Modern-day terrorism has rapidly changed how law enforcement around the world confronts active terror situations. One distinctive characteristic of today’s terrorism is that the modern terrorists no longer negotiate; they rarely place demands, and almost never asks for a safe-passage in return for “good behaviour.” Today’s terrorists enter their theatre of action with only two things in mind: Kill and get killed.
Terrorist attacks on soft targets usually materialise in two forms. The first form results in an armed seize or a hostage situation. The 1972 “Black September” attack against the Israeli Olympic team in Germany, the 1975 seize of the OPEC headquarters in Austria by communist terrorists, or the siege and booby-trapping of a Russian school with 1,000 students by Chechen Rebels in 2004 are some of the most memorable hostage situations resulting out of acts of terror.
All three ended with significant casualties among the hostages, particularly for the last one where the death toll was 360, when the Russian commandos stormed in after three days of failed negotiations.
The second form of soft target attacks are now known as “active shooter” incidences, where gunmen storm into a public gathering to start shooting and explosions. The 2008 Mumbai Taj Hotel attack, the 2015 Paris terror attack, and the recent Orlando gay night club attack are some of the most known “active shooter” incidences.
Almost all the ISIS and al-Qaeda inspired attacks of recent years have taken the “active shooter” form, with minimal hostage taking or negotiations with authorities. In some instances, there were no communications with authorities at all.
For armed sieges or hostage situations, the first order of responsibilities of early responders in the past used to be to set up barricades, contain damages, and then wait for trained negotiators and heavily armed backup troops to deal with the eventualities. This setup is geared towards dragged-out negotiations and minimising casualties. But for active shooter situations, such tactics may allow the assailants crucial breathing room to execute more victims while confined within the relatively innocuous barricade.
What happened in Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan started out as an old school hostage taking exercise described above. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now evident that it was rather an active shooter type incident, where the attackers went for the kill right after seizing the cafe, as there were both shootings and gruesome use of swords. By using swords, the killers may have given the authorities a false aura of calm, and bought crucial time necessary for carrying out their act of mass murder.
What this means is that in the future, authorities must act much quicker and more decisively from the get-go. In ideal terms, the moment there will be an armed siege or an active shooter situation, the earliest responders from police or RAB must engage the attackers, without waiting for commandos and paratroopers.
In the US, authorities started enacting similar tactics as described above since the 1999 Columbine High School attack. In that attack, police officers established barricades, and waited for SWAT teams to arrive, while two shooters continued killing students inside the school building. After Columbine, US law enforcement established the so-called “active shooter protocols.” In these protocols, officers responding to an active shooter or terrorist situation are required to quickly create small teams and go for the attack to neutralise the assailants.
Obviously, enacting such protocols come with additional burden of training and equipment for any police force. For example, after the Columbine incident, law enforcement in the US started to carry heavier and longer guns in their patrol vehicles just to reduce disadvantage in weaponry against a determined attacker. To require Bangladeshi police to adhere to similar protocols throughout the country will be a tall task.
However, something better be done so that the most sensitive areas of the country, like Dhaka’s diplomatic zones, have special troops always ready for tackling any active shooter or active terrorism situations.
One reason why newer arrangements and protocols are necessary is because there was glaring lack of preparedness in the authorities’ handling of the Holey Artisan attack by just five to six assailants. There is a debate that is already brewing in social media as to why there was a delay of over eight hours before any serious operation ensued.
Obviously, such debate is now fueled by the benefit of hindsight, but still this is a valid debate given that law enforcement in other countries like the US has already resolved similar debates by enacting special protocols tailored for such occurrences.
News of the Gulshan attack was telecast live in global media. CNN abandoned most of its regular presidential election coverage to make way. Such heightened and daylong media broadcasts unfortunately showcased the cluelessness of way too many law enforcement officials around the active terror zone, many of them wearing sandals, poorly armoured, and some barely armed. One of the highest ranking law enforcement officials spoke to local and international media wearing a bike helmet, not a combat helmet.
One Korean citizen managed to video eye-popping happenings inside the Holey Artisan throughout the siege -- footage that has now gone viral. When one analyses the dangerously short proximity of the Korean man from the centre of action, where he could even tape the commando raid, this creates further embarrassment for the nation. One must agree that such a dangerously close residence from where the Korean man shot the video should have been evacuated for civilian safety, and should have been occupied by law enforcement snipers, and possibly men from intelligence agencies all day long to benefit from that unique vantage point.
It is obvious that “could-have,” “should-have” analyses and questioning by citizens are one nagging eventuality of any commando raid even under the most ideal of circumstances and consequences. Our armed forces and law enforcement definitely deserve credit for their services and efforts in the face of Bangladesh’s first ever exposure to a terrorist attack of this scope.
Now that all is over, it is time to treat this attack as a wake-up call, and ensure significant enhancements in active shooter protocols are made, for at least the sensitive locations within the country. It is certain that despite all our hope and prayers, Holey Artisan may not be the only time such enhanced protocols will come handy.