Despite measures taken in the year since Islamic militants slaughtered diners at a café in Dhaka, Bangladesh is still not safe from terrorists, but “we think we can control them,” the country’s home minister told BenarNews in an interview.
Bangladesh had experienced a series of attacks on minorities and foreigners in preceding years but “a massacre of this magnitude never happened in our country,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said.
Twenty-nine people died in the July 1, 2016 attack, including the five terrorists who were slain when army commandoes stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery.
The extremist group Islamic State claimed the attack and images of dead bodies inside the café circulated on IS media before it ended.
Although top officials have denied any IS presence in the country, Khan acknowledged that “external forces” had fueled violent extremism in Bangladesh. He also accused faith-based opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami of leading home-grown militant groups.
He denied that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent concessions to the hardline Hefazat-e-Islami group, such as recognizing degrees from its unregulated boarding schools, could foster extremism.
While the South Asian country is not completely safe from terrorists, “we think we can control them with the help of the people and our security forces,” he said.
Security forces have killed some 70 militant suspects since July 2016; only four suspects linked to the café attack are in custody. Asked if this reflected a weakness of law enforcement, Khan replied: “Absolutely not.”
BN: Where does the Holey Artisan café attack investigation stand now?
Khan: We think, very soon, we can finalize the probe report. We are taking time to submit an accurate report. The delay was not for any ill motive.
I cannot give any specific timeframe….
BN: How did the attack impact Bangladesh at home and abroad?
Khan: We saw acts of terror in Bangladesh in which individuals were attacked. In the Holey Artisan café attack, we for the first time experienced that an organized group of people came to a particular place and killed many people according to a plan.
A massacre of this magnitude never happened in our country. So … that was a huge jolt for us; it was a turning point for us…
Today, the people have some understanding about militancy. The people overwhelmingly responded to the honorable prime minister’s call to resist this sort of terrorism.
She urged people to bring back those who got radicalized. … mothers handed over their extremist sons to the security forces. We have been working to de-radicalize them through correct interpretations of Islam.
The parents of the slain militants did not receive the dead bodies. They no more own them as their relatives, out of anger and hate. This is Bangladesh; this is the character of the people of Bangladesh.
The people of Bangladesh never approve of killings and terrorism; they can sacrifice their lives for their neighbors and the country.
BN: Since the attack, law enforcement has used preemptive force. Most suspected militants were not caught alive. Is this an inadequacy of the police force?
Khan: Absolutely not.
BN: Many youths left their families before the Holey Artisan café attack, and parents reported their disappearances to the police. Didn’t this give you a sign that something big would happen?
Khan: Before the Holey Artisan café attack, Cesare Tavella was killed, Kunio Hoshi was killed. An attack was carried out on the ISKCON [International Society for Krishna Consciousness] temple in Panchagarh, a Buddhist monk was killed in Bandarban. Two Christian priests faced attempts on their lives. An attempt to murder a Shiite Muslim was made and a Shiite Muezzin was killed.
The motive behind the attacks was to create conflict among the religions practiced in Bangladesh. [In response], we mobilized the religious leaders of all faiths. We went to different [geographic] divisions and preached that there is no conflict among the religions. We have been able to stop the attempt to create divisions among religions.
We had a series of meetings with the faculty and management board members of the public and private universities, colleges and schools. We urged them to let us know who were the youths missing for long, and we had overwhelming response from them. We printed the list of the missing people in newspapers.
There has been external fueling of militancy in Bangladesh. For instance, Canadian citizen Tamim Chowdhury came to create confusion among people. He came with a wrong message that the Muslims committing such killings would straight go to heaven.
But the people trashed his wrong interpretation. They did not shelter him; rather, they informed the police about his whereabouts.
With the help of the people, the security forces and the intelligence agencies crushed the militants' hideouts one after another.
BN: Who were the attackers?
Khan: All of them are the people of Bangladesh. They brand themselves in different names at different times. The forces that opposed Bangladesh’s independence through a freedom struggle have been committing these sorts of incidents one after another in a bid to get stronger.
BN: You mean the political party Jamaat-e-Islami?
Khan: Our investigations reveal this. We have found that the leaders of all militants belonging to the Harkat-ul Jihad, the JMB, the Ansarullah BanglaTeam and other groups were former leaders of Jamaat-[e-Islami] and [Islami Chhatra] Shibir.
BN: Does the threat of militancy persist in Bangladesh?
Khan: Our people do not approve militancy and terrorism. Our people are extremely peace-loving. They are pious, but not fanatic. So, the people will not harbor militants and terrorists. Without people's support, no-one can do anything. From this perspective, we don’t have anything to fear, any concern about militants.
Despite this, we do not think that we are completely safe from them. We think we can control them with the help of the people and our security forces.
BN: The government decided to recognize degrees granted by conservative Qwami madrassas, and supported demands by conservative groups to remove a statue deemed un-Islamic from the Supreme Court premises. Don’t such moves promote extremism?
Khan: Not at all. Who are the people of the Qwami Madrasas? They love Islam; they nourish Islam in their hearts …They have been denouncing militancy and extremism.
According to the unofficial figure, 16 lakh (1.6 million) students study in the Qwami Madrasas. This number is not small. If we can mainstream them, if we can give them knowledge, give them the light of education, they can live better.
So, these decisions would not fuel militancy.