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Dhaka cafe attack - News analysis

Bangladesh government must address role of external terror groups

Dhaka has long denied presence of Al-Qaeda, ISIS in country amid rise in radical activities

Nirmala Ganapathy Friday night's terror attack by seven armed militants in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka was aimed at capturing international attention and showed an escalation of terrorist activity in the South Asian country, security analysts said.

The nearly 11-hour siege, which ended when Bangladeshi security forces stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery, left 20 victims - mostly foreigners - and six of the gunmen dead.

This was the most sophisticated terror attack that Bangladesh has seen in recent times, and was very different from the crude attacks by machete-wielding assailants, said experts. At least a dozen bloggers, academics, members of minority groups and foreign nationals have been killed in that manner since last year.

"The attack was in a highly protected area where the elite classes live, as well as a diplomatic area. The objective of the attackers was to get international attention and to show their strength and capabilities to intimidate local people," said Mr Md Abdur Rashid, executive director of the Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies in Dhaka.

"Earlier, we saw terrorists who were not trained; but these attackers are, and capable of using modern weapons. It must put pressure on the Sheikh Hasina government," he added.


A relative of one of the hostages being comforted near the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka yesterday. The nearly 11-hour siege left 20 victims - mostly foreigners - and six of the gunmen dead. PHOTO: XINHUA

A police official speaking on condition of anonymity said the militants "planned the attack very well", sneaking into the area before police checkpoints are routinely put up in the evening.

Bangladesh, which has a nearly 90 per cent Muslim population, has not been hit by frequent terrorist attacks like its neighbour Pakistan.

But of late, it has witnessed an alarming rise in radical and terror activities, with religious minorities being increasingly targeted.

Radical elements have been increasingly lashing out over the execution of four leaders - including one in May this year - from the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami, a far-right party, for war crimes.

This followed a government crackdown, which saw 14,000 people being rounded up amid criticism from rights groups that the people were being detained without due process of the law.


People helping an injured man (above) after the hostage-taking at the Holey Artisan Bakery on Friday night. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack, which experts described as the most sophisticated that Bangladesh has seen in recent times. PHOTOS: REUTERS, TRIPADVISOR

Experts said the government has to wake up to the possibility that external terror groups are playing a role in the South Asian country. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for Friday's attack.

Dhaka has long denied the presence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the country. Instead, it blames local terror groups like the Ansar Al-Islam, previously called Ansarullah Bangla Team, and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh for the recent attacks. The former claims links to Al-Qaeda and the latter to ISIS.

"The government needs to accept that it has a terrorist problem, with both ISIS and AQIS (Al- Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent)," said Dr Sajjan Gohel, international security director for Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based think-tank. "Their sense of denial that they don't have a terrorist problem has not helped the situation."


People helping an injured man after the hostage-taking at the Holey Artisan Bakery (above) on Friday night. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack, which experts described as the most sophisticated that Bangladesh has seen in recent times. PHOTOS: REUTERS, TRIPADVISOR

Religious radicalisation is a problem facing Bangladesh.

In May, four Bangladeshis in Singapore were convicted of financing terrorism. Late last year, the Singapore authorities deported 27 radicalised Bangladeshi workers.

"Bangladesh is seeing a very deep polarisation in society. Many people have serious grouses against the Bangladesh state," said South Asian expert S.D. Muni.

Prime Minister Hasina's political opponents have accused her of being autocratic and silencing the opposition.

Bangladeshis see the Dhaka attack as an "alarming" development.

AREA WAS HIGHLY PROTECTED

The attack was in a highly protected area where the elite classes live, as well as a diplomatic area. The objective of the attackers was to get international attention.

MR MD ABDUR RASHID, executive director of the Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies in Dhaka.

"It is a very alarming situation. This sort of thing happens in... other parts of the world. It has never happened here," said Dr Muhammad Mizanuddin, vice-chancellor of Rajshahi University.

"This adds a new dimension (to the terror issue)," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Govt must address role of external terror groups'. Print Edition | Subscribe