Dhaka attack: IS or JmB? Experts weigh in

By the time the dust settled in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter on Saturday, the Islamic State (IS) had already claimed responsibility for the gruesome attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery — an establishment which was reportedly popular with the city’s expat community.

In the wake of the carnage, the Bangladesh government was quick to deny the IS’ claimed involvement in the attack, which left 20 hostages and six terrorists dead.

Instead, the country’s home minister, Asaduzzaman Khan, categorically denied any presence of the IS or Al-Qaeda on Bangladeshi soil and held “home-grown terrorists” responsible for the attack.

In particular, the minister blamed the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JmB) for the attack.

Bangladesh Prime Minister’s adviser on international affairs Gowher Rizvi also spoke along similar lines, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the JmB.

Despite these statements, chilling photographs of five of the seven attackers emerged, showing the smiling young men holding assault rifles, with the IS flag in the background.

The profile of the victims – a disparate group comprising an Indian student, nine Italians, seven Japanese, one American of Bangladeshi origin and two Bangladeshis – and the recent spate of increasingly bloody attacks for which the IS has claimed responsibility have left nations, in the region and beyond, concerned over whether the 12-hour hostage crisis, which unfolded in Bangladesh, does indeed represent the opening shots of the IS’ campaign in the region.

Whodunit

As of now, the Bangladesh government has been clear in its stand that the attack was carried out by domestic terrorists and without any involvement of the IS.

Ajai Sahni, executive director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal, agrees.

An unidentified security personnel is taken for medical attention after a group of gunmen attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in a diplomatic zone of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. An unidentified security personnel is taken for medical attention after a group of gunmen attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in a diplomatic zone of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Sahni argues that the Bangladesh government’s consistent denials of the presence of any international terrorist outfit in the country, particularly the IS and Al-Qaeda, have been dismissed by commentators who have displayed a preference for “hysteria over reality”.

According to Sahni, claims that a particular group is either affiliated to or represents the IS are not enough to prove that the IS has considerable presence in the country. Instead, Sahni says that any such claimed affiliation or representation would only hold value if it was accompanied by an evident “transfer of resources, technologies, fighters, know-how and training”. He says it would be better to hold out for proof of some operational linkages between home-grown Bangladeshi terrorist outfits and the IS, before reaching a conclusion.

Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution Bruce Riedel, however, believes that the IS’ claim holds merit.

According to Riedel, who joined Brookings after 30 years of service at the Central Intelligence Agency, there is no reason to doubt the IS’ claim of responsibility for the Dhaka attack. “They have a track record of accurate claims and have offered photographic evidence of their involvement,” he adds.

“Nor is there reason to question whether JmB is working alongside the IS,” states Riedel.

The photographs, in question, might be conclusive proof of IS’ involvement for many, but Sahni does not agree.

Sahni insists that what might appear to be clinching evidence – the fact that the attackers sent pictures from the site of the attack itself to a private IS-linked e-mail account during their operation, and the fact that the pictures were immediately uploaded – might not hold up to a proper scrutiny.

According to him, this is, in fact, a case of the IS being opportunistic in having made quick use of the photographs sent to it by the attackers. Sahni argues that these were “one-way communications” and that available Intelligence suggests that prior to the attack, there had been no contact between the attackers, who stormed the bakery on Friday, and the IS command.

A policeman keep watch as a Japanese convoy drives, as relatives of victims of an attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O’Kitchen Restaurant, visited the site, in Dhaka A policeman keep watch as a Japanese convoy drives, as relatives of victims of an attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O’Kitchen Restaurant, visited the site, in DhakaNo legitimacy for independent jihad organisations

The IS, for its part, has been taking credit for the spate of brutal attacks perpetrated against secularists, atheists, liberal bloggers and expats in Bangladesh.

In November of last year, even as Parisians were coming to terms with the carnage left behind by a series of coordinated attacks by the IS in their city, the outfit, in question, was sizing up its operations in an altogether different part of the world.

The November 18, 2015, issue of Dabiq, the official mouthpiece of the IS, celebrated the outfit’s attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian passenger plane over the northern Sinai region of Egypt.

In the same edition, there was one particular article which dealt with “Bengal”.

Titled The Revival of Jihad in Bengal, the article claimed that members of various home-grown and indigenous terrorist outfits in Bangladesh have united under the banner of the IS.

The article was not particularly charitable towards these home-grown organisations, labelling them misguided and fragmented. However, it did shower praise on the JmB and its ‘supreme commander’, the now-deceased Maulana Abdur Rahman.

The article credited the JmB with trying its “best to awaken the Muslim masses of Bengal to the importance of ruling by Sharia and the fundamentals of ‘Wala and Bara’ (loyalty and disavowal)”. However, despite its praise for the JmB, the article was clear that “there was no room for blind partisanship towards any organisation once the ‘Khilafah’ had been declared and that there was no longer legitimacy for any independent jihad organisation”. The article went on to claim that “sincere men” from various terrorist outfits in the country “rushed” to support the Khilafah and join the ranks of its “soldiers in Bengal”.

“They united their ranks behind a single Qurayshi imam (Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi) and did not fear the blame of the blamers who chose to remain behind, those who blindly held to organisations that had claimed ‘Mullah Omar was the true Amir al-Mu’minin’ (Commander of the Faithful), although he had been dead for years,” proclaimed the article.

While the IS might claim leadership of these outfits, Sahni thinks that the situation on the ground might be different.

He states that what is happening in Bangladesh is that while “factions or elements within existing domestic terrorist or radicalised groups” have been announcing a “transfer of their loyalty” to the IS, there is no change in their activities. “There is no augmentation of capacities or of resources,” he claims.

According to Sahni, the reality is that Sheikh Hasina’s government has “decimated” the leadership of Islamist terrorist outfits in the country.

The JmB, in fact, lost most of its senior leadership close to a decade ago. In March of 2007, Rahman and his second-in-command, along with four other leaders of the outfit, were executed after being found guilty of having been involved in the killing of two judges in the Jhalakathi district of southern Bangladesh.

Sahni argues that weakened fragments of these outfits have found little support for their domestic agenda in their attempts to regroup. Consequently, Sahni posits that these surviving elements hope to improve their “capacities for local mobilisation” by identifying with global jihadist organisations. Further, he says that the western media and political leaderships are only aiding these outfits by accepting such claims of affiliation at face value. “They are offering vast quantities of the oxygen of publicity to tiny and marginalised groupings,” he adds.

People attend a candle light vigil for the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O’Kitchen Restaurant, in Dhaka People attend a candle light vigil for the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O’Kitchen Restaurant, in Dhaka“Wolf pack”

But, what do we make of this sudden escalation?

For Shafqat Munir, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, the attack indicates that a certain threshold has now been crossed by the individuals or groups involved. He cautions that the security agencies of the land should not be complacent if there is a lull and there are no further attacks for some time, it does not in any way indicate that the threat has subsided.

He states that experts had been forecasting that the targeted killings would not be the end of the story and that the sharp escalation does not come as a surprise.

“We must take into account the fact that the threat of terrorism in Bangladesh has been elevated or high since the end of September 2015. Every week there has been some attack. During one period, in April, there where five attacks in a span of eight days,” says Munir, adding, “We all had the signs, we all had the signals that an escalation was coming, but none of us could envisage the specific form the threat would take.”

Further, Munir warns that once a certain quantum of audacity has been displayed by a certain group, it is likely to aim for greater escalation. “It is incumbent upon us to find out what those new escalation points could be,” he adds.

Riedel, however, blames this escalation on the IS. “The attacks in Dhaka and Istanbul demonstrated the IS can also strike outside the Arab World,” he states.

“Both attacks used teams of terrorists determined to die for their cause, which is far more dangerous than the so called ‘lone wolf’ attacks like the one in Orlando,” he adds.

Riedel has a term for such attacks, “wolf-pack attacks”, and he says that they are an emerging IS trademark.

He believes that the attacks in Paris and Brussels were the first instances of such attacks.

“In Bangladesh, ‘wolf-pack attacks’ are an escalation from assassinations,” he explains.

To Sahni, however, the escalation does not represent the hand of the IS. He argues that such capabilities – employing small arms and explosives, and perpetrating a major terrorist incident – have long existed within Bangladesh’s terrorist outfits.

“Bangladesh has long been a major transit route for the smuggling of small arms and explosives into India’s troubled Northeast, and is domestically awash with such weapons,” he states, adding that many of the terrorist attacks perpetrated on Indian soil have had some links to Bangladesh, particularly involving the “Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami Bangladesh, often in collaboration with Pakistani formations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, among others, as well as with the Indian Mujahideen”.

For Sahni, the escalation seen in the Dhaka attack represents a “degree of recovery” by small cells belonging to domestic organisations, which had previously been hit hard by what Sahni sees as “sweeping measures” initiated under Sheikh Hasina’s rule.

Munir agrees that certain outfits, especially the JmB, have seen resurgence.

“Following the decimation of its top leadership in 2007, the outfit went into hibernation. However, it has reemerged and is seeing resurgence. We have to take a fresh look at its structure and activities,” he warns.

Tarishi Jain was hacked to death by militants in terror attack at the Dhaka restaurant. Photo: Facebook Tarishi Jain was hacked to death by militants in terror attack at the Dhaka restaurant. Photo: Facebook Munir describes how the JmB is a different organisation altogether in the current day and age. For starters, Munir says, the outfit no longer has an iconic leader heading it; there is no particular individual of significance who the JmB cadre owe their allegiance to. Secondly, he explains that the organisation is no longer confined to the northern and northwestern regions of Bangladesh.

“They are more nebulous, more decentralised, and more spread across the country. Since 2008, the group has made a concerted effort to acquire more manpower – not necessarily rural or madrasa-educated, but from urban centres and possibly possessing tertiary education – and to work on its ability to communicate strategically, going from crude posters to becoming a technology savvy organisation,” says Munir, adding, “Earlier, their capabilities were much lower. Yes, they did perpetrate the serial blasts of 2005, which involved more than 460 explosive devices spread across the country, but they were employing crude and low-powered improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They were essentially trying to consolidate their position and let the government know of their presence.”

The JmB, for its part, has indeed not been complacent. Munir describes how in February of 2014, the outfit snatched two of its more high-value operatives from custody, including its IED expert — who operates under the nom de guerre ‘Bomber Mizan’.

Further, Munir explains that one of the major force multipliers for the outfit came when they were able to establish some modules in India. “When we look at their official literature, from as far back as 2004-5, we can see that this was something that they were contemplating. In one of their official communiqués, they declared that they would be establishing their 65th unit in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal, with the other 64 units being in the 64 districts of Bangladesh.”

Influence and inspiration, not operational control

In the article from the November edition of the Dabiq, the IS also claimed responsibility for the killings of Italian citizen Cesare Tavella and Japanese citizen Kunio Hoshi in Bangladesh.

Tavella, in fact, was killed on the “streets of Gulshan”, the same area where the bakery attack took place, according to the article.

More worrisome is the fact that the statement of purpose made in the article was eerily similar to the modus operandi of the Holey Artisan Bakery attackers — specifically targeting foreigners in Bangladesh.

Referring to the attacks on Tavella and Hoshi, the article says that they have “once again proven to the arrogant ‘Crusader’ nations that from Tunisia to ‘Bengal’, their crusader citizens will never enjoy any peace or security” in any Muslim country.

The April 2016 edition, which, among other things, celebrated a deceased IS fighter from Bangladesh, also carried an interview with Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, who the IS describes as the leader of the “Khilafah’s soldiers in Bengal”.

In the interview, al-Hanif described the region of “Bengal” as an important strategic base for spreading jihad into India and Myanmar. Upon being asked about the Hindu community in India and Bangladesh, he replied that Islamic law could not be implemented in the country until “the local Hindus are targeted in mass numbers”. He added that it was essential for the IS to create a state of polarisation in the region, dividing the “believers and the disbelievers”.

Such statements might have no direct correlation to the attacks that followed and Bangladesh has seen attacks on the Hindu minority before — when members of the community were targeted in a spate of attacks in 2013 and then again in 2014.

However, the attacks that did follow led the Hindu community in the country to ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take up the issue with the Bangladesh government and ensure their safety.

A Hindu priest was hacked to death by unidentified machete-wielding assailants on the day of the Dhaka attack. The incident followed in a line of such attacks, particularly against priests of the community. Another Hindu priest was critically injured, once again by unidentified machete-wielding assailants, a day later.

Army soldiers atop an armored military vehicle drive near the Holey Artisan restaurant after Islamist militants attacked the upscale cafe in Dhaka Army soldiers atop an armored military vehicle drive near the Holey Artisan restaurant after Islamist militants attacked the upscale cafe in Dhaka Sahni sees this as the IS opportunistically piggy-backing on recent attacks against particular sections of the society, a trend which predates the announcements made by the IS in the November issue of the Dabiq.

Munir, for his part, contends that the IS is throwing out ideas which could influence certain groups or more susceptible audiences.

Munir says it is important to find out how the local terrorist outfits in Bangladesh are reacting to the messages being put out by the IS, wherein perhaps they are taking their inspiration, if not marching orders, from such pronouncements. “Terrorists groups do not work in isolation and are always looking out for signals and ideas,” he adds.

Of vital importance, according to Munir, is a properly formulated counter-narrative. He states that this war definitely needs to be fought in the ideological space.

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Dhaka attack: IS or JmB? Experts weigh in

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