Up to nine men, armed with guns, swords, and crude explosives, stormed into an upscale restaurant, the Holey Artisan Cafe, in the diplomatic quarters of Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, on Friday night, triggering a hostage situation that lasted for more than 12 hours.
Twenty people, including Bangladeshis and foreign nationals, were brutally killed in the attack, according to Director of Military Operations Brigadier General Nayeem Ashfaq Chowdhury, who said the victims had their throats slit. Two policemen were also confirmed dead in the gunfire that was exchanged between the gunmen and the security forces.
The Islamic State took responsibility for the attack through its news agency, Amaq, hours into the attack, according to the New York Times, while Bangladesh security officials say two local militant groups, Ansar-al-Islam and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, are behind the violence.
While Ansar pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen claims it represents Islamic State, according to Reuters.
This is the first-of-its-kind attack on Bangladeshi soil in recent history, but an increasing atmosphere of intolerance, categorized by widespread militant-style executions of secular writers, bloggers, and members belonging to religious minorities, has been rampant in the country during the last 18 months, adding to fears that the South Asian nation may be on the verge of entering a state of sustained turmoil.
Local authorities confirmed news reports that the security forces, led by the elite anti-crime force Rapid Action Battalion or RAB, had attempted to negotiate with the gunmen in the early hours of the attack, but the ISIS-backed militants did not intend to make any demands, according to RAB director Benazir Ahmed.
This led to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina launching an offensive code-named Operation Thunderbolt, which directed the joint forces to storm the restaurant and rescue the hostages. While 13 captives, including foreign nationals, were reportedly rescued by the army, 20 others were brutally killed with sharp objects, according to the Indian Express.
Six militants were also killed in the offensive, while one gunman was arrested by the security forces.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina delivered a televised address after the end of the offensive, expressing shock that the gunmen had decided to kill people during the holy month of Ramadan.
“I thank Allah as we could destroy the terrorists and rescue the hostages. None of the terrorists could flee the scene, six of them were killed on the spot and one was captured alive.
“It was an extremely heinous act. What kind of Muslims are these people? They don’t have any religion.”
The restaurant, popular with expats, diplomats, and middle-class families, was reportedly filled with foreign nationals as well as locals who had gathered there to break their Ramadan fast when about eight or nine gunmen, armed with an array of weapons, stormed into the restaurant reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is great.”
Bangladesh’s Daily Star reported that the gunmen tortured anyone who was unable to recite the Koran and provided meals overnight for only the Bangladeshi captives.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told a press briefing that all Americans working at the embassy had been accounted for.
“We are aware of reports of what appears to a hostage situation in the Gulshan neighborhood of Dhaka,” he told reporters.
Bangladeshi news outlets had been instructed by the state authorities to stop the live broadcast of ongoing operations in Dhaka, according to DNA.
The Gulshan district is a high-security area and considered one of the safest places in Dhaka. Several embassies and NGOs are based in the neighborhood and hundreds of foreigners and wealthy Bangladeshis live there, according to BBC News.
Bangladesh has seen a spike in militant violence in the last few months, but while earlier attacks have tended to be on individuals, often using machetes, the raid on the restaurant was a rare instance of a more coordinated operation.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Wilson Centre in Washington, D.C., said that the gunmen might not have been directly trained by the respective militant organizations that they are claiming allegiance to, but they could be influenced by them.
“The bottom line is Bangladesh has plenty of local, (often unaffiliated), militants and radicals happy to stage attacks in ISIS’s name,” he said.
[Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu/Getty Images]