Political Responses and Interventions to Dhaka Café Terror Attack: a Critical Perspective

The article will critically examine and explore the recent Dhaka café terror attack. It will specifically examine the role of the law enforcement agencies in handling the crisis and will question the effectiveness and appropriateness of law enforcers’ interventions. In addressing this issue, the key focus will remain whether the human rights of victims and perpetrators were respected (Masferrer and Walker, 2013; Ranstorp and Wilkinson, 2008). It will also look into the political responses of the mainstream political parties after the Dhaka café terror attack in order to evaluate whether or not the political responses helped in effectively dealing with the crisis and finding the roots of terrorism (Pedahzur and Weinberg, 2013; Weinberg, 2008).

Furthermore, it will briefly look into other terror attacks which took place in Bangladesh in the recent past and will also examine the popular political responses to those attacks. These events will be considered from a human rights perspective to develop a critical and in-depth contextual understanding of the country’s mainstream politics of terrorism (Stephens and Williams, 2010; Bjorgo, 2005 and Eubank and Weinberg, 2006). Finally, it will explore the psychosocial impact of the Dhaka café terror attack on the people of Bangladesh (Murray Parkes, 2013).

Brief description of the Dhaka Café Terror Attack

It is important to present readers with a brief description of the Dhaka café terror attack based on the available information published in different news sources. This will help readers to track the events, issues, responses and interventions related to the attack which will be critically examined (Manik et al. 2016; Hammadi et al. 2016; Islam, 2016; Dhaka tribune, 2016; BBC News, 2016 and Xinhua, 2016). It could be argued that ‘Terrorism’ in general and specifically the Dhaka café attack is one of the most debated and discussed issues in Bangladesh. It is important to note that the description of the terror attack has been limited due to lack of direct access to victims and the sensitivity of its nature. The only credible sources to build up a picture of the attack are different news sources which are mainly based on government and law enforcers’ narratives of the event; indeed, with very few narratives of the victims and a complete absence of the narrative of the perpetrators.

Terror Attack Narrative

According to media reports, the deadly terrorist attack on an unarmed international crowd at the Holey Artisan Bakery, which is known as a bustling café popular with expats and wealthy locals in Gulshan, the diplomatic zone in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh (BBC News, 2016). Political analysts note that, in Bangladesh’s history, this is the first terrorist attack of such a nature, which led to a hostage situation and involved an international crowd with the alleged direct involvement of the global terror outfit, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Hours of terror, uncertainty and fear

According to the media news, the hostage situation started at approximately 8.45 pm on the Friday, 1 July 2016 and ended at 1.39 pm on Saturday 2 July 2016 by the completion of ‘Operation Thunderbolt’, a special armed operation which was mainly led by the 1st Para-Commando Battalion, an elite force in the Bangladesh Army but also involved the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Border Guard Bangladesh, Bangladeshi police and its different branches, specifically Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), an elite tactical unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (Manik et al., 2016; Dhaka tribune, 2016; Islam, 2016 ).

The barbaric terrorist attack ended costing the lives of twenty hostages, which included nine Italians (Cristian Rossi, Marco Tondat, Nadia Benedetti, Adele Puglisi, Simona Monti, Claudia Maria D’Antona, Vincenzo D’Allestro, Maria Rivoli, Claudio Cappelli), seven Japanese (Hideki Hashimoto, Nobuhiro Kurosaki, Koyo Ogasawara, Makoto Okamura, Yuko Sakai, Rui Shimodaira, Hiroshi Tanaka), three Bangladeshis (Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain, Ishrat Akhond, Saiful Islam Chowkidar) and an Indian (Tarishi Jain) who were allegedly killed by the terrorists (Pleasance, et al., 2016; Hammadi et al., 2016). The hostage situation also cost the lives of five alleged terrorists (Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz, Meer Saameh Mubasheer, Khairul Islam, Shafiqul Islam) who were killed during Operation Thunderbolt and two police officials Rabiul Islam, Assistant Commissioner of Detective Branch of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, and Salahuddin Ahmed, officer-in-charge of the Banani police station who earlier attempted to confront the terrorists prior to operation thunderbolt (Dhaka tribune, 2016; BBC News, 2016).

Who did it?

After careful observation of social media, blogs, news and opinion pieces, the common questions which were repeatedly asked included who perpetrated the act of terror, which organizations these terrorist belong to and who they are individually. Ordinary people, commentators and politicians are continuing the debate to determine the identity of the perpetrators and establish whether there was direct involvement of the global terror outfit, ISIS.

Political responses to terror attack

It is important to note who did it – seeking a definitive answer to this question is crucial because if carefully observed, the political responses to this question may define what further measures can be taken to handle the situations.

Bangladesh is politically a very divided nation; in the absence of meaningful democratic practices and endemic corruption, political biases of the different professionals such as journalist, politicians, law enforcers and judges obstruct the ways and means of meaningful democratic debate and discussions on important issues such how to handle the terrorism and bring the perpetrators to justice. Professionals often ignore the national safety and security; furthermore, by prioritizing their narrow personal gains and interest, the best interests of the nation and its people are neglected. The public domain has often been corrupt and politically-biased dysfunctional state institutions thereby fail to protect and promote democracy, justice and peace. Widespread violence also takes over in different shapes and forms: one of form of such violence is ‘Terrorism’. Political discourse of finding out who is involved and the process that helped the terror attack is also politically defined and divided. Political parties, specifically the ruling political party Bangladesh Awami League (BAL), have failed to demonstrate the necessary seriousness and political maturity in responding to the terrorist attack: those responsible for the attack have not been named.

BAL blamed local home-grown terrorist group with a particular Islamic affiliation and on a different occasion it blamed the opposition political party Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami in addition to home-grown terrorist outfits. It also blamed Pakistan’s premier intelligence service, ISI – Inter-Services Intelligence (Indian Express, 2016). It is worth noting that a lack of robust evidence supporting these claims consequently failed to convince the public of these organisations’ involvement: local people continued to believe that ISIS in Bangladesh had direct involvement in the Dhaka café terror attack. Although SITE Intelligence Group published pictures of the alleged perpetrators claiming that ISIS published those pictures in addition to another unverified video, ISIS allegedly claimed responsibility for the terror attack, praised the attackers and threatened further attacks. Shortly after the Dhaka café attack, another attack occurred in which three alleged attackers were killed as they were carrying bombs and guns whilst trying to attack the country’s largest gathering to mark the Muslim Eid holiday on the 7 July, 2016. This establishes that the threat from ISIS will continue; nonetheless, the government continues to deny the very existence of ISIS in Bangladesh (Dhaka Tribune, 2016; Bdnews24.com, 2016 and Pokharel and Westcott, 2016).

What made the ‘Terror’ attack possible?

It is important to ask who brought about the terror attack but at the same time it is also necessary to ask a further question: ‘What made the ‘Terror’ attack possible?’ This will possibly lead us to the root of problem. It should be kept in mind that the Dhaka café terror attack was only an outcome but to make an attack of such kind there is a need for planning, arms, ammunitions and most importantly the question needs to be asked as to what the conditions are within the state that allowed such kinds of organized terrorist groups to grow, plan and carry out such actions. To answer these first, it is important to make my stand clear – I believe that the terrorism problem has been caused due to a lack of democratic system which is a continuing problem and should not only be credited to BAL, but should also be credited to other political parties who ruled this country since its independence. However, for this discussion it is important to focus on the current ruling party and its opposition. Years of continuous and deliberate failures of political parties in effective state governance left much to be desired, specifically at this time when there are questions about the about the legitimacy of the BAL government, where a puppet opposition party was placed in country’s parliament the problem of the electoral system leaves people with few choices to be heard and take part freely in the country’s democratic process. The ruling political party – BAL ‒ continued to ignore and fail to address the grievances of the people which has caused the situation to deteriorate to such abysmal levels: a section of the population have started to think that brute force is the only viable option available through military interventions or another alternative of extremists such as ISIS and their supported home-grown terrorist outfits taking control. It is worth noting that the Dhaka café attack is not an isolated event ‒ rather it is representative of a power struggle between the ruling political party and their challengers who are sadly terrorists making their voices heard at cost of many lives while BAL continues to deny the democratic rights of the people.

Other Terror attacks

Readers should keep in mind that the nature of state ‒ whether it would be secular or Islamic country ‒  is a long and unresolved issue in Bangladesh often used as political currency by different political parties to garner votes. The continuum of this struggle took a new shape during this government whereby, since 2013, a number of secularist and atheist writers, bloggers and publishers in Bangladesh have been killed or seriously injured in attacks that are believed to be perpetrated by Islamist extremists. According to media reports four bloggers had been killed in 2015, on August 6 – Niloy Chatterjee, blogger, hacked to death at his home in Dhaka; on May 12 – Ananta Bijoy Das, blogger for Mukto-Mona website, killed while on his way to work in the city of Sylhet; on March 30 – Washiqur Rahman Babu, blogger, hacked to death by three men in Dhaka. On February 26 – Avijit Roy, a prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger, killed while walking with his wife outside Dhaka University (Al Jazeera and AF, 2015). It should be noted that responsibility for the attacks on secularists, which have since occurred, has been claimed by a number of militant groups including Ansarullah Bangla Team, who have frequently justified their attacks on the grounds that their victims are “atheists” and enemies of Islam. But the most important point to note is that none of these cases were satisfactorily solved and critic claims that in the absence of a functioning criminal justice system, the government is using this case to oppress the opposition. This is not unique to this BAL government; on 21 August, 2004 the Dhaka grenade attack took place at an anti-terrorism rally organised by Bangladesh Awami League on Bangabandhu Avenue. The attacks targeted Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister of Bangladesh, which left 24 dead and more than 300 injured. Readers should note that during this case Jamal Ahmed, also known as Joj Mia, was coerced into giving a false confession. He was forced to implicate the Seven-Star Group, led by Subrata Bain through torture by security forces during Bangladesh Nationalist Party rule who is known in opposition (Prothom Alo 2014). Political analysts argue that the then government of Bangladesh nationalist party, which is now in opposition, failed to bring perpetrators of the heinous crime to justice. However, when the BAL government came into power the case was prioritised and in March 2012, the son of opposition leader Tarique Rahman and former prime minister Khaleda Zia were tried in absentia for their alleged involvement in the attack. The supplementary charge sheets charge local terrorist group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), influential leaders of the BNP and the Jamaat, and some officials of the Home Ministry, police, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), National Security Intelligence (NSI) and Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with involvement in the planning of the bombing (Dhaka Tribune, 2015).

It was important to explain this story although not necessary directly linked to the Dhaka café attack. Crucially, terrorism is nothing new in Bangladesh, justice has been overdue for many years and all political parties have been accused of using the issues for their political gain. Now regarding the main point ‒ the question as to who carried out the Dhaka café attack ‒ the BAL government is so reluctant to accept the involvement of ISIS because it sees this attack from the lenses of their continuing struggle with their political opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. It could be argued that the unnecessary and unfair political responses of the current government to different terror attacks encouraged and empowered terrorist groups of different types to grow and operationalise such heinous acts. A group of political critics have gone a step further to suggest that the BAL government itself is involved in the attacks on atheist bloggers, religious minorities, although they are yet to present substantive evidence to back up these claims.

Actions and Interventions of the law enforcements agencies

The readers should keep in mind that the law enforcement agencies are often accused of practicing endemic torture, corruption and manipulating evidence and justice process influenced by the ruling government. It was very clear when there was an attempt on Sheikh Hasina’s life on the 21st August 2004. The incompetency of the law enforcement agencies is well known among people; law enforcers are seen not necessarily as protector of them rather than an extended hand of the ruling party. Law enforcers of all types are accused of gross human rights violations, although many are rewarded rather than punished for playing their role as an extended arm of the political party. Readers should keep in mind who was involved in the rescue operation and their past record of human rights violations.

Inconsistency in rescue narrative

Although at the end of ‘operation thunderbolt’ Inter Service Public Relations Directorate (ISPR) claimed that six terrorists were killed, police claimed that only five terrorists were claimed. It was identified and reported in the media that Saiful Islam Chowkidar, 40, a pizza maker at the Artisan, was identified as a terrorist but later it emerged that he was a hostage and wrongly killed by the law enforces during the operation thunderbolt (BBC News, 2016). This raises questions about the plan and actions that were taken by the law enforcers. With careful observation of the whole operation from media, it could be said that the law enforcers placed less emphasis on hostage negation and they have placed insufficient effort into communicating with the terrorists actively listening to their demands, empathically communicating with them or gaining the trust of the attackers and changing the behaviour, which could have been a successful force for them to surrender. This is nothing new ‒ a Behavioural Change Stairway Model developed by Federal Bureau of Investigation is widely used by Police negotiators. More could be said on the failure of the Bangladeshi law enforcers about their lack of willingness or incompetency of hostage negotiation skills. Some of the law enforcers were trained by British and Americans but the question remains as to why they failed or whether they were driven by the political agenda of the government. If they had successfully achieved the hostage negotiation, many lives could have saved. The question also remains as to who should thus be held responsible for the failure of this hostage negotiation.

Furthermore, critics are asking about the how many people were arrested as the ‘operation thunderbolt’ ends. ISPR and police contradict each other in this regard: ISPR claimed one person was arrested but police claimed two people were arrested at the end of the operation and one was arrested in a local hospital. In another version, a family member claimed that Jakir Hossain Shaon, assistant Chef at Holey Artisan Bakery was arrested by police and tortured in police custody (Dhaka Tribune, 2016, BBC News, 2016).

Critics are accusing the law enforcement agencies for their incompetence and the government for trying to gain political benefit out of this situation rather than addressing the problem and bringing the real perpetrators to justice. Critics are accusing the political leaders of ruling BAL government of attempting to lay blame with opposition parties Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami for this attack. It has been argued that the ruling government is trying to gain benefit by blaming the oppositions political parties for this attack and raising general conscious among mass people that the opposition parties are involved in this deadly terrorist attack and in future to save the country the only option is to vote for them. It is evident that politicians of ruling government have failed to break the old pattern of politics with wholesale accusations directed at the opposition for promoting and protecting Islamic terrorist groups.

Psychosocial impact of the Dhaka café terror attack

The Dhaka café terror has left a scar in people’s mind in Dhaka and beyond. The hostages who were rescued will need immediate psychosocial support and in many cases may require medical attention, although those issues were not a key priority of the government or main issues of public discourse. Different media outlets continued to publish graphic images of the event which could have left negative impact on people’s mind specially if they were seen by the children. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her government need to be praised because they warned not to live telecast the Dhaka café terror attack. Nevertheless, it was reported that some media ignored the request and proceeded with the live telecast of the event which subsequently has a negative impact on the operation of the law enforcers. The Dhaka café terror attack created a fearful situation and people continue to live in uncertainty specifically a group of people who belongs to minority religious groups – Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and also atheist people living in fear of being attacked by unidentified enemies. Bangladeshi society has been divided by allowing terrorism to take place while the main perpetrators and their roots remain undiscovered, leading to high levels of widespread mistrust. As fear takes over the hearts and minds of the people, the gross human rights violations by the law enforcement agencies such practices of endemic torture, endemic corruption of the government and politicians remain. The fundamental need to protect and promote democracy remain unaddressed as terrorists remain untouched.

William Nicholas Gomes is a Bangladeshi human rights activist and freelance journalist based in Britain. He is a former fellow at Center for Applied Human Rights in the University of York. In recent past he had work for regional human rights organization Asian Human Rights Commission. 


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