As expected, Donald Trump was creating havoc during the first days of his presidency.
He placed a ban on Muslim travellers from several countries when Canada’s Justin Trudeau widened his arms to refugees.
The next day a gunman killed six worshippers inside a mosque at Quebec. The right was quick to grab the opportunity to undermine Canada’s young prime minister.
The night before, shooter Alexandre Bissonnette was discussing the Trump ban over Facebook. He told a friend: he did not want non-whites to marginalise the white race.
The white radical who promoted himself to violent extremism was a reminder of how his Islamist counterparts outdid themselves some years before.
A strike to the heart of the United States on that fateful September morning changed the world for the wars that followed, but Washington’s fall off the wagon came much later.
It was al-Qaeda’s renegade affiliate that proved more talented in violence.
Born from the ruins of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State or IS is more than a terror organisation. For supporters of terror, it is their ‘caliphate’.
Jihad was now modelled on hurting the ‘near enemy’. As lone wolves bled the West, the IS based its terror in the Islamic world on existing divides – adding Shias, Kurds and Houthis to their list of targets.
But as Bangladeshis mourned the Quebec Muslims on Facebook, someone wrote: Hindu temples are attacked on a regular basis. Did that worry the Muslim majority?
While one has all the respect for online solidarity, this Facebooker has a valid point.
If terror adapted itself to the ‘peculiarities’ of a region, it would exploit the divide between secularists and Muslim conservatives in Bangladesh.
The newsrooms in Bangladesh get reports of robbed and vandalised idols almost every other day. Photo-shopped images, often, come in handy for Muslim mobs as they destroy and loot homes of Buddhists and Hindus for ‘insulting Islam’. Ramu, in 2012, and Brahmanbarhia, in 2016, are simply the best-known examples.
With polarisation so potent, how much has the game changed since the siege of Holey Artisan?
The authorities downplayed the wave of terror roiling through the country picking off Hindus, Christians, Shias, and LGBT activists.
Blood spills in the holy month
But on the first night of July 2016, the country was plunged into its fiercest fight against terror.
The Ramadan of 2016 may have been the bloodiest.
On May 21, Islamic State spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani admitted to losing territory to allied assault in an audio message. But he said supporters from across the world, living in the ‘caliphate’s shadow’, formed an ‘entire generation’ capable of returning its strength.
On Jun 12, a security guard in the US swore allegiance to the caliphate before shooting dead 49 people at a gay club. That same month, three gunmen armed with explosive belts, killed 45 people at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport.
Then a truck bomb killed 300 in Baghdad’s Karrada.
Most of the victims of IS-claimed attacks in Ramadan were Muslim. But the five young gunmen who stormed the upscale Dhaka eatery on Jul 1 announced they only meant to kill foreigners.
By shooting and hacking to death nine Italians, seven Japanese, one Indian, an American of Bangladeshi origin and two local elites, they emerged as higher specimens of terror.
Three well-to-do Dhaka youths, paired with two madrassa students, had all been missing from home. Religious extremism, limited to machete killings for several years, was now better armed with AK-22 rifles.
A police report from the night describes a massive flurry of shots and grenades which killed two officers and wounded several more in the first hours of what developed into a nightlong siege inside Gulshan, the capital’s diplomatic district.
Before the end of the week, on Eid day, a bomb and machete attack on a police check post left two constables dead at Sholakia, Kishoreganj, as people gathered to pray in the country’s largest Eid day congregation.
One of the attackers, who died while fleeing police, was reportedly seen at Jhenaidah with one of the Dhaka café killers, but the Eid-day attack went unclaimed.
In the following days, the media reported with information supplied by unnamed government officials that many young men, and even entire families, had left home to join the Islamic State.
Radicalisation became more complex than something just contracted by the poor at madrassas. The educated and the well-to-do were taking the lead in a new version of terror.
Police now stronger, tougher, quicker
A new police unit, armed with better operational capability, responded with decisive force. Successive raids on hideouts in and around the capital were successful. Clearly, the IS-motivated youths were losing steam.
Critics, mostly political, tried to call the raids ‘shootouts’, without much success with their audience. Loud and incessant calls for necessary violence became the order of the day.
“The Islamic State decided to declare [Bangladesh] a province. A so-called ‘Tamkin’ like the Philippines and Afghanistan. They thought they could make the announcement by March,” says Monirul Islam of Dhaka’s detective police. “But not any more, after how we responded and what we did to them.”
The deputy inspector general was put in charge of the Counter-terrorism and Transnational Crimes Unit, attached to the Dhaka Metropolitan Police in February, a few months before the siege. The CT unit has since grown in ferocity.
“Radicals in the Philippines and Afghanistan were upset because they felt all their fighters were in Syria, neglecting their own jihad. But in Bangladesh they stayed behind.”
Keeping an eye on who was visiting Turkey had led to many arrests, he said, but there was a fear of backlash because youths from the diaspora in the UK and the US travelled to fight for the caliphate in huge numbers.
“The immigration screening process exists but is not perfect,” the CT chief admits. “We can keep an eye on people here, but in the case of dual citizens, it is difficult. They can go either way – Bangladesh or their adopted country.”
On Oct 5, 2013, Tamim Chowdhury, a Canadian-Bangladeshi whose family migrated after Bangladesh’s Liberation War, arrived in Dhaka through Dubai.
The Southern Ontario resident, who would go on to organise the worst terror attack in Bangladesh, was described as a shy, skinny kid who excelled in academics.
But just a month after the Jul 1 attack, he was lying dead in a hideout at Narayanganj, just outside Dhaka. The new police unit proved too much for all his training.
He first joined the Ansar Al-Islam, a group formed by mostly affluent radicals, before finding his way into Jama’atul Islam Mujahideen (JMB).
The outlawed JMB was known for its madrassa-bred radicals, who subscribed to al-Qaeda values. The group made a show of strength in 2005 with a series of simultaneous explosions in 63 of Bangladesh’s 64 administrative districts.
Militancy resurfaced in 2013, with attacks on ‘apostate bloggers’ instrumental in the formation of the Shahbagh movement which campaigned for capital punishment for war crimes during the 1971 Liberation War.
By 2014, law enforcers began referring to it as ‘neo-JMB’ for its new recruits, who drew more inspiration from the Islamic State than they did from al-Qaeda.
Headed by Tamim Chowdhury, the group was central to the official narrative that homegrown militants, not ‘actual IS fighters’, were responsible for the targeted killings that seemed to infect every month of 2016 before the July attack.
But the eagerness to claim the Gulshan attack was apparent in how Rumiyah, an official Islamic State magazine, carried a posthumous article on the attack under Chowdhury’s byline in October.
It was highly unusual that it identified its ‘former head of military and covert operations in Bengal’, the term preferred over Bangladesh, by his real name.
As if to pay homage, it coupled his piece – The Shuhada of the Gulshan Attack – with an infographic of ‘Operations in Bengal’.
The timeline of 24 attacks started with the killings of Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella in Gulshan and Japanese farmer Kunio Hoshi in Rangpur.
But the man heading counter-terror operations in Bangladesh denied the masterminds and killers from Gulshan had any links to the global terror network.
“We are still saying there is no Islamic State here,” Monirul Islam insists.
“I have a theory. These killers wanted to go to Syria. Recruits have fled this outfit (neo-JMB) before. It is difficult to keep watch over these boys so they were used up in the attack.”
He continues with his explanation: “Some of the Bangladeshis who were part of the first two waves of migration from Europe, US and Canada to IS-held land in Syria are now well placed within the caliphate. These Bangladeshis don’t know a lot about the country. But they are excited by the militant activities here and have been claiming responsibility for these attacks.”
Before the Holey carnage, Tamim Chowdhury told Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine that India’s geo-strategic location played a part in making Bangladesh ‘important’.
A regional superpower, it shares a long border with adversary Pakistan where defectors from the Taliban swore allegiance to IS to form Wilaya Khorasan, an IS province on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
In that interview, Chowdhury spoke of lofty plans of creating chaos in India with guerrilla attacks before moving on to Myanmar. He claimed the assassination of local Hindus had popular support and would eventually polarise the nation until it reached a breaking point.
He was obviously not referring to the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party, for which he harboured anything but respect.
The Jamaat after ruthlessly opposing Bangladesh’s birth found a solid footing in politics thanks to the opportunistic climate that existed in the decades following 1975. It has been spreading violence for long.
Waving the religion card, it targeted Hindu communities, recently over verdicts that eventually sent party stalwarts to the gallows for horrific war crimes in 1971.
Chowdhury said that Jamaat’s grassroots followers, now in a tight spot, were joining their ranks after its leaders, ‘betrayed’ by the government, were imprisoned or executed.
But when the interviewer for the IS publication asked how jihad in the region never took root beyond the ‘Khorasan’, he spoke of his resolve to fight on despite the small numbers and military strength of his comrades.
His admission probably explains why the police operations that followed the café massacre were able to weaken, if not eliminate, his group.
On Jul 26, nine were killed inside a flat in Kalyanpur. On Aug 27, three including Chowdhury were shot in the head inside a hideout at Narayanganj’s Paikparha.
Jahidul Islam, a former army major who left his job after returning from training in Canada, was killed on Sept 2 in an anti-terror police operation at Rupnagar, a less affluent western suburb of Dhaka.
As military commander of Neo-JMB, he was believed to have trained both the Gulshan and Sholakia attackers. Police said he attacked them with a knife and a pistol and injured three before being shot dead.
At Azimpur, a central Dhaka neighbourhood, Tanvir Quaderi, who helped the café gunmen rent a flat in the more affluent Bashundhara area, allegedly committed suicide on Sept 10, after anti-terror police laid siege to his hideout. Three women, all wives of JMB militants, charged at police with knives and chilli powder.
Then on Oct 8, 12 suspects were ‘neutralised’ in four separate offensives at Gazipur, Tangail and Ashulia – all near Dhaka.
The nation was gradually overcoming its Holey hangover.
It seemed just another piece of news when a woman, believed to be indoctrinated by her JMB militant husband, blew herself up on Dec 24 with a grenade at Dhaka’s Ashkona. There was perhaps even a hint of sadness for Quaderi’s teenage son who also died during the raid.
Nurul Islam Marzan, a madrassa student from Pabna who had enrolled to study Arabic at Chittagong University, was next in line.
Labelled a mastermind, he was shot dead alongside an associate at Dhaka’s Rayerbazar on Jan 6.
In the end the group seemed a mix of expatriates, private university students, stray madrassa boys and a couple of ex-army officers.
Clearly, Gulshan was not a hostage crisis.
“They didn’t want to negotiate or leave. They wouldn’t get out because that would lead to a real combat situation,” argues CT chief Monirul Islam.
Despite the apparent failure of police to respond to the crisis with operational capability, he gives credit to local police for limiting the damage.
He said the gunmen, some picked for being tech savvy and familiar with the wealthy neighbourhood, had planned to move to nearby Nordic Club – a place where expatriates hang out.
“They could have found at least two or three foreigners in those streets. It was possible,” he says.
“You would do Bangladesh an injustice if you solely concentrate on it. Think of all the other places hit by terror. What did they do?
“It took time for us to respond to this new technique. This had never happened in Bangladesh before,” Monirul Islam says.
The good and bad
For foreign nationals in Dhaka, life was no longer the same after Holey.
In August, a notice put up by a restaurant in Dhaka’s northern suburb Uttara shocked visitors. The notice said it could no longer admit foreign diners.
Six months after the tragedy in Gulshan, the notice was still there.
But Holey Artisan was back in business, in a different location though. The owners say things were “slowly improving”.
The attack and the security measures that followed, left restaurants in Gulshan without diners, and waiters on the verge of unemployment.
The reopening of Holey has been seen as a symbolic victory for foreign residents in Dhaka. Emotional wishes poured in despite its move to a smaller, but more fortified, location.
“We are doing as much as possible. But if someone decides to take their own life, there is very little you can do,” says Ali Arsalan, a restaurant owner.
The restaurants, frequented by foreigners, now get extra attention from police. “Roughly 10 of them,” he says. Even the Special Branch of police provided basic training to restaurant staff.
Other café casualties
But the list of casualties is not limited to such commercial activity. At least three international conferences, which Dhaka was to host, were postponed or moved to ‘safer places’.
The Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering announced on Jul 11 that it was moving its annual meeting to the United States.
The ICT community in Dhaka lost a meeting of the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre or APNIC. Eventually, Colombo hosted the conference.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association also decided against holding a September conference in Dhaka, despite the fact that the Bangladesh speaker, Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, was its chairperson. The conference was later held in December in London.
Bangladesh’s international sporting calendar was also under threat. Militants made it clear that the visiting teams would not be spared, according to an IS publication.
The threats led to the cancellation, even before the Holey killings, of a much-awaited tour by the Australian cricket team to Bangladesh after a series of attacks on foreigners. South Africa’s women cricketers postponed a trip in October but finally arrived in January. The tour of the England Cricket Team narrowly survived even after a couple of senior players had opted out of the squad.
Bangladesh’s international trade, too, was counting its toll after the terror strike. “It was such a terrible message,” lamented Md Atiqul Islam of garment exporters’ lobby BGMEA, for all the buyers in Europe and the US.
“It was particularly bad for us because several among the nine Italian victims [in the café attack] were involved in our lifeline apparel sector,” he said.
The world’s second largest readymade apparel industry contributes roughly 80 percent to the annual export revenue for Bangladesh.
“Most big clothing brands have offices here. All of a sudden the foreign buyers started to leave or stopped visiting us,” the former head of BGMEA says. “Instead we were asked to travel to their countries to continue business.”
And that meant a lot of hassle for the manufacturers. “This was a huge blow to the way business is done, because I can only take one or two boxes of samples, at best two merchandisers when I travel there.”
This was the situation until October, he said. “I would say 25 percent of these foreign buyers have yet to return.”
The government, he said, followed up the bad message with a more positive one. “It said we can handle these terrorists. Our buyers are aware of the anti-terror operations that followed the attack in July.”
The support by the European Union, the largest buyer of Bangladesh’s apparels, was instrumental, he said.“It really helped us put things back on track.”
Not all clouds
“We definitely suffered with Italy but the silver lining is, the brother of one of the Italian victims at the café came to the BGMEA and told us he wanted to restart his sister’s business.” His sister, Nadia Benedetti, had worked tirelessly in Bangladesh for more than a decade.
But the messages that created her killers still lingers. Counter-terror chiefs in Bangladesh not only point to international politics which fire up anger but also local factors exploited by the preachers with a not-so-holy agenda.
When it comes to knowledge of Scripture, Bangladeshi Muslims disappoint law enforcers, free thinkers and terrorists. Even the Gulshan attack mastermind termed it an ‘obstacle to jihad’.
“Someone must educate people on the context of Quranic verses. Who will do so? They’ll only listen to clerics,” says CT’s Monirul Islam.
“The government has ordered surveillance of sermons at mosques. But do we have the infrastructure? How will you know who, when and what they are saying?”
Security cannot rely solely on operations. Without a long-term strategy the fight could devolve into a waiting game – the kind that saw JMB return with renewed ideology after the relative peace that followed the execution of its top leaders.
The problem is: “All they need is one opportunity.”
Samin Sababa is a journalist and currently a Senior Sub Editor at bdnews24.com
Additional reporting by Golam Mujtaba Dhruba, Crime Correspondent at bdnews24.com