6 July 2016
Horror and Sorrow in Dhaka - Tahmima Anam / The sinister manifestations of history - Subir Bhaumik
Horror and Sorrow in Dhaka
by Tahmima Anam
The New York Times - 4 July 2016
When I was last in Dhaka, I used to take my son out in the car every afternoon. “Let’s go to Holey!” He would cry out from the back seat.
The Holey Artisan Bakery, just two years old, had become our firm favorite. The cakes were delicious, and it was the only place near home that had an open lawn. We took his mini-sized soccer ball with us, staying until dusk when the mosquitoes from the nearby lake drove us inside.
When the bakery first opened, it was just a counter with pastries and cakes. My husband and I sometimes joked we’d have to take out a mortgage to pay for the croissants — they were expensive — but the sunshine, the field, and the view of Gulshan Lake always lured us back.
As Holey became a popular family hangout, the owners built a pizza oven in the front, hired someone to make gelato and started serving tapas in the evenings.
On Friday, it was perhaps the tapas, or the pizza, or the open sky above the lawn that drew the dinner crowd, a mixture of Bangladeshis and foreigners. At about 8:45 in the evening, a group of heavily-armed men stormed and seized more than a score of diners as hostages.
The police arrived quickly, but when they attempted to enter the restaurant, they were met with heavy gunfire and grenades. Two officers were killed and many others were injured.
Over the course of the night, as the families of those inside held vigil on the street outside the restaurant, occasional gunshots could be heard. The militants singled out the foreigners for execution.
After nearly 12 hours of standoff, as dawn broke over the city, the army special forces finally succeeded in breaking the siege. Inside, they found the bodies of 20 victims and rescued at least 13 hostages. Among the dead, according to the police, were nine Italians, seven Japanese, an American, an Indian and two Bangladeshis.
Reports are still emerging about what exactly transpired. By some accounts, the gunmen assured the Bangladeshi hostages that they would be spared. Hostages were told to recite verses from the Quran in order to save themselves. According to an Indian newspaper, an Italian businessman who had stepped into the garden to make a phone call managed to hide in bushes and then escape — not knowing until later that his wife, trapped inside, had been murdered.
[photos] Policemen outside the Dhaka’s central jail in Bangladesh on June 12. The police arrested more than 11,000 people last month, supposedly in a crackdown on terrorism. Credit Associated Press
One victim’s story that stands out because of his courage was that of Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain, a 20-year-old Bangladeshi who had gone out to dinner with two friends, Tarishi Jain and Abinta Kabir. Mr. Hossain and Ms. Kabir, an American citizen, were both students at Emory University, in Atlanta, on vacation; Ms. Jain, who was from India, was studying at Berkeley.
According to witnesses, when the militants heard that Mr. Hossain was Bangladeshi, they offered to release him, but he refused to leave his two friends behind. When the army broke through the terrorists’ barricade, they found the bodies of all three, with Mr. Hossain’s bearing marks of an intense struggle.
On Saturday morning, after the siege had ended and after many frantic calls and text messages exchanged with my family, we began to take stock of the carnage that had come to our capital. For those who lost loved ones, the loss is unimaginable and irreparable.
For the rest of us, the accounting means adjusting to a new and broken world. We know that our country and our city will never be the same again.
We know that the assurances of the authorities mean little. Given what just happened, last month’s police drive, which saw the arrests of more than 11,000 people supposedly in a crackdown on terrorism, merely exposes the government’s impotence in the face of these murderous militants. We may hope that the government will make peace with the opposition in order to tackle this darker threat, but we fear that this outrage in Dhaka will lead to more surveillance and exacerbate authoritarianism.
Further reports suggest that the assailants were not, as many expected to hear, from disenfranchised backgrounds. They were privately educated and from wealthy families — young men who easily might have been friends with some of the victims. Where does that leave us, knowing that these killers had every privilege in life and yet chose the path of nihilism?
It leaves us with this conclusion: We must accept that the story we have long told ourselves about our country may no longer be true. For months, I and many of my fellow Bangladeshis have wanted to believe that the targeted assassinations of writers, bloggers, publishers, gay rights activists, Hindu priests and foreign workers did not mean that Bangladesh was necessarily on a road to destabilization by violent extremists.
We felt sure that things must eventually go back to normal — normal being a Muslim-majority country with a secular Constitution and a robust tradition of social justice, diversity and pluralism. We did not believe Bangladesh could become one of those places where the wealthy barricade themselves behind high gates and private security, where embassies issue travel warnings and evacuate their staff, and where — God forbid — America sends its drones to target the militants.
Right now, all I care about is my city, about the innocent people who died in the café where my son learned to play soccer, about the three kids from my high school who met violent deaths beside the lake that was an oasis of calm in this bustling city.
Tomorrow, I may recover my sense of those truths about my country that I know to be fundamental. Today, I can only mourn what we have lost.
Tahmima Anam is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Bones of Grace” and a contributing opinion writer.
o o o
The sinister manifestations of history
by Subir Bhaumik
The Telegraph - 5 July 2016
The Dhaka terror strike has stunned Bangladesh and raised hackles in India. But it falls into the broader pattern of jihadi violence that has afflicted Bangladesh for the last two years or more. On Saturday, the day after the evening terror attack and hostage crisis, an army of Bangladesh experts descended on Indian television channels to debate whether this was an attack by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or by al Qaida. I fought a lone battle arguing that the perpetrators were home-grown Bangladeshi Islamist radicals with a political agenda to discredit the Sheikh Hasina Wajed regime and bring it down as soon as possible. Since she cannot be beaten in the polls, her government must first be discredited for failing to handle law and order and then toppled. One official of the Research and Analysis Wing who has served in Bangladesh went to the ludicrous extent of suggesting that this has to be ISIS because of the ’medieval barbarity’ witnessed in the massacre of the hostages. Bangladesh, he forgot, is a violent country and dozens of people die in land disputes every month - hacked, even beheaded. How can one forget the mass killings of 1971 which were perpetrated as much by the Pakistan army as by its cohorts in the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams? People like the Jamaat leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami, or the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury (now hanged for war crimes), had sent thousands of freedom-loving Bengalis, including some of their finest intellectuals, to death - it is a tradition the present-day jihadis follow when they they attack bloggers, publishers and writers.
The thought leaders and foot soldiers of the secular linguistic Bengali nationalism have been and will remain the primary targets of jihadis and their global and local sponsors because Bangladesh presents one of the strongest alternative model for a predominantly Muslim nation and, therefore, poses a huge challenge to all those in the Islamic umma who want governance by Shariat kanoon. The identity of the Dhaka attackers is now known - they were Bangladeshi Islamist radicals, though not the usual madarsa-bred types. They were well-educated, having gone to private universities, and intensely radicalized over three to five years, initially through internet propaganda and then through dedicated cell-based indoctrination.
The Dhaka terror strike, however, represented a huge intelligence failure for Bangladesh. The country’s security apparatus has so far failed to come to terms with the second wave of Islamic radicalism, having successfully neutralized the first wave that surfaced during Khaleda Zia’s reign (2001-2006). Having neutralized Bangla Bhai, the top guns of the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, it has largely failed to penetrate the new generation of Islamist radical groups that emerged in response to the Shahbag movement of February 2013. Between that very public and massive display of secular Bengali nationalism and the Wajed government’s firm steps on war-crime trials and the relentless crackdown on terrorists, jihadi politics in Bangladesh faced a crisis of existence. The new groups that started going after soft targets like secular bloggers have largely evaded intelligence penetration. Which is why the Bangladesh police and intelligence seem to be unable to thwart the serial murders and now the huge terror strike in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone of Gulshan. The last amounted to a huge intelligence failure but an operational success, considering the speed with which Wajed ordered the army to launch the assault after two brave police officers lost their lives trying to break the siege with their determined but ineffective action. The army commandos backed by the Rapid Action Battalion went in for a no-holds barred attack - the armoured personnel tore down the walls of the Holey Artisan Bakery and the commandos galloped in through the breach. Most of the hostages had been killed overnight - so the debate over whether the attack should have been launched at night will continue.
In June, in some desperation to bring to book those behind the seemingly unending series of murders, the Bangladesh police had launched a nationwide crackdown on Islamist radicals believed to be responsible for the murder of secular bloggers, publishers, writers, Hindu priests and Buddhist monks, Christian pastors and even Baul music exponents. More than 14,000 suspects were nabbed within a week. The Opposition cried hoarse, saying that the Wajed government was trying to decimate all its political rivals to create, in effect, a one-party State. Wajed has faced allegations of turning Bangladesh into something akin to Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, where the security forces ruthlessly defended the secular ideals from the eras of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat against an Islamist surge but in the process turned the country into a police state. The needle-in-a-haystack phenomenon is writ large in Wajed’s Bangladesh. Her priority in the fight against terror should be quality intelligence gathering. India and Western agencies should help in this. Yet one must realize that a foreign lens should not be used to analyse Bangladesh - one would risk missing the local dynamics if that were to happen.
Without getting into the democracy debate, one can say that the Wajed government’s intent to protect the founding ideals of the new nation may not be in doubt and its decision to pursue the war- crime trials to uproot the culture of impunity may be laudable, but its police and intelligence services are clearly found wanting so far as their attempt to tackle the latest wave of Islamist radicalism is concerned. To give credit where it is due, the Bangladesh security machine did effectively neutralize the previous generation of Islamist radicals who had thrived under Khaleda Zia and had been used by the BNP-Jamaat regime to decimate the Awami League and secular forces. The detective branch and the RAB, which successfully neutralized the HUJI-JMB-Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh radicals and sent many like Bangla Bhai to death are now at a loss to figure out the likes of Ansarullah Bangla.
The great outpouring of Bengali secular nationalism at Shahbag put the Islamic hardline fringe in a crisis of existence and led to the emergence of new radical groups after February 2013. The new radical groups that emerged after February 2013 were organized differently from their earlier incarnations, which were put together essentially by the veterans of Afghan Jihad, and were mostly trained and equipped by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. They lack the flowing organizational structure linked from top to bottom to ensure military style command and control (such groups risk exposure for the entire organization at one or two key arrests). The new groups like Ansarullah Bangla Team, Hizb ut-Tahrir or the latest Islamic State of Bangladesh are organized in a decentralized cell pattern with cut-outs at all levels. They operate strictly on a ’need to know’ basis. So the arrest of an operations activist risks at the most his immediate cell commander, maybe not even him, because the cell is run by a leader who does not expose himself to the foot soldiers. This pattern has come to the fore during interrogations of arrested militants. That is why the police and the intelligence tend to lose the links after a few initial successes. The ISB seems likely to have organized the Dhaka attack. Some of its leaders are Bangladeshi expatriates - eight of them were arrested in Singapore two months ago. Because of the structure of the new groups, the information bonanza one would expect from a key arrest usually ends up hitting an insurmountable firewall. In Bangladesh, the Islamist radical forces are now regrouped and reorganized into two main groups - one connected to the ISIS and drawing inspiration from it, the other linked to al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent.
There is an element of cooperation between the two groups or groups aligned to the two ’centres of jihad’, as they prefer to be called. That comes through in the ’extremist chatter’ that has been closely monitored by the Bangladesh and the Indian intelligence with ever greater success in the last two weeks. The interesting thing about these new jihadis of Bangladesh is that they are not tight command-and-control rebel groups but a coalition of highly decentralized operational structures. Unlike the veterans of Afghan jihad, these new jihadis of Bangladesh are home-grown foot soldiers who have learnt to survive and fight in local conditions and do not carry the baggage of foreign experience, which is more often a liability than an asset in Bangladesh.
Their operational maturity shows in their targeting if not in their armoury. By attacking targets that are soft but are carefully chosen to drive home a specific message, the groups are managing to discredit the Wajed regime by forcing its security machine to commit an unacceptably high level of human-rights violations. They are demoralizing the much more numerous pro-liberation secular elements who no doubt constitute the majority in Bangladesh but are hopelessly disorganized, partly because the Awami League is determined to monopolize the secular space and let no other group, even non-political ones such as the Ganajagaran Mancha, to thrive. With the BNP-Jamaat in disarray and no secular option around, the country is looking ahead at a polarized nation divided between the corrupt and administration-dependent Awami League and the jihadis baying for Shariat kanoon.
If the secular bloggers, publishers and writers are killed to demoralize the pro-liberation forces and unsettle efforts to galvanize them through something like the Shahbag movement, the Hindus and Buddhists are killed to create a minority-majority crisis that would spill over into India ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party and undermine not only bilateral relations but also India’s faith in the Wajed administration to provide safety to minorities.
A Western aid worker, the Italian, Cesare Tavella, is killed just before the visit of the Australian Cricket Board officials, so that they panic and call off their cricket tour. The Japanese national, Kunio Hoshi, is killed, in spite of his conversion to Islam, to unsettle projects implemented by Japanese aid. The jihadis are smartly picking up soft targets that could get them a political following in the absence of a non-Awami league political Opposition. It may also be that a directionless Islamist Opposition is using the terror networks in a last-ditch effort to discredit and bring down the Wajed regime. They tried senseless violence, fire-bombing buses and derailing trains before and after the January 2014 polls. When that failed, it seemed select killings were the answer. So long as they are done by jihadis and their link to the BNP-Jamaat cannot be directly established, they help Khaleda Zia and her Jamaat allies achieve two key objectives - discredit Wajed’s administration and keep alive the anti-1971 narrative, one of radical Islam versus secular Bengali nationalism. Each of the murders (beginning with the killing of the blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider) has a clear political intent, which is evident in the hurry with which global radical groups like the ISIS and AQIS are quick to own up to some of these killings. The ISIS or AQIS can claim a global presence by owning up to the killings in Bangladesh, the home-grown Islamist radicals get a boost by foreign patronage.
Bangladesh is a major battleground in the global jihad between hardline Salafist-Wahabi groups (and nations backing them) and secular moderate political forces like the Awami League and its leftist allies which are determined to script a nationhood not on the basis of religion but on language and culture in a predominantly Muslim nation. Bangladesh’s success on the road laid down in 1971 is a direct threat to those propagating a Grand Caliphate or something similar for Muslims of the world. So it does not surprise anyone when the thought leaders of modern Bangladesh - the bloggers, writers, publishers - are systematically targeted by the new home-grown jihadis, much in the way in which the first generation of Bengali jihadis, who, fighting for a united Islamic Pakistan, started the mass murder of secular Bengali intellectuals on the eve of the final victory in 1971.
History repeats itself in Bangladesh. One just has to read the verdicts on the war-crime trials and compare them to the new jihadi violence to figure the essential continuity of jihadi targeting. The classic by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution, had predicted another violent phase of conflict between the forces of 1971 and those propagating an Islamist Bangladesh, the ones Wajed describes as the ’defeated forces of 1971’. The defeat of the ’defeated forces’ was never completed and it will be a while before one can pronounce defeat or victory for either in Bangladesh.