Recounting 'Operation Thunderbolt'
When the terror attack was unfolding at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka on the night of July 1 last year, Lt Col MM Imrul Hasan, a commando, was watching a movie with his family at a resort in Habiganj, some 180km from the capital.
Around 9:30pm, he got a phone call and everything changed. On the other side was his colleague, who informed him of the hostage situation.
A little later, Imrul, who was the commanding officer of the para-commando battalion of Bangladesh Army that led "Operation Thunderbolt" at the Gulshan restaurant, got another call. This time, his superior officer ordered him to fly to Dhaka.
He rushed to Osmani International Airport in Sylhet, 82km away from the resort he was staying at, so he could get to Dhaka fast.
His heart was pounding. On the way to the airport, the SUV he was in rearended a truck. All others in the vehicle were badly hurt but luckily he suffered only minor injuries.
While hitchhiking his way to the airport, Lt Col Imrul called in commandoes who were on Eid holidays, and arrange for the arms and ammunition which were kept at different places.
“I reached the Sylhet airport around 1:30am and my team reached around 3:00am as they had to bring arms and ammo with them. A Bangladesh Air Force plane took off around 3:30am and landed in Dhaka at 4:10am,” the commando told a handful of journalists at the army headquarters yesterday.
“Fellow colleagues were briefed on the plane. Immediately after landing, we were taken to the military operation room [in Dhaka Cantonment] where senior officers, including the army chief, were present,” he said.
The Director Military Operation briefed them about different aspects of the operation and appointed him the commander for the operation.
Armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were ready to take them to the target site.
After briefing the army officers about the operation plan, he spoke with the restaurant owner to get an idea of the layout of the building. On the basis of their conversation, he decided to engage half of the 80 commandoes he had with him.
Around 7:10am, they started from Dhaka Cantonment for the operation. As soon as they reached the spot, the terrorists freed one hostage (Hasnat Karim, now arrested as a suspect).
“Then I again reduced the number of commandoes for the operation. I briefed them and launched the operation around 7:40am.
“We had to keep in mind that the terrorists could have held people hostage in nearby buildings. As the first APC broke through the bakery gate, the terrorists started firing on us. We did not return fire immediately.”
There was a sudden cry for help. The first of the commandoes who stormed the restaurant brought out three hostages -- one Japanese and two Sri Lankans, he recalled, adding that their priority was to rescue the hostages alive.
In three to five minutes, commandoes took position beside the first two APCs and opened fire. Another group of commandoes took position on the roof.
“I was coordinating the operation… Suddenly, the commandoes asked me to take cover as two militants came out of the restaurant and started firing. They were shot dead there,” said Imrul.
Meanwhile, the commando group on the roof fought their way into the first floor, took control of it and rescued eight more people.
On the ground floor, the commandoes were in a gunfight with the militants.
The commandoes entered the ground floor and rescued two people. Three to four militants died there, said the operation commander.
That was the end of the 13-minute operation, he said, adding that when they entered the building, there were improvised explosive devices, grenades, arms, ammunition, and dead bodies lying around, mostly on the ground floor.
“The savagery of the militants we saw inside the building is indescribable,” he said, adding that the militants had killed the hostages brutally hours before their operation.
He also spoke about the capacity of the para-commandoes, who are now capable of dealing with any kind of situation at home and abroad, like in UN missions.
The army para-commando battalion is now a fully-fledged brigade of the Bangladesh Army. The brigade has two battalions.
About the experience of the operation, He said, “We don't see it as our success. Rather, we see it as an experience. Of course, we never want to see a repeat of the Holey Artisan attack but we are well prepared for any situation.”
The attack left 22 people dead -- nine Italians, seven Japanese, two Bangladeshis, a Bangladeshi American and one Indian.
Two policemen were killed when the attack was unfolding.
Thirteen hostages were rescued.