An article on the terrorism threat in Bangladesh written by Faiz Sobhan, Research Director, BEI, was published in today’s (21 July 2016) Dhaka Tribune


Whither terrorism in Bangladesh?
Faiz Sobhan

After the terrorist attack on Holey Artisan Bakery on July 1, the country and, in particular, the residents of Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara, sometimes referred to as the ‘tri-state area’, is still reeling from the shock.

The question on many people’s mind is, what is next on the terrorists’ agenda? Where, when and how will they strike.

The law enforcement and intelligence agencies find themselves in a race against time and are undoubtedly working overtime to unearth any plots and find the perpetrators before they strike again. The authorities have gained some important information from one of the attackers involved in the Kishoreganj attack and are following up other leads.

In recent weeks, more reports have emerged of young men and women who have gone missing in the past few years. At last count, there were reports of at least 261 missing and possibly there are many more who are unaccounted for.

That begs the question where have they disappeared to and what are they up to? Have they left home to join IS or other extremist groups at home or abroad? Did they leave to seek greater glory and a sense of purpose, and die as martyrs to be rewarded with a place in heaven for their violent extremist acts? Eventually time will tell, at least about some of these individuals, in the event that they are arrested and interrogated by the authorities.

The Holey attack points evidently to some new modus operandi for extremists working in Bangladesh, especially those who have linked themselves to IS.  From undertaking small-scale operations on individuals ranging from foreigners to atheists to religious minorities, IS extremists in particular appear to have upped their strategy to using light infantry-type attacks as seen in other cities such as Paris and Tunis.

In the case of the Holey attack, the Arabic statement released afterwards by IS spoke of the attack being undertaken by ‘five Inghimasiyyin’. The Combating Terrorism Centre, research and academic centre at the United States Military Academy in New York, states that Inghimasi is a “suicide fighter” or “those who submerse in enemy’s line with no intent to come back alive.”

This does not mean to say that the attack on the Holey Bakery was technically a suicide operation. IS is known to use suicide bombers, in “martyrdom operations” or Istishhad, who tend to work alone, such as attackers in Iraq and Syria who crash explosive-laden vehicles into crowds or military personnel and installations.

The Inghimasi of IS are also known to operate in groups, armed with light weapons and grenades, usually on foot, and do not expect to emerge alive after launching an attack. Also, noteworthy is that first IS-claimed suicide operation was on Christmas day last year at a Ahmadiyya mosque in  Baghmara, Rajshahi, when a bomber identified as Abu al-Fida’ al-Benghali detonated his explosive belt killing himself and injuring ten others.

The Holey Bakery attack clearly points to an escalation by IS members in Bangladesh to take their operations to the next level.

In a sense this can be seen as phase two of their actions. Phase one could be classified as all those attacks which they undertook between September 2015 until June 2016. This should not come as a surprise as IS has discussed at length their plans for Bangladesh and the IS magazine Dabiq in issues 12 and 14 have wide coverage on Bangladesh including an article titled “Revival of Jihad in Bengal” (Dabiq 12) and an interview with Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, the Emir of IS in Bangladesh (Dabiq 14).

Al-Hanif is suspected of being Bangladeshi-Canadian Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury. He is a Bachelors degree graduate in chemistry from the University of Windsor, Ontario and around thirty years of age. There are reports that he left Canada for Bangladesh around 2013 or 2014 but not much else is known about him.

The Bangladeshi authorities are trying to track him down. What would be of interest is the whereabouts of Chowdhury. Is he in IS’ main territory guiding operations in Bangladesh or has he returned from Syria/Iraq to manage IS members at home?

The Holey Bakery terrorist attack was significant because it points towards a number of factors.

First, it was a sophisticated operation and there was considerable planning involved; second, it was an upgraded attack in terms of operational tactics; third, it appeared to be a martyrdom operation; fourth, there was more than two or three attackers which was the case for most of the previous attacks; fifth, this type of assault demonstrates specialist tactical-type training such as the use of pistols, automatic weapons, grenade-type bombs along with how to use machetes/knives in administering fatal wounds, holding of hostages and securing a property; sixth, the individuals involved in the attack either received this type of specialised training by IS members in Syria/Iraq or their local trainers may have; seventh, those behind such an attack have managed to completely go underground and vanish without a trace for months or years.

In past cases of terrorism where local actors were involved, law enforcement officials had reliable information of extremist hideouts around the country and managed to find the likes of JMB leader Bangla Bhai and other members of JMB and HUJI-B.

What lies ahead?

It is impossible to predict the next attack – what type it may be, where it will occur and so on. However, if the Holey Artisan Bakery attack is taken as an example then the signs are worrying. One of the main objectives of terrorists is to cause fear, chaos and mayhem. They may resort to striking targets which they deem as soft, and thus attempt another attack on a restaurant, clubs for expatriates or a hotel, which explains why a number of four and five star hotels are bolstering their security. Terrorists typically would want to hit those places that foreigners frequent. The Holey Bakery attack was a case in point as the majority of victims – 17 – were foreigners. The IS statement after the attack described the victims as “citizens of Crusader countries.”  Although the attackers said they had no intention of killing any Muslims they did end up killing a few and in a most brutal manner.

While the various check-posts around the tri-state area are meant to reassure and keep safe local and foreign residents none can predict when and where future attacks will be mounted.  Terrorists are known to employ clever tactics and will evidently look for ways and means to avoid the large police dragnet.

Furthermore, if the reports of two to three dozen Bangladeshi IS fighters having returned home from IS’ central territory are true, then peoples’ concerns will not dissipate overnight because of anxiety that the next attack is around the corner.

The belief among many Bangladeshis is that it has defeated terrorism before and it can do so again. It is and always will be a resilient nation. But the battle to combat terrorism will require patience, perseverance, pragmatism and effective policies. In addition, a robust and effective counter-terrorism strategy needs to be adopted along with boosting counter-terrorism cooperation with other countries.

The government understands that it alone cannot undertake such a task but would need the full support of society as a whole ranging from families, grassroots organisations and local communities to civil society, religious scholars, teachers, academic institutions, NGOs, the media and other stakeholders.

Faiz Sobhan is a researcher of foreign policy and security issues.