This is not, of course, the first time that violence has left the administration shaken and stirred. But in the past decade, Islamist fundamentalism has reared it's ugly head and acquired positively sinister overtones.
Despite repeated denials of the presence of Islamic State or its affiliates in the country by the powers that be, the chilling nature of last Friday's attack seems to suggest otherwise. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal have for months brushed aside reports of the presence of IS in Bangladesh, to a point where the former has described such reports as an attempt to discredit her government while the latter has rather inadvertently let it be known that all Islamist acts of violence have actually been isolated incidents.
The attack on Holey Artisan Restaurant, a café which largely catered to expats and well-heeled Bengalis in a swanky residential region of Dhaka drew widespread global condemnation. The fact that the IS has already claimed responsibility for the attack, which left 20 killed and many more injured, is a vindication of the long-held feeling that Islamist elements have spread their tentacles in the country.
But the current dispensation headed by Sheikh Hasina as well as the earlier regime led by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have been in a denial mode. Between 2001 and 2006, when Islamist terror first began to manifest itself, Khaleda Zia’s government refused to accept that religious militancy was slowly taking roots in the country.
The statistics are alarming. In the last two years and more, as many as 49 people have been murdered by Islamist fanatics. Bloggers, writers, publishers, Hindus, Christians, two foreign citizens, and secular Muslims have died in targeted attacks by Islamists wielding guns and machetes and operating in ways that have become a pattern: Almost every attack on individuals has been carried out by three men riding a motorbike before making good their escape.
The storming of the cafe, however, is a marked change in approach. That was not entirely unexpected, given that in recent months outfits like IS and al Qaeda have threatened to treat Bangladesh as a base for launching terror operations against India and Pakistan. It was a threat which the government took a little too lightly.
The impunity of the attack smack in the middle of Dhaka’s diplomatic hub was meant to send out a powerful message. How a bunch of attackers managed to sneak into a highly protected zone and carry out such a brazen attack points to glaring inadequacies in the security set-up. The Islamist attack on Friday raises fears of similar attacks in the future. Religious militancy is alive and kicking. The government needs to wake up.