The Dhaka government refuses to accept that international Islamist terror groups are behind recent attacks, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Zeeshan Khan explains their tactics
More shocking than the intelligence and leadership failures that led to the July attack on Holey Artisan Bakery in an up-market area of Dhaka, claiming the lives of 22 people, including 17 foreigners and two police officers, has been the fact that at least three of the terrorists were urban and educated young men, not too far removed from the milieu of their local and international victims.
But it should have come as no surprise.
and which can be enticed to relocate to Syria with lures like ‘Snickers, Kit Kat, Bounty, Twix, Kinder Surprise, Cadburys – yes, yes, we have it all,’ or ‘the Caliphate serves some of the best lattes and cappuccinos around’, published in A Brief Guide to the Islamic State 2015, which reads like a tourism brochure written by teenagers, for other teenagers.
Urban, educated and globalised individuals have been targeted for recruitment by Islamists well before IS arrived on the scene. Their success in Bangladesh has much to do with how they appeal to a generation of city-based Bangladeshis that feel caught between the seemingly conflicting forces of modernism and tradition, religion and culture, urban and rural lifestyles, local and international values and, more importantly, religious and secular modes of living.
The easiest to reach among these are people with deep-seated personal issues – abusive parents, fragile self-esteem, fears of inadequacy caused by expanding cultural and economic globalisation, and even rejections of a romantic nature. Add to this a domestic socio-political environment characterised by a lack of accountability and unchecked corruption, along with an international military order where Islamophobic narratives are easy to weave, and a perfect storm of discontent brews.
There are other less obvious factors as well. Bangladeshis, and indeed many other Muslim societies, raise their children on a heady mix of religious and cultural supremacy, allowing even the most benign of environments to inculcate in younger people a feeling of superiority in relation to other cultures and ways of life. This sets a tone that terrorist recruiters are later able to exploit.
Private English-medium universities in particular have been a preferred pool for these recruiters, for a number of reasons. In the public universities, the predominantly Bangla-medium students are rooted more closely in a Bengali nationalism that has its own sort of immunity to Islamic fundamentalism, of the kind that characterised Jamaat-e-Islami’s brutal politics during the war of 1971. The English-medium community, on the other hand, is more conversant with fractures between immigrant Muslims and Western host cultures in Europe and America. They also have closer connections, both personally and intellectually, with diaspora Bangladeshis as well as with Bangladeshi students abroad, who may be exposed to radicalisation on campuses there. Global references and messaging can also be used on them more effectively, creating a ‘Muslim International’ that is less pronounced among public university recruits.
This is especially true of the international political party Hizb ut Tahrir, or HT, which advocates a Caliphate based on Sharia government, and had almost total influence on the political thinking of students at many leading private universities until it was banned in Bangladesh in 2009. HT is still prolific online, and routinely hands out leaflets and pamphlets at mosques. According to a report in the Dhaka Tribune, ‘The group has traditionally claimed to be non-violent and distanced itself from violent Islamist outfits, but has espoused a programme of regime change that is impossible to imagine without violence on a large scale.’
Students at both public and private universities subscribe to Islamist views as a religious and a political concept, which sets them apart from the strictly theological students of seminary institutes like Madrassas, long considered the fount of extremism in Bangladesh. Islamism is, after all, a modernist, intellectual construct and appeals to proponents of progressive political thought, odd as that might seem. It presents itself as a postcolonial, post-capitalistic solution to problems in the Islamic world and as such, lives in the realm of political philosophy rather than dogmatism. This is why it is becoming increasingly difficult to address it using the language of religious extremism or even, for that matter, religion.
Tasneem Khalil, a Bangladeshi journalist who believes a direct link exists between the political activism of HT and the terrorist activities of IS, says, ‘I see it like this: the type of young people who wanted to establish a Caliphate under Tahrir are now trying to do so under IS.’
However, to assume that IS recruits exclusively from among urban, radical students would also be a mistake. Their links to the local terror group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, or JMB, whose members tend to come from rural towns, villages and regional cities, have been all but openly acknowledged, and individuals investigated by the Bangladeshi authorities following terrorist attacks claimed by IS have had JMB ties. While there is no clear evidence yet that JMB has pledged allegiance to IS in the same way as groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Islamic State’s official magazine, Dabiq, confirms that networks and operatives are in place in Bangladesh.
It means that when the Dhaka attackers turn out to have JMB links, it is not, as the government claims, proof that IS is not operational here, but more likely an indication that IS has poached members from JMB, or is working through them. It is also possible that factions of Jamaat-e-Islam’s student wing, Shibbir, have thrown their lot in with more extreme Islamist projects like IS, having been orphaned, so to speak, as a result of the recent executions for 1971 war crimes that decimated the Jamaati leadership. This means that
a fact that was demonstrated by back-to-back attacks on Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan and an Eid congregation at Sholakia in Kishorganj, a rural area.
The government has handled the operation, and the subsequent investigation, very poorly. Suspects have been killed before interrogation, and surviving hostages were taken away for questioning. No clear account of events has been given; most absurdly, IS involvement in the attacks has repeatedly been denied, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. As the attack was happening, official IS media put up photos from inside the bakery and details about the assault, including numbers killed, that were not only accurate but preceded any government information by several hours. Right after the attack, IS posted images of the five attackers in front of the Islamic State flag, along with an official claim of responsibility.
The government has been able to gather information about other potential attacks, and said 20 or 30 gangs of seven or eight members each exist in Bangladesh and are constantly on the move, awaiting orders about when and where to attack. Even though the authorities flatly refuse to acknowledge unpalatable facts, they at least admit a significant threat exists. Whether that threat comes from IS itself or is IS-inspired, the question is what Bangladesh can and will do about it.
Zeeshan Khan is a journalist and author of Right to Passage: Travels through India, Pakistan and Iran (Sage-Yoda Press, 2016). He is based in Dhaka and writes socio-political commentary for various publications in the region, as well as for the Dhaka Tribune, where he is employed