Western governments and media may be blaming the Islamic State and al Qaeda but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her colleagues are convinced that July 1 attack on an upscale Dhaka cafe that left 20 people, most of them foreigners, dead was carried out by home-grown jihadis.
While a debate rages over the identity of the attackers, Hasina has blamed “some outside forces” for the south Asian country’s worst terrorist attack. Earlier, too, she has held local Islamists linked to the opposition BNP-Jamaat coalition responsible for attacks on bloggers, Hindu priests and foreigners.
“This is part of a major attempt to discredit my government and topple it. They failed to defeat me in elections, they are now using jihadis to bring me down but Inshallah they never will succeed,” Hasina said in Dhaka last week.
Her Awami League colleagues say the attacks on “secular elements” are aimed at demoralising the larger secular mass of Bangladeshis who revel in the “spirit of 1971”, while the violence against Hindus is meant to harm ties with friendly neighbour India. Foreigners, they say, are being targeted to cripple the economy, which is doing well, by scaring away investors and buyers, especially those outsourcing garments.
“Can’t you see the systematic planned targeting? It is so political,” top Awami League leader and former minister Suranjit Sengupta said. “When you fail to defeat us in elections, you unleash the jihadis.”
Sengupta recalled the “open encouragement” the jihadi groups got during the BNP-Jamaat reign (2001-2006). “The Bangla Bhais were operating as part of that government. The Jamaat is the fountain head of all religious radicalism in Bangladesh, they don’t believe in our independence, our secularism,” he said.
Former prime minister Khaleda Zia is the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Information minister Hasanul Huq Inu stunned everyone on Monday, when he said Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had trained up to 8,000 Bangladeshi jihadis in the last two years and sent them back to launch a violent campaign.
“They are trying to avenge 1971, they can’t get over it. First they hit India at Mumbai, now they hit us here in Dhaka with these homegrown jihadis who they have trained, “Inu told mediapersons.
Intelligence officials say they have furnished several detailed reports on the “Pakistan-trained jihadis”.
“That is why we identified two Pakistani diplomats who were part of this whole game... and expelled them. They were both ISI staffers,” a national security intelligence (NSI) official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he didn’t have the permission to speak to media. The NSI is Bangladesh’s top spy agency.
The official said six batches of Bangladeshis were given weapons training between February and September 2014 at Naikhongcherri in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) that borders Myanmar. The remote hill camp used to be a secret base of Rohingya insurgents active in the neighbouring country.
“After the initial 15-day induction at the camp, a batch would be sent to Pakistan, while another batch would be sent to CHT. This went on until mid-2015. By then thousands of Bangladeshi jihadis had been through training, first in CHT and then in Pakistani Kashmir,” the NSI official said.
Indian agencies had found the reports to be true, he claimed.
Some of the Pakistan-trained Islamists had been hunted down, a counter-terrorism unit officer said. “But the most motivated of them were taken to Syrian and Iraqi battlefields by ISI frontmen and then infiltrated back to Bangladesh,” he said. “They formed a new group whose identity is not yet confirmed but which is surely responsible for the Dhaka attacks.”
Was the Pakistan angle for real and not the outcome of the ongoing Dhaka-Islamabad spat over the war crimes trials? The officer said the lone terrorist taken alive after the Dhaka siege had “began to cough out all he knows”.
The gunman, the officer said, had told them he was trained at the CHT camp before being packed off to Pakistan for a three-month intensive training in weapons, explosives and assault tactics.
He started off as an activist of the Islami Chatra Shibir, the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, before joining the ranks of the new jihadi group the Ansar-e-Islam that sent him to Chittagong camp.
The gunman, the only one among the seven attacker to survive the army onslaught, was injured but was being questioned, the officer said.
“His initial version corroborates our previous reports about Pakistani involvement in building up a huge jihadi network in Bangladesh. The ISIS claims are nonsense, it is the ISI and not the ISIS. This is our Mumbai,” the counter-terror officer said.
The Pakistan angle
Earlier this year, Bangladesh had expelled two Pakistani diplomats for recruiting and funding jihadis. Foreign minister AH Mahmud Ali had even warned Pakistan against interfering in his country’s internal affairs.
Dhaka resents Islamabad’s criticism of the war-crimes trials in which several top Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP leaders have been hanged for collaborating with the Pakistan army during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971.
Pakistan has condemned the hangings of “loyal Pakistanis” and even threatened to raise the issue in the UN.
But, western governments and media do not buy the government line and believe the Dhaka strike was either carried out by IS or al Qaeda.
The US sees al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent footprint but most others have bought the Islamic State claims that “our boys” were involved in the slaughter at Holey Artisan cafe.
Local media carried pictures and details about the jihadis within minutes of their photographs going up on the Islamic State website.
The attackers were well educated, went to expensive private universities and one of them was the son of an Awami League leader, media reports said.
“They were highly indoctrinated and motivated, so they stayed back to fight to a bitter end, but their combat training is poor so their resistance folded up in 15 minutes, “ said Col Tuhin Masood of the Rapid Action Battalion that joined the para-commandos in the final assault.
Indian intelligence backs the Bangladeshi claims.
“The Lashkar-e-Taiba has been running a major operation in Bangladesh, recruiting and taking jihadis out for training, using their Rohingya fronts,” said an official of the Research & Analysis Wing, India’s external spy agency.
Refusing to be identified, the R&AW spy said Bangladesh security forces had neutralised many of the jihadis. “They killed them in encounters and they arrested a number of them. That is how they came to know of ISI’s involvement and so these under-cover ISI staffers were expelled,” he said.
But, the Bangladeshi forces failed to penetrate the new jihadi groups and get a picture of their command and hierarchy, he said.
The ISI used its Lashkar front, Fala-I-Insaniyat Foundation, to enter the Chittagong-Myanmar border area. The foundation members spread out as refugee aid work among Rohingyas to identify jihadi recruits to train and indoctrinate them, he said.
(The writer is a former BBC journalist and a noted author.)