By Azad Majumder
Dhaka, Jul 1 (efe-epa).- After months of isolated attacks on activists, religious minorities and foreign intellectuals, Bangladesh witnessed its worst nightmare on 1 July 2016 when six terrorists stormed a restaurant in an upscale Dhaka neighborhood and killed 20 civilians, mostly foreigners, and two policemen.
The attack at Holey Artisan café was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) terror group, whose flags were borne by the terrorists, although the government has held the local militant group Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) responsible for it from the outset.
Police later determined that 21 people were involved in the attack, 13 of whom were killed during the attack and in subsequent operations. Canadian-Bangladeshi Tamim Chaudhry, who died in a subsequent police operation, was considered the mastermind of the attack.
Of the remaining eight, a Dhaka court in November acquitted one and sentenced the other seven to death.
When leaving court, two of them pointed their index finger to heaven, a common gesture among IS militants. They were wearing a black cap with the symbol of the terror group.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), or the country’s elite police force, called the pro-IS gestures in court a mere “publicity stunt.”
“We did not find the existence of the Islamic State here. This was an attack perpetrated by local fanatics,” said RAB spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Sarwar Bin Kashem.
Beyond the level of IS involvement, the government was forced to admit after the attack that Islamic extremism was a growing problem for Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority but traditionally moderate country.
Four years later, Bangladeshi authorities claim to have “successfully” wiped out any extremist threat since the infamous attack on Holey Artisan.
“We strictly controlled the militancy. The few small groups left we are identifying and arresting them,” Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan told Efe.
“The militancy could not raise its head in our country because the people of our country do not shelter them. (…) We have the example of the mother of a militant handing him to us. This is why we were successful,” he added.
The security forces “are working tirelessly to prevent any untoward incident,” police headquarters spokesman Sohel Rana told Efe.
Independent analysts, however, have warned against complacency despite significant advances in the fight against terrorism.
“It looks like there is a dramatic decrease in homegrown terrorist attacks in Bangladesh as the government has taken multiple preemptive measures to thwart any terrorism-related threats,” said Mubashar Hasan, an expert on political Islam at the University of Oslo.
According to Hasan, after the attack on the restaurant, a special police unit was formed to combat terrorism, and security forces have received training around the world, besides building a social consensus against terrorism.
But even if the threat level is low, the concern still exists, according to Shahab Enam Khan, professor of international relations at Jahangirnagar University, near Dhaka.
“The response of our security forces and intelligence against militancy is very satisfactory. But the problem remains in the root causes. The root cause is not a law enforcement issue. It is more related to governance, we still have some lacking there,” Khan told Efe.
“There is no threat at the surface level because the standard operating procedure of extremists has changed. One of the major issues is now online radicalization. This is an indirect tension,” he said.
RAB spokesperson Sarwar acknowledged the threat of online radicalization and insisted that they have been working to mitigate it.