Terror In Dhaka: Is It Really ISIS?

Syed Ata Hasnain
July 4, 2016 OPINION 358 Views
Terror In Dhaka: Is It Really ISIS?

As pictures of the Dhaka terror outrage appear repeatedly on the visual media I am forced to revisit my own hypothesis on the problem of terrorism in Bangladesh. Terror is not new to it. Ever since its independence and particularly after the regretful assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1975, Islamic radicalism has been prevalent in the country in one form or the other.
It needs to be recalled that the nine month period of genocide let loose by the Pakistan Army in 1971 was enabled by the connivance of elements which favored Pakistan and opposed the Awami League’s secular outlook. The events of 1975 were a near counter revolution by those opposed to Sheikh Mujib’s egalitarian approach. The backing of Pakistan and its ISI was always unmistakable.
Bangladesh’s history thereafter has been a struggle between the radicals and the moderates. With Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina more firmly in the saddle today, relations with India on a more even keel, denial of Bangladesh territory for the ISI’s nefarious activities in India’s North East and the proactive efforts of the government to bring to book the various perpetrators of the 1971 genocide and other radicals, there has been considerable consternation among the radical forces.
For the last two years or more, ever since the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) refused to participate in the elections, there have been noticeable efforts to put the government on notice and establish relevance by alternative means. This has been played by the targeting of liberals and bloggers who support secular and liberal ideology and of late members of the minority Hindu community. The identity of those who are behind this has been kept nebulous with ascription of most of the killings, to the ISIS.
In November 2015 the situation came to a head when the foreign media started to endorse the belief of some in Bangladesh that it was indeed ISIS which was behind the killings. The US and some other western countries issued travel warnings to their nationals. A few diplomatic missions in Dhaka commenced repatriating their families due to the threats. The situation became one of major concern for the Bangladesh Government affecting foreign investment and visits even by foreign delegations.
I visited Dhaka exactly at that time, early November 2015 at the invitation of the Bangladesh Army. My observations revealed to me that whoever was behind the attacks was selectively choosing targets with the intent of causing panic, discrediting the government and projecting a foreign hand as the sponsor. There had been one or two attempts near Gulshan, the high profile diplomatic enclave, and even the Indian High Commission had to remain on high security alert. The intent was to discredit the government’s capability in the eyes of the international community while weakening it internally.
The ISIS connection perplexed me. Skipping Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, where the efforts were primarily at recruitment what would ISIS hope to achieve in Bangladesh? It was in no position to make Bangladesh the bridge country for getting a foothold to move towards South East Asia and surely not the region to begin its campaign in South Asia.
To the supporters of the opinion that ISIS is deeply involved in Bangladesh it may appear that the group is attempting to display its international reach. From Paris to Brussels to Istanbul, ISIS has been active in Europe with a focus. Its war against the West is a war of retribution. In Africa it has surrogates such as Al Shabab and the Boko Haram. It supports them ideologically and may even have financial links. These are the potential areas to which some of the ISIS leadership could move if militarily displaced from Iraq and Syria. The conditions in Libya also support its presence. The Sinai has the terrain configuration to support it.
However, efforts in Afghanistan have not succeeded and in Pakistan it could just be commencing its approach with many of the splinter groups jumping on to the bandwagon. Bangladesh fits nowhere in the realm of the strategic buildup of ISIS except a public relations effort to project its enhancing reach.
It can yet be conjecture, as it was in November 2015, that a feasible explanation about the killing of liberal bloggers and now the high visibility terror strike is that the local home grown militancy revolving around the radical groups of Bangladesh led by the Bangladeshi Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) badly needed a fillip. ISIS as a sleeping partner with similar ideology on display allows morphing of the threat from home grown militants. It also throws all kinds of red herrings around. This is why despite over a year of almost regular attacks on liberals, investigators are nowhere near establishing the linkages.
The terror attack at the high profile restaurant near Gulshan in Dhaka has succeeded in attracting international attention. Even Al Qaida in South Asia has claimed responsibility which makes various claims appear dubious. It however, achieves the aims of both, ISIS and the radical groups although ISIS’s role may be minimal.
It may also help in greater recruitment to its ranks from populous and impoverished parts of Bangladesh. If the AQ involvement is genuine then obviously the war of the terror groups has entered the subcontinent and would heat up.
Given the recent detentions in Hyderabad (India) it would cause some worry to India’s intelligence services. There is an immediate need for enhancing the already well-established cooperation between Indian and Bangladesh intelligence services.
The Bangladesh Army seems to have done well in the crisis although 20 civilians lost their lives; all six terrorist were neutralized with some firm decision making by the Prime Minister.

Related articles