5 Years after Café Attack, Terror Threat under ‘Control’ in Bangladesh, Authorities Say

Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Ahammad Foyez
Dhaka
2021-06-29
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5 Years after Café Attack, Terror Threat under ‘Control’ in Bangladesh, Authorities Say Armored vehicles move through Dhaka after the end of a deadly overnight siege by Islamic extremists at the Holey Artisan Bakery café, July 2, 2016.
AP

Five years after terrorists massacred 20 diners at an upscale café in Dhaka, Bangladesh law enforcers say they have succeeded in controlling terror activity nationwide, although online extremism remains a concern.

Since the July 2016 attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery, the country’s drive to smash violent extremism has led to hundreds of people being thrown behind bars and an increase in cyberspace monitoring, which has raised concerns about potential infringement on human rights and privacy.

The overnight siege at the café in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter, a posh neighborhood known for its tight security, was the South Asian nation’s deadliest terror attack to date.

The attack jolted the authorities into taking the terror threat seriously, said A.K.M. Shahidul Haque, who served as inspector general of police at the time and has retired from the force. 

“Every single member of the police realized how dangerous the militants were for the security of the country,” he told BenarNews.

On July 1-2, 2016, five young members of a Bangladeshi militant group aligned with the extremist group known as Islamic State shot or hacked to death 20 civilians during their takeover of the café.

“With the help of the people, law enforcers worked with full vigor to destroy the militants’ networks,” Haque said. “Many militants died in the operations while others blew them up to avoid arrest. Thus we destroyed their network.”

In the wake of the attack, the government of Sheikh Hasina launched a crackdown aimed at eliminating the terror threat and set up a new national police agency, the Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU), to help in that mission.

At least 85 suspected extremists have been killed and nearly 2,500 arrested during as many as 1,060 law enforcement raids carried out since the attack, authorities have said.

Three different police units have been involved in the post-attack crackdown: the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB); Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC), which is a unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police; and the Anti-Terrorism Unit.

“The Global Terrorism Index list placed Bangladesh at 22nd position in 2016. Last year, Bangladesh stood at 33rd position. This means that the terror risk in Bangladesh came down, our strategy worked,” CTTC chief M. Asaduzzaman told BenarNews.

Human rights concerns

However, the government’s counter-terror crackdown has had negative consequences, said Mizanur Rahman, the former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission.

“[T]he law enforcers have been whisking away many people on militancy charges. They are being held for days and months without an announcement,” he told BenarNews.

“The situation is such that nobody raises any question when a person is detained on charges of militancy. This is a dangerous situation because anyone can victimize his opponents by branding them militants,” Rahman said.

The former head of the human rights body called on law enforcement agencies to announce the arrest of anyone suspected of being a militant and to carry out transparent investigations.

“If the state agencies continue to detain people without announcing charges, the people could begin to not trust the state agencies. This would not be good for the country,” he said.

Asaduzzaman, the CTTC chief, denied the allegation.

“We do not detain any innocent people. We arrest people with specific charges and produce them before the court in accordance with the law,” he said.

Online threat

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said the country has largely eliminated the terror threat but extremists remain a potent force online.

“Everything but cyberspace, specifically social media, is in our control, they [extremists] are circulating their views from different places through social media,” Khan told BenarNews.

“Though we are cautious, extremists are getting a chance through social media because there is no option of controlling the social media.”

Khandaker Al Moin, commander of RAB’s legal and media wing, said militants were trying to develop their own networks using online technology, including communications apps.

“To prevent their activities in cyberspace, we enhanced our cyber monitoring cell that was established following the Holey Artisan attack. Through regular cyber-patrolling, we are monitoring the people who are trying to spread extremism using cyberspace,” he said.

Kamrul Ahsan, chief of the Anti-Terrorism Unit, said police have increased training, upgraded equipment and added manpower in the years since the café attack.

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

In the days after the attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery, investigators revealed shocking details about how the five young men who carried out the siege had all come from well-to-do Bangladeshi families and had been educated at the country’s prestigious schools. All five were killed in a raid by police commandos on July 2, 2016, to break the siege at the café.

Authorities said that trend continues but that the government has launched programs to counter it.

“In the radicalization process, first a young man is made motivated by militants, then he gets radicalized and then he steps toward violence and extremism,” the CTTC’s Asaduzzaman told BenarNews.

“We have several awareness campaigns to stop young people from getting radicalized. We conduct many awareness programs in education institutes for students, teachers and guardians. We are getting good results out of that,” he said.

Mobile interceptor

Earlier this month, Bangladesh’s cabinet approved the purchase of a U.S. $8 million device to listen in on mobile-phone conversations and read text messages.

Tanvir Hassan Zoha, an information and communication technology expert, said a vehicle-mounted interceptor could be moved to different locations. 

“The interceptor takes control of all the mobile phone towers of the area where it is placed,” Zoha told BenarNews at the time.

“By controlling the towers, this device can access all conversations, messages, photos and videos [on mobile phones]. This device can even track conversations, messages, photos and videos exchanged via WhatsApp, Viber and other social networking apps,” he said.

In 2017 when Bangladesh purchased a similar interceptor, officials said it would be used to identify and track militants.

Human rights advocates, however, have raised concerns about the new equipment, saying the government could use it to violate citizens’ constitutional right to privacy, and that the technology could be used to spy on the opposition and ordinary people.

“It would be used to suppress political and other opponents. The government is violating people’s privacy by procuring tracking devices with public money,” Badiul Alam Majumdar, a civil society leader, told BenarNews in early June.

Meanwhile, a security expert questioned the government’s assertion that it has brought the extremist threat under control since that horrific night at the Holey Artisan Bakery.

“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,” retired Maj. Gen. A.N.M. Muniruzzaman, who heads the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, told BenarNews.

“[E]xtremism, specifically online radicalization, is fully active.”

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