Published:  12:34 AM, 01 December 2019

Premeditated Gulshan café attack and the court verdict

Premeditated Gulshan café attack and the court verdict

The griffins in the guise of humans were present in the courtroom wearing imperious ISIS caps when an anti-terrorism tribunal of Bangladesh was delivering judgment on 27 November 2019 to seal their fate, but they were found showing their irremissible temerity for the beastly crimes they committed at Holey Artisan Bakery Café in Dhaka's Gulshan area about four years back.

The aforethought tragic terrorist attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery Cafe on July 1, 2016 changed that, marking a gruesome escalation in the extremist threat. Holy Artisan Bakery Cafe located in the upscale Dhaka's Gulshan, home to wealthy Bangladesh's people, expats and diplomatic missions, it was carefully chosen for its international clientele.

Twenty two  hostages were brutally murdered, most of them foreigners - nine Italians, seven Japanese, an Indian national and a US citizen of Bangladeshi origin, along with two Bangladesh's people.

The café was popular among the expatriate community, and the attack was clearly aimed at foreign nationals. The deadening terror group inspired by the Al Qaeda like abandon and currently associated with the so-called Islamist jihadist group existent in the Southeast Asian subcontinent carried out this ghoulish dissemble.

The Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the attack and released photographs of the attackers on its official channel. The IS laid claim of responsibility was to show a global footprint, while home-grown militants wanted to show their international clout. Intelligence analysts agree that the threat is much closer home and has little to do with that terrorist group, at least for now. But it may not stand true supposing the global scenario of terrorist acts.

The Ansarullah Bangla Team first surfaced on the radar when it claimed responsibility for the attacks on several Bangladesh's bloggers including Avijit Roy, Ananta Joy Biswas and Asif Mohiuddin.

The terror group is part of a growing fundamentalist network in Bangladesh that has its roots in the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), a political party close to Pakistan, which has been actively campaigning against Bangladesh's PM Hasina under different banners exploiting Islamic names. It is believed to be closely associated with the JeI's student wing, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir.

But the Ansarullah Bangla Team is only part of a growing terror network with linkages across Bangladesh and beyond its border. West Bengal, which shares a border and historical ties with Bangladesh, has often proved to be a refuge for Bangladesh's militants who slip across the porous border and set up base in the state's Malda and Murshidabad districts and look for money and fresh recruits.

What sets the Ansarullah Bangla Team apart is its cadre of young, educated and highly-motivated recruits with foreign linkages, considered by security analysts to be the new generation of fundamentalists. The group is active on social media under different veiled names, with prominent pages on Facebook.

The security analysts feel that the Gulshan attack was calculated to undermine the faith of the public and the international community in the Hasina government's ability to keep growing fundamentalism in check.

Sheikh Hasina's sustained campaign against fundamentalists in the country, and the prosecution of 1971 war criminals, has created a major uproar in Bangladesh, leading to a consolidation of fundamentalist elements and sympathetic political parties like BNP. At the heart of the struggle lies Bangladesh's attempt to strengthen itself as a modern, democratic nation.

The turmoil has its roots in Bangladesh's tumultuous past. In 1947, when India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, Muslim-majority East Bengal which shares cultural roots with India's West Bengal became part of Pakistan, but was separated by the expanse that is central India.

However, an armed uprising in East Pakistan led to a bloody war with Pakistan, which gave birth to the country of Bangladesh in 1971. Since 15 August 1975 (after the brutal murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, the country's Founding Father), Bangladesh has seen a prolonged period of military rule before settling for an electoral democracy.

However, Bangladesh continues to be haunted by the past. The current regime's bid to violently uproot those who were believed to be sympathetic to Pakistan in 1971 has led to growing fundamentalism, and conflict that is likely to find sympathetic echoes in the rest of the Southeast Asia.

But the Holy Artisan attack must also be understood in its context, where homegrown terrorist groups, notably JMB and ABT, with affiliations with the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda, have carried out a series of attacks against foreigners, bloggers, and religious minorities.

In order to understand the roots of this violence, it is important to understand that the July 1, 2016 attack represents an escalation in an ongoing pattern of terrorism rather than an aberration or a sudden shift in the efforts of international terrorist outfits like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

An initial report from Amaq News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said the group claimed it had killed 24 people and wounded 40 others. A second report, issued directly by ISIL a few hours later, said the group had killed 22 calumniates and was accompanied by photos of the attackers, standing in front of ISIL banners.

On the night of 1 July 2016, at 21:20 local time, five militants took hostages and opened fire on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan, Dhaka, Bangladesh. The assailants entered the bakery with crude bombs, machetes, pistols, and took several dozen hostages (foreigners and locals). In the immediate response, while Dhaka Metropolitan Police tried to regain control of the bakery, two police officers were shot dead by the assailants.

Twenty two people were killed, including 20 hostages (18 foreigners and 2 locals), 2 police officers, 5 gunmen, and 2 bakery staff.  As the police were unsuccessful in breaching the bakery and securing the hostages, they set up a perimeter along with the Rapid Action Battalion and Border Guards Bangladesh.

Very early on 2 July (around 03:00), it was decided that the Bangladesh Armed Forces would launch a counter assault named Operation Thunderbolt. The assault was led by the 1st Para-commando Battalion, an elite force in the Bangladesh Army, and began their raid at 07:40. According to Bangladesh's the-then Inspector General of Police, all of the attackers were Bangladesh's citizens.

Though Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the incident and released photographs of the gunmen, but the home minister of Bangladesh, Asaduzzaman Khan, stated that the perpetrators belonged to Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and were not affiliated with ISIL.

An anti-terrorism tribunal of Bangladesh on 27 November 2019 sentenced seven terrorist extremists to death for plotting a deadly attack in 2016 that killed over 22 people in the country's capital of Dhaka.

Judge Mojibur Rahman said the convicts planned to grab the attention of supercilious ISIS group. Following the incident, ISIS posted photos, allegedly of the foreign victims, and claimed responsibility for the attack. However, local authorities, who have denied the presence of ISIS in the country, said the gunmen were not linked with that killing outfit.

We hail the verdict, but finally we want to see that these sub-humans must not escape the hangman's noose under any setting. Concurrently, we demand due punishment to those gangsters who supplied them sniffy ISIS caps to show their audacity in the courtroom.

The judge said the seven terrorists would be executed as they planned to "undermine public safety, create anarchy and establish a jihadist" state. The attack has been reported as being the worst in the history of a South Asian country of around 170 million people.

The Bangladesh government maintained that the massacre was masterminded by the jihadi group Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

The court completed recording testimonies of 113 witnesses by 27 October 2019. Out of the 21 suspects, 13 have been killed in raids at different times and the eight remaining accused are behind bars, said Investigation Officer Humayun Kabir. The 13 killed in raids include the five killed in the assault to free hostages from that eatery.

We recall between 2013 and 2016, Bangladesh had witnessed a wave of Islamist attacks against religious minorities, foreigners, gay activists, intellectuals and bloggers critical of fundamentalism.

The audacity of the attacks grew with each successful attempt. The targets have widened even further to include anyone who is deemed a sinner by the extremist camp and the subsequent killings of people from various walks of life, and various religions, has pushed the country into a state of perpetual fear for religious minorities, secularists including pro-secularist Muslims, free thinkers, and critics of extremism.

The other major concern is the identities of the assailants themselves. Previously, extremist attackers have been profiled as being from poor and uneducated backgrounds, either from rural communities or being taught in madrasas. However, it is certain that the gunmen from 1 July 2016 were all from upper-middle and upper class urban backgrounds.

All of them were educated in the country's top private schools and some had gone on to study at universities both at home and abroad. Most of them had gone missing for a long time, which hints at their radicalization having taken place in a relatively short period of time.

All of this means that political groups and security forces need to re-evaluate how they approach extremism. The Government has consistently blamed homegrown terrorist groups without considering the impact of wider extremism and the possibility of trans-national influence.

For its part, the Opposition which had utilised political Islam and had aligned itself with the only mainstream so-called Islamic political party during its terms in power has steadfastly refused to accept its role in the long-term growth of extremism, instead focusing its blame solely on the government.

With the two sides too busy trying to tear each other down, the only victor so far has been the extremists. There needs to be a serious rethink and genuine attempts at unity going forward, for the security of Bangladesh and, indeed, the region more widely.

It is very clear that such militant attack creates negative and long-run impacts on both local and foreign investment in many sectors of the home country. Therefore, to encourage restaurant business to flourish and to ensure continuity of high rate of economic growth, Bangladesh should take appropriate measures to prevent recurrence of any militant attacks in future.

Bangladesh is facing a pivotal point of no return. The terrorist attack in the name of Islam has seen a fundamental shift in the way Islamic extremist violence functions in the country and these realities need to be checked. We must truly engage with the situation, which does not bode well for the Southeast Asian nation.

The writer is a political commentator who writes on politics, political and human-centered figures,
current and international affairs.

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