The Dhaka attack: if IS now recruits among ‘wealthy’ youth
Mattia Baglieri 12 July 2016

However Al-Baghdadi Caliphate’s ability to take roots in other countries like Central and Eastern Asian countries seems increasing, as well as the attacks in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, testifies with the killing and torture perpetrated especially towards Italian and Japanese citizens, i.e. those individuals perceived as a foreign body in a country characterised by a large Muslim majority but which has seemed so far quite resistant to violent radicalization phenomena (although an escalation of violence has been reported since 2014).

Terrorists’ profile too seems surprising: they are not, in fact, foreign fighters from poor origins and living conditions, neither youngsters fascinated by a violent ransom’s message or by eschatological perspectives like the ones who have lived for years in misery or being educated in extremist madrassas sustained by the charitable funds of Islamic countries which had previously been the hotbed of Al-Qaeda: it is rather, this time, the promising wealthy youngsters of Bangladesh, educated in private colleges and in the most prestigious universities of the country. Jihadist terrorism seems thus spreading almost among every youth sectors, going to fascinate desperate youngsters looking for a macabre “meaning” of life, as well as young people coming from rich families but attracted by the jihadist theories and went “haywire” after long time spent studying on engineering university textbooks.

International newspapers presents reflections of this kind not only in the West but even if we read Southeast Asian columns: a Southeast Asia which is now becoming more and more aware of a ongoing terrorist phenomenon that touches inevitably countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia and India, which can no longer be depicted as ‘immune’ countries.

On the «New York Times», Bengali writer and activist Tahmina Anam, author of A Golden Age, a novel on the Bangladesh Liberation War, in her editorial Horror and Sorrow in Dhaka (4th July) gives emphasis on what is going on: «Reports suggest that the assailants were not, as many expected to hear, from disenfranchised backgrounds. They were privately educated and from wealthy families — young men who easily might have been friends with some of the victims. Where does that leave us, knowing that these killers had every privilege in life and yet chose the path of nihilism? It leaves us with this conclusion: We must accept that the story we have long told ourselves about our country may no longer be true. For months, I and many of my fellow Bangladeshis have wanted to believe that the targeted assassinations of writers, bloggers, publishers, gay rights activists, Hindu priests and foreign workers did not mean that Bangladesh was necessarily on a road to destabilization by violent extremists. We felt sure that things must eventually go back to normal — normal being a Muslim-majority country with a secular Constitution and a robust tradition of social justice, diversity and pluralism. We did not believe Bangladesh could become one of those places where the wealthy barricade themselves behind high gates and private security, where embassies issue travel warnings and evacuate their staff, and where — God forbid — America sends its drones to target the militants».

Still on the «New York Times», Julfikar Ali Manik, Geeta Anand and Ellen Barry underline how IS is making its way well beyond Middle East up to sink its roots even in those Muslim contexts which seemed well away from the fascination of violent radicalization. They write in fact in their article Bangladesh Attack Is New Evidence That Isis Has Shifted Its Focus Beyond the Mideast (July the 2nd): «The attack also suggests that Bangladesh’s militant networks are internationalizing, a key concern as the United States seeks to contain the growth of the Islamic State. Bangladesh’s 160 million people are almost all Sunni Muslims, including a demographic bulge under the age of 25. This makes it valuable as a recruiting ground for the Islamic State, now under pressure in its core territory of Iraq and Syria. Western intelligence officials have been watching the organization pivot to missions elsewhere in the world, launching attacks on far-flung civilian targets that are difficult to deter with traditional military campaigns». In the same article Shafqat Munir, a Bengali researcher from the Institute of Peace and Security Studies highlights how «“there were all sorts of warnings and signs and everything. But I don’t think anyone expected anything as audacious and large-scale as this”».

The same reporters Julfikar Manik and Geeta Anand will deepens precisely on the origins of these previous alarms which had already shocked Bangladesh in recent times in their article After Slaughter, Bangladesh Reels at Revelations About Attackers again on the July 3rd «New York Times»: «For more than three years now, Islamist militants have murdered atheist bloggers, members of religious minorities and others. The Islamic State and a regional branch of Al Qaeda have claimed responsibility for the killings, although the Bangladeshi government continues to insist that local groups were responsible. The involvement of the Islamic State appeared increasingly more likely during the latest attack, with the organization not only claiming responsibility but later posting the photographs of the men believed to have carried it out».

The «BBC» interviewed one of the assailants’ father who wanted to express his anger and upset after finding out of his son’s involvement: «“I am stunned to learn this” said Imtiaz Khan, a leader of the Awami League’s Dhaka chapter and deputy secretary-general of the Bangladesh Olympic Committee. “My son used to pray five times a day from a young age. There is a mosque just 25 feet from our home. He started going to prayers with his grandfather. But we never imagined this. There was nothing at home, no books or anything to indicate he was leaning that way. The shock and suddenness of the event has left me speechless. I am so ashamed and sorry”». (BBC article Bangladesh Attack: Shock over ‘elite’ Holey Café suspects, July the 4th).

Even another father cries, in an interview released to the American «CNN»: it is Meer Hayet Kabir, who keeps on repeating: «“That is not my son, that is not my son… Had I known he was going there, the first thing I would do is stop it with my life. This cannot be.” (…) “They were normal, regular guys who hung out at cafes, played sports, had Facebook pages” said Faiz Sobhan of the Dhaka-based think tank Bangladesh Enterprise Institute. What went wrong? The families and city residents are now left wondering what went wrong and where. While some were stunned to see three men from upper middle class families on the list of attackers, it’s not altogether surprising to experts. Youth, wealth and education are the three biggest risk factors associated with violent radicalization, according to a study by Queen Mary University of London. Whether it is foreign fighters who have flocked to join the group in Iraq and Syria, or homegrown attackers who pledge allegiance online, ISIS members have defied stereotypes of just who is at risk of radicalization. Computer scientist Zeeshan ul-hassan Usmani analyzed thousands of online profiles of current and potential ISIS recruits. He told CNN last year that contrary to popular belief, recruits from Europe and the United States are far more likely to be educated and come from middle or upper class families.» (CNN article Dhaka Attack: ‘That is not my son’ killer’s father cries, July the 4th).

«Le Monde» too stresses on the consolidation of the presence of IS’s affiliates in Bangladesh with an article by Madjid Zerrouky entitled Au Bangladesh, la percée de l’Etat Islamique (tr. In Bangladesh, the breakthrough of the Islamic State, 4th July) in which Zerrouky highlights how «the terrorists are aged between 17 and 21 years and have radicalised only recently, having just sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. (…) Yet, according to Ajai Sahni, Director of the Institute for Conflict Resolution, an organization which observes terrorist activities located in New Delhi, IS is not the direct responsible for more than 40 murders that occurred in Bangladesh since 2013, which affected mainly intellectuals, bloggers and gay activists and members of the Hindu and Buddhist minorities. “It seems to me that the media branch of the Islamic State has often claimed some of the attacks carried out by extremists only to give the impression of a true international rootedness” Sahni pointed out».

Southeast Asian Affairs analyst Tom Hussain, a «Al Jazeera» correspondent based in Islamabad, does not hide his deep concerns in his article Divisive politics set the stage for Dhaka attack, July 4th): «IS started with targeted murders, graduated to mass killings over the weekend, and will be looking to raise their profile further by attacking ruling party politicians and security forces personnel with improvised explosive devices. The militants will also aim to use Bangladeshi territory to recruit disenfranchised Muslims in neighbouring countries, such as the Rohingya of Myanmar, and to launch cross-border terrorist attacks, most likely into India – as they did when Khaleda Zia and the Jamaat-e-Islami were last in power. As the situation evolves, the government will find that terrorism cannot be fought by a one-party state. It requires a clear, honest narrative and unity among elected political forces. With the opposition absent from parliament and its leaders on trial, however, the signs are ominous».

Indian newspapers as well do not hide their fears about the Indian republic, with «The Hindu» that relates the attacks occurred in Dhaka with the serious ongoing Bangladesh’s political crisis and the difficult relations with India due to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina politics. Tamil Nadu’s newspaper editorial Dhaka attack inspired by the Islamic State (July 3rd) directly relates recent attacks to the climate of terror undergoing in Bangladesh since 2014, with the government faltering in defining a clear strategy in response to the domestic terrorism of Islamic origin: «The terror strike in Dhaka is a sign of Bangladesh’s internal political dynamics as well as the continuing appeal of a new wave of religious violence inspired by the Islamic State. Officials in Indian agencies believe the political developments in the neighbouring country since 2014 and the execution of war criminals were the key reasons for the violence. Much of that political unrest is convulsing around the Islamic State and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JUB). Sources in the security establishment said the attacks were also a sign that violent Islamism would continue for a long time, despite the setbacks suffered by IS in Iraq or the clampdown against fundamentalists in Bangladesh. “We need to be concerned about the IS influence in India. While in some the cases agencies may have overplayed their hand, in many others the findings are alarming,” an official said».

Even Malaysian newspapers are dismayed and questioning about the Dhaka terror, as two of the terrorists of the Holy Café of the Bengali capital were enrolled at the Malaysian Monash University. The daily newspaper «The Star» in Kuala Lumpur, for example, reported that Malaysian authorities have already taken contact with the Monash University in order to «discuss the allegations that an alumnus may be a member of the militant group. The Higher Education Ministry also said that it will investigate the allegations and work alongside enforcement agencies on the matter». («The Star» article Second Bangladesh Militant believed to be Monash student, July the 4th).

English-speaking Bangladesh’s newspapers too are trying to reconstruct the exact dynamics of the event as well as to understand what ideological groups have been able to entice young, wealthy people to turn into ruthless killers. «The Daily Star» newspaper, for instance, reported as «One of the suspected attackers, Nibras Islam, 22, on Twitter in 2014 used to follow Anjem Choudary and Shami Witness – both of whom allegedly are Islamic State recruiters. Another suspected killer Rohan Imtiaz, son of an Awami League leader, urged all Muslims to be terrorists in Facebook last year quoting a controversial Indian Islaminst preacher Zakir Nayek. A British citizen of Pakistan origin, 49-year-old Anjem is now facing trial in England for breaking British anti-terrorism law. Shami Witness is the Twitter name of 24-year-old Mehdi Biswas of Bangalore in India, who is also facing trial for running propaganda for Islamic State. Shami was arrested in December 2014 following an investigation into his Twitter account which was last active in August 2014. Anjem’s Twitter account became inactive from August 2015 after terror charges were brought against him. A controversial figure also in his home country India, Zakir Nayek is banned in the UK, Canada and Malaysia. He has become popular among a section of people in Bangladesh through his Peace TV although his preaching often demeans other religions and even other Muslim sects. This means that at least Nibras and Imtiaz did not become radicalised overnight. They have been consuming radical materials for one to two years before finally disappearing from their families back in February-March». («The Daily Star» article 2 ‘attackers’ followed radical preacher, ‘IS’ recruiters, July the 4th).

Another Bangladesh’s newspaper international edition, «The Independent», has instead wished to proposed Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s Hasina son and political consultant Sajeeb Wazed Joy comment issued via Facebook, who wrote on his profile: «“It was a terrible, heinous attack. These killers were not Muslims. Terrorists have no religion…more than anything we need to reverse the brainwashing of our youth with lies about religion. We need to stand united in doing this. (…) The reality is that the terrorists were educated, middle-class individuals. There are many more like them. They could be your neighbours, relatives and sons. Each one of us has the responsibility to be vigilant to keep our country safe.”» («The Independent» article Get united against brainwashing of youth, July the 4th).