The overnight attack at an upmarket restaurant in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter has put the focus on rising extremism in Bangladesh and the country’s ability to counter increasing attacks.
The attack during which gunmen took hostages is worrying not just because it has been claimed by the Islamic State (IS), but also because it is vastly different from the machete-style beheadings of secular bloggers and LGBT community members that have besieged the Sheikh Hasina-led government of late.
IS has been taking credit for the beheadings by its affiliates, but the Hasina government has been in denial, dismissing reports that the rustic radicals have any presence in Bangladesh.
By claiming credit for the attack on the restaurant frequented by foreigners, the radicals--under pressure in Syria and Iraq--appear to have sent a message that they are expanding their reach to a country which is far away from their strongholds.
The Hasina government should not only worry about IS (the extremist group’s claim for the restaurant attack has to be verified) but also about the fact that Bangladesh is one country in which the al Qaeda and the IS seem to be competing. Security experts point to the linkages between the local jihadist group, the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the IS and between Ansarul Bangla Team (ABT) and the al Qaeda.
Ajai Sahni, a strategic expert on South Asia, says the restaurant attack “marks a significant escalation” because Bangladesh “has not seen explosions, gunfire and hostage-like situations in living memory.” He, however, rules out Islamic State’s presence in the country saying, “There are no operational linkages yet and the brutal and sophisticated terror group is not going to travel from Iraq to Bangladesh just to behead individuals.”
If Bangladesh appears to be collapsing under the weight of militant violence, it is because of the very “politically divisive fight” against jihadi extremism, Sahni says. The restaurant attack, in fact, comes in the wake of mass arrests by the Hasina government and the number crunching by her government itself points to the ‘politically biased’ fightback. Of the over 9,000 arrests made by the government, only approximately 150 have been classified as terrorists. The rest are people associated with the Jamaat-e- Islami and the opposition party BNP.
The Hasina government, therefore, suffers a crisis of credibility and legitimacy when it comes to its fight against extremism and radicalism which has seen a dramatic rise in the last two years. It will also have to shake itself out of denial even if investigations show that this attack may not have been carried out by the IS.
The fact that the IS has an eye on Bangladesh is clear from a recent article in Dabiq, the group’s online propaganda magazine in which it said it was planning to increase attacks in a country in which it has claimed credit at least six times in 2006 alone.
If the IS has established a foothold in a country with the fourth largest population of Muslims, it means that India needs to worry. “We need to learn immediate lessons. The model of storming a restaurant and taking hostages can be copy pasted in India,” says strategic expert Lt General Gurmeet Kanwal.
“It could have a demonstrative effect,” says Sahni in agreement.
On Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a security meeting with his home minister and national security advisor. We don’t know the details of what was discussed but what we do know is that India has been devising a strategy to counter rapid radicalisation. Unlike Bangladesh, where there is no established case of its citizens having travelled to Iraq for training, India already has several such cases and several of its citizens are currently under the watch of intelligence agencies. If Islamic State is indeed at India, doorstep, it is clearly a cause for worry.