Terror in Dhaka: Has the Isis Threat Travelled from Europe to Gates of India

Issues Details: 
Vol 10 Issue-3 Jul - Aug 2016
Page No.: 
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Is IS knocking at the doors of the subcontinent? An in-depth and candid appraisal of the recent terrorist killings in Dhaka and how alarmingly and imperviously the scourge of terror has been rising in Bangladesh and its grave implications for India
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Saturday, July 23, 2016

As pictures of the Dhaka terror outrage appeared repeatedly on the visual media in early July competing theories emerged about who was responsible for the carnage. Was it one organization, a dubious alliance or an informal morphing for respective advantage? Perceptions of the ISIS (Daesh) threat reaching India through Bangladesh   went viral forcing a string of assessments pointing to the inevitability of Daesh targeting India. Conclusions on social media, which empowers every rookie to be an expert, point to the connections between Istanbul, Dhaka, Medina and Baghdad as a message from Daesh that it was not down and out from the international theatre of terror, especially after the military defeat at Fallujah.

 I am therefore forced to revisit an earlier hypothesis of mine on the problem of terrorism in Bangladesh and its potential connect with India.  Terror is not new to Bangladesh but the type of carnage witnessed at the restaurant at Gulshan has never been seen before. 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 radical forces, there has been considerable consternation among the radical elements.

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. These terror organizations have a clear political intent and invariably bandwagon on existing standoffs between stakeholders. This has been played out by the targeting of liberals and bloggers who support secular and liberal ideology, a few foreigners 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 or Daesh. The targeting of the minority community is obviously with an intent to provoke backlash in India.

In Nov 2015 the situation came to a head when the foreign media started to endorse the belief of some in Bangladesh that it was indeed Daesh 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 Nov 2015 at the invitation of the Bangladesh Army. There was much interest in the Dhaka security community to listen to an Indian strategic analyst. My observations revealed that whoever was behind the attacks was selectively choosing targets with the intent of causing panic, discredit the government and project a foreign  hand as the sponsor. Bangladesh appeared to be turning the tide in terms of development. With a focus on improving its economy and lifting its teeming millions from poverty Bangladesh’s success story appeared imminent. This is obviously not palatable to some who wish to see it pegged at old rates of growth and poverty. There had been one or two violent 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. Gulshan is a posh enclave but it is not like Chanakyapuri of New Delhi. It has its back alleys and narrow roads too, all well-guarded. However, the age old belief remains that determined terrorists, willing to die for their skewed cause, can always find chinks in security. It is intelligence more than security which prevents such acts.

The Daesh connection perplexed me. Skipping Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, where the efforts were primarily at recruitment what would Daesh hope to achieve through mayhem 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 Daesh is deeply involved in Bangladesh it may appear that the group is attempting to display its international reach. From Paris to Brussels to Istanbul, Daesh 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 potential areas to which some of the Daesh leadership could move if militarily displaced from Iraq and Syria. The conditions in Libya also support its presence and in this region a displaced Daesh could survive with relative ease. However, efforts in Afghanistan have not succeeded and in Pakistan it could just be commencing its approach with many of the splinter groups to bandwagon upon. Bangladesh fits nowhere in the realm of the strategic buildup of Daesh except a public relations effort to project its enhancing reach.

It can yet be conjecture, as it was in Nov 2015. 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 JeI Bangla badly needed a fillip. Daesh 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, Holey Artisan Bakery near Gulshan in Dhaka has succeeded in attracting international attention. Even Al Qaida in South Asia has claimed it which makes various claims appear dubious. It however, achieves the aims of both, Daesh and the radical groups although Daesh’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. The unconfirmed information on 16 young Muslims missing from Kerala also appears to point in the same direction.

The ISI connection is obviously not based on any evidence but critical analysis of interests and intent. Using Daesh as cover for promoting its own interests is very much possible. Disturbed conditions in India’s North East will always contribute to ISI effectiveness in overall strategy. The latent presence of radicals with allegiance to Pakistan is something Bangladesh has been speaking of for long.

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 terrorists were neutralized with some firm decision making by the Prime Minister who had the trust in her Army and decided to call it in immediately. The Army read the situation well. There was no question of negotiating with terrorists who would obviously not release innocents they had taken into custody. It was necessary to act immediately and act they did, very decisively.

How does this affect India? One should recall that AQ hardly succeeded in wooing Indians and this was noticed by the world. The world has moved on since then and Political Islam’s influence has enhanced manifold. Daesh’s attraction is of a different kind. Its nihilistic philosophy somehow appeals to base instincts of some and its slick social media advertising has been strangely attractive. India can therefore no longer depend on the strong value based moderate Islam followed by Indian Muslims. Yet, it is not as if the Indian Muslim community has suddenly turned in favor of Radical Islam. Such a presumption will upset the entire gains of the community in its path of mainstreaming. 

It may be Daesh or AQ but most distinctively it also carries a stamp of ISI backing. That is where the Indian connection comes in. We may be seen to be obsessed with the ISI but surely with such evil networks around us India had better be prepared for a ‘big one’ which could be around the corner. Our intelligence agencies have done yeoman service in thwarting efforts at targeting India; especially since 26/11 Mumbai attacks. However, the real solution appears to lie in ensuring a lasting and focused

de-radicalization and counter radicalization program to offset any empathy for foreign radical organizations. The clergy has to be co-opted to provide a more reasonable, contextual and rational interpretation of faith. From what we view on television such a clergy is far from available. Countries such as Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have established networks for developing a modern clergy which imparts religious education which is moderate and expresses views publicly which can be the attraction for today’s youth.

The situation in India in terms of radicalization is not yet critical. However, a policy of drift is the last thing which can do any good to the situation. Moderate Muslims are reluctant to come forward and social media sees very few such voices expressing their opinion or urging moderation. Muslim icons need to involve much more. However, more than anything else two issues which need to be seriously looked are the growing number of young Muslims in custody awaiting investigation or judicial process for anti-national activity. Many are proved innocent and their cases become the trigger for more antipathy against the state. Any effort to improve the lot of Muslim youth and mainstream them is often looked upon as vote bank creation. This trend needs to be arrested to give more confidence to minority youth.

Social media is a menace when it comes to disaffected people. It gives a chance to form virtual clubs exchanging vitriolic views. It is not late yet to commence alternative narratives through mainstream media where there seem to be more efforts at rabble rousing than national integration. Many times an ‘us versus them’ syndrome appears more evident than any conscious effort at integration.

If a truly sincere effort at changing the narrative is indeed looked at there is no national level body which can guide and implement this. For the nth time,  I am suggesting the formation of a National Strategic Communication Body which can ideate on the need of the hour, evolve strategies and implement them through tasking of various ministries and institutions. Daesh may not be at India’s doorstep but quite obviously such a huge minority Muslim segment is vulnerable. Even if one percent is involved in anything anti-national it will be catastrophic for our security and therefore for our economic growth which is hugely dependent on stability.