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The Standoff in Bangladesh

Muslims lined up for prayer with Bangladeshi security forces looking on, Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 7, 2016
Kyodo News/Getty Images
Muslims lined up for prayer with Bangladeshi security forces looking on, Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 7, 2016

The first time I walked into the Holey Bakery, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of its owners was on the verdant front lawn, a rare holdover of old-world extravagance in the country’s densely inhabited capital. Situated next to a lake in the upscale Gulshan neighborhood, the bakery and its sister restaurant, the O’Kitchen, occupied the house in which, he said, he had fallen in love with his wife. A rare venue for European food, it catered to affluent foreigners and the country’s elite; less than a dozen dimly-lit marble-topped tables stretched around impressive imported ovens inside, with a few on a terrace for use when weather allowed. 

On the evening of Friday, July 1, bone marrow was on the menu, and the diners included nine Italians, most of whom were employed in the country’s garments sector, as well as a group of recent graduates of the exclusive American International School, which is just across the lake that Holey’s garden overlooks. Cristian Rossi, forty-seven, and Nadia Benedetti, fifty-two, were Italian apparel entrepreneurs saying farewell to the country. The young students enrolled in college in the United States—Tarishi Jain, nineteen, at Berkeley, and Faraaz Hossain, twenty, and Abinta Kabir, eighteen, a US citizen, both at Emory—were back for the summer holidays and celebrating a reunion of sorts.

At around 8:45 PM, however, the restaurant turned into a place of devastation and utter horror, when a siege by five—or possible six—young Islamist militants (the presence of a sixth attacker has not been ruled out), apparently affiliated with ISIS, executed these and other patrons, eighteen of them foreign nationals. Strikingly, several of the attackers, who were all Bangladeshi, appear to have come from the same well-heeled, educated backgrounds as the restaurant’s patrons. In recent years, Bangladesh has experienced growing incidents of violence and killings by Islamists, but until now the elite, whether politicians or the wealthy, have not generally come under attack. This time was different. Not only had an exceptionally brutal form of international terrorism arrived in this supposedly tolerant Muslim democracy at the height of Ramadan; its cold hand had now reached the heart of the Bangladeshi establishment.

The massacre was quickly claimed by ISIS, and in the days since, the nominally secular Bangladeshi government has come under intense international pressure to address the group’s apparently growing activity in the country, which the government denies. But viewed from up close, the recent history of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh suggests that both the government and its critics may be missing the underlying story, in which both ISIS and local groups have a part.  

The attackers in the July 1 massacre would not have looked out of place as they approached the restaurant, dressed in Western clothing and carrying backpacks. (Restaurant staff later noted that the men were “were smart, handsome, and educated.”) They stormed past the gates and limited security, carrying dozens of rounds of ammunition, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), semi automatic AK-22s, and machetes. Running through the glass front doors they cried, “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great,” in Arabic), with guns drawn. 

Those who could, tried to escape. Diego Rossini, the restaurant’s Argentine chef, ran up to the roof, from which he was able to later jump to safety, while others ran to the washrooms, locking themselves in. Most of the patrons remained pinned to their seats in front of their expensive meals. The attackers quickly divided the patrons into locals and foreigners. Then, according to some eyewitnesses, they began demanding that all quote a verse of the Koran. Those who could were spared; the others had their throats slit one by one.

Soon after the shooting began, police arrived and attempted to storm the restaurant, but the attackers pushed them back with gunfire and IEDs hurled from the roof. Two senior police were killed as the police retreated. At that point a standoff ensued. Government reports suggest that the hostage takers wasted little time. But one survivor, Shishir Sarkar, suggested the killing lasted much longer. Sarkar had hid in the ice room until he was found by the attackers after several hours, but was spared when he claimed to be Muslim. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, he said that at that point he saw victims who were still alive and being tortured. To boast of their savagery the killers took photos on phones looted from hostages and sent them to allies online; ISIS was soon circulating them.

There has been much debate about who the Bangladeshi terrorists are. Since September 2015, Western diplomats have insisted that ISIS has a presence in the country, and over the past eighteen months there have been a series of attacks and killings claimed by ISIS. But the Holey Bakery attack is the first that seems to resemble—in its high degree of organization, brutality, and group choreography and determination—ISIS attacks elsewhere. (Including the recent attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad with which it closely coincided.) 

Most of the earlier attacks in Bangladesh have been described as “targeted killings” and the range of targets has been frighteningly broad. Rezaul Karim Siddique, fifty-eight, who was killed by machete-wielding youths in April 2016, for instance, was a Muslim who taught at the Rajshahi University in the northwest of the country. He celebrated Bengali culture, which Islamic zealots view as antithetical to the Salafi Islam espoused by hard-line groups. In May police said they had arrested a member of the local Islamist group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) who had confessed to involvement in the killing.

A poor, overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 160 million people, Bangladesh has a long history of both Islamist militancy and leftist insurrection. The JMB was founded by veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviets, and while its fortunes have waxed and waned, it’s been the most persistent Islamist militant group in the country. According to leaked diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks, in the early- to mid-2000s the previous government, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), used the JMB to assassinate leftist rebels who, as in neighboring India, have gained a following among desperately poor rural farmers since the Naxalbari uprising in the 1960s.

The JMB was chiefly known for its attacks in 2005, when the group, apparently emboldened by political patronage, decided to push for their goal of establishing a Sharia state by detonating hundreds of bombs around the country. It was at that point that American diplomats started haranguing the Bangladeshi government to deal with the country’s growing terrorism problem. They were dismayed to learn that the government had released JMB members because party leaders had demanded it. At the time US embassy officials feared that it was “unclear if this embarrassment [over BNP connections to JMB] is enough to bring to heel the politically-connected mystery man,” JMB leader Bangla Bhai.

But since those 2005 attacks, the group was mostly quiet until the aftermath of the most recent election. The BNP chose to boycott the last election in January 2014, because they wanted a neutral “caretaker government” to oversee the process. The current government, led by the country’s other main party, the nominally secular Bangladesh Awami League, had a sufficient electoral mandate to remove this provision in parliament and went ahead with the elections uncontested. The political impasse between the two main parties led to months of deadly protests and arson attacks on transport infrastructure by opposition activists, which were met in turn by mass arrests of opposition leaders and supporters and “encounter” killings of suspected activists by security forces . Many of the arson attacks were seemingly outsourced to petty criminals or even street children.  

The situation became particularly violent around the anniversary of the election, in the winter of 2014-2015, when dozens were killed and the economy ground to a halt. As the hot season came again last summer, the government crackdown, along with the heat and rain, stymied opposition activities. Then, the Islamist JMB suddenly reemerged, with the unprecedented killing of a foreigner, an Italian seemingly picked at random as he walked out of the American School, just over the lake from Holey. The shooting of foreigners now seemed aimed at vaguely defined “crusaders”—a Japanese-Muslim convert in northwest Bangladesh, for instance. These new killings, which spooked foreign embassies and discouraged international sports teams from visiting the country, seemed to have much the same effect as the arson and the sabotage of the previous winter, except that this time JMB itself had now pledged allegiance to ISIS. 

The JMB is not the only group involved in terrorism in Bangladesh. In 2013, a court started handing down sentences to Islamist politicians who were alleged to have been part of the genocide committed against Hindus, and many of the same minorities now targeted, that accompanied the country’s independence struggle in 1971. When one of those sentenced—Abdul Quader Molla, a politician from Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (a political ally of the BNP)—was spared the death penalty, secularists came out in mass protests. The protesters who were demanding more stringent punishments were quickly labeled atheists and those who rallied the protests online, especially young bloggers, started getting killed in machete attacks. These attacks were claimed by a group calling itself Ansarullah Bangla Team. 

Around the same time as the attacks on bloggers, another Islamist group, the madrassa-based Hefazat-e-Islam, started its own counter protests to demand sharia laws and death sentences for atheists. The BNP quickly gave support to this movement, with one politician from the party telling me at the time that the party was “using” the movement to attempt to bring down the government.

Since then, more and more liberal secularists and non-orthodox religious groups have been attacked, with more than fifty killings in the last two years. The Awami League government itself, anxious not to be associated with the liberals now being attacked, has tried to avoid being portrayed as atheist, arresting bloggers and warning people not to offend religious sentiments. Until now, this approach of appeasement and distancing seems only to have encouraged more killings. In June a policeman’s wife was knifed and shot to death as she put her son on the school bus. This provoked a roundup of some 14,000 suspected Islamist militants. A lull occurred as the holy month of Ramadan neared its end—until the beginning of July when authorities seemed to increase security, with reports in the Indian media that the Indian government had warned Bangladesh of imminent attacks.

And so it was that on Friday night, the restaurant attacks unfolded. “They were normal upper-middle-class kids, I used to play football with one of them,” says an alumnus of Scholastica, an elite school some of the attackers attended. On Facebook they appeared to have been into partying like “regular teenagers.” That was until the end of last year, when one attacker’s father said the young man had stopped playing the guitar. At the beginning of the year most of them left home, around a time when rumors were spreading about kids from “influential families” disappearing. “I know multiple British-Bangladeshi people who have complained to the British High Commission that their sons and daughters have disappeared. Authorities told the British High Commission that they may have joined ISIS,” said a lawyer who has advised several families with sons and daughters missing. But none of them were involved in the restaurant attack.  

A Dhaka-based analyst, former army general Abdur Rashid, told me that there are reports of training camps in the Chittagong Hill Tracts on the border with Burma, in the south east of Bangladesh; it is unclear whether these young people have, like so many peers from Europe and elsewhere, also traveled to Syria to ISIS’s diminishing “caliphate.” The existence of a new terror base in Bangladesh could suggest more attacks are on the way and indeed following the hostage attack there was a bombing at a shopping center Thursday morning, in which at least three were killed.

Until now, the Bangladeshi government has denied the possibility that ISIS has established a base in the country. Government ministers “don’t have solid information about organizational links to international groups,” Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu told me. Such statements may well be intended to assuage fears that, as is now coming to pass, international businesses and donors that supply crucial foreign capital and investment, such as the Japanese development organization JICA, may leave Bangladesh.

But the debate about ISIS’s involvement may miss the point. Jason Burke, an expert on Islamist militancy, said that we are

always looking to see which militant belongs to which organization. But contemporary Islamic militancy is not about groups as much as about people, and personal relations. A Bay’at, or oath of allegiance, for example, is not sworn to a group but to an individual. And recruitment depends primarily on personal interaction and small group dynamics. Terrorism is a social activity —a messy complex one—that can’t be reduced to neat lines of command or membership.

It seems likely that ISIS has not set up a fully-fledged operation of its own in Bangladesh. Rather, local groups, some of whom have previous deep ties to Bangladeshi politics, have been inspired by ISIS and declared allegiance to it. These groups have then, perhaps in communication with other groups in Bangladesh or abroad, transformed themselves with the help of non-violent networks of Islamists who are primarily active in mosques, universities, and elsewhere, turning anxious teens into terrorists who are prepared to commit unthinkable acts of brutality in the name of extremist doctrine.

But the ruling party’s clumsy and authoritarian response to recent violence and opposition protests may also be encouraging radicalization. The government has tried to highlight links between local terrorists and Pakistan, which has been much closer to the opposition parties, and under the last BNP government reportedly assisted with extensive arms smuggling. It’s hard to evaluate these reports, but credible sources suggest that the JMB has had connections to Pakistani groups that are close to the Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service, which has been known in the past for its ties to various militant groups.

Faraaz, one of the victims at the Holey Bakery on July 1, was “definitely able to recite the Koran,” his brother told the press. As a result, eyewitnesses say, he was told he could leave the restaurant alive. Survivors note that he refused to leave without his two classmates, one American and one Indian, whose bodies were later found in the morgue, with wounds suggesting they had been tortured. Faraaz died protecting his friends. Around 8:00 AM Saturday morning elite commandos in armored personnel carriers finally stormed the premises and the terrorists, unlike Faraaz, tried to flee. All were killed except one, who was captured.