Why you should care
Because no one wants a wake-up call like this.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. She writes about business and development in the subcontinent.
It was a space like no other in Dhaka. I entered through tall wooden gates and then through a door that led to a beautiful private bungalow. Ivy covered its facade, and it had a lush, large front lawn. A couple of children ran around a dog that lolled on the grass.
The Holey Artisan Bakery was a magical little haven in a chaotic, busy city of 17 million famous for its never-ending traffic jams. Located in the the very posh neighborhood of Gulshan, the restaurant was a five-minute walk from my hotel. It would become a bloody graveyard soon after my visit: On a Friday night during Ramadan, at least five armed young men attacked the restaurant. They killed 20 hostages, mostly foreigners, hacking many to death with machetes. The siege lasted 12 hours and ended when the army stormed the restaurant and killed the attackers.
Dhaka remains shocked and stunned. After all, Gulshan, which is home to several embassies, was supposed to be placid and safe. Yet, in retrospect, that made it an obvious soft target: Where else to attack but in a supposedly safe haven for wealthy foreigners?
Indeed, expatriates and locals, including Dhaka’s über-rich, lead two distinct lives, which might intertwine in the workplace but not necessarily outside. While I fell in love with Holey Artisan Bakery on sight, it was also strange. Apart from the staff, I was the only brown person there, and the only one dressed in local garb. The timing was more uncomfortable. After all, it was Ramadan, and having a brunch meeting in a country where most people are fasting felt, to me, disrespectful.
The space itself was small and intimate, with wooden tables close enough to say hello to the friends you might see across the room. Or you might see them at the attached bakery, where you could buy freshly baked bread or croissants. The menu was similar to the best brunch anywhere in New York — good coffee, waffles, poached eggs with salmon that came with a special sauce. (When my Indian palate wanted more of that sauce, the chef was not pleased.)
ISIS hasn’t sent anyone from Syria. There are Bengalis here who are getting recruited.
Kazi Anis Ahmed, publisher
We live in a world where terror attacks are fairly common. And yet Dhaka had been in denial about one on its home turf. This despite the fact that since 2015 alone, more than 30 people, mostly secularists and minorities, have been hacked to death in the country by unknown extremists. While there was talk of ISIS influencing some of the attacks, the government instead blamed the country’s domestic fundamentalists. That myth was blown apart during the bakery siege, with ISIS taking credit for the killings. And, in a knockback to the Dhaka milieu, three of the attackers had upper-class backgrounds; they came from a class that might patronize Holey Artisan Bakery.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the suspected local arm for ISIS, and the one that aims to recruit upper-class boys, has been officially present in Bangladesh since 2000. It was banned in 2009, yet there has been evidence of its continuing activism in the country, says Kazi Anis Ahmed, a Bangladeshi writer and publisher of the Dhaka Tribune and the Bangla Tribune. “The link to ISIS is real and cannot be denied,” Ahmed says. “ISIS hasn’t sent anyone from Syria. There are Bengalis here who are getting recruited.”
As for the other two attackers, they have the more predictable profile. Poor and from the countryside, they were typical recruits of Bangladesh’s domestic terror outfits: Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a banned Islamic fundamentalist organization; the Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative, Islamic party opposed to Bangladesh’s 1971 separation from Pakistan; and Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing Shibir, known for vicious, cadre-type work, and which pioneered machete-style killings in the ’90s.
The flip side to all of this is that the West, including the U.S., underestimates the potency of local groups. “It’s unlikely that ISIS, bombarded to hell in Syria, could set anything up this far away if existing outfits didn’t see profit in the publicity they get by linking up with it,” says Ahmed. Domestic attacks spiked only after the first Jamaat leader was hanged in 2013 for crimes committed in the 1971 war. Many in Bangladesh believe that by not recognizing the potentially dark underbelly of these political parties, Western countries are adding to the problem.
“Now people have to go into bunker mode here,” says Ahmed. “Everyone who always believed in, and hoped for, a secular Bangladesh feels like they’re in a losing battle now. It’s a really big turning point for Bangladesh, July 1.”