By Ajai Sahni*
The July 2, 2016, hostage crisis and slaughter at the Holey Artisan restaurant in upscale Gulshan, Dhaka, was unprecedented in its character and scale in the history of terrorism in Bangladesh. It reflects an abrupt escalation of the challenge for the state apparatus and raises complex questions of counter-terrorist (CT) responses in the past, and of future imperatives.
CT strategies and tactics are unlikely, however, to be better informed by the shrill cacophony of global commentary on this incident, and on initiatives of the Bangladesh Government to contain Islamist radicalization and terrorism in this country. Such commentary has been overwhelmingly unaware of, or has studiously ignored, the history of state-backed Islamist radicalization under preceding regimes over decades, and the inextricable intermeshing of the principal political parties in Opposition – the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) – and processes of radicalization and violent Islamist mobilization. Worse, much of this commentary, particularly a powerful stream emerging from the West, has been actively hostile and obstructive to the Sheikh Hasina Government’s efforts to reverse trends towards radicalization in the country, including her extraordinary commitment to bring the guilty of the 1971 War Crimes to justice.
Given the sheer ignorance of or disinformation implicit in, much of the discourse, it is necessary to reiterate, here, that those who participated in the atrocities during the Liberation War of 1971 (an estimated three million were killed and 10 million were displaced in nine months of genocidal war and campaigns of mass rape waged by the Pakistan Army against its own people) were the very groups and individuals who came to dominate the processes of Islamist radicalization in the country once they were ‘rehabilitated’ to political prominence after the assassination of the country’s first President and subsequently Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the slaughter of almost his entire family, in 1975. Sheikh Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana (who were outside Bangladesh at the time of the coup), were the only members of Mujibur Rahman’s immediate family to survive the massacre. Zia-ur-Rahman, an Army General who seized power after two years of chaos thereafter, and declared himself President, promulgated an Indemnity Ordinance which conferred immunity from prosecution on the Army officers who plotted and executed the bloody coup against Mujibur Rahman. Begum Khaleda Zia, the chief of the Opposition BNP, is the widow of Ziaur Rahman. There is deep, enduring, personal and bloody history here, and current incidents and trends in terrorism in Bangladesh cannot be correctly assessed unless they are placed squarely within its context.
One of the crucial questions that the Holey Artisan attack has revived – as has every stabbing and hacking incident in Bangladesh over the past months – is the role of Daesh (Islamic State, previously Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham). Daesh has regularly claimed every single incident of Islamist terrorism, including the succession of hackings/stabbings since September 2015. It is useful to remind ourselves, here, that this series of targeted attacks – against intellectuals, bloggers, atheists, ‘anti-Islamic’ individuals, minorities, and foreigners – began well before Daesh saw a propaganda opportunity in it. Indeed, ‘lists’ of individuals marked for brutal murder, were circulated soon after the Shabagh Movement was initiated in February 2013, and the first killing in this sequence – Ahmad Rajib Haider’s – dates back to February 15, 2013. The early succession of murders attracted fitful attention; but once the local perpetrators began to announce affiliation to Daesh or to al Qaeda, these supposed acts of ‘international terrorism’ excited great attention in Western capitals and media.
The Bangladesh Government has consistently denied any international terrorist formation’s presence in the country – particularly including Daesh and al Qaeda. These denials have been cavalierly dismissed by most commentators, who have displayed a sustained preference for hysteria over reality. The problem, essentially, is that ‘presence’, ‘collaboration’, ‘affiliation’, or any of their variants, are left intentionally undefined. Consequently, the bare claim that a group or individual is ‘affiliated to’ or ‘represents’ Daesh is sufficient proof of the ‘fact’.
It is, however, meaningless to speak of such affiliation or representation unless some operational linkages – the transfer of resources, technologies, fighters, know how, training, or the chain of command and control – are demonstrated. This has not been the case in a single incident in the past.
The Holey Bakery attack, on first sight, appears to be an exception. The attackers sent pictures from the place of their butchery to a private Daesh-linked email account during their operation, and these pictures were almost immediately uploaded. To many, this suggests incontrovertible proof of the Daesh ‘presence’ in Bangladesh, and the Government’s insistence that the operation was executed by a domestic terrorist formation, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahiddeen Bangladesh (JMB), rings hollow.
Available intelligence, however, suggests that these were one-way communications, and that no contact between the perpetrators of the Holey Bakery attack and Daesh command existed prior to the attack. Of course, once the photographs had been sent, Daesh quickly seized the opportunity to claim the attack, but there is no suggestion that it had any prior awareness even of the existence of this group. This has been the pattern of past claims as well, absent the ‘validating’ photographs, with local killers claiming Daesh affiliation and Daesh grabbing the chance to claim another wilayat (province) in its imagined global empire.
What is actually happening, here, is that factions or elements within existing domestic terrorist or radicalised groups have announced a transfer of their loyality to Daesh, even as they continue to engage in precisely the kind of activities they were involved in even before such a transfer. There is no augmentation of capacities or of resources.
The reality is, the Sheikh Hasina Government has decimated the leadership of established Islamist terrorist formations and their sympathetic institutions, and fragmented their remnants. Enormously weakened splinters have long been attempting to regroup, but have found few takers for their domestic agenda, despite the enormous proliferation of Islamist fundamentalist and radical institutions in the country over the past decades. In identifying with global jihadist organizations the surviving fractions evidently hope to improve their capacities for local mobilization – and are being enormously aided in this by the Western media and political leaderships who have accepted all claims of such institutional and ideological identity at face value, and compounded the sensation and hysteria around even the most minor acts of terrorism, offering vast quantities of the ‘oxygen of publicity’ to tiny and marginalized groupings. At the same time, they have mounted vicious critiques of Dhaka, on the one hand, for its ‘failure’ to rein in terrorists, and, on the other, against the purported ‘excesses’ against political groups aligned to these.
This does, of course, raise the question of the abrupt escalation in the Holey Bakery attack, from the stabbings and hackings of the past (though this was the method of choice by which the perpetrators dispatched their hostages in this case as well) to this relatively sophisticated operation using automatic weapons and explosives. Such capabilities have long existed within terrorist groups in Bangladesh, though they were not domestically deployed. Indeed, through 2004-2008, a Bangladeshi ‘footprint’ was recorded in almost every major Islamist terrorist attack in India, outside Jammu & Kashmir, particularly involving Harkat-ul-Jihad Isalmi Bangladesh (HuJI-B), often in collaboration with Pakistani formations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Harkat-ul-Mujahiddeen (HuM), among others, as well as with the Indian Mujahiddeen (IM). Bangladesh has, moreover, long been a major transit route for the smuggling of small arms and explosives into India’s troubled Northeast, and is domestically awash with such weapons. These capacities were not domestically deployed, first, because radical Islamist groups enjoyed significant state support under the BNP-JeI regime, and were used to sustain a calibrated campaign of intimidation through low grade terrorism and street violence; and subsequently, under the shock of the sweeping measures initiated by the Sheikh Hasina regime since 2009, which decapitated and dismantled most of the established terrorist formations in the country. Evidently, a degree of recovery, at least by small cells, has now been engineered.
Significantly, the Bangladesh Government has suggested that Pakistan and its external intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), were likely behind the Holey Artisan attack. Given the record of history, this is a credible thesis. Pakistan has long meddled in internal affairs in Bangladesh, principally through the BNP-JeI combine, and its affiliate radical formations. Crucially, after US and coalition forces swept across Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan facilitated the transfer of large numbers of foreign and Bangladeshi fighters to Bangladesh, and then fomented an accelerated process of radicalization, creating a measure of instability that inspired some of the more febrile minds of the time to describe the country as “the next Afghanistan”. History and generalized allegations, however, cannot suffice. Bangladeshi authorities will have to provide concrete evidence of direct operational linkages between the terrorists at the Holey Artisan and the Pakistani intelligence establishment or its proxies, if these charges are to stick.
Bangladesh is a country of over 160 million, primarily Sunni, Muslims – the population profile purportedly most susceptible to the Wahabi lunacy that Daesh and al Qaeda represent. And yet, the numbers of Bangladeshis who are believed to have joined Daesh forces in Iraq-Syria are in the low single digits (compared to the thousands who have flooded this theatre from Western countries with minuscule Muslim populations). Indeed, Daesh admits to its failure in what it describes as ‘Bengal’, even while it claims the various domestic terrorist strikes there. Thus, in a detailed profile of its sole Bangladeshi ‘martyr’, the latest volume (14) of Dabiq, the Daesh mouthpiece, concedes that he is among the very few who have joined its jihad in Iraq-Syria from this country, observing,
Abu Jandal al-Bangali (may Allah accept him) was among the few muwahhidn who emigrated from the land of Bengal to the blessed land of Sham by Allah’s grace… Abu Jandalgrew up in Dhaka and came from an affluent family with deep connections in the Bengali military. His father was a murtadd officer of the taghut forces and was killed during an internal mutiny of “Bangladesh” border guards in “2009.”
This did not happen on its own. With all its faults – and I am not competent to comment on its political and economic attainments or failings – the Sheikh Hasina Government has done infinitely more against Islamist terrorism and radicalization, certainly, than any other Government in South Asia, and possibly any other Government in the world; and it has done so despite the enormous hostility of powerful forces in the West.
A second perversity of the responses to the Holey Bakery attack is the astonishment expressed by many to the profile of the attackers – who came from ‘well to do’ backgrounds and some of the best educational institutions in the country. This astonishment should, in fact, be astonishing. Despite voluminous documentation to the contrary, the fiction that all Islamist terrorists are drawn from madrassahs and from impoverished backgrounds, dominates the commentary, and every time numerous exceptions are brought to light (as, indeed, in the case of the Holey Artisan attackers), this information is received with an air of bewilderment. The reality is, there has always been a significant representation of educated and relatively affluent individuals (Osama bin Laden was not brought up in destitution, nor was Ayman al Zawahiri), not only among Islamist terrorists, but in terrorist movements across the world. Why does the presence of some modestly upper class children among terrorists in Bangladesh raise so many questions, while Anders Behring Breivik, scion of a wealthy family in the very staid and peaceful community of Oslo in Norway, and who slaughtered 77 of his own countrymen and women, provokes no comparable paroxysms of psychological analysis? Post World War II terrorist movements in the West, including the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof Gang), the Japanese and German Red Armies, the Italian Red Brigade, among others, found their leaderships and recruits among the educated and well off in Europe and Japan. Across South Asia, numberless youth drawn from notable – and not just moderately well off – families have joined various state-backed and global ‘jihads’.
There has, of course, been a further skew towards the mobilization of the more educated and relatively affluent among those who are attracted to Daesh. The reason for this should be fairly obvious. Traditional Islamist terrorist recruitment was face-to-face, and often preyed relatively disproportionately on the poor and the poorly educated, and among its purportedly ‘natural’ constituency in madrassahs, mosques and other fundamentalist idaras. Daesh’s global outreach is overwhelmingly through the internet, and this creates a natural educational and economic barrier to its mobilization. Unless an individual is sufficiently educated to acquire a certain minimal proficiency in the use of the internet, and has access to a personal or private computer – internet cafes are unlikely to be safe places to try to get into Daesh websites over any extended period – they cannot be targeted by Daesh propaganda and recruitment campaigns.
It is crucial, here, to distinguish between radicalization and mobilization/ recruitment. Despite all the noise about cyber radicalization, very little radicalization actually takes places on the internet. Individuals radicalized within their own communities, or in sub-cultures within their own communities, preferentially access extremist Islamist propaganda material – including Daesh campaigns – on the internet. It is, consequently, far more accurate to speak of cyber mobilization and recruitment, rather than cyber radicalization. This distinction is crucial, and would have critical impact on the application of CT resources and policies.
The Holey Artisan has brought disproportionate attention to Islamist terrorism and extremism in Bangladesh, and many have speculated that this will catalyze a spike in terrorism, not only in this country, but across the region. Some ‘experts’ are particularly concerned that Bangladesh may emerge as a ‘base’ for attacks against India. Apart from the fact that this has been the case in the past, and that India needs to take care of its own security much better than it presently does, it should equally be realized that the prominence that this incident has secured is a double edged weapon. Just as too much attention has resulted in a crystallization of forces against Daesh in Iraq-Syria, and consequent and mounting reverses, the escalation that the Holey Artisan attack represents can only galvanize the Sheikh Hasina Government to redouble its efforts to identify and neutralize the Islamist extremist complex in the country.
Crucially, in this context, there is urgent need to abandon the hypocrisy and opportunism that has dominated global responses to terrorism, if any enduring success is to be achieved. Every time there is an attack in the West, there are calls for global cooperation against terror; every time there is a stabbing, hacking, or, in the present case, major terrorist incident, in Bangladesh, a tirade of criticism is unleashed against the Sheikh Hasina regime, arguing that her ‘stifling of the political opposition’ has strengthened the extremists. This is contrafactual nonsense, and displays an ignorance of trends in radicalization, Islamist extremism and terrorism in Bangladesh.
It is not clear how arresting Islamists affiliated to political formations that openly advocate radical Islam as their official ideology is a violation of human rights in Bangladesh; but banning the burqa, shutting down mosques, indiscriminate arrests, and a rising politics of racist hatred in the West, uphold the same human rights and makes democracy secure. It is time to acknowledge that domestic radicalization is the base on which international terrorism builds, and that this is, equally, the case in the ‘advanced’ countries, as it is in the relatively disadvantaged. If there is to be any meaningful CT cooperation across the world, there must be a clear recognition of the political formations that contribute to and support Islamist radicalization, on the one hand; and of those that have stood firmly against these trends, on the other.
* Ajai Sahni
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal