Why the threat needs to be taken more seriously

Indian social activists light candles during a protest in Kolkata on Saturday, against a fatal attack on a restaurant in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.
Indian social activists light candles during a protest in Kolkata on Saturday, against a fatal attack on a restaurant in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

When Italian citizen Cesare Tavella was shot dead in the Gulshan diplomatic zone of Dhaka City in late September 2015, and a Japanese citizen Kunio Hoshi was killed a few days later in a similar attack in the north-western Rangpur District, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for both incidents. The terrorist group previously warned that "citizens of the [anti-ISIS] crusader coalition" would not be safe in Muslim countries. Bangladesh Government rejected concerns over ISIS presence in the country, and discarded western intelligence assessments that ISIS was planning for more sinister attacks. It thus came as no surprise that official investigations have never found any possible link between ISIS and the Tavella-Hoshi murders. 

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. 

Time has come to revisit the ISIS threat for two compelling reasons: Since the 1990s, home-grown Islamist groups in Bangladesh have demonstrated varying level of connections with transnational terrorists; and Second, the Gulshan hostage crisis looks similar to some of the global attacks carried out by ISIS. These two factors deserves further analysis. 

Transnational connections of Bangladeshi militants

The reason why the ISIS threat needs to be taken more seriously requires one to recall Bangladeshi militant groups' past connections with global terrorist networks. After the First Afghan War (1979-1989) against the Soviet troops ended, nearly 2,000 emboldened Afghan War veterans of Bangladesh returned to the country 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 theatres, 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 the 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 second 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 the major terrorist attacks in Paris (November 2015), Belgium (March 2016) and Istanbul (June 2016), ISIS claimed responsibility, released still pictures or video clips of attackers, and posted images of slain victims. Following the Gulshan attack, 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 media campaign, the Gulshan hostage crisis looks different from other major global attacks carried out by the ISIS. Unlike the al Qaeda militias, 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 they 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 Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) or JMB operatives. Media reports indicate that all of the hostage takers in Dhaka were Bangladeshi citizens in their early to mid-20s, some of who attended renowned private universities—a trend most similar to ABT's recruitment strategy. 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 not only carried pistols, AK 22 rifles, improvised explosives, but also sharp swords. In the past two years, ABT operatives used sharp swords or machetes to attack atheists, bloggers, and gay rights 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 Islamic State group. 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 June 2016, the Bangladesh Government categorically said that it would send troops to protect the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina from any ISIS attack. 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 revitalise 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-radicalise the disgruntled youth. 

The writer 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 protected]