The terrifying attack on a calm Friday evening, at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, has perplexed the world. The gruesome killing of innocent civilians has prompted many theories. For the first time in the history of Bangladesh, a popular socialising place had more than 30 people taken hostage for a gut-wrenching 12 hours of siege. The commando operation could save 13 lives, but 20 hostages had already being brutally killed and two policeman died in the gunfight.
The Dhaka tragedy comes after a series of attacks on secular bloggers, writers, intellectuals and non-Muslim priests which started in early 2013. In response, the government launched a massive countrywide crackdown on extremists and arrested thousands of suspects.
As on previous occasions, Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the Dhaka attack. The government reiterated its longstanding claim that there is no presence of IS or other international terrorist organisations in Bangladesh. The perpetrators are suspected to be aligned, rather, with home grown militant groups such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), which follow extremist ideologies similar to al-Qaida or IS.
However, the pattern and plot of the Dhaka tragedy resemble attacks organised by IS in other parts of the world. First, they target busy places of socialisation or tourist attraction where foreigners are likely to visit. Second, they terrify people by causing massive human casualties. Third, they follow similar rhetoric such as ‘Allahu Akbar – God is Great’ or a military posture and the symbolic black flag to justify their atrocities. Lastly, they aim to grab global attention to motivate their followers around the world.
Young Bangladeshis, like other Muslim youth around the world, are susceptible to radicalisation. Bangladesh in particular, seems a fertile recruitment ground for international militant groups. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri announced his plan to strengthen militant groups in South Asia, which includes Bangladesh, on September 4, 2014. In the same month Samiun Rahman, a Bangladeshi-origin Briton, was arrested in Dhaka on suspicion of recruiting for organisations like IS or al-Qaida.
With almost 30% of the population between the age of 10-24 years, Bangladesh enjoys a youthful demographic dividend. Bangladesh is also one of the very few Muslim-majority democratic countries with remarkable achievement in mass education, women empowerment, and peaceful coexistence of different religious communities. According to the 2015 Global Peace Index published by Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), Bangladesh ranked better than India or Pakistan in South Asia. The obvious question is why and how Bangladesh is becoming a target of global terrorism.
Firstly, religion often gets exploited to achieve a specific political agenda. Due to religious sensitivity, terrorist organisations take advantage of the misrepresentation of religious texts to radicalise people. Secondly, the growth of educated young people trying to follow religion, particularly Islam as a lifestyle is well noticed by terrorists. The Dhaka tragedy reconfirms that the target of indoctrination is not uneducated poor youth studying in a remote madrassa, but rather bright youngsters from well-off families who receive the best of education. Thirdly, easy access to internet enables secure, cheap, instantaneous transnational networking.
Terrorists can communicate and coordinate transnational crimes without even meeting physically. Security and intelligence agencies often fail to intercept attacks planned almost virtually. The risk gets intensified when the virtual life of young people in the social media is almost unchecked, with both peaceful messages of coexistence as well as hatred and bigotry propagated without filter or verification.
The lone wolves, who would otherwise be scattered, are taking advantage of new media to form pack of wolves and organise dreadful atrocities. The recent deportation of 26 Bangladeshis from Singapore suspected of terrorism also raise a red flag on growing concerns of radicalisation of Bangladeshi diaspora living in different places of the world.
This is a wake-up call for everyone that no country is immune to such terrorist attack. Terrorism has crossed borders, changed forms, intensified brutalities and abandoned religion. Unless the world finds an equally smart response against hate speech and propagation of extreme ideologies, the Dhaka tragedy is likely to recur from Istanbul to Paris to San Bernardino and elsewhere.