Dhaka is shell shocked, especially the elites of the city. The terrorist act at Artisan Bakery Cafe where nine Italians, seven Japanese, one Indian and three Bangladeshis were killed in the hands of six terrorists has graduated the Bangladesh capital to the international level of cities where such acts of terror are common or always expected. International terror has finally come home to roost. Four of the five terrorists could have been the sons of any of the elites of the city whose parents reside in Dhaka's best residential areas who are from private universities and not the rustic and crude Madrassa educated, machete wheeling, unknown but hated faces from the Jamaat cadre residing among the rural masses. One was the son of an Awami League leader.
If the shell-shocked Dhaka elites were not in denial and were following the recent concerns amongst our friends outside Bangladesh, they would have been prepared for the attack in the Artisan restaurant and perhaps acted to stop it from occurring. At least two hearings were held in recent times in the US Congress and the outcome was chilling. The hearings concluded that with democratic space in the country closing dangerously, there was no doubt the country was sliding towards extremism. It was also the message from John Kerry to our Prime Minister. A recent hearing in the British Parliament also concluded likewise.
The US Ambassador in Dhaka had come to the media before the Artisan terrorist attack to echo the fears of Washington. She clearly mentioned that ISIS operatives had found their way to Bangladesh. She should know better for the United States spends billions of US$ for counter-terrorism activities. The US has thrown the ISIS in its territory in Iraq and Syria into disarray. The terrorist organisation now has little capability of going anywhere with its insane dream of the Caliphate.
As a result, in recent times, there has been dramatic change in the ISIS strategy. Aware that with the Americans and their allies and also the Russians beating the hell out of them by air strikes, they have outsourced their ideology to young minds worldwide through the Internet, Facebook, etc. In fact, post-Orlando developments have led many strategic analysts in the United States to see clearly this new and dangerous twist in ISIS strategy that may eventually make their counter-terrorism strategies largely innocuous as they find the ISIS they have been crushing to the earth in Iraq and Syria have come to their backyards, in fact into their own homes if, of course, the US were ready to accept the 7/8 millions American Muslims as Americans.
While covering the Dhaka terror act, New York Times in its issue of July 02 has highlighted this new strategy. It headlined the story, as "Bangladesh attack is new evidence that ISIS has shifted its focus beyond the Middle East." LA Times, Washington Post and leading newspapers in the UK have come to the same conclusion. Thus, the time for denial by Dhaka that these recent acts of terror prior to the one in Artisan have been the acts of opposition elements should now be discarded because ISIS imprints in Bangladesh are now clearly on the wall. The Artisan terror act came on the heels of the efforts of the government's law enforcing agencies that nabbed 14,000 suspected terrorists and this underlined the futility of these arrests. The terrorists may be home-grown but they no longer are where these agencies are "nabbing" them; they are now in places they never thought they would be; they are in their midst. And when this new breed of terrorists attacked, the helplessness of the law enforcing agencies was palpably evident. The Army commandos had to be called to bring the terror act to an end.
In the aftermath of the Orlando terrorist attack, US strategic analysts have been suggesting that by targeting the ISIS in Iraq and Syria and thereby killing not just its cadre but hundreds of thousands of innocent people, the US and its allies may have given ISIS and radical Islam a great cause that they are now using in their new strategy of outsourcing their ideology. ISIS is using the deaths of these hundreds of thousands of innocent people as fodder to reach young minds for its terrorist causes. These analysts, therefore, are asking those taking decisions in the US Government to reach out to these young minds in their midst not by terrorising them but by working with them to help them come out of the ISIS grip. The analysts are also warning the US not to kill more innocent people in ISIS-held territories while going after ISIS.
Bangladeshi Muslims is different from Muslims in the West and the US. There may be some Bangladeshi radical Islamic elements that are charged and would be in future about the US and its allies turning Iraq and Syria into killing fields. Nevertheless, it is not a good enough cause for them to identify with the ISIS on this issue as for the radical Islamic elements in America and the West. Further, there are no Americans/Europeans in any good number or their interests in the country to attack to encourage Bangladeshi radical Islamic elements as for Muslims in the US and West with the killings of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Syria in the name of the war on terror.
ISIS has targeted these young men. It is a million-dollar question how many of these minds they have been able to reach but after the Artisan attack, the Government must not dismiss this without looking into it with the utmost seriousness. Western intelligence sources, led by the US, are convinced that ISIS has established contacts and have found supporters, not among those where our intelligence and law enforcing agencies are seeking but in the well-educated, urban middle class who have no interest in the corrupt politics of the country but seek higher causes and principles for their motivation. In that search, the attack on Islam in Bangladesh has resonated very significantly in their young but educated minds.
These six young men, derailed and perverted in the way they went for their causes, nevertheless have brought about a paradigm shift in understanding and dealing with terror should our government be ready for it. It is no longer an Awami League versus BNP/Jamaat matter. It is now a matter that has become one for the entire nation.
Therefore, the need of the hour is for the nation to come together. The Prime Minister needs to call a national convention because it would be a historic mistake if the government were to believe that the attack on Artisan would be a one-time terrorist attack.
The writer is a retired Ambassador.
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