A year after terrorists invaded a cafe in Dhaka, singling out non-Muslims and foreigners for slaughter, Bangladesh has yet to conclude its investigation, and survivors remain traumatized.
A total of 24 people died, 18 of them foreign nationals, during the siege claimed by the extremist group Islamic State (IS) that lasted till daylight the next morning, when army commandoes raided the restaurant and killed the five attackers.
The attack catapulted IS into national consciousness in Bangladesh, a Sunni Muslim majority nation of 163 million people, although government officials continue to deny that the extremist group has a presence in their country.
“Nobody can understand how Holey Artisan has changed our lives,” said Sharmin Karim, whose family was dining in the cafe when the black-clad attackers stormed in, shouting “Allahu Akbar” – “God is Great” in Arabic.
“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,” she told BenarNews.
After the 10-hour ordeal was over, her husband Hasnat, a Bangladeshi-born British national, was arrested on suspicion of abetting the terrorists, an accusation she vehemently denies. He is one of only four suspects currently in custody; no charges have been filed against him.
“The investigation is almost finished,” Monirul Islam, chief of the police’s counter terrorism and transnational crimes unit, told BenarNews. “The charge sheet can be filed by the end of this year.”
At least 22 suspects have been linked to the attack. Five are at large and 13 have been killed, police say.
While the siege was still under way, gruesome photos of victims who had been hacked to death circulated on IS-linked media, transmitted by attackers barricaded inside the café.
Apart from its savagery, the attack shocked the people of Bangladesh because three of the perpetrators came from well-off families and had attended some of the nation’s top schools.
These young men were among scores of youths who had gone missing from their families during the months leading up to the attack, according to officials. The images from the attack were sent out via Hasnat Karim’s mobile phone, police say.
Counter-terror officials, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the ongoing investigation, said the attack was aimed at establishing strict Islamic law in Bangladesh, and a response to alleged repression of Muslims in neighboring India and Myanmar.
They said plotters began planning the attack in May 2016, and that foreign intelligence agencies alerted Bangladeshi officials about the potential for a major attack. But they did not grasp the magnitude of the violence that would take place, the sources said.
At least 70 suspected militants have died in counterterrorism raids across Bangladesh since the café attack, in a nationwide crackdown on Jamaat-ul Mujaideen Bangladesh (JMB), the militant group police believe was responsible for it.
But officials say the problem cannot be addressed with force alone, and are looking at launching a program to de-radicalize young people.
Nazrul Islam, whose son Nibras was one of the five attackers, says he and wife want to help.
“Now, we are almost ostracized. Losing a son is unbearable, but losing a son in an anti-militant drive is humiliating. We want to tell people how my son left us by getting involved into wrong path of jihad,” Islam told BenarNews.
“The youths who are now thinking of deserting their parents should know our sufferings,” he added.
“The parents would take part in the anti-militant campaigns, and denounce violent extremism. This will, we think, give a message that militancy is not the true path of Islam,” said Monirul Islam, the chief of the national police’s counter-terrorist and trans-national crimes branch.
“The parents will share how their slain or arrested militant children made them suffer socially. They will also suggest what issues the guardians should look after to save their sons and daughters from militancy,” another official with the unit told BenarNews.
Well before the attack, violent Islamic fundamentalism was changing Bangladesh. Between February 2013 and the café attack, 10 liberal bloggers, activists and academics were hacked to death by militants, and dozens more went into hiding due to death threats.
The probe has uncovered several international elements, including links to IS.
The attack’s alleged mastermind, Tamim Chowdhury, was featured in two different IS magazines – Dabiq and Rumiya – as the “emir of the Caliphate’s soldiers in Bengal.”
The Bangladeshi-born Canadian citizen went to Syria in 2012-2013 and entered Bangladesh in October 2013, police say.
“Tamim visited those areas which have long been considered radical. He visited Chittagong, Sylhet and northern districts to organize the Neo JMB,” counterterrorism official Md. Moniruzzaman told BenarNews, referring to a faction of JMB that espouses IS ideology.
Chowdhury and two other suspected militants were shot dead by security forces during a raid near Dhaka on Aug. 27, 2016.
Police officials told BenarNews that they were also tracking an Australian national of Bangladesh origin, Tajuddin Abu Kausar, who allegedly worked as Tamim Chowdhury’s liaison with IS.
Abu Kauser left Bangladesh for Australia in 2006 and investigators believe he had been in Syria.
Kauser discussed with Chowdhury how to attack a place frequented by foreigners in Dhaka, two sources close to the probe told BenarNews.
The funds for the Holey Artisan attack came from abroad, said Sanwar Hossain, the police department’s additional deputy commissioner of counter-terrorism.
“The operation was not that costly, yet money came from Dubai and India,” Hossain told BenarNews. He said software engineer and Neo-JMB militant Basharuzzaman Chocolate, who is now a fugitive, received the money.
A Bangladeshi physician, Khandaker Rokonuddin who moved to Syria along with his family, donated 8 million taka (about U.S. $97,000) to the Neo-JMB, according to Hossain.
Another supporter, Tanvir Quadri, sold his Dhaka apartment and donated the money to the Neo-JMB, police said. A slain JMB operative, Maj. Zahidul Islam, also donated money from his pension to support the attack.
Yet the attack itself cost only about 800,000 taka ($10,000), according to police.
“Law enforcers have destroyed their network and in one or two years there will be no JMB in Bangladesh,” Monirul Islam told BenarNews. “But militancy may not be uprooted and JMB may reappear with another name unless we have a proper de-radicalization program.”