By Athul M
Militancy has become a renewed threat in Bangladesh. This is evident from the July, 2016 attacks in Dhaka and Eid attacks in Sholakia. Given that July 1 attack caused mass casualty, which is not very common in Bangladesh, the South Asian country is witnessing a spike in militancy, most likely by domestic militant groups who have pledged allegiance to international terrorist groups such as the al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), also known as Daesh.
On July 1, six militants armed with AK-22 rifles, explosives, and machetes assaulted the Holey Artisan Bakery located in Gulshan, an upscale neighborhood and held hostage more than 30 people. Later, they executed at least nine Italians, seven Japanese, one Indian, and a US citizen. Later on July 7, a group of 6-7 assailants attacked a police checkpoint with homemade explosives, small arms, and machetes, at Sholakia in Kishoreganj, which was the site for the largest Eid congregation in the country. The attack resulted in four deaths including two policemen, a civilian, and an attacker. At least two attackers have been arrested at the time of writing. The high-profile attacks came in the aftermath of a series of targeted attacks on secular bloggers, Hindus, and Buddhists. In the last 18 months, at least 48 people have been killed in targeted attacks across Bangladesh, with Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), a local affiliate of al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and allegedly by the IS. Since September 2015, after the first IS-claimed attack, 11 attacks claimed by the militant group in which at least 37 people have been killed. The July attacks were the latest incidents in which militants attempted to inflict multiple fatalities, after the December 25 suicide bombing in Rajshahi and the ISKCON temple attack in the same area in 2015.
Profile of the perpetrators
The perpetrators of the Gulshan and Kishoreganj attacks came from affluent families, with some of them having attended the premiere educational institutions of Bangladesh. Nibras Islam involved in the July 1 attack and Abir Rahman involved in the July 7 attacks were both students of North South University, an elite college in Bangladesh. Moreover, Nibras was a student of Monash University in Malaysia. Almost all the youngsters had been missing from home for an extended period of time. The background of the militants also highlights the trend of militant groups such as ABT, targeting students, having made significant inroads into educational institutions. Given the urban upbringing, the students are likely to have blended with the urban population without raising suspicion, unlike those with less educational background. Currently, the Police estimated that 200 youngsters have been reported missing, half of them are believed to be involved in extremist activities and some of them reportedly have undergone training in Gaibandha in north Bangladesh.
A shift in Militant tactics and Aim
In comparison to the recent machete attacks, the Gulshan attacks indicate a shift in operational capability of militants. The use of machetes, crude bombs, pistols, and three AK-22 rifles by the six attackers indicates the attacker’s operational capability was rather rudimentary. Moreover, according to experts, although the attackers were determined, they were not robust fighters tactically, as they did not fortify the location with IEDs to inflict casualties on security forces nor did they attempt to intermix with the hostages so as to make themselves less obvious targets to the assaulting forces.
Secondly, the main aim of the attackers was to conduct a mass impact attack than a mass casualty attack. This is in line with the modus operandi of domestic militant groups in Bangladesh, such as the Jama’at-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Way back in August 2005, JMB exploded more than 459 bombs in 300 locations in 63 out of 64 districts of Bangladesh. The fatalities caused by the explosions were two, while the injured stood at 30. The main reason for this low fatality operation was by design, with no intention to cause high fatalities.
Additionally, the target location of July 1 and July 7 also indicates the targeted audience of the attackers that were both domestic and intentional. The probable message of Gulshan attackers was to the international community, iterating that the diplomatic enclave, which was supposedly a secure place, was not safe enough for foreigners. The location of the attack poses challenge to the Government, specifically the ability of the authorities to safeguard its citizens and the foreign nationals. The message that the attack conveys revolves around identity. As long as one is a Muslim and not a Government servant, he is safe. This can be seen as an attempt by the militants to get the civilian on their side of the population. In other words, militants are attempting to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population by coercion or intimidation. However, success of such attempts is unlikely, although it may polarize the society in short term.
Also, the success of such a selective campaign of wooing civilians is yet to be seen. In fact, among the July 1 victims was a young Bangladeshi Muslim man who refused to escape, leaving his friends behind in the café. Unfortunately, he along with his two other friends died in the attack.
The July 7 attack on the contrary unfolded in a rather rural area, in the vicinity of the largest Eid congregation, targeting police security post. The intended audience of the attack was the domestic population, with militants conveying a message that they could conduct across the country and that the police, who are also one of the most visible symbols of government authorities and responsible for maintaining law and order in the country, would be targeted. Terrorist attacks have occurred in both urban and rural areas in a heightened frequency since 2013. The Islamist elements are likely to have a strong presence on both landscapes. However, given that an attack is likely to have higher visibility and impact if it occurs in the urban landscape, the militants are likely to target the urban areas in the near future.
Trend of militancy in Bangladesh
According to a few intelligence reports, JMB and ABT, under the tutelage of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), have formed a common platform of militant groups in Bangladesh. Moreover, HuT, which had previously not been directly involved in violent militant acts, was involved in the June 15 attack on a Hindu professor. This indicates the probable trend of Islamist groups in Bangladesh combining their resources and conducting combined militant attacks. An earlier report had stated that HuT, which has a strong presence in about 50 countries, including Bangladesh, poses a significant threat, despite maintaining a low profile.
Although currently the main group involved in Gulshan attacks is JMB, its tendency to recruit educated youngsters, along with the presence of transnational Islamist organization HuT, the possibility of attacks by the combined forces cannot be ruled out. Furthermore, in the past the JMB is alleged to have approached ABT seeking military skills, since the ABT leader, Major Zia, is a fugitive Army officer. In this light, the probability of ABT having imparted military skills for Gulshan attackers is high.
Since 2013, militancy has seen a spike with at least 76 individuals, including 42 civilians and four SFs, being killed in 2016. Bangladesh is witnessing an ominous militant threat. Although IS and AQIS affiliates are likely to coordinate with each other operationally, possibility of them competing with each other in an effort to gain prominence over other groups is also quite high. In this light, local affiliates may conduct more visible and spectacular attacks in an effort to indicate their presence and garner further publicity and forge links with other militant groups, in the coming days, particularly in the run up to August 15, which is commemorated as National mourning day in Bangladesh. Additionally, with September 2016 marking one year since the first attack claimed by IS in Bangladesh, frequency of attacks is likely to increase.
Given that Awami League government is likely to be cognizant of the prevalent threats, it will conduct anti-terrorism operations, initially centering in the urban environs of Dhaka, Chittagong and Rangpur. Also, in the days to come, we may see a higher number of encounters and arrests. Although such kinetic operations may bring brief respite from terrorist violence, unless the Government is able to give a counter-narrative to Islamist propaganda and revamp the law enforcement apparatus to adequately secure minority religions, along the outlying areas of Bangladesh, the threat of radicalism will persist.
Athul M is an Analyst at Max-protection Ltd (Mumbai). He has worked with New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management and has written on issues of internal security in India at the Institute.
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