On Friday evening, when gunmen burst into the Holey Artisan Bakery, in Dhaka, the restaurant was quiet. Few of its regular Muslim customers were dining out, having just broken their Ramadan fasts at home, so the tables were occupied largely by expatriates: a group of Italians out for dinner, another cluster of Japanese, Sri Lankans, and Indians. This was a crowd typical of Gulshan, a neighborhood of diplomats and corporate executives, which, with its tranquil streets and watercolor lake views, feels a long way from the traffic-choked bedlam elsewhere in Dhaka. Storming the Holey Artisan Bakery was, in other words, a result of diligent homework.
It wasn’t until the next morning, ten hours later, that Bangladesh Army commandos broke the siege, killing six attackers and arresting a seventh. Most of the twenty slain victims were foreigners; one, a sophomore at Emory University, was an American of Bangladeshi origin. Thirteen people, patrons as well as staff, survived. Through the long, terrible night, one eyewitness said, the attackers tested the hostages, torturing or murdering them if they couldn’t recite verses from the Koran. “We will not kill Bengalis,” one of the gunmen said, according to the Times. “We will only kill foreigners.”
The attack, which was subsequently claimed by the Islamic State, through its Amaq information agency, provides a tragically clarifying moment in Bangladesh’s recent history of violence. Since 2013, at least forty people across the country have been killed in separate attacks—on the streets or in their homes, many sliced to death with machetes. Among the first victims were several secular bloggers, including an American, Avijit Roy, who was killed in February, 2015; foreigners, publishers, minority Hindus and Christians, and gay-rights activists have also been murdered.
This spree of violence has punctured the self-constructed reputation of the Awami League, the ruling party, as the sole guardian of the secular fibre of Sunni-majority Bangladesh. In its successful election campaigns of 2008 and 2014, the Awami League had promised to be tough on terror, and to prosecute those who had collaborated with Pakistani Islamists to impede Bangladesh’s war of liberation, in 1971.
The tensions of the war have lurked beneath the surface of the country’s politics ever since, boiling over in 2013, when students and bloggers organized massive protests, calling for the harshest possible sentences for convicted war criminals. But shortly thereafter, when assassins began to kill bloggers, often in public and in open daylight, the government responded weakly. Once, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina even suggested that the murdered writers ought to have kept their controversial opinions on Islam to themselves.
Over the past three years, Bangladesh has been unable to ascertain the force behind these executions. Some of the killings, including Roy’s, were claimed by Ansarullah Bangla Team, a local group of militants that spoke largely through its Twitter handle; a police official described Ansarullah as an Al Qaeda affiliate, but in a tweet Ansarullah bragged that Roy had been killed to avenge the United States’ actions against ISIS.
Yet the government has denied the presence of either Al Qaeda or ISIS on Bangladeshi soil; one of its ministers, speaking to me late last year, was more eager to blame his party’s primary political opposition, the Bangladesh National Party, and the B.N.P.’s proscribed Islamist ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami. Last month, under pressure to act, the government arrested more than eleven thousand people, including a hundred and forty-five suspected Islamic militants; police officials said that they were cracking down on every form of crime, from theft to assault, but the B.N.P. complained that the raids were a cover to detain its workers. By way of further complication, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the paranoid theory that the government’s security agencies had carried out some of the murders, to give itself an excuse to turn Bangladesh into more of a police state.
Friday’s attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery, however, leaves little room for doubt about the growing influence of ISIS in the country, Amarnath Amarasingam, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told me. “The most important thing here is that ISIS has taken credit, and they don’t take credit for things they didn’t do,” he said. “Now, this doesn’t mean Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is calling these guys in Dhaka and telling them what to do. It doesn’t mean these fighters were in direct contact with the top leadership or funded by them. What you can say is that linkages exist.” Even if the discontents are local, the allegiance is now global.
On Saturday, Amarasingam tweeted out photos of five of the attackers, which were first published on ISIS media channels. “Here they are again with names . . . and, ugh, smiling faces,” he wrote. “Definitely shows some serious pre-planning.” The photos show young men with starter goatees, distinctly South Asian in appearance, wearing black tunics and red-and-white kaffiyehs. They stand in front of the ISIS banner and hold automatic weapons at the same angle, pointed just to the left of their feet, their forefingers resting loosely on the trigger guards. In captions, we learn their given kunyas, or Arabic noms de guerre. They are squinting into the light, and their smiles are shockingly sunny, as if they were posing for yearbook photos.
The fact that these photos were taken, to be released after the siege ended, reveals an element of meticulous organization. Some of the people who were killed in the Holey Artisan Bakery were cut up with cleavers or machetes, and although this was not necessarily a signature of ISIS operations, Amarasingam said, “these attacks sometimes do have a sort of weird local flavor.” The gunmen had clearly planned to take photos of the carnage, mid-siege, and transmit them for publication on ISIS channels, but, when they snatched smartphones from survivors for this purpose, the 3G signal proved flimsy, so the restaurant staff was ordered to switch on the Wi-Fi network. One of the gunmen, survivors recalled, had also remembered to pack a laptop.
Still, despite signs that the attacks were the handiwork of ISIS sympathizers, Asaduzzaman Khan, Bangladesh’s home minister, refused afterward to acknowledge that the government is dealing with serious terrorism, rather than an extraordinarily violent brand of party politics. On Sunday, he said that the gunmen were members of yet another homegrown, long-banned Islamic militia, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, not supporters of ISIS. Asked why the young men, who had gone to an élite school in Dhaka, would choose to become militants, Khan replied, “It has become a fashion.”
Such denials have begun to sound both rote and specious. Khan may be correct in implying that the disaffection driving these men to violence flows from the frictions and problems of Bangladeshi society, rather than the appeal of a global caliphate. But, given the sort of spectacular horror that Dhaka has just witnessed, it appears that ISIS has found firm traction within a segment of the populace. To forestall further acts of terror, Bangladesh’s government will have to face up to that grim new reality. (The New Yorker)