When Italian citizen Cesare Tavella was shot dead in the Gulshan diplomatic zone of Dhaka City in late September 2015, and Japanese citizen Kunio Hoshi was killed a few days later in a similar attack in the northwestern Rangpur District, the Middle-East based radical Islamist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for both incidents. The group previously warned that “citizens of the [anti-IS] crusader coalition” would not be safe in Muslim countries. Bangladesh Government rejected the concerns over ISIS presence in the country, and discarded western intelligence assessments that ISIS was planning for more sinister terrorist attacks.
The assault on Gulshan’s Holey Artisan Bakery on July 1, 2016, by self-declared ISIS militants, challenges the official threat assessment and brings forth the issue of why the ISIS danger needs to be taken more seriously in Bangladesh. In the first ever high profile hostage crisis in the country, approximately eight gunmen stormed the Gulshan restaurant, and killed 20 people in less than six hours. The victims included nine Italians, seven Japanese, two Bangladeshis, one Indian, and one U.S. citizen of Bangladesh origin. Two senior police officials were also killed in a gun-fight with the terrorists. Nearly three dozen police personnel sustained grenade attacks and bullet injuries, and were treated in hospitals.
As local police forces and quick reaction teams proved insufficient in dealing with the hostage scenario, the government decided to launch a commando operation. Roughly nine hours after the crisis began, the joint forced led by the 1st para-commando battalion stormed the restaurant killing six terrorists and rescuing 13 hostages alive. Those rescued included a Japanese citizen, two Sri Lankans, and ten Bangladeshis. During a press briefing Director of Military Operations claimed one of the terrorists was captured alive.
In light of the Gulshan hostage crisis, several questions come to the fore:
• Have criminal investigations of Tavella and Hoshi murders provided any indication that ISIS was responsible for any of the killings?
• Are there valid reasons to believe that the attack on Gulshan restaurant may have been planned and executed by the ISIS, and therefore, the ISIS threat needs to be revisited?
Briefly speaking, police investigations appear to be more compatible with the political rhetoric of senior government officials, which have outright dismissed the involvement of ISIS behind the Tavella and Hoshi murders, and less consistent with global concerns over IS presence in Bangladesh. However, the hostage crisis, the global war against ISIS, and Bangladesh’s long history of terrorism indicates why the ISIS threat deserves closer scrutiny.
Ever since the Tavella and Hoshi murders, the government has consistently ruled out the presence of ISIS in Bangladesh. It also took the opportunity to blame the political oppositions Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat e Islami (JI) for patronizing violence to unseat the government. It came as no surprise that official investigations have never found any possible link between ISIS and the two foreigners’ murders.
In Bangladesh’s polarized political culture, where blame game is the norm, high quality criminal investigation is a big challenge. It is in this context, in June 2016, a charge sheet submitted to a Dhaka court by police accused a BNP leader and six others for their alleged role in the killing of Tavella. In early May 2016, the police chief in the country claimed that the banned terrorist group Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was the prime suspect behind the killing of Hoshi. To make the hypothesis more credible police assessments also claimed that JMB has been responsible for more than two-thirds (25) of the 37 terrorist incidents in which atheists, bloggers, free-thinkers, and LGBT activists were killed since 2013, while Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), a home-grown terrorist group was responsible for eight of the remaining 12 incidents during the same time.
It is widely speculated that JMB has established some connections with the ISIS, whereas ABT is linked to Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS).
It is clear that concern over the ISIS threat has never been publicly acknowledged by the Bangladesh Government. Time has come to revisit the ISIS threat for three compelling reasons: First, the group may have deliberately targeted Italian and Japanese citizens due to their role in the anti-ISIS global coalition; Second, since the 1990s home-grown Islamist groups in Bangladesh have demonstrated varying level of connections with transnational terrorists; and Third, the Gulshan hostage crisis looks similar to some of the global attacks carried out by ISIS in Europe. Each of these three factors deserves further analysis.
Anti-ISIS coalition Role of Italy and Japan
Nearly 60 countries including Italy and Japan have joined the U.S.-led global coalition against the Islamic State group. ISIS brands these countries as a ‘crusader coalition’ and issues threat to their citizens. A close look at international media reports and U.S. congressional briefings suggest that Italy has not only contributed $2.5 million worth of weaponry such as machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and huge ammunition to fight the ISIS in Iraq, but also partnered with Saudi Arabia and United States in cutting down the funding and financing strategy of ISIS. Italy’s contribution to the military campaigns against ISIS also includes deployment of military personnel to train the Iraqi police.
In March 2016, Italy’s Trevi company got a $2 billion contract for the maintenance of strategically important Mosul Dam. The dam was briefly captured by the ISIS in August 2014, and liberated by Kurdish militia with support from coalition airstrikes. Shortly after the contract, Italy planned to deploy a 450-strong military contingent to guard the Mosul Dam. Since 2014, ISIS has established control over a significant part of Mosul, and hence Italy’s business deal and military presence in Mosul may have played a key role in determining ISIS targeting strategy. Italian expert Stefano Maria Torelli observes that the presence of Vatican City, the symbol of global Christianity, in Italy, and the country’s participation in the anti-ISIS military campaign have made Italy a possible target of Islamist terrorist attacks.
Although Italy has made direct military contribution to the anti-ISIS global coalition, Japan has largely adopted civilian checkbook diplomacy in support of the coalition. In January 2015, Tokyo announced providing $200 million non-military aid to coalition countries fighting the ISIS. Following the Japanese announcement, ISIS took 2 Japanese journalists as hostages and executed them after their demands for $ 100 million ransom did not materialize.
This was not the first time Japanese nationals were killed by Islamist militants in Iraq. In October 2004, a Japanese citizen, Shosei Koda, was beheaded by Al Qaeda in Iraq demanding the withdrawal of Japanese troops from Iraq. Koda’s body was wrapped up in U.S. flag, and dumped into a street in Baghdad.
It is not clear whether the anti-ISIS coalition contribution role played by Italy and Japan has had any decisive impact in shaping the targeting list of the restaurant attack in Dhaka. If terrorists have deliberately targeted the Italian and Japanese citizens, this would mean that they have secured advance intelligence about the guest list at the restaurant. In the absence of any such guest list they might have found their targets just by chance, and killed them indiscriminately. Further investigations are needed to learn about how the terrorists penetrated the high-security diplomatic area with relative ease, and planned for the worst terrorist attack in the country.
Transnational Connections of Bangladeshi Militants
The second reason why the ISIS threat needs to be taken more seriously requires one to recall Bangladeshi militant groups’ past connections with global terrorist networks. Following the end of First Afghan War (1989) against the Soviet troops, nearly 2000 Afghan War veterans returned to Bangladesh in the 1990s. Those Afghan War veterans played an instrumental role in founding the Harkat ul Jihad al Islami (HuJI) and Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). HuJI and JMB began a spate of terrorist attacks in 1999 which lasted until 2005. They targeted secular activists, movie theaters, religious shrines, and mainstream political parties. Bangladesh-origin British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury was also one of the high profile victims of Islamist militant attacks.
The militant activities of JMB have mostly reduced after counter-terrorism operations cracked down on the group and its top leaders were hanged to death. Despite that JMB has managed to re-surface in India and Bangladesh, and was praised by ISIS mouthpiece Dabiq Magazine in its November 2015 issue. There is a striking similarity between the two groups’ hostility against religious minorities: In Bangladesh JMB has allegedly targeted Shia shrines and mosques, Christian priests, as well as Bahai community, whereas the ISIS has targeted the Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, and Shia minorities in Iraq, and Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. If the JMB-ISIS connection proves to be a robust one, this could mean that ISIS has found a strong affiliate and a recruitment pool among the home-grown terrorists in Bangladesh.
Similarities with Global Terrorist Incidents
A third reason why the ISIS threat deserves more attention focuses on the similarities between the Dhaka hostage crisis with other ISIS offensives around the world. After each of its major terrorist attacks whether in Paris (November 2015), Belgium (March 2016) or Istanbul (June 2016), the ISIS claimed responsibility, released still or video pictures of attackers, and posted images of slain victims. Following the Gulshan restaurant attack in Dhaka, the same media strategy was adopted: six hours after storming into the restaurant ISIS claimed responsibility for the hostage crisis and the killing of 20 civilians. Four of the five photos of hostage takers published by Site Intelligence group also matched with the photos released by Bangladesh Police.
Despite these similarities in its media campaign, the Gulshan hostage crisis looked different from other major global attacks carried out by the ISIS. Unlike the al Qaeda militia, who prefer to engage in gun fights such as the one in 2015 Radisson Blu Hotel attack in Mali, the ISIS operatives have mostly been suicide bombers as seen in Brussels, Istanbul and Paris. The fact that none of the Gulshan hostage takers had suicide vests, and instead appeared to be battle-hardened fighters with the intent to fight against the government forces indicate that ISIS has either adapted its weapons and tactics to suit the needs of its global operations or it has co-opted some of the Bangladesh-origin ABT or JMB operatives. Media reports indicate that all of the hostage takers in Dhaka were Bangladeshi citizens in the early to mid-20s, some of who attended renowned private schools and universities. This is in sharp contrast to the Brussels, Istanbul, and Paris attacks, where second generation immigrants or Russian and Central Asian citizens were main perpetrators.
How do we factor in such differences in assessing the ISIS threat in Bangladesh? Two hypotheses come to our mind. First, it is worth exploring whether ABT has changed its tactics and expressed its allegiance to ISIS. Such speculations are based on the facts that the hostage takers carried pistols, AK 22 rifle, improvised explosives, and sharp swords. In the past two years, ABT operatives with higher educational backgrounds have used sharp swords or machetes to attack atheists, bloggers, and LGBT activists. Second, it is also quite likely that a new brand of JMB recruits has become fascinated with the global strategy of ISIS, and thus executed the Gulshan attacks in the name of the Islamic State. Regardless of ABT or JMB’s participation in the recent hostage crisis, the ISIS threat appears to be real and much greater than anticipated.
In December 2015, Bangladesh decided to join a Saudi-led military coalition of 34 countries to fight the ISIS in Muslim nations. In June 2016, the government categorically said that it would send troops to protect the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. Whether Bangladesh’s military contribution to the anti-ISIS global coalition is merely rhetoric or has any substance will be tested in the coming days. Meanwhile, Dhaka has to take realistic steps to revamp its intelligence collection and analysis, and revitalize its counterterrorism strategy. While the government is likely to invest more in offensive capabilities to address future hostage scenarios, there is also a need for adopting a strategy to de-radicalize the disgruntled youth.
ASM Ali Ashraf is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London. Email: email@example.com.