the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). There have been allegations from the BNP that police and other law enforcers were indiscriminately arresting people. The BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia and Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam blamed the police for arresting their party leaders and workers under the cover of the crackdown.
On the contrary, the government has been blaming the opposition parties for target killings. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been blaming the BNP and its ally Jamaat-i-Islami for all the recent secret killings in the country. The government has also been wary of foreign involvement in the machete attacks. Previously prior to the Friday night’s Dhaka siege, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had categorically mentioned that “the reason behind the secret killings of soft targets is just to create a wave of tension at the global stage to depict Bangladesh negatively and create panic among the mass people.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, at her address to the nation after Dhaka siege ended, said that at a time when Bangladesh is trying to establish itself in the world as a self-dignified and self-reliant country, a nexus of local and international conspirators are devising a conspiracy in order to hinder this progress.
Although the number of attacks around the world declined last year (2015), attacks went up significantly in few countries, as found in a report by the US state department. While fewer attacks took place in 2015 in Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria, attacks and deaths increased in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines and Turkey.
The political divisiveness within Bangladesh’s political communities will only allow “third parties” to take advantages of the divided situation. It would be easier for “third parties” to operate under a political vacuum to undermine the country’s national security.
It is irrelevant to debate whether the international militant organizations exist in the country or not. Rather, the relevant factor here should be the fact that the attacks have been taking place, and it’s real.
*Bahauddin Foizee, primarily associated with a law firm, is an analyst, columnist on global affairs, and specializes on Middle Eastern, Asia-Pacific & European geopolitics.