The recent terrorist strike in Bangladesh was shocking in its barbarity – but no one should be surprised by the attack itself.
Early warning indicators of the nation’s evolving jihadist landscape have been flashing red for two years. Yet the Bangladeshi government chose to stick its head in the sand. And even after the attack, it continues to do so.
The siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka has left the outside world in no doubt that the militant situation in Bangladesh has deteriorated and is substantially worse than the “domestic problem” the government belittles it as. Fundamentalists in Bangladesh are patently internationalizing their agenda.
Combat indicators show that this attack was long in the planning. Several of the assailants disappeared between four and 12 months ago, only to resurface on July 1. A move away from rudimentary weapons – from knives and machetes to assault rifles and grenades – was indicative of a forward strategy and growing external influence and involvement.
The gruesome fact that after the shooting, a number of dead hostages were hacked with machetes and knives indicates that the terrorists wanted to make an unambiguous correlation to previous attacks during the past year, most of which involved rudimentary weapons.
Read: New Emir of ISIS
ISIS’s push into Bangladesh became clear beyond all doubt in April when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria anointed a new Emir for Bangladesh. The organization took the opportunity to make clear its strategy to consolidate a presence in Bangladesh – and then use this as a springboard to turn attention and resources to Myanmar and India.
Rather than tackling the threat head on, the government, backed by numerous media outlets, repeated its same mantra that the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) leadership incorporated into ISIS was merely a local group with no verified foreign affiliation.
The Holey Artisan Bakery attack demonstrates that this was merely wishful thinking. Bangladesh is fast becoming a hot zone of radicalized Islamists with aspirations for inclusion within the broader jihadist family.
Yet, more than a week on from the tragedy, there are still questions to be answered by the Bangladeshi authorities.
Official records show six terrorists were killed and one of them was captured alive. So, why is the government and ISIS revealing information only about five perpetrators? What happened to the sixth deceased terrorist, and most importantly, the seventh one who was captured alive?
How is it that three of the five identified terrorists were all graduates of Monash University in Malaysia – what is the common link to Malaysia?
Three of the attackers had gone missing for the last 4-5 months. Where did they go during that time?
What is North South University connection? One of the attackers was confirmed to be a former student of this university in Dhaka. Another attacker might have graduated from this institute. And then there’s the mystery of the special treatment afforded to one of the hostages, the bald professor from the North South University.
It’s too soon to answer all of these questions. But some key conclusions can be drawn.
• All but one of the terrorists identified were in their early 20s and from rich families, with a modern education. Three of them even had foreign schooling.
• This turns on its head conventional wisdom that poverty, rejection from society and a lack of opportunity turn youth toward terrorism. It’s simply not true – at least not in the context of Bangladesh.
• Since these terrorists are most likely to have become radicalized by people within their own social network, it means that supporters of groups like ISIS have penetrated the social institutions that are accessible only to well-to-do sections of Bangladeshi society. It indicates an increased catchment area for ISIS.
• Law enforcement agencies that have traditionally concentrated their hunt for jihadis in religious seminaries will now have to significantly widen their scale of monitoring.
From the beginning, this was an operation with no exit strategy; in other words, it was a suicide mission – something very uncommon in Bangladesh. In fact, the first recorded instance of a suicide attack in Bangladesh only took place last December, when a man blew himself up in an Ahmadiya mosque in Rajshahi.
That attack, which was later claimed by ISIS, was most likely a test run. What we have witnessed in Dhaka bears resemblance to ISIS modus operandi in other parts of the world – like the November Paris attacks, though on a more limited scale.
From Molotov Cocktails to Kalashnikovs
The founding fathers of global jihad in Bangladesh are veterans of the Afghan war. They established groups like JMB and Harkat ul Jihadi al-Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B).
But they weren’t able to execute an attack even close to this scale of July 1, even during their heyday from 2001 to 2006. And that was under a government considered sympathetic to the radicals.
Yet a group of six kids, with apparently no battlefield exposure, managed to bring the entire megalopolis of Dhaka to a halt and brought global focus to Bangladesh. Clearly, this is the first instance of a well-coordinated cell-based attack.
According to sources, the weapons used, particularly the folded butt AK-22 assault rifle, are not readily available to jihadists in Bangladesh. Traditionally, militants in Bangladesh have relied on home-made bombs, small arms and Molotov cocktails. It’s likely that now a secured logistics pipeline has been established.
Execution of Hostages
Part of the plan was to send a barbaric message of ISIS strength that the government would be unable to deny. By not only shooting the hostages but also hacking them to death, the perpetrators aimed to establish a familiarity with previously claimed attacks by ISIS, where many of the victims were similarly killed with machetes.
ISIS now has a sufficient infrastructure and support base inside Bangladesh to plan and execute a complex attack of this type. The fact that almost all of the perpetrators went missing for the last few months, suddenly emerging on the day of the attack, highlights that the ISIS network in Bangladesh has the required operational network in place.
A cell-based attack, with seven combatants, would probably require 28 to 35 people in support roles, such as transportation, accommodation, reconnaissance, target selection and communication. The total number in the cell could be anywhere between 35 and 42.
With such a large group involved, there should have been sufficient opportunity for agencies to learn of the attack in advance. The fact that this didn’t happen shows a deep failure of intelligence.
Only seven of the group has been neutralized so far (six killed, one arrested); the remainder are on the run and can potentially execute further attacks.
The group has had access to safe havens and a secured communication mechanism that helped it evade security agencies.
While this is worrying, to say the least, this should come as no surprise. We identified this trend six months ago through analysis of several early warning combat indicators. Each showed how ISIS had developed operational presence in Bangladesh, with individuals inside the country having direct contact with ISIS headquarters in Syria.
Between September and the most recent atrocity, ISIS claims to have carried out as many as 20 attacks in Bangladesh, in which more than 60 people were killed.
Despite official statements to the contrary, the close connection between ISIS in Bangladesh and the JMB is undeniable. Either JMB is using the ISIS brand name to gain support and credibility, or JMB has made a strategic decision to ally with ISIS. Either way, it has been allowed to look after the Bangladeshi operations and grow the organizational structure of ISIS in the country.
The frailty of Bangladesh in the face of global terror threats is now a mounting problem for the rest of Asia. Within the terrorist’s landscape, Bangladesh acts as a bridgehead between the Indian Sub-Continent and South East Asia.
Failure to address the challenge from terrorism in Bangladesh resolutely and honestly will further promote ISIS’s spread. And with its Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, and her government remaining in stubborn denial, the country’s further descent into violence appears all but certain.
Phill Hynes and Hrishiraj Bhattacharjee are analysts for ISS Risk, a frontier and emerging markets political risk management company covering North, South and Southeast Asia from its headquarters in Hong Kong.