The intelligence failure preceding the Gulshan cafe terror attack is obvious and glaring. Planning an attack like this would mean recce of multiple sites, selection of the assault team, coordination between multiple modules of the terror group, meaning a lot of ‘extremist chatter’ on mobile and cyber space, unless the terrorists are using physical couriers for communication.
Failure to pick up a lead in the run-up to such an attack is disappointing. It points to lack of intelligence penetration into jihadi networks, especially those that emerged, apparently, after the Shahbagh movement in 2013.
A comparison to Mumbai 2008 is obvious. The RAW had warned the Indian government at least thrice but the former National Security Adviser M K Narayanan allegedly overlooked them. So the intelligence did not miss the impending threat to Mumbai; the man at the helm missed the leads provided by his sleuths because, as a former Intelligence Bureau chief involved in turf wars with RAW, his natural inclination was to ignore the RAW. No wonder, Narayanan paid the price along with Home Minister Shivraj Patil after Mumbai 2008, and no heads rolled at RAW or IB.
In Bangladesh’s case, it may be too early to comment but I strongly suspect the agencies were busy tracking the ceaseless attacks on soft targets across the country in the past weeks.
Having said that, Bangladesh responded brilliantly to the crisis, much better than what the Indians had done in Pathankot in 2015 and Mumbai in 2008. It helps to have a clear chain of command in a non-federal country – the state-Centre tension in India creates a huge problem.
The Bangladesh police did what the Mumbai police had done – brave officers took on the terrorists on their own in a knee jerk reaction and some paid with their lives.
Then after a quick review, the Bangladesh government decided on a full scale military assault. Knowing her instincts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a more decisive leader than Manmohan Singh (Indian PM during Mumbai) and authorised the para-commando assault without wasting time.
‘Operation Thunderbolt’ was well-planned and the use of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to demolish the wall of the café creating a breach to let the commandos an easy entry was tactically smart.
The terrorists were easily neutralised if one were to go by the version of RAB Colonel Tuhin Masood who spoke at length in an India Today TV interview when I was on the panel.
Several things are now clear.
* This was a suicide attack because the terrorists knew there was no getaway after the police had encircled them and tried to neutralise them immediately after the takeover
* They did not try any escape after some killing but committed almost all the 20 murders within the night.
* They represent a homegrown Islamist terror group whose activists have very basic weapons training – they are high on ideological motivation, so killing 20 people within maybe a couple of hours, but they are poorly trained to take on the army or special forces in regular combat.
* This justifies their effort to seek maximum political impact by attacking soft targets like these foreigners in a café or some Hindu priest. Scaring foreigners may have an impact on Bangladesh economy by driving away possible investors or aid workers while killing Hindu priests will touch a raw nerve in India and complicate Delhi-Dhaka relations.
* They sent an Islamist message by sparing a Bangladeshi family because the wife had her hijab or head scarf on. So while an attack on foreigners is aimed at hitting Bangladesh’s development which is Hasina’s biggest card, the assault on Hindu priests attempts to undermine her relations with India. And sparing a Bangladeshi with her hijab is to tell the country that if one pursued secular politics like the bloggers and publishers, they risked death from the jihadis.
Hasina’s declared stance on zero tolerance against terror and her decisive action should leave a few lessons for the indecisive mandarins in Delhi who delay and dither when a Kandahar or a Mumbai or a Pathankot happens.
But if Bangladesh has to win its war against terror, it needs quality intelligence. Or else, the people will witness nationwide crackdown with thousands of arrests and still suffer a Gulshan café style attack which helps the detractors raise serious questions about the government’s ability to fight terror, if not its intent.
Subir Bhaumik, formerly with BBC, is a former Senior Editor at bdnews24.com and author of books on strategic, counter-terrorism and regional issues.