There were many who saw Bangladesh as a lost case in the fight against the new jihadi wave, specially after the July 1, 2016, attack on the upscale Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. Twenty-two diners, including 18 foreigners, were mercilessly killed by the Islamist radicals during the 12-hour siege before the army broke through and killed the terrorists. The attack followed five years of radical Islamist violence, in which an increasing number of publishers, bloggers, writers and even folk singers, who were seen as symbol of the syncretic Bengali culture, were killed at their homes or workplaces. The attacks on these symbols of Bengali nationalism were complimented by the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami’s massive street violence to topple an elected Awami League government. The Holey Artisan raid, with the five radicals pronouncing their ISIS credentials, seemed like the high point of a counter-revolution, an undoing of the 1971 Liberation War values that made Bangladesh’s emergence possible.
But Bangladesh and its government fought back with as much determination to root out terror as it has displayed in the pursuit of economic growth. Within three months after the murderous strike at Holey Artisan, Bangladesh’s counterterrorism grid neutralised some of the top guns of Islamist militancy. As Bangladesh’s fightback gained momentum, despite many shortcomings in capabilities, the serial jihadi attacks against bloggers, publishers, writers and religious minorities have also dwindled. Finally, Bangladesh seems to have got it right – strike the big heads and the grassroots violence will drop.
The first real success came 26 days after the Gulshan café attack. A police SWAT team neutralised nine activists of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) – the group responsible for the attack, in a raid at Dhaka’s Kalyanpur. They included Raihan Kabir, who is said to have trained the Gulshan attackers, and two others, US citizen Shehzad Rauf Arka, grandson of the first chief of Bangladesh spy agency DGFI, and Akifuzzaman Khan, grandson of Monaem Khan, the governor of East Pakistan.
A month later, on August 27, security forces raided a JMB hideout at Paikpara in the river port town of Narayanganj. They called out the occupants of the hideout to surrender, but the jihadis fought back. Only after identifying those who died in the encounter did police realise the jackpot they had hit. Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, chief of the ‘neo-JMB’, lay dead with two of his close lieutenants.
The Canadian-Bangladeshi national had become the poster boy of the post-2013 jihad in Bangladesh (like Burhan Wani in Kashmir) and his hardline JMB faction (described in Bangladesh media as ‘neo-JMB’) had become the flag-bearer of Islamic State in Bangladesh. The July 1 attack on Gulshan café was masterminded by Tamim and his men. Sporting Arab headgear and flying the Islamic State flag struck hard at the very sensibilities that makes Bangladesh what it essentially is – a Bengali nation. Unlike Kashmir, most in Bangladesh actually heaved a sigh of relief with Tamim dead.
Within another week, police and Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) units neutralised the hardline JMB faction’s northern region commander Khalid Hassan alias Badar Mama and, more importantly, its military wing chief retired army major Zahidul Islam. In early September, as Bangladesh prepared to celebrate Eid-ul-Azha, police managed to eliminate Tanvir Qaderi, who had taken charge of the neo-JMB faction after Tamim’s death. Qaderi, a top banker, and his wife Fatima who worked for Save the Children, had joined JMB after performing Hajj in 2014. RAB also claims they foiled a plot by Ansarullah Bangla Team to free their chief Jashimuddin Rahmani from the top security Kashimpur prison.
Islamic State, claiming responsibility for many of the jihadi attacks, have suddenly gone silent on Bangladesh. While it could partly be due to the setbacks suffered by them in their core base area of Iraq and Syria, it reminds me of what a top HuJI leader once told me after his painful experience in the Afghan jihad: “Bengali Muslims are treated as cannon fodder, we are always suspect because we are seen as the only Muslims in the world which broke up an Islamic nation.”
Over the past five years since it was taken aback by the Holey Artisan bakery raid, Bangladesh’s determined fightback against terror has restored investor confidence. Japan, which was shaken by the murder of six of its citizens in the July 1 strike and one before that in northern Bangladesh, was worried over continuing projects. Five years after the attack, it has continued all its projects, including the prestigious Dhaka Metro Rail. All other development partners, including India, have continued funding their infrastructure projects. Hasina’s “zero-tolerance against terror” is no cliche. A former FBI counter-terrorism chief told me two years ago that Bangladesh’s success against terror is commendable because it is achieved with such limited resources.
After the JMB, HUJI and Ansarullah groups were tamed, the radical Hifazat-e-Islam hit the streets, with full support of BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, many of whose leaders found place in the new Hifazat committee. Hifazat ran a series of violent street agitations, starting from violent protests against installation of Mujib statues to those against France’s crackdown on Muslim radicals to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the country, during which they burnt down several government offices and even a music academy housed in the ancestral residence of the great musician Alauddin Khan. But the strikeback against Hifazat has also been fierce and determined with more than 40 top functionaries, including their poster boy Mamunul Huq, arrested and charged with a host of criminal charges. Before his arrest, Mamunul was exposed sleeping with a lady he claimed to be his second wife, who denied the marriage. A Facebook post by Awami League women wing leader Ayesha Zaman Shimu with a picture of a pro-Hifazat maulana caught in a sexual act with a child marked the ruling party’s social media riposte against the rabid radical social media campaign of Jamaat-e-Islami’s Bansherkella FB group.
The party’s social media campaign, orchestrated by its rather efficient Centre for Research and Innovation, complements the government’s fight against terror because it runs a subtle ‘hearts-and-minds’ campaign focused on the very Bengali values of the 1971 Liberation War. Two local heroes of Holey Artisan attack who stood up to the terrorists exemplify the spirit of the country. Art Gallery owner Ishrat Akhound Nila shot back at the terrorists when challenged why she was not wearing the hijab as a Muslim. “We did not liberate this country to put on hijab,” were her last words before she was mowed down. Faraaz Hossain, grandson of Bangladesh’s media magnate Latifur Rahman, died fighting with bare hands as he tried to save his Indian lady friend Tarushi Jain. Those who run down Bangladesh and see it as an another Islamic nation should remember the heroism of Nila and Faraaz to defend the very Bengali values for which they died bravely. The fightback against Islamist terror is inspired by that spirit.
But the success of Bangladesh’s anti-jihadist campaign depends much on Indian support, especially from states like Bengal and Assam, which have served as a sanctuary for Islamist radicals from across the border. Bangladeshi and Indian intelligence officials claim that Bengal and Assam are seen by Bangladeshi jihadi groups as their ‘critical backyard zone’ that would help survival and regrouping when the going gets real tough in Bangladesh. JMB and HUJI survived and regrouped in Bengal and Assam after the fierce anti-jihadi crackdown following Sheikh Hasina’s coming to power in 2009. Now that her government is piling on pressure again, the jihadis are sure to seek shelter across the border. That is where India needs to get its act together. States like Bengal and Assam must deny the jihadis safe haven in India. And instead of berating Bangladesh as a ‘land of hungry migrants’, Home Minister Amit Shah should get his agencies focused on the spillover into
India of Bangladesh’s fierce anti-terror campaign.
Subir Bhaumik is a veteran BBC and Reuters Correspondent and author of five books on South Asian conflicts