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Dhaka restaurant attack designed to reverberate globally

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Date : Sunday, 3 July 2016
Author : Amy Kazmin
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Source : http://www.ft.com/cms/s/e847ca80-40e8-11e6-9b66-0712b3873ae1,Authorised=false.html?siteedition=uk&_i_location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ft.com%2Fcms%2Fs%2F0%2Fe847ca80-40e8-11e6-9b66-0712b3873ae1.html%3Fsiteedition%3Duk&_i_referer=&classification=conditional_standard&iab=barrier-app#axzz4DMoxj8eX
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Twenty hostages, including 18 foreigners, were killed in the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery on Friday evening

Over the past two years, Bangladesh has been shaken by more than 30 brutal murders of individuals deemed enemies of extremist Islam — atheist bloggers, gay activists and Hindu priests — all killed by machete-wielding attackers.Yet as attacks grew more frequent and carnage mounted, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, prime minister, dismissed warnings of international Islamist terror groups operating in Bangladesh, instead accusing her longstanding political rivals of trying to destabilise the country.

But the sophisticated weekend attack on an upmarketDhaka restaurant, in which 20 hostages — including 18 foreigners — were killed, leaves little doubt that Bangladesh’s young Islamist radicals are plugged into global jihadi networks.

Isis, through its news agency Amaq, claimed responsibility for the Dhaka attack soon after it began. During the militants’ 12-hour stand-off with police, Isis disseminated what proved to be eerily accurate information on the hostages slain inside the restaurant — and grisly photos from inside the premises — many hours before Bangladeshi commandos stormed the restaurant and ended the siege.

Afterwards, Isis disseminated photos of the young militants, grinning as they posed with an Isis flag, cradling their weapons. Authorities have confirmed that the attackers were all Bangladeshis, several of whom came from well-off families.

“This has been in the making for some time, but the government remained in their own cocoon of saying ‘no it doesn’t exist’,” says Ali Riaz, a professor at Illinois State University who specialises in political Islam and South Asia.

“Some security analysts seem to think that the presence of international militant groups means someone has to show up and organise things. But in this day and age, you don’t need to show up. There are hundreds of ways to indoctrinate people and motivate them remotely.”

Unlike the primitive machete attacks, the assault on the restaurant was designed to reverberate far beyond Dhaka — to the developed economies to which Bangladesh’s booming garment industry exports $26bn in apparel each year to prominent US and European retail brands.

Dhaka restaurant siege

Among the 18 slain foreigners, nine were Italians working in the textile industry and seven were Japanese consultants for the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a government aid agency.

Survivors said hostages that could recite a Koranic verse were spared.

“What we thought was going on in Bangladesh two weeks ago looks very different today,” says Alyssa Ayres, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The horrific machete attacks seemed to be embedded in a local political conversation — with terrorists trying to send a message about the nature of the Bangladeshi society that they wanted to create. The nature of this attack is totally different. It is something designed to be visual, and demonstrate strength to people watching all around the world.”

Bangladesh Border Guards are seen near Gulshan restaurant, after gunmen stormed a restaurant popular with expatriates in the diplomatic quarter of the Bangladeshi capital, in Dhaka, Bangladesh July 1, 2016. Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune/Mahmud Hossain Opu via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY©Reuters

There was a 12-hour stand-off between the hostage-takers and the authorities

Analysts say the attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery demonstrates how international jihadi networks have exploited the growing polarisation within Bangladesh between moderate secular forces and more religious Muslims — tensions that critics say Ms Hasina’s policies have aggressively stoked.

“I’d hope that the attack will serve as a wake-up call,” says Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center, a US think-tank. “There is a really big threat to the country and it’s time to rise above the poisonous levels of partisanship and try to get something done to resolve the problem.”

With a population of 160m, Bangladesh has long been touted as an example of a moderate Muslim democracy, which has progressed socially and economically since its bloody 1971 breakaway from Pakistan. It has no record of providing direct or indirect state support to Islamist terror groups.

Armored vehicles arrive after militants took hostages at a restaurant popular with foreigners in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, July 2, 2016. Bangladeshi forces stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka's Gulshan area where heavily armed militants held dozens of people hostage Saturday morning, rescuing some captives including foreigners at the end of an hours long standoff. (AP Photo)©AP

Bangladeshi commandos stormed the restaurant at dawn on Saturday, freeing 13 surviving hostages

Bangladesh launched a robust counter-terrorism programme a decade ago, after the simultaneous explosion of 300 small, home-made bombs — in 63 of its 64 district — in August 2005 made clear that the country was facing a homegrown terror threat.

But analysts say that in the past few years the government security apparatus has focused less on identifying genuine Islamist radicals planning violent attacks to weakening Ms Hasina’s traditional electoral rivals — the Bangladesh Nationalist party, which she had battled for decades.

“Instead of focusing on the militants and those who needed to be apprehended, the government kept pointing fingers at the opposition for political expediency,” says Mr Riaz. “If the prime minister keeps saying, ‘it is the Bangladesh Nationalist party’ after every attack, what are police going to do? Are they going to defy it? They went after whoever the political directions pointed to.”

An injured member of the police personnel is carried away by his colleagues, after gunmen stormed a restaurant popular with expatriates in the diplomatic quarter of the Bangladeshi capital, in Dhaka July 1, 2016. Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune/Mahmud Hossain Opu via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS©Reuters

An injured police officer is carried away by his colleagues

Tensions between secularists and Islamists have risen since 2013, driven by executions of the ageing leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami — an Islamist political party that was previously part of the electoral process — for atrocities during Bangladesh’s liberation struggle, which the Jamaat leaders had opposed.

Analysts say this — coupled with a harsh crackdown on secular civil society groups, free speech and political criticism of those in power — has led to an environment of growing radicalisation, providing fertile ground to international groups looking to expand their footprint.

“The political environment in Bangladesh is fraught, deeply polarised and very violent,” says Mr Kugelman. “You essentially have a government that has cracked down heavily and extensively against the opposition, which has cut off the space for the non-violent expression of grievances.”

Without a change of tack by the government, many fear the restaurant assault could bode more to come. “There is a crisis of huge proportions that needs to be acknowledged, and there needs to be a co-ordinated effort to bring everybody on board to create a national consensus to fight it,” says Mr Riaz.


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