Sunday, 3 July 2016

Bangladesh terror attack: 20 hostages killed in Dhaka cafe slaughter by ISIS militants

Dhaka vows to get tough after deadly cafe attack
20 hostages, mostly foreigners, killed by militants in 11-hour siege; ISIS claims responsibility
The Sunday Times, 3 Jul 2016

DHAKA • Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has vowed to fight the "terror threat" in the country, after a stand-off with armed assailants at an upmarket restaurant in Dhaka ended yesterday with 20 hostages killed.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest and boldest in a recent wave of killings by militants.

Many of the victims of the nearly 11-hour siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery were hacked to death.

"It was an extremely heinous act. What kind of Muslims are these people?" said Ms Hasina in a televised address.

Last night, she declared two days of national mourning.

The attack came barely two days after triple suicide bombings at Istanbul's Ataturk airport left 45 people dead and 239 others injured. No group claimed responsibility but the Turkish authorities said they believed ISIS was behind the attack.

In Dhaka, survivors told of how the hostage-takers separated locals from foreigners who were eating side by side, before embarking on a killing spree on Friday night at the start of the Eid holiday.

There was no exact breakdown of the casualties but seven Japanese citizens were confirmed to be among the dead, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said nine Italians were killed and a 10th was listed as missing.

India confirmed that one of its nationals, a 19-year-old female student, was killed. The United States also confirmed one citizen died.

Some reports said Bangladeshis were among the dead.

Two police officers were also killed, while six attackers were shot dead after elite commandos stormed the restaurant. The seventh was captured alive and arrested.

The government has previously blamed a string of deadly attacks - targeting religious minorities and foreigners - on domestic opponents, but the incident will heighten fears that ISIS' reach is growing.

The attack took place in the Gulshan neighbourhood, which is home to the country's elite and houses many foreign embassies.

Announcing the end of the siege, officials said that 13 hostages had been rescued after members of an elite force took control of the cafe and killed six of the gunmen.

But while Ms Hasina called the outcome a "success", the security forces later revealed that 20 of those taken captive were killed.

"Most them had been brutally hacked to death with sharp weapons," army spokesman Nayeem Ashfaq Chowdhury told reporters.

Foreigners and Bangladeshis could be seen standing outside the restaurant after the siege, awaiting news about their loved ones inside.

Witnesses recounted how a massive gunfight erupted yesterday morning as more than 100 commandos launched the rescue attempt.

Eight hostages, including a foreigner, were rescued in the first few minutes of the raid. Television footage showed ambulances rushing some of those who had been freed to a military hospital.

"It was a horrendous night," said Argentine chef Diego Rossini. "(The hostage-takers) had automatic weapons and bombs."

Since 2013, at least 40 people have been killed in a wave of attacks by Islamist militants in the Muslim-majority country. The attacks, mostly carried out with machetes, first targeted atheist bloggers, then religious minorities, gay activists, foreigners and others.

Foreign governments including Singapore condemned the terrorist attack. Singapore detained eight Bangladeshis under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in April. Four have since been charged and convicted of financing terrorism in their own country.

Last year, 27 radicalised Bangladeshi workers were arrested under the ISA and later deported.


Dhaka cafe attack: 'Gunmen chanted slogans on way in'
People who escaped describe the chaos; nearly all victims were hacked to death with machetes
The Sunday Times, 3 Jul 2016

DHAKA • The chic Dhaka eatery with large windows overlooking a lush lawn suggested an oasis in an increasingly dangerous city.

That illusion ended at about 9pm on Friday when gunmen burst through the door of Holey Artisan Bakery which sells profiteroles and pizzas to Dhaka's elite.

The Spanish cafe was housed in the lower floor of the building, while O'Kitchen Restaurant was on its second floor.

Mr Hasnat Karim had taken his family to the cafe to celebrate his daughter's birthday that night. He was too traumatised to fully describe the ordeal, saying only that the hostage-takers "did not misbehave with us".

But he told his father how the gunmen - who were armed with automatic weapons, bombs and makeshift machetes - had split the diners into two groups.

"(The foreigners) were taken to the upper floor and the Bangladeshis were kept around a table," said his father, Mr Rezaul Karim. Many diners were able to scramble to safety amid the chaos that erupted in the early part of the attack.

Most of the 20 people killed by the militants at the restaurant were foreign nationals, the army clarified later after earlier saying that they were all foreign nationals.

One of the attackers cursed a diner for sitting with non-Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan and proclaimed that the nation would now be seen as an Islamic state, according to a Bangladeshi official.

One man who escaped told India's ABP News channel how the gunmen chanted slogans as they forced their way past the sole security guard at the door.

"I rushed to alert others. Some people managed to escape through a back route, but the rest were trapped," he said on condition of anonymity. "They made people stand in a line. There must be about 20 to 25 staff and about 20 to 25 guests and then they switched off the lights and CCTV."

Bangladesh, where around 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, has just begun a week-long holiday to enjoy the Eid celebrations which accompany the end of the Ramadan fasting month.

As news of the siege spread, police rushed to the scene and engaged in gunbattles with the hostage-takers.

Several kitchen employees who had locked themselves in a bathroom inside Holey posted a picture of themselves on Facebook. One of them, Mr Soumir Roy, 28, sent his brother a text message, saying: "We are here so if possible break the wall of the bathroom and rescue us."

The siblings exchanged a series of tense messages over nine hours, but after the gunfire and explosions from rescue operations died down, the messages from Mr Roy stopped. Outside, his brother and sister sat on the roadside weeping, unsure if he had survived.

Argentinian chef Diego Rossini managed to escape and ducked into a next-door building while under fire. "I felt bullets pass so close to me. I felt fear like I've never felt in my life," he told Argentina's television channel C5N.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, which claimed responsibility for the attack, posted photos showing two bodies soaked in pools of crimson.

The 20 civilian victims were mostly foreigners and nearly all had been hacked to death with machetes. A senior officer who was part of the operation which ended the siege yesterday morning described the gruesome scene inside the cafe.

"We saw blood in many places and were shocked to see the carnage," he said on condition of anonymity. "We heard the gang saying Allahu Akbar and there was a slogan written on the wall which said Allah would grant them Jannatul Ferdous (ultimate heaven)."


ISIS 'behind deadly siege'
The Sunday Times, 3 Jul 2016

DHAKA • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group has claimed responsibility for the carnage at a restaurant in the capital city, according to the SITE Intelligence Group which monitors terrorist activity.

It said the claim was made online by a media group linked to ISIS.

However, Western intelligence officials say they have not verified the claim and are still trying to determine precisely who was behind the attack.

The identities and nationalities of the Holey Artisan Bakery attackers have not yet been released.

Bangladesh security officials reportedly blamed two local militant organisations, Ansar-al-Islam and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, as the culprits instead. The Ansar-al-Islam group pledges allegiance to Al-Qaeda, while Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen claims it represents ISIS.

"The bottom line is Bangladesh has plenty of local, often unaffiliated, militants and radicals happy to stage attacks in ISIS' name," said Mr Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.

ISIS had claimed more attacks in Bangladesh than in Pakistan or Afghanistan, he said. But Bangladesh has long denied the presence of ISIS operatives in the country.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in a televised speech yesterday that she was determined to eradicate militancy in the mainly Muslim nation after heavily armed terrorists killed 20 people at Dhaka's Holey Artisan Bakery in a stand-off with law enforcers that ended early yesterday morning.

"They (gunmen) should have been in their Tarabi prayers at that time - during the month of Ramadan, a month of self-restraint," Ms Hasina said.

"What sort of Muslims are they that they don't offer prayers and, instead, do such a thing? And what has been the result? None of the attackers could get away with their lives."

Ms Hasina also came down hard on private television channels for their live telecast of the offensive launched against the gunmen at the restaurant.


World leaders condemn 'heinous' attack in Bangladesh
The Sunday Times, 3 Jul 2016

SINGAPORE/DHAKA • Singapore has joined several world leaders in condemning a terrorist attack on an upscale Dhaka cafe that saw several foreigners slain.

"There can be no justifications for such heinous actions," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said yesterday in a statement.

The MFA said it has verified the safety of all registered Singaporeans in Dhaka.

"Thus far, there are no reports of any Singaporeans injured or directly affected by the incident," it added.

It also urged Singaporeans currently in the South Asian nation "to exercise vigilance and follow the instructions of the Bangladeshi authorities".

Foreigners, along with locals, were taken hostage, with some murdered by militants at the Holey Artisan Bakery in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka on Friday night, before elite commandos moved in hours later and shot dead six of seven attackers.

Italians, Japanese and at least one Indian are so far known to be among those who died in the attack.

Italy's foreign minister confirmed that nine Italians were killed and another was unaccounted for.

"We have identified nine (Italians) killed. There is another person who is missing and could be hiding himself or could be among wounded people... We are looking for him," Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told reporters.

In a brief TV address, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi mourned his nation's "painful loss".

"We are like a family which has suffered a painful loss," Mr Renzi said in Rome. The attackers who believed they were "destroying our values" would not get a drop of encouragement from Italy, he added.

A Japanese government official said its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had told Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina by phone that several Japanese nationals may have been inside, as Tokyo dispatched Vice-Foreign Minister Seiji Kihara to Dhaka to gather information.

India confirmed that one of its nationals, Ms Tarushi Jain, a 19-year-old student at the University of California, Berkeley, was among the dead.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly condemned the attack in a post on Twitter.

"The attack in Dhaka has pained us beyond words.

"I spoke to (Bangladesh) PM Sheikh Hasina and strongly condemned the despicable attack," he wrote.


Bangladesh government must address role of external terror groups
Dhaka has long denied presence of Al-Qaeda, ISIS in country amid rise in radical activities
By Nirmala Ganapathy, India Bureau Chief, The Sunday Times, 3 Jul 2016

Friday night's terror attack by seven armed militants in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka was aimed at capturing international attention and showed an escalation of terrorist activity in the South Asian country, security analysts said.

The nearly 11-hour siege, which ended when Bangladeshi security forces stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery, left 20 victims - mostly foreigners - and six of the gunmen dead.

This was the most sophisticated terror attack that Bangladesh has seen in recent times, and was very different from the crude attacks by machete-wielding assailants, said experts. At least a dozen bloggers, academics, members of minority groups and foreign nationals have been killed in that manner since last year.

"The attack was in a highly protected area where the elite classes live, as well as a diplomatic area. The objective of the attackers was to get international attention and to show their strength and capabilities to intimidate local people," said Mr Md Abdur Rashid, executive director of the Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies in Dhaka.

"Earlier, we saw terrorists who were not trained; but these attackers are, and capable of using modern weapons. It must put pressure on the Sheikh Hasina government," he added.

A police official speaking on condition of anonymity said the militants "planned the attack very well", sneaking into the area before police checkpoints are routinely put up in the evening.

Bangladesh, which has a nearly 90 per cent Muslim population, has not been hit by frequent terrorist attacks like its neighbour Pakistan.

But of late, it has witnessed an alarming rise in radical and terror activities, with religious minorities being increasingly targeted.

Radical elements have been increasingly lashing out over the execution of four leaders - including one in May this year - from the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami, a far-right party, for war crimes.

This followed a government crackdown, which saw 14,000 people being rounded up amid criticism from rights groups that the people were being detained without due process of the law.

Experts said the government has to wake up to the possibility that external terror groups are playing a role in the South Asian country. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for Friday's attack.

Dhaka has long denied the presence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the country. Instead, it blames local terror groups like the Ansar Al-Islam, previously called Ansarullah Bangla Team, and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh for the recent attacks. The former claims links to Al-Qaeda and the latter to ISIS.

"The government needs to accept that it has a terrorist problem, with both ISIS and AQIS (Al- Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent)," said Dr Sajjan Gohel, international security director for Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based think-tank. "Their sense of denial that they don't have a terrorist problem has not helped the situation."

Religious radicalisation is a problem facing Bangladesh.

In May, four Bangladeshis in Singapore were convicted of financing terrorism. Late last year, the Singapore authorities deported 27 radicalised Bangladeshi workers.

"Bangladesh is seeing a very deep polarisation in society. Many people have serious grouses against the Bangladesh state," said South Asian expert S.D. Muni.

Prime Minister Hasina's political opponents have accused her of being autocratic and silencing the opposition.

Bangladeshis see the Dhaka attack as an "alarming" development.

"It is a very alarming situation. This sort of thing happens in... other parts of the world. It has never happened here," said Dr Muhammad Mizanuddin, vice-chancellor of Rajshahi University.

"This adds a new dimension (to the terror issue)," he added.


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