Bangladesh to Mark Fifth Anniversary of Terrorist Attack

Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Ahammad Foyez
Bangladesh to Mark Fifth Anniversary of Terrorist Attack Police patrol outside the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka after Islamic extremists massacred hostages during an overnight siege at the café, July 3, 2016.

Bangladesh’s latest coronavirus lockdown looks set to overshadow the fifth anniversary of the country’s worst terror attack, when pro-Islamic State militants strode into a local restaurant and unleashed a night of horror that some survivors say they would rather forget.

On July 1-2, 2016, five young men who belonged to a Bangladeshi militant group aligned with the IS extremist organization slaughtered 20 people during a siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery, a café located in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter.

“We cannot forget this tragic event,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews.

This year’s remembrance of the attack, however, will be diminished because of a strict lockdown that the government has imposed to contain surging COVID-19 cases in the South Asian nation, he indicated.

“We had the plan to observe the day in a big way. Due to the COVID situation, we cannot do it. There will be a smaller-scale program at the site for the people to pay their respects,” he said.

“I had the plan to attend the event to pay respect to the victims. But I cannot go there as the strict lockdown starts on July 1.”

Altogether, 29 people died during the attack, including nine Italians, seven Japanese, one Indian and one duel Bangladesh-U.S. citizen, who were dining at the café on that Friday evening. The five men who carried out the assault separated non-Muslims and Muslims before using machetes or guns to kill their mostly non-Muslim victims, the authorities said.      

Since the attack five years ago, the café has moved to a new address in the Bangladeshi capital. The building that used to house the Holey Artisan Bakery at Road 79, in Dhaka’s posh Gulshan neighborhood, today stands mostly unoccupied and cordoned off from public view.

“The Japanese embassy has been planning to erect a memorial at the attack site. If we get any proposal from them, we will consider providing necessary supports,” Minister Khan said.

Officials at the Japanese embassy did not immediately respond to requests by BenarNews to confirm this information. Officials at the Italian embassy did not respond to BenarNews queries for this report.

While the siege was under way, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack and posted gruesome photos of the victims on its propaganda websites and via social media.

As daylight broke the next morning, July 2, security forces killed the five militants as police commandoes stormed the café to break the terrorist siege, which was carried out by Neo-JMB, a local group aligned with Islamic State. Apart from the terrorists’ 20 victims, two police officers and two café workers were also killed.

“July 1 is a black day for all Bangladeshis. We never thought that such a terrorist attack would take place on Bangladesh soil, especially in a highly protected area like Gulshan,” said Abdul Halim, a Bangladeshi man who was passing by the former site of the café recently.

“Bangladeshis highly respect the foreigners. But this terrorist attack has tarnished our image as a hospitable nation,” he said.

An employee of the café, who witnessed the attack, also spoke to BenarNews.

“They suddenly attacked, took all of us as hostages. They confined me and other staff to a separate facility and continued their acts,” said the employee named Shahriar, who declined to give his full name, citing concerns for his security.

He said he did not plan to visit the old site to take part in any activities to commemorate the fifth anniversary, which falls on Thursday.

“I am not interested in going on the day as it makes me traumatized. I want to forget the event. Once I remember, it haunts me day and night,” Shahriar told BenarNews. 

Relatives mourn as they carry the coffin of a victim who was killed in the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery, in Dhaka, July 4, 2016. [Reuters]

Threat lingers

The attack not only shocked the nation because of the scale of the cold-blooded killings, but because the young men who perpetrated it were well-educated and came from well-to-do backgrounds. Somehow, these youths had drifted into the orbit of violent extremism.

In the months afterward, the government launched a crackdown to crush the militant threat. Dozens of suspects were killed in the counter-terror raids.

According to authorities and analysts, law enforcers have been able to prevent similar attacks even as they deal with a new, online threat.

“[E]xtremism, specifically online radicalization, is fully active,” retired Maj. Gen. A.N.M. Muniruzzaman, leader of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, told BenarNews.

Muniruzzaman said extremists were using the COVID-19 pandemic to deliver their message because people were spending more time online for work and entertainment.

“The situation has increased fear because they are able to push for new recruits,” he said.

“There is no way to say that extremism has been eliminated. Police often found militant dens and recovered weapons and ammunition. So it is clear that the extremist groups are trying to organize and conduct attacks.”

Md. Kamrul Ahsan, the top counterterrorism official of the Bangladesh police, said that the force has increased training, upgraded equipment and added manpower.

“We are successful in foiling several attempts of militant attacks. Members of different militant groups are often arrested and we recover devices that are being used to spread their ideology in cyberspace,” Kamrul told BenarNews.

A coffin containing the body of a victim who was killed in the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery is pictured during a memorial ceremony in Dhaka, July 4, 2016. [Reuters]

Charge sheets

Investigators prepared charge sheets against more than 20 potential suspects linked to the café attack, including more than a dozen who were killed in the post-attack crackdown.

A diner who survived the attack, meanwhile, spent two years behind bars without being charged.

Hasnat Karim, a dual Bangladesh-British national and professor of engineering at a local university, was celebrating his young daughter’s birthday with his family at the restaurant, when the five assailants burst in. Karim was arrested in August 2016.

“Nobody can understand how Holey Artisan has changed our lives,” Karim’s wife, Sharmina Parveen, told BenarNews days before the first anniversary of the attack.

“Our kids who we took that evening for a birthday celebration never want to dine out. They don’t even go shopping anymore. They are still in trauma.”

Karim walked out of the Kashimpur prison near Dhaka on Aug. 9, 2018, a day after the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in Dhaka accepted a police report exonerating him of any crime and noting he had no link to the five militants who carried out the attack.

Police arrested Karim on Aug. 2, 2016, amid allegations that he collaborated with the attackers because his mobile phone was used to send photos that were uploaded to an IS-linked website.

The couple declined to be interviewed ahead of the fifth anniversary.

The same tribunal in November 2019 convicted and sentenced to death seven defendants charged with participating in the planning of the attack, while an eighth defendant was acquitted. As they exited the courtroom, some of the convicts pulled out black prayer caps that bore the insignia of the Islamic State.

At the time of the sentencing, the family of Faraaz Hossain, one of the Bangladeshis killed in the attack, thanked the government for its “zero-tolerance approach in combatting the scourge of terrorism.”

Surviving witnesses said Faraaz Hossain refused to leave other hostages behind when the gunmen said Muslims could leave the café.

“This in turn has galvanized and has united the people of Bangladesh in a shared revulsion to terrorism,” said the statement signed by Faraaz’ brother, Zaraif Hossain.


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