A month after Bangladesh’s first mass killing by terrorists – at the popular Holey Artisan Bakery cafe in Dhaka – official investigations have revealed details of who was responsible.
What stands out is their diversity: a retired army officer dismissed for his ambition to stage a coup; an expatriate who returned from Canada; party-going youngsters from wealthy families recruited from top private universities in Bangladesh and Malaysia; experienced commanders of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, the largest of the country’s struggling jihadist factions; and some recent recruits from isolated villages.
That patchwork of personnel lends some weight to the government’s conclusion that the attacks were the work of local militants and not of ISIL, which claimed responsibility while the attacks were underway.
ISIL is nowhere close to operating a stand-alone network in Bangladesh, or anywhere else east of Afghanistan. But it is very dangerous for the Bangladeshi government to view the terrorist threat exclusively through the lens of domestic politics and to dismiss the ISIL connection altogether.
The resurgence of militant activity in Bangladesh is part of an emerging phenomenon in South East Asia where defeated terrorists are seeking to make a comeback by adopting the ISIL brand.
Authorities in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore have been working overtime to limit the effect since last year. Their actions have included the arrest of groups of Bangladeshi militants before the Dhaka restaurant massacre.
Clear connections have been established between the region’s larger militant factions and erstwhile colleagues who have joined ISIL in Syria. Similarly, non-local militants – specifically, ethnic Uighurs from China’s restive Xinjiang province – have found sanctuary with jihadist groups in Indonesia and Thailand and participated in attacks there.
Viewed from that regional perspective, the ISIL strategy in South East Asia is obvious. It has awoken dormant militant elements and is offering its backing to the groups who can generate the most gore. Parallel to that, ISIL is using social media to prey on university students, as has been evident both in Bangladesh and Malaysia.
So while it is easy to conclude that ISIL has made little progress in establishing an Asian network that takes orders from Raqqa, to do so is to ignore the organisation’s evolution from a stand-alone business into a franchise operation.
It no longer matters to ISIL whether a successful campaign is managed by a handler in Syria or somebody in the Indonesian rainforest. Indeed, it hardly matters if the perpetrators are a genuine ISIL franchise or not. Like any other business, terrorism is about market effect. If a disparate cell with questionable ISIL links can alter the course of the public narrative and damage the economy, then it’s “mission accomplished” for the killers.
More noise means more power, irrespective of the loss of territory in the Middle East. Increasingly, ISIL is accepting that it cannot hold significant territory when the global consensus favours using military force to prevent it. Thus increasing numbers of militants are returning to their countries of origin or to their expatriate communities in the West, where they are launching attacks with increasing frequency.
Remarkably, the least affected region has been South East Asia, where the majority of the world’s Muslims live. To survive the transition from territorial to post-territorial war, ISIL must make inroads there – thus the attacks in Bangladesh and farther east.
More than any sense of political disenfranchisement or conflicted personal psychology, ISIL will make inroads where the lack of an honest national political discourse creates space for it.
That is a lesson that Pakistan has learnt at a great cost. Had the military regime of Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf been more proactive regarding the simmering threat that exploded into a Taliban insurgency in 2007, it could have been nipped in the bud. Had Mr Musharraf’s successor as army chief of staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, clearly identified the enemy and gone after it, the war might have been ended five years ago.
Contrast that with the Indonesian government’s response to the bombing campaign that followed the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. It was remarkable for its clarity in that it identified the enemy and worked with the clergy to establish public contempt for the terrorists’ false dogma.
Although Indonesian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah killed more than 200 people – most of them western tourists – by bombing a Bali nightclub in 2002 and struck again in 2005, killing 20 more, most extremists in the country were quickly mopped up and imprisoned.
Bangladesh is at a fork in the road. So far, its government has portrayed the Dhaka massacre as a local affair and is using it to tar the opposition. In doing so, it is treading down the same path as Pakistan.
For its own sake, it should accept that Bangladesh is as much at risk of more ISIL violence as any of its South East Asian neighbours, and work closely with them to stymie a threat that, given time and space, could assume alarming proportions.
Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad