Dhaka Unnerved

Recent attacks have shattered the city’s calm

By Razia Desai

Missing – Not in their worst imaginings, do wealthy parents of privately-educated sons conclude that ‘missing’ means their child is now an internationally absconding terrorist.

At most, this is a word used when Asian families think their teenagers have eloped with someone from an inappropriate caste or when an elderly family member cannot be found.

As of now, that has changed. Most especially, in the very enclave where six militants held hostage and killed 20 people on July 1 at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka’s upscale Gulshan area. The incident gained widespread publicity due to Daesh claiming immediate responsibility for it. The fact that one victim was said to have been stabbed 45 times, added to the horror of the attack. Being privy to the profound impact the incident has had on the very community the attackers belonged to has provided Newsweek Middle East with a detailed insight.

In the nights following the incident, five army trucks patrolled the streets near the attack site. There were an increased number of police checkpoints as compared to yesteryears. The police, who would normally let an expensive car pass through, made sure to question all passengers about their destinations and reasons for travel. However, there were less foreigners on the roads.
Passengers disembarking at Dhaka’s Shahjalal International Airport were met with the sight of a military plane on the tarmac. The airport police were approachable, but meet-and-greet services were of the opinion that “the airport was busy because scared people were leaving.”

On entering the monsoon-soaked streets outside, a scribe who has been there before would immediately notice – for want of a better word – a ‘dampening’ atmosphere. Dhaka’s streets are notorious for their jam-packed and non-discernable lanes and many an international cricketer whilst on tour there, has lamented the time it takes to get from the stadium back to the team hotel. On this occasion however, the strangely reassuring blare of horns was also absent.

In one corner of the eerily silent city, a prayer was being held for one of the deceased. The shock writ all over the faces of the inconsolable family members left behind, an outsider such as I could only look in on their immeasurable grief. The only consolation this particular family had was that their daughter, unlike other victims, had not been hacked to pieces with a machete. The post-mortem revealed there to be food in her mouth, thus it is assumed she died as soon as the bullet hit her when the assailants opened fire inside the bakery.

Bangladeshis are now having to show the resilience of their counterparts who have been affected in many other parts of the Muslim world. Eid shopping continued, albeit at a lighter pace. A less popular refrain was, “We must not let them get the better of us, we must continue life as normal.”

This is not to say that residents are foregoing being out at night altogether. Two eateries I visited had enough diners, both for the final suhoor (pre-dawn meal) and subsequent iftar (breaking fast meal) of Ramadan. One of the restaurants had a chain on the gate and diners were only permitted entry after their cars had been thoroughly checked. As some restaurants were indefinitely closed, the remaining ones had set a reasonable 10pm as their closing time.

The attackers of the Dhaka bakery incident had questioned and let go of Muslim customers. And so, after the incident, every female in sight, regardless of her religious identity, was wearing a dupatta (traditional scarf) to cover her hair, a symbol of Muslim values.

DEARLY DEPARTED: Relatives mourn the loss of their loved ones, who were killed in an attack by militants at a Dhaka bakery in Bangladesh on July 1. Attacks on secularists and athiests are on the rise in Bangladesh, which the government blames on homegrown terrorism.

DEARLY DEPARTED: Relatives mourn the loss of their loved ones, who were killed in an attack by militants at a Dhaka bakery in Bangladesh on July 1. Attacks on secularists and athiests are on the rise in Bangladesh, which the government blames on homegrown terrorism.

In subsequent days, as is customary for Eid, gatherings were held at people’s homes. All guests focused on but one topic of conversation—the fact that the attackers were not from some impoverished, illiterate rural area, but from the very fabric of society whose children receive a privileged education and are therefore expected to be ‘enlightened.’ Most Bangladeshis I spoke to appeared to equate terrorism with regions such as Syria, Iraq and Pakistan and there was a denial of sorts, that it is now happening in their country. At every gathering I witnessed the same disbelief writ all across individual faces, with one oft-repeated comment from affluent residents who did not wish to be named, “This happens in Pakistan, not Bangladesh.”

But facts make it hard to ignore that Islamist insurgency is on the rise in Bangladesh. While attacks can be traced back to as early 2004 with the killing of university professors Humayun Azad and Mohammad Yunus, the number of incidents has risen sharply of late. Since 2013, secularist and atheist bloggers, journalists and thinkers have been targeted in brutal ways. In fact, the nature of the attacks prompted high profile writers such as Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Yann Martell to sign a petition demanding that the Bangladeshi government put an end to the deadly attacks.

More worrying is the fact that up to 60 young men are said to have been missing for many months before the incident. Two of the attackers were from Dhaka’s private English school Scholastica. But since one of the attackers was said to have changed his behavior after beginning studies in Malaysia, the latter is now being thought of as the latest recruiting ground for Daesh.

Teenagers were surprisingly knowledgeable about the attackers, as they had friends in Scholastica and despite schools being closed, word of mouth was spreading amongst students in the city. They were also the most careful, having been banned from going at night by their parents, but as most of them were on their way to holidays abroad, all spoke only “…of the need to get out.”

Over the course of the next few days, since many people knew the survivors, more facts surfaced. Several staff and diners at the bakery reportedly hid for 12 hours in a large pizza oven in the garden. Having been cooped up for so long, one of them developed a problem with his ligaments. One traumatized Sri Lankan citizen refused to go back to his residence in the city from the hospital, and left the country shortly thereafter.

With news coming in that one of the attackers had been inspired by comparative religious evangelist Dr. Zakir Naik, his name is now also on the Bangladesh social radar, although not with as much frequency as his image appears to be splashed across Indian media. Kashmiri rebel Burhan Wani’s last tweet before his killing by the Indian military was also on the benefits of following Naik, hence the latter’s speeches are ringing alarm bells on the wider intelligence radar. Naik has immense popularity in Bangladesh, and his videos are widely shared on digital media platforms. For this reason, most ordinary citizens did not seem overly worried about his influence over possible, future terrorists.

Following the Dhaka attack, there is an increased, widespread interest in Middle Eastern politics, a region where the term ‘Daesh’ rolls of people’s tongues easily. Dhaka residents had been fretfully ‘Googling’ the group and were astounded at their level of brutality. This was instilling fear about the possibility of more attacks, as promised by the group online.

The most recent death of Holey Artisan Bakery’s kitchen assistant Zakir Shawon has caused consternation. Many believe he had been wrongly arrested by the police, although to be fair to them, there is a high probability that there was an informer on the inside. Almost everyone has now seen the video (taken by a Korean national from the opposite building) of diner Hasnat Karim talking to the attackers and they felt his body language indicated familiarity with the attackers. In fact, one of the attackers—Nibras Islam—was a student at North South University, the same institute where Karim was a faculty member. At the time of going to press, both he and hostage Tahmid Hasib were still missing. Conflicting reports indicate they might still be in custody although Dhaka Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Masudur Rahman initially told the Dhaka Tribune that the police had “released all the rescued hostages after questioning them about the incident.”

An unnamed source from one of the many diplomatic missions in the city, indicated that intelligence had been aware of “…the bakery and several other prime locations being possible targets.” Staff at coffeehouse Gloria Jeans reported that the attackers had first visited their premises and one other eatery, before zoning in on Holey Artisan due to it being busy. The fact that entry was at ground level, may also have played its part. Dhaka’s reputable Daily Star newspaper quotes an employee of the bakery saying that the attackers were talking in English and Arabic. The latter point is surprising, given that they would assumedly be more fluent in their local language.

Over the course of the Eid holidays, one heard that many foreigners were leaving the country. The U.S. Embassy had told its staff that only essential personnel were to remain behind, whilst other diplomatic missions stated that all future postings would be non-family. Expatriates were informed that they were not to stray away from their work and home locations for the near future. For a small country, Bangladesh has a disproportionate amount of nongovernmental organizations, and with so many local counterparts said to be taking over their operations, the changes might take time getting used to.

The business community, who live in precisely the types of prosperous areas that are now being targeted, has the most cause for worry. For the last few years, Bangladesh has been attracting the garment industry from Pakistan, precisely because it was both a safer and more cost-effective alternative. This industry is said to provide 80% of exports, thus the government needs to show that it is going to clamp down hard on extremism.

What does the future hold for Bangladesh? Those who know the owner of the Holey Artisan Bakery confirmed that he plans to sell the building but most were of the view that buyers would be difficult to come by, unless someone is willing to raze the building to the ground and build a car park.

As I waited for my return flight to the UAE, I reflected upon a trip unlike any other. The Bangladeshis I met were as hospitable as ever but for the first time, the elite are under as much pressure as the less prosperous. I encountered a myriad of emotions, not least being disbelief, introspection and analysis. Most residents were overwhelmed by it all. The future is uncertain and the government is under immense pressure to show its might. Given how they handle the crucial next few months, Dhaka may yet rise again.


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