Why the Holey attack is the work of ISIS
Amarnath Amarasingam

And why it is time to admit it

  • Denial won’t solve the problem  

Perhaps nothing has confused international analysts of modern jihadism in Bangladesh more than the government’s continued denial that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda exist in the country.

This denial continues even as secular activists and writers are assassinated, as places of worship are targeted, and even after deadly attacks like the one at Holey Artisan Bakery.

In her 12-minute speech following the attack, Sheikh Hasina Wazed did not mention ISIS, but instead placed blame on their opposition, the BNP, and Jamaat-e-Islami. Other times, the government has placed blame on the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (JMB).

On first look, such scattershot placing of blame seems probable. Indeed, the previous BNP government did have confirmed links with the JMB. But the attack on Holey is almost certainly the work of ISIS. Let me explain why.

First, the way in which the social media campaign played out during and after the attack carried strong signatures of ISIS propaganda. As the attack was happening, for instance, ISIS media channels posted, almost in real time, photos and details about the assault that turned out to be accurate. These included the number of people killed as well as photos from inside the bakery.

Shortly after the attack, ISIS media channels also posted images of five smiling attackers in front of the Islamic State flag. This was all accompanied by official claims of responsibility and a video promising more attacks.

In other words, unlike previous attacks in Bangladesh, by both ISIS and AQIS, the media campaign behind this particular assault was planned in advance.

I would argue that this was done to ensure that the government, or whoever, could not credit anyone else. The attackers, and their handlers, wanted to make sure that they got all the credit this time.

When attacks like these happen, and the ISIS claims credit, many people often say that this is to be expected. They argue that “of course ISIS will take credit -- it’s a terrorist organisation, and terrorist organisations lie.”

Contrary to popular view, however, IS has never taken credit for a mass casualty attack they didn’t do.

Let that sink in for a moment. For directed and networked attacks, they take credit. For inspired attacks like Orlando and San Bernardino, the timing of the claims suggests that ISIS went out of its way to verify that these pledges of allegiance by the attackers were real before “accepting” them.

Second, there is the more complicated question of the relationship between JMB and ISIS. Unlike in Egypt or Libya, there is no Islamic State wilaya (province) in Bangladesh. Unlike with Boko Haram, there has been no public pledge of allegiance from JMB to ISIS.

Indeed, many individuals investigated by Bangladeshi authorities appear to have strong JMB ties. As such, it seems obvious that the attack on Holey was the work of JMB. However, this view fails to understand the ever-changing relationship between ISIS and its supporters around the world.

While the wilaya model was pursued by ISIS in the past, there is some evidence of internal dissent and debate. The old view inside the organisation was that expansion everywhere was beneficial to the ISIS brand. The new view is that careless and premature expansion could in fact hurt the brand.

As my colleague and friend Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, tells me: “The wilayas failed to galvanise the jihadi world. They didn’t lead to mass defections to ISIS. And they did not realise state governance.” As such, the notion of a secret bay’a (oath of allegiance) does indeed exist within ISIS discourse, and seems to be increasingly common.

While there is no clear evidence that JMB has given a secret bay’a to ISIS (because it is secret), it is clear, as acknowledged in the Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine, that the networks and operatives are in place.

Indeed, it may be the case that different factions are forming within JMB, with one loyal to ISIS, and the bay’a will remain secret until ISIS feels that it can gain control over the whole group.

In essence, then, the fact that some of the Dhaka attackers have JMB connections is not an argument for why ISIS wasn’t involved. Rather, it is a clear indication that ISIS is siphoning off members from JMB, or that JMB is growing closer to ISIS.

There are some hopeful signs, however. To an outside observer, it appears that, while politicians may deny the existence of groups like ISIS in the country, law enforcement knows the key players, and is tracking the right people.

The government, perhaps, feels like it can score political points at home by denying the existence of these groups while quietly attempting to eliminate them.

One wishes this to be true, because, if law enforcement is in just as much denial as the political class in Bangladesh, it will mean that ISIS will increasingly plant roots in the country, and deadlier attacks are right around the corner. 

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Amarnath Amarasingam

Amarnath Amarasingam is a Fellow at The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. He can be followed on Twitter @AmarAmarasingam.