For those jumping to conclusions about the perpetrator of the Dhaka terror attacks, here is the truth. These boys who hacked, slashed and shot down the foreigners and some Bangladeshis (including my dear sister Ishrat Khound) were not Arabs or Afghans, they were local boys, who were intensely radicalised and then inducted into a new jihadi tanzeem called ‘Islamic State of Bangladesh’.
This group is run by expat Bangladeshis and six of their leaders were caught two months ago in Singapore for “planning a massive attack to destabilise the country”. The Singaporeans shared the details with the Bangladesh intelligence and alerted them.
India’s RAW also alerted Dhaka on the possibility of an attack in the Gulshan diplomatic zone targeting foreigners, but Bangladesh intelligence and police did not take the necessary steps.
I am reminded of the rundown to Mumbai 2008; RAW giving three advisories as many months before the attack but then National Security Adviser M K Narayanan not paying due heed to them. Result is we are caught napping when Kasab and gang turn up in Mumbai by sea and unleash mayhem.
Bengalis have a tradition for such highly motivated political action but their capacity for regular combat has always been limited and weapons they have used are much less sophisticated than Northeast Indian insurgents, not to speak global jihadis.
I am reminded of the Naxalites of 1971 who fought the police in Calcutta’s streets with bombs and pipeguns, highly motivated ideologically but poorly trained and equipped for combat. This tradition goes back to the revolutionaries of my grandfather’s generation who bombed British administrators and killed so many of them. Don’t you ever forget Bagha Jatin (the centenary of whose martyrdom fell in 2015) who when encircled by British police fought to death.
These jihadis are also Bengalis at the end of the day and though their philosophy and world view has been badly polluted, they have it in them to stand and fight to death. They killed a lot of
innocents including Ishrat Akhound, who owned a Dhaka art gallery and had a very successful career in human resources management. She was a sweet lady, but determined not to put on hijab when asked by the jihadis, hence they shot her.
So much like the jihadis who could have escaped at night after killing the foreigners but who did not flee so that they could die a martyr’s death (because Bangladesh security forces are ruthless with these jihadis, usually they would never get a trial but be shot in some fake encounter Bangladeshis love calling “crossfire”). Ishrat also stood her ground and refused the hijab, a true blue blooded Bengali aristocrat.
The Dhaka episode represents a colossal intelligence failure. Planning an attack like this (and now that it is clearly established these were local jihadis) would mean recce of multiple sites, selection of the assault team, coordination between multiple modules of the terror group, meaning a lot of “extremist chatter” on mobile and cyber space, unless the terrorists are using physical couriers for communication.
Failure to pick up a lead in the run-up to such an attack is disappointing. It points to lack of intelligence penetration into jihadi networks, especially those that emerged, apparently, after the Shahbagh movement in 2013.
A comparison to Mumbai 2008 is obvious. The RAW had warned the Indian government at least thrice but former National Security Adviser M K Narayanan allegedly overlooked them. So the intelligence did not miss the impending threat to Mumbai; the man at the helm missed the leads provided by his sleuths because, as a former Intelligence Bureau chief involved in turf wars with RAW, his natural inclination was to ignore the RAW. No wonder, Narayanan paid the price along with Home Minister Shivraj Patil after Mumbai 2008, and no heads rolled at RAW or IB.
In Bangladesh’s case, it may be too early to comment but I strongly suspect the agencies were busy tracking the ceaseless attacks on soft targets across the country in the past weeks.
Having said that, Bangladesh responded brilliantly to the crisis, much better than what the Indians had done in Pathankot in 2015 and Mumbai in 2008. It helps to have a clear chain of command in a non-federal country, the State-Centre tension in India creates a huge problem.
The Bangladesh police did what the Mumbai police had done: brave officers took on the terrorists on their own in a knee jerk reaction and some paid with their lives.
Then after a quick review, the Bangladeshi government decided on a full scale military assault. Knowing her instincts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a more decisive leader than Manmohan Singh (Indian PM during Mumbai) and authorised the para-commando assault without wasting time.
“Operation Thunderbolt” by the Bangladesh para-commandos was well-planned and the use of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to demolish the wall of the café creating a breach to let the commandos an easy entry was tactically smart.
The terrorists were easily neutralised if one were to go by the version of RAB Colonel Tuhin Masood who spoke at length during a television interview when I was on that panel. Several things are now clear.
* This was a suicide attack because the terrorists knew there was no getaway after the police had encircled them and tried to neutralise them immediately after the takeover.
* They did not try any escape after some killing but committed almost all the 20 murders within the night.
* They represent a home-grown Islamist terror group whose activists have very basic weapons training — they are high on ideological motivation, so killing 20 people within maybe a couple of hours, but they are poorly trained to take on the army or special forces in regular combat.
* This justifies their effort to seek maximum political impact by attacking soft targets like these foreigners in a café or some Hindu priest. Scaring foreigners may have an impact on Bangladesh economy by driving away possible investors or aid workers while killing Hindu priests will touch a raw nerve in India and complicate Delhi-Dhaka relations.
* They sent an Islamist message by sparing a Bangladeshi family because the wife had her hijab or head scarf on. So while an attack on foreigners is aimed at hitting Bangladesh’s development which is Hasina’s biggest card, the assault on Hindu priests attempts to undermine her relations with India.
And sparing a Bangladeshi with her hijab is to tell the country that if one pursued secular politics like the bloggers and publishers, they risked death from the jihadis.
Hasina’s declared stance on zero tolerance against terror and her decisive action should leave a few lessons for the indecisive mandarins in Delhi who delay and dither when a Kandahar or a Mumbai or a Pathankot happens.
But if Bangladesh has to win its war against terror, it needs quality intelligence. Or else, the people will witness nationwide crackdown with thousands of arrests and still suffer a Gulshan café style attack which helps the detractors raise serious questions about the government’s ability to fight terror, if not its intent.
The jihadi violence over the past two years is closely linked to the Islamist politics in Bangladesh. Failure to defeat Hasina’s secularist Awami League in two successive polls, even after massive street violence during which BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami supporters firebombed passenger buses and derailed trains by sabotaging tracks, has provoked the hardline Islamist fringe in the country to strike at the government by select assassination of carefully picked up soft targets, each to send out a message.
The new Islamist radical groups are very tightly organised, their cadres are not the usual madarsa types but well educated and radicalised by Internet propaganda, and some of their leaders are based abroad. Failure to penetrate them has led the police to launch massive crackdowns leading to huge number of arrests without any consequent impact on the striking ability of the jihadi tanzeems.
That is why a week after the nationwide crackdown following the murder of Hindu priests, the Dhaka terror strike could happen in the diplomatic zone of Gulshan where security is supposedly very tight.
India’s neighbouring states like Tripura, Bengal and Assam have to be particularly vigilant, not just to guard against the infiltration of some of these Bangladeshi jihadis (as dangerous as Arabs and Afghans) but also to prevent radicalisation of our Muslim young men.
Our governments should get community leaders on board, initiate de-radicalisation programmes, monitor internet traffic (hits on ISIS sites by our boys) and do what it takes to prevent a repeat of Dhaka café mayhem on our soil.
Loopholes and failures
*Experts say a strategic input was available with the intelligence – before the 2008 Mumbai blasts – and security agencies that crowded areas in the Metros could be targeted by terror groups. Yet, according to SD Pradhan, former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the intelligence agencies and the Mumbai Police failed to coordinate resulting in the blasts.
*Although terrorist financing is now a global concern, it is not until recently that the Bangladesh government has taken important initiatives to modernise the legal frameworks for combating money laundering and terrorist financing, which seem to have been failing time and again.
*The central Intelligence Bureau, the government’s cutting edge internal security tool, is ill-prepared to combat aggressive operations of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency, Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence and Islamist tanzeems.