Bangladesh Dhaka hostage crisis highlights burgeoning militant influence
On 1 July, Islamist militants killed 20 people at the Holey Artisan Bakery restaurant in the upscale Gulshan neighbourhood in central Dhaka. A group of six armed individuals entered the restaurant at approximately 2120hrs, opening fire at customers. Police attempted to enter the restaurant to confront the gunmen shortly after the incident began, but were forced to retreat amid heavy resistance from the attackers. Following a 12-hour standoff, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) commandos stormed the restaurant, killing six attackers and arresting one other. Security personnel seized a number of improvised explosive devices and AK-22 assault rifles from the scene.
The majority of the victims were foreigners, including Italian, South Korean, Indian and Japanese nationals. Police report that Bangladeshi nationals were not harmed by the attackers during the siege, while foreign hostages were forced to forgo food and tested on their knowledge of the Koran. Those who were unable to recite Koranic verses are reported to have been tortured, before being killed.
The concerted targeting of foreign nationals underscores the expanding threat and complexity of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh. The attack comes amid a recent spate of deadly attacks targeting some 40 individuals deemed by extremists to be hostile towards Islam, including secular bloggers, members of religious minorities and police officers. While these attacks have typically involved low-tech tactics, usually carried out by individuals or small groups of militants using bladed weapons or small arms, the nature of the Holey Artisan Bakery attack indicates a strong degree of orchestration. In turn, the planning required to obtain weapons, bypass stringent security measures in Gulshan and repulse attempts by security personnel to breach the restaurant, indicates external operational support. Moreover, the attackers were largely from affluent backgrounds, rather than the perceived reality that militants tend to be poor and uneducated.
Despite a subsequent claim of responsibility by Islamic State (IS) and the release of images by an official IS media outlet apparently showing the attackers, all South Asian nationals, photographed alongside IS flag, the Bangladeshi authorities have repeatedly asserted that IS does not have an operational presence in the country. The Hasina administration has instead attributed the attack, as with previous attacks, to domestic militant groups, including members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). It has also used the issue of militancy to crackdown on the political opposition over the past several months, seemingly in denial about the extremist threat in Bangladesh. This will serve to narrow the space for dissent, allowing Islamist groups to exploit perceived oppression.