For those jumping to conclusions about the perpetrator of the Dhaka terror attacks, here is a reality check. On Saturday, I battled a whole army of Indian TV anchors, journalists and commentators on several national channels, challenging their repeated assertions that either the ISIS or the Al Qaeda was behind the Friday night attack on the Dhaka cafe in the capital’s diplomatic zone of Gulshan. I kept insisting these were homegrown radicals, highly indoctrinated and motivated but poorly trained for regular combat. So the brutal killing of hostages on Friday night may be shocking and unexpected for most and that seems to be basis for conclusions that either ISIS or Al Qaeda had launched this attack as part of its larger global terror agenda. But the way the resistance of these jihadis folded up before the para-commando assault in 15-20 minutes convinced me these were local radicals, highly motivated but poorly trained.
Bengalis have a tradition for such highly motivated political action, but their capacity for regular combat has always been limited and weapons they have used are much less sophisticated than Northeast Indian insurgents, not to speak global jihadis. I am reminded of the Naxalites of 1971 who fought the police in Calcutta streets with bombs and pipeguns, highly motivated ideologically but poorly trained and equipped for combat. This tradition goes back to the revolutionaries of my grandfather’s generation who bombed British administrators and killed so many of them.
The Dhaka episode represents a colossal intelligence failure. Planning an attack like this (and now that it is clearly established these were local jihadis) would mean recce of multiple sites, selection of the assault team, coordination between multiple modules of the terror group, meaning a lot of ‘extremist chatter’ on mobile and cyber space, unless the terrorists are using physical couriers for communication.
Failure to pick up a lead in the run-up to such an attack is disappointing. It points to lack of intelligence penetration into jihadi networks, especially those that emerged, apparently, after the Shahbagh movement in 2013.
homegrown Islamist terror group whose activists have very basic weapons training – they are high on ideological motivation, so killing 20 people within maybe a couple of hours, but they are poorly trained to take on the army or special forces in regular combat
A comparison to Mumbai 2008 is obvious. The Indian Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) had warned the Indian government at least thrice, but the former National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, allegedly, overlooked them. So the intelligence did not miss the impending threat to Mumbai; the man at the helm missed the leads provided by his sleuths because, as a former Intelligence Bureau chief involved in turf wars with R&AW, his natural inclination was to ignore the R&AW. No wonder, Narayanan paid the price along with Home Minister Shivraj Patil after Mumbai 2008, and no heads rolled at R&AW or the Intelligence Bureau (IB).
An unidentified relative of one of the victims of the attack on Holey Artisan Bakery. AP Photo
In Bangladesh’s case, it may be too early to comment but I strongly suspect the agencies were busy tracking the ceaseless attacks on soft targets across the country in the past weeks.
Having said that, Bangladesh responded brilliantly to the crisis, much better than what the Indians had done in Pathankot in 2015 and Mumbai in 2008. It helps to have a clear chain of command in a non-federal country – the state-Centre tension in India creates a huge problem.
The Bangladesh police did what the Mumbai police had done – brave officers took on the terrorists on their own in a knee-jerk reaction and some paid with their lives.
Then after a quick review, the Bangladesh government decided on a full scale military assault. Knowing her instincts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a more decisive leader than Manmohan Singh (Indian PM during Mumbai) and authorised the para-commando assault without wasting time.
‘Operation Thunderbolt’ by the Bangladesh para-commandos was well-planned and the use of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to demolish the wall of the café creating a breach to let the commandos an easy entry was tactically smart.
The terrorists were easily neutralised if one were to go by the version of RAB Colonel Tuhin Masood who spoke at length in an India Today TV interview when I was on that panel.
Several things are now clear
* This was a suicide attack because the terrorists knew there was no getaway after the police had encircled them and tried to neutralise them immediately after the takeover
* They did not try any escape after some killing but committed almost all the 20 murders within the night.
* They represent a homegrown Islamist terror group whose activists have very basic weapons training – they are high on ideological motivation, so killing 20 people within maybe a couple of hours, but they are poorly trained to take on the army or special forces in regular combat.
Bangladeshi soldiers and security personnel sit on top of armoured vehicles as they cordon off an area
* This justifies their effort to seek maximum political impact by attacking soft targets like these foreigners in a café or some Hindu priest. Scaring foreigners may have an impact on Bangladesh economy by driving away possible investors or aid workers while killing Hindu priests will touch a raw nerve in India and complicate Delhi-Dhaka relations.
* They sent an Islamist message by sparing a Bangladeshi family because the wife had her hijab or head scarf on. So while an attack on foreigners is aimed at hitting Bangladesh’s development which is Hasina’s biggest card, the assault on Hindu priests attempts to undermine her relations with India. And sparing a Bangladeshi with her hijab is to tell the country that if one pursued secular politics like the bloggers and publishers, they risked death from the jihadis.
Hasina’s declared stance on zero tolerance against terror and her decisive action should leave a few lessons for the indecisive mandarins in Delhi who delay and dither when a Kandahar or a Mumbai or a Pathankot happens.
But if Bangladesh has to win its war against terror, it needs quality intelligence. Or else, the people will witness nationwide crackdown with thousands of arrests and still suffer a Gulshan café style attack which helps the detractors raise serious questions about the government’s ability to fight terror, if not its intent.
Dhaka episode represents a colossal intelligence failure. Planning an attack like this (and now that it is clearly established these were local jihadis) would mean recce of multiple sites, selection of the assault team, coordination between multiple modules of the terror group, meaning a lot of ‘extremist chatter’ on mobile and cyber space, unless the terrorists are using physical couriers for communication
The jihadi violence over the past two years is closely linked to the Islamist politics in Bangladesh. Failure to defeat Hasina’s secularist Awami League in two successive polls , even after massive street violence during which BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami supporters firebombed passenger buses and derailed trains by sabotaging tracks, has provoked the hardline Islamist fringe in the country to strike at the government by select assassination of carefully picked up soft targets, each to send out a message. The new Islamist radical groups are very tightly organised, their cadres are not the usual madrassa types but well educated and radicalised by Internet propaganda, and some of their leaders are based abroad. Failure to penetrate them has led the police to launch massive crackdowns leading to huge number of arrests without any consequent impact on the striking ability of the jihadi tanzeems. That is why a week after the nationwide crackdown following the murder of Hindu priests , the Dhaka terror strike could happen in the diplomatic zone of Gulshan where security is supposedly very tight.