- The 1 July terrorist attack on an upmarket bakery in Dhaka could herald a more intense phase of Islamist violence in Bangladesh, as it suggests either that domestic militant groups have substantially improved their capabilities or that international jihadist groups such as the Islamic State have established a foothold in the country.
- The attack inside the capital’s diplomatic zone has highlighted critical intelligence and security failures on part of the government, which if unaddressed could lead to further large-scale terrorist incidents.
- The government’s preoccupation with blaming the opposition for domestic insecurity and using it as an opportunity to get rid of political opponents has detracted from efforts to tackle extremism.
In the first ever large-scale attack on Dhaka’s diplomatic zone, gunmen stormed Holey Artisan Bakery, an upscale restaurant in the Gulshan neighbourhood, on 1 July and held the patrons hostage in a siege that lasted 12 hours before Bangladeshi commandos ended it. The assailants were armed with grenades, sharp weapons, and automatic guns, and 20 people, mostly foreigners, were killed.
Foreign nationals were the clear targets: the café was owned by expatriates and was popular with foreigners in Bangladesh. The assailants also separated Muslims from foreigners before killing nine Italians, seven Japanese, one American, and one Indian, along with two Bangladeshis. The attack marks a distinct escalation in the Islamist violence that has gripped the country since early 2015 during which tens of bloggers, activists, and members of minority groups have been killed in what have mostly been machete attacks targeted at specific individuals.
Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, with the Amaq news agency – which is affiliated to the group – stating on Twitter minutes after the assault that “Islamic State commandos” had orchestrated it. Amaq also posted photographs that appeared to show the aftermath of the bloody attack inside Holey Bakery. If true, the Dhaka episode represents a major shift in the group’s presence and capability to carry out a planned attack of this magnitude in Bangladesh.
IS has made a conscious effort to focus on Bangladesh, with its propaganda magazine Dabiq in November 2015 carrying a eulogy for Bangladeshi IS fighter named Abu Jundal Al Bengali. In April this year, the magazine also carried an interview with the leader of IS’s Bangladesh chapter, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif. After the Dhaka attack, IS released a propaganda video in which a Bengali fighter said that Bangladesh “must know that it was now part of a bigger battlefield to establish the cross-border caliphate the group proclaimed in 2014.”
While IS has made several claims for the targeted killings in Bangladesh since early 2015 – including the murder of an Italian aid worker in September and a Japanese national in October last year – there has been little concrete evidence that the group is present in the country. Instead, it appeared to be the case that IS – keen to be seen as expanding its geographical influence, particularly in the volatile region of South Asia – made claims to any killings with Islamist motives. If it emerges that IS had definitive links to the Dhaka attack, then it would mark the first successful footprint of the group in the Indian subcontinent, which has long been viewed by rival al-Qaeda as its sphere of influence.
Bangladeshi authorities, however, have dismissed IS’s claims and instead blamed domestic militant groups such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which has pledged allegiance to IS, and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) for the attack. In particular, senior police officials have said that JMB is likely to have played a major role in putting the team of Dhaka attackers together. JMB was notorious for carrying out several attacks in Bangladesh during the early 2000s – most notably, it orchestrated about 500 bomb blasts simultaneously at 300 locations across the country in 2005 – but it was significantly weakened after most of its top leaders were executed in 2007.
It is as yet unclear which group the perpetrators belong to. If, as security officials in Bangladesh claim, JMB is indeed responsible for the attack, then the operation suggests that the group has significantly improved its capabilities. And while JMB claims to represent IS in Bangladesh, there has been little information to indicate that both groups have concrete links. However, the scale and sophistication of the Dhaka attack suggest that the attackers very likely received outside help in terms of guidance and resources. Whether this was the result of direct links and clear coordination with IS remains to be seen, although it is worth noting that the focus on foreign nationals is in line with IS’s choice of targets.
Disjointed government response
The Dhaka attack has exposed serious deficiencies in the government’s security apparatus. The fact that the assault took place inside the heavily fortified diplomatic zone – which contains several checkpoints and CCTV cameras – has raised concerns over the quality of security in the capital.
Diplomats from countries such as the US, Germany, and Japan have called for tighter security in Dhaka and criticised the government for failing to follow up on intelligence provided by other countries. A political adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government also told Reuters that authorities monitoring social media picked up references to an imminent attack in Dhaka but only increased security around embassies and large hotels, which they thought were the likelier targets.
Moreover, there have been conflicting accounts of who is responsible for the attack. Some security officials have said that JMB and ABT jointly carried out the assault, while the home minister said that the attackers were members of JMB and had no ties to IS. The suggestion of a coordinated strike between JMB and ABT is dubious, given that JMB has pledged allegiance to IS and ABT is affiliated to Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and the broader transnational groups are competing with each other to establish a foothold in the Indian subcontinent.
The uncertainty over who engineered the attack is exacerbated by the government’s tendency to vehemently deny the presence of international jihadist groups in Bangladesh and consistently blame domestic outfits for the growing tide of violence. Besides IS, AQIS has claimed responsibility for some of the killings that have occurred since early 2015, an assertion that has also been disregarded by the government.
Furthermore, authorities have attributed the spate of violent attacks to opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which they claim is trying to destabilise the country along with its ally Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party. Part of this allegation stems from the fact that Bangladesh saw an increase in Islamist violence in 2013, when sustained rioting saw over 60 people killed after a Jamaat leader was executed on charges of committing war crimes during the 1971 conflict with Pakistan that led to the country’s creation.
Before the Holey Bakery attack, the government’s response to targeted killings was to launch a blanket crackdown across the country in which more than 11,000 people were arrested on charges of supporting or participating in Islamist violence. The absence of a nuanced and considered approach from Dhaka has meant that there is general uncertainty over the militant groups that are active in the country and the kind of capabilities they possess.
The Dhaka attack marks a significant change in the kind of violence Bangladesh has witnessed over the past year. The high level of coordination and the weapons used in the operation suggest that the threat of Islamist violence has escalated from isolated unsophisticated attacks to planned mass-casualty attacks. Six days after the Dhaka episode, five armed men launched an attack on police near a mosque in Kishoreganj town with grenades, guns, and “sharp objects” during Eid prayers. One policeman died in the blast, while another was stabbed to death. A woman was also killed in the assault.
The Dhaka episode also points to the possibility that IS either already has a base or is close to establishing its presence in the country, at a time when the group is seeking to gain a foothold in Asia – whether in Afghanistan or in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia where it has already managed to carry out attacks.
Alternatively, if authorities conclude that IS was definitely not involved in the Dhaka assault, the Holey Bakery mishap could mean that domestic militant groups have significantly improved their capabilities. In either scenario, further large-scale attacks are likely in the coming months in the absence of a coordinated response from security officials.
The government’s investigation into the attack and its efforts to improve security in the capital and elsewhere will determine both the security risk and the resultant economic impact on key industries such as textiles. The Dhaka attack has already prompted Japan’s Fast Retailing Co, owner of the Uniqlo brand, to suspend all but essential travel to the country, and other garment markets are reportedly reviewing their operations and the threats to their staff. Additional attacks will therefore have a detrimental impact on the USD 28 bn garment industry in Bangladesh, which accounts for 80 percent of its exports.