Life in Dhaka changed forever on Friday, as the city discovered that it seems to have become a target for ISIS activity.
The incident began when gunmen burst in to the Holey Artisan Bakery, a somewhat upmarket café, known to be frequented by wealthier Bangladeshis and by non-Bangladeshis. It is situated in the Gulshan district, which is usually thought of as one of the safer parts of Bangladesh’s capital – an upmarket area with high levels of security, which makes the attack appear more daring.
The attack came after a string of fatal attacks on liberal individuals, which the Government had blamed on ISIS/Daesh. Opposition forces, however, accused the Government of sparking the attacks as a way of dissuading individual dissidents from speaking out.
While officialdom is blaming this most recent incident on ISIS/Daesh, questions have been raised over the form of the attack. It was not a suicide attack, which is the form of attack ISIS/Daesh usually carries out – with the attackers taking hostages. Why the change in tactic? If the attackers really were sent by ISIS/Daesh, it is possible they only had the resources for one attack (at the moment) and were trying to make it last as long as possible, taking up newspaper headlines and TV reporting over an extended period. On the other hand, the event may have been staged by the Government, looking for more ways to keep the population worried, distracted – and more prepared to support crackdowns in civil liberties and state murder of opposition leaders. The Government was quick to send in troops to break the hostage situation, just twelve hours after it began – a solution to the crisis which would have made the ruling party look decisive and in charge.
No one has come up with a convincing explanation of why terrorists should mount an attack on a café as people were sitting down to Iftar – this has allowed the Government to condemn the perpetrators as not being true to Islam. This point gives more credence to the idea that ISIS/Daesh was not behind the attack, because they would not have set themselves up to be described as non-observant Muslims. On the other hand, once the siege was broken, details emerged about how brutally the hostages were treated. There are allegations that the non-Muslims present were not given food and water during the siege and were injured and left to suffer. Perhaps this extra detail suggests the attackers were more perverted than they would have been if they had been government stooges.
Whoever led the Bakery attack, it does not seem to have gone to plan for the Government. Twenty people were killed in the rescue attempt, which makes the rescue forces look incompetent and the tactic of sending in troops so quickly a misjudgement. Most of whom are thought to be non-Bangladeshi nationals, which will make international business think twice about investing in the country – hardly an outcome the Government was looking for. A number of sources are suggesting that Italian nationals are among the dead – perhaps between three and ten people. It has been suggested that they were involved in the garment trade, upon which Bangladesh relies so heavily. The Government would not want to see the all-important Italian garment companies pulling back from investment, which would saddle it with more domestic problems.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spoke out after the siege was over, referring to it as a “heinous act”. She condemned the attackers, saying, “What kind of Muslims are these people? They don’t have any religion.” She pledged that her government will “root out terrorism and militancy from Bangladesh.” Words are easy – what will happen to bring this commitment into effect is less clear.