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End of the beginning

  • Published at 02:19 am December 25th, 2016
End of the beginning
Yesterday's raid in Ashkona, in which female jihadists blew themselves up and critically endangered children – injuring one as young as 15 months old – demonstrated the extent to which Islamist militants are willing to go to make their point. It was deeply unsettling to Bangladesh's traditional view of mothers as indefatigable defenders of children. July 1 was a seminal moment, tying together the wave of deadly attacks on foreigners, religious minorities, free-thinking bloggers and atheists into a single narrative: Bangladesh had been marked for attacks. There had been previous signs that attacks would take place, but no one could have predicted the brutality or severity of Bangladesh's new wave of terrorism. Whether the attackers were homegrown or groomed abroad, the government responded in kind: It would resist the terrorist menace. A series of shootouts and sieges of militant dens have since been carried out. Excluding yesterday's casualties, law enforcers estimate that 42 militants have been killed in raids since the July 1 attack. The hostage standoff — the first in Bangladesh — at O Kitchen/ Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka's up-market Gulshan neighbourhood left no doubt, even in the minds of the staunchest deniers, that Bangladesh had its share of militants and that they were not going away. The attack was also, in a way, a declaration by the militants that they had arrived. Young men in their twenties, some educated abroad and coming from affluent families, used sophisticated semi-automatics to kill 23 people at Holey Artisan Bakery, including two policemen who had gone to confront them soon after they had stormed into the posh eatery. The standoff in the heart of Dhaka’s diplomatic zone lasted almost 12 hours as law enforcers waited around with little clue as to how to proceed. It ended in a commando operation which saw all of the militants killed. But long before it had been brought to an end, chilling pictures of bloodied, hacked bodies from inside the restaurant, were circulating online. The official IS news outlet also released pictures of five smiling young men holding a semi-automatic, sporting the signature IS red keffiyehs and black punjabis, in front of the organisation’s flag. Although the government brushed aside the possibility of international connections, saying these were all homegrown militants, the public hardly seemed to buy it. Soon afterwards, law enforcers busted several militant dens. There have also been indications that the investigators were able to trace the five attackers back to their dens and bases. This was also the year when Bangladeshi recruits of the IS released videos boldly threatening wave after wave of attacks until democracy was toppled and replaced by Sharia. Even the IS bulletin has mentioned Bangladesh on several occasions. For months after the Gulshan attack, Dhaka’s restaurant scene ground to a halt. In fact, social lives came to a halt for many. Bangladesh, along with so many other countries, is no longer a ‘family posting’ for expats, who have recently been ordered by their respective governments and agencies to stay away from public places and avoid large gatherings. Hundreds of meetings were cancelled and almost as a rule foreign clients met with their local suppliers in Bangkok or Singapore. Although there had previously been bombings, attacks on courts and other state establishments, and murders of marked atheists, the general public began to feel at risk only after the Holey Bakery standoff. The feeling that no one was actually safe, and that militants could appear anywhere and kill indiscriminately sank in. Consequently security measures were put in place in earnest. Metal detectors and random searches became less of a hassle and more of a necessity. In fact the sight of sturdy guards checking every knapsack has become a source of relief instead of irritation. That is perhaps what seals the beginning.