Saturday 2 July 2016

ISIS in Bangladesh Part II

It gives me little pleasure to be a prophet. Unfortunately, when I attempt prophecy, almost nothing I say is ever optimistic, and equally almost always I turn out to have been right.

A few months ago I’d written an article in which I’d pointed out that

1. Bangladesh is a dystopic basket case with little semblance of government, and that this, given its history and geography, was inevitable.

2. Bangladesh has a serious Islamic terrorism problem, and, instead of doing anything concrete to tackle this, successive Bangladeshi governments have acted in a manner guaranteed to make the problem much worse.

3. Bangladesh is a sitting duck for international jihadi movements, in particular ISIS, and also al Qaeda affiliates; and, in fact, said jihadi outfits had already set up base and had moved past the recruitment and indoctrination phases to active attacks.

4. Bangladeshi governments will deny that these jihadi movements exist, and will try and whistle past the graveyard, and blame all external problems (as is the Bangladeshi national habit) on India.

Not altogether surprisingly, the article drew furious ire from a Bangladeshi commentator, whose responses I'll immortalise in screenshots (in case he now sees fit to return and delete them). Click to enlarge for readbility:

Over these last few months, increasing numbers of attacks have taken place across Bangladesh, targeting Hindus, atheists, Shia, moderate Sunnis, and other “undesirables”. Many of these have been directly claimed by ISIS; and – true to my prediction – the Bangladeshi government of Hasina Wajed has denied the group even exists in the country. Apparently, they are people “claiming to be ISIS”, not ISIS itself.

Pardon me if I do not see the difference where a franchise-based group like ISIS is concerned. Would we only admit ISIS exists in Bangladesh if it comprises Iraqi and Syrian Wahhabis? With ISIS’ undeniable attempts – highly successful attempts – to recruit from Libya to Chechnya, from Turkey to Indonesia, from Afghanistan to India, can one even claim with a straight face that people “claiming to be ISIS” can’t be ISIS?

Do tell.

I am reminded of this today, after gunmen claiming to be ISIS stormed a restaurant in Dhaka – the Bangladesh capital – and took hostages including foreign nationals (among whom were Indians and Westerners). ISIS itself promptly claimed responsibility. And so did al Qaeda, claiming responsibility while the siege was still on: 

The siege was finally broken after police commandos stormed the building, resulting in what the Bangladeshi government claims to be 13 deaths among the hostages (or maybe it was 20?), six of the attackers, and one policeman. I will say right now that the actual death toll will almost certainly be much higher, but will never be disclosed, in keeping with usual South Asian practice.

This restaurant was apparently sited in a high-security zone of Dhaka, and accessed by streets with multiple checkpoints. And yet attackers armed with automatic rifles and grenades managed to take over the restaurant and keep the police at bay overnight. This, in a country where previous Islamic attacks were carried out with machetes and crude bombs, little better than upscale fireworks, and casualties were always very low.

Tell me again how ISIS does not exist in Bangladesh.

As I also said in my earlier article, Bangladesh is unlikely to get much, or indeed anything, more than flowery words of support when big attacks occur. It has neither resources nor any strategic value. Nor is India – the only regional country with the ability to “help” – going to interfere in any way. For one thing, all it would do is get India called an “invader” by Bangladeshi politicians and media, and achieve next to nothing. For another, India has – unlike Bangladesh – admitted that ISIS is actually setting up cells in this country (it has, conveniently, threatened attacks), and is likely to be more interested in handling its own problems. Said problems, by the way, now include not just ISIS but Hindu jihadism, which is so undeniable that even the current government has begun muttering that it exists.

So what happens in Bangladesh now? It’s likely that the government will still try and deny that ISIS is responsible. Meanwhile, the headchoppers (whether they call themselves ISIS or by some other appellation) will keep spreading in the countryside, aided and abetted by the government’s incredible incompetence. The army and police will be kept tied up in the cities with spectacular strikes on soft targets like last night’s restaurant raid. By the time the government gets round to trying to take back the countryside (instead of ensuring its own survival by crushing all dissidents and political opponents, which is its normal occupation), it will find that impossible. If it attempts to conduct armed sweeps, the jihadis will merely keep their heads down for the duration. If it sets up armed camps, said camps will soon discover they are isolated, besieged islands in a hostile sea. Within months, its writ will run only in the cities, and after a while, even there, it will no longer control the night.

Perhaps then my Bangladeshi critic will recall my words, but then it will be far too late.

As we Bengalis say, “Dhakka shamla”. Let’s see you try and cope.

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