DHAKA • Bangladesh yesterday ordered schools to notify the government about truants in the wake of two deadly attacks by suspected Islamist extremists, several of whom were at elite universities but had been missing for months.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on every school, college and university to "create a list of absent students and publish it".
Bangladesh has been reeling from dozens of attacks since the turn of the year, mainly targeting secular activists or religious minorities. "We will be rigorous," the Premier said. "We must uproot militancy and terrorism from Bangladesh."
Three of the alleged militants who participated in an attack on a Dhaka cafe last week, in which 20 hostages were murdered, attended top schools and universities in the Bangladeshi capital.
Another student of a well-regarded university also participated in a deadly attack in northern Bangladesh last Thursday that killed at least three people at a huge prayer gathering marking the start of Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
The revelation that the attackers were educated, well-off members of society has sparked fears that Islamist extremism has spread far beyond disenfranchised youngsters being radicalised in madrasahs.
School authorities would now have to provide information on any student who has an unexplained absence of 10 days or more, Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid said.
In the days after the attacks, Bangladesh has begun looking for its lost sons. Worried family members have posted pictures of missing young people on social media, in local newspapers and in a private Facebook group called "Desperately Seeking Missing Persons (Bangladesh)".
Police last week said they were trying to find former reality TV star and musician Tahmid Rahman Safi after allegations emerged that he had joined ISIS. Safi, the son of a former top government bureaucrat, was identified by his friends after he appeared in an ISIS video, lauding the cafe siege and threatening more attacks. "We are investigating all those who are reported missing," a Dhaka police spokesman said.
"No family with children between 13 and 25 should feel secure because people of these ages are vulnerable," said Mr Meer Hayet Kabir, the father of one of the cafe attackers, who had spent frantic weeks searching for his son. Police said that at least 10 young men - many from well-connected families - were missing and suspected of being caught up in militant groups.
Separately, an 18-year-old man, a kitchen assistant at the cafe bakery who had been detained after the siege as a possible suspect, died in a hospital late last Friday. His family has alleged that he was tortured in police custody.
Investigators are examining airline and port records to see whether the cafe attackers left the country for training overseas.They are also poring over the attackers' social media accounts for clues. A controversial Islamist preacher is under fire in India after reports that one of the alleged attackers, Rohan Imtiaz, the son of a politician from Ms Hasina's Awami League, quoted him on his Facebook page. Rohan went missing on Dec 30.
Another alleged attacker, Meer Saameh Mubasheer, 18,was last seen on Feb 29 after he left his elite English immersion school, Scholastica, to go to a tutoring centre. Looking back, his father could not detect any overt warning signs, but he remains haunted by an eerie phone call the boy received on the day he left.
Nibras Islam, an alleged attacker who was studying at Monash University's Kuala Lumpur campus, similarly went missing on Feb 3.
Over the past two years, a substantial number of young men have gone missing in Bangladesh, said Mr Sakhawat Hussain, a retired brigadier-general and security analyst. Some of these men have travelled to Syria, police say, while others have returned to recruit locally.
Last Tuesday, ISIS released a video featuring three Bangladeshi men, based in Raqqa, Syria, who vowed more attacks, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a monitoring service.
Police say they have identified medical representatives of pharmaceutical firms, Islamic teachers and traders who have recruited followers through social networking sites and blogs, as well as face-to-face contact.