Bangladesh terror: Moving beyond secularism-vs-religion debate

Written by: Sanjal Shastri
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Secularism has been the corner stone of Bangladesh's national identity. The secular nationalism, on which Bangladesh was formed, has been under significant threat for quite sometime.

The larger political narrative between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been built as a battle between the secular Bangladesh and a Bangladesh based on a religious identity. [4 killed in second attack in Bangladesh inside a week]

bangladesh terror

The execution of war criminals, the targeting of secular thinking bloggers and religious minorities have all been projected as a part of the larger battle between the secular forces and the Islamists. [What ISIS is trying to tell Bangladesh in 5.55 minutes]

Sheikh Hasina was quick to blame the attack on Holey Artisan Bakery on homegrown radical groups, implying that the events of July 1, 2016, were a part of the secularism-vs-religion debate.

July 1 attack goes beyond secularim-vs-religion debate

The recent attack, however, goes far beyond the secularism-versus-religion debate. As much as the Bangladeshi establishment denies it, the attacks bare the hallmarks of the Islamic State (IS). [Dhaka terror attack: The writing was on the wall]

The profiles of the attackers, mainly from well-educated and affluent backgrounds, match those of the perpetrators of IS attacks in Paris, Brussels and Turkey. These similarities are surely not mere coincidents but a symptom of a much more serious problem. This commentary argues that the battle Bangladesh is fighting today is not an internal battle between secularism versus religion.

Difference between restaurant attack and stabbing incidents

As much as the government denies it, Bangladesh finds itself in the larger global battle against extremism and the IS. There are important differences between the attack on Holy Artisan Bakery and the host of stabbing incidents that Bangladesh has seen. The victims of the numerous stabbing incidents were mainly liberal thinkers, bloggers, intellectuals, gay rights activists, atheists, members of the minority community and foreign aid workers.

They were hand picked and targeted for a specific reason. Intellectuals, atheists and minority leaders are an important part of Bangladesh's internal battle between secularism and religion.

Going back to the 1971 the freedom movement based on a secular national identity, it was lead by liberal-minded intellectuals. These groups were also the targets of the large-scale atrocities that took place during the war.

July 1 attack victims were not bloggers, atheists or minorities

Going by the profile of the stabbing victims, it is possible to place the attacks within the secularism-versus-religion debate. The attack on Holy Artisan Bakery is different. The victims were not bloggers, atheists, minority group leaders or activists.

Eighteen of the twenty victims were foreign nationals. The bakery was specifically chosen because it was in the heart of Dhaka's diplomatic enclave and frequented by foreign nationals. The attack targeted a general group of people (foreign nationals in this case) rather than specific individuals.

The profiles of the victims in the recent attack suggests that one is look at in issue much beyond the secularism-versus-religion debate.

The attackers responsible for the stabbing incidents have generally had very low profiles. While the IS claimed responsibility for these attacks, going by the profile of attackers there is reason to believe that the Jammat-ul-Mujahideen was responsible. Not much information about attackers has been publically disclosed.

While claiming responsibility for the attacks, the IS themselves did not mention much about the attackers themselves. The attack witnessed last week was different. Within hours after the attack the IS tweeted images of the attackers.

What is more troubling this time around is that the attackers came form very affluent families. Educated in some of the top schools in Dhaka, the profile of the attackers suggests that there is something very different about this attack.

One of the killers was son of a leader of the secular Awami League

As a matter of fact, one of the attackers was the son of an Awami League leader, a party known for its support for secular forces. Similar to IS recruits from other parts of the globe, these individuals were radicalised through IS propaganda on social media. What motivated these attackers was not the domestic struggle between the secular and religious forces but rather the IS's larger global propaganda.

Tactically, the attacks last week were significantly different from what Bangladesh has witnessed in the past. Past incidents of extremist violence were more hit and run stabbing incidents. The victims were specifically chosen. This time, the scale of the attack was much greater.

Bangladesh was dealing with a hostage crisis for the first time

For the first time in its history, Bangladesh had to deal with a hostage crisis. This was also the worst terrorist attack on Bangladeshi soil. There was striking resemblance to the attacks that took place in Istanbul, Brussels and Paris.

In all the cases, locations frequented by tourists and foreign nationals was targeted. Foreign nationals were specifically pulled aside and killed. Previous extremist attacks on Bangladeshi soil saw none of these tactics. The tactics expose a different motive.

Like in Paris, Brussels and Istanbul, the specific targeting of foreign nationals indicated the aim to get publicity and direct the attack at a larger global audience. This is a significant aberration from the previous incidents in Bangladesh.

The attacks on the Holey Artisan Bakery indicate that Bangladesh is facing a threat that is beyond the secularism-versus-religion debate. The attacks are a marked difference from what the country has witnessed in the past.

Previous incidents of extremist violence specifically targeted bloggers, intellectuals, atheists and minority leaders. The incidents on July first did not target any particular blogger, intellectuals or minority leaders.

Attackers were radicalised through internet content?

The social profile of the attackers indicates that none of them were motivated by the domestic debate between secularism and religion. They came from well to do families, educated in some of the premier schools in Dhaka. Like IS recruits in other parts of the world, these individuals were radicalised through content on the internet.

The tactics suggest that the attacks were aimed at a larger global audience. All these are strong indications that Bangladesh is today dealing with a crisis that goes far beyond the domestic debate on secularism versus religion.

Implication for Bangladesh and rest of South Asia

There are serious implications for Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia. The IS which was trying to get a foothold in South Asia, will try and use Bangladesh as a starting point to expand across the region. This is why the Indian intelligence agencies are closely cooperating with the Bangladeshi investigators. There are also serious implications for Sheikh Hasina and her government.

Till now, extremist attacks were blamed on local terror networks. While the government has come out and blamed the recent attacks on home grown terror groups, there is enough evidence to suggest this attack is the work of the IS. It is time that leaders in India and Bangladesh come out of the denial mode and accept the presence of IS in the region.

Since, coordination is going to be the key to tackle the issue, the cooperation between Indian and Bangladeshi agencies over the past few days is a healthy sign. For Bangladesh, the key to curtailing the IS' activities lies in its ability to keep the secularism versus religion debate separate from its fight against extremists. If the two issues are tackled separately, the chances of success are much greater.


Sanjal Shastri is an Academic Associate at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization he represents

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