Bangladesh attack suggests shift by ISIS as it loses territory
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladeshi troops stormed an upscale restaurant in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter Saturday, ending an 11-hour standoff with gunmen who had hacked patrons to death and sent photos of the carnage to the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attack.
Authorities said 20 hostages, most of them foreigners, had been killed in the siege, the deadliest and boldest in an accelerating series of attacks by Islamist militants that have shaken the country’s secular underpinnings.
But this assault, along with recent attacks in other countries, including the shooting in Orlando, Florida, are viewed by Western intelligence officials as bloody examples that as the Islamic State loses territory in Iraq and Syria, it has increasingly turned to directing and inspiring terrorist missions elsewhere around the world.
Most of the victims were “ferociously” attacked with sharp weapons, a military spokesman said. A kitchen worker who had escaped said the attackers had been armed with pistols, swords and bombs.
A team of army commandos rescued 13 hostages and killed six attackers in the raid Saturday morning, the military said. A seventh attacker was arrested.
The government said Saturday that the dead hostages were nine Italians, seven Japanese, an Indian, two Bangladeshis and an American.
At least 30 people were wounded, mostly from shrapnel. Two police officers were killed in the initial standoff, authorities said.
“Islamic State commandos attack a restaurant frequented by foreigners in the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh,” Amaq, an information outlet linked to the Islamic State, said Friday. Early Saturday, the group posted photographs of what it said were the bodies of foreigners who had been killed.
The Bangladeshi soldiers, backed by armored vehicles, swept in to the restaurant at 7:40 a.m. Saturday.
The entire rescue operation took 12 or 13 minutes, Brig. Gen. Nayeem Ashfaque Chowdhury, head of military operations in Bangladesh, said at a news conference. However, gunfire and explosions were heard outside the restaurant for about 40 minutes.
Dhaka was locked down Saturday, with checkpoints every few blocks stopping cars and pedestrians.
The attacks have raised fears that the once-moderate country is in the grip of a wave of violence coordinated by international terrorist groups, although the government has insisted that the attacks are committed by local groups and not coordinated by outside forces.
The government recently concluded a crackdown in which more than 10,000 people were arrested, 194 of them reportedly connected with local militant networks.
The scale and level of coordination of Friday’s attack should force the government to reconsider its position that the militancy is locally run, critics said.
“The continuous denial of the presence of local militant group connections with international terror groups has not been helpful,” said Ali Riaz, a professor of political science at Illinois State University and an expert on South Asian politics. “What we’re witnessing can’t be small groups coming together. It is clearly a very coordinated attack. If this doesn’t convince them to come out of denial, then I don’t know what will.”
Bangladeshi detectives debriefed the surviving hostages. One of them, Sat Prakash, an Indian physician who worked in a nearby clinic, escaped shortly before the army raid. He complained in a telephone interview that he was exhausted from a terrifying, sleepless night and should not have been forced to endure round after round of questioning right after his release.
“I can’t believe we’re being held for so long after the night we’ve had,” he said. He declined to discuss what happened during the attack.
Western intelligence officials acknowledge that they now face a challenging and vicious transformation in the Islamic State: The terrorist group that burst onto the scene by professing to create a religious state is increasingly becoming a larger, more sophisticated version of its stateless rival, al-Qaida. The military solutions to combating the Islamic State, mostly air and ground strikes in Iraq and Syria, remain important, officials say. But those traditional military efforts now are just one approach, since deterring, preventing and dealing with threats against far-flung and chiefly civilian targets is a growing priority for law enforcement and intelligence services.
One of the first victims to be publicly identified in the Dhaka attack was Tarishi Jain, 19, of India. Sushma Swaraj, India’s minister of external affairs, said Jain was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a graduate of the American International School in Dhaka.
“I have spoken to her father Shri Sanjeev Jain and conveyed our deepest condolences,” Swaraj wrote on Twitter. “The country is with them in this hour of grief.”
Emory University identified the slain American as Abinta Kabir, a sophomore who lived in Miami. The university also said an Emory junior, Faraaz Hossain, had also been killed. He was from Dhaka.
Armed men entered the restaurant, where about 20 foreigners were dining, about 8:45 p.m. on Friday, Sumon Reza, the kitchen worker, told reporters. The attackers shouted “God is great” before opening fire and detonating several explosives, he said.
A cook, Sumir Barai, said he had taken refuge with several other employees in a tiny bathroom.
Barai, 28, said two men, one carrying a gun and the other a knife, had forced them to open the door. The men, speaking in Bengali, lectured the employees on the importance of praying and reading the Quran. The men then herded the employees back into the bathroom, and let them out again shortly before soldiers raided the restaurant.
Barai said one of the militants had pointed to bodies on the floor, saying, “The same thing is going to happen to us now,” suggesting that the militants knew they were going to die.
The restaurant’s chef, Diego Rossini, an Argentine, told C5N, a television network in Argentina, that four to six young men, who appeared to be in their early 20s,had entered with a big bag of weaponry, including grenades and long rifles.
Rossini was able to escape to the roof and hide there. “They came looking for me, and I had to throw myself to the next building,” he said.
At least 40 people have been killed in attacks by Islamist militants in this Muslim-majority country since 2013. Most were carried out with machetes and first targeted atheist bloggers, then religious minorities, gay activists, foreigners and others.
The Islamic State and a local branch of al-Qaida have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks.The Islamic State is known to have claimed responsibility for 18 of them, most perpetrated against religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. The Holey Artisan Bakery, in Dhaka’s Gulshan neighborhood, is popular with expatriates, diplomats and middle-class families.
Reza, the kitchen worker, said he and another employee had escaped by jumping from the building’s second floor.
“They blasted several crude bombs, causing wide-scale panic among everyone,” Reza told a Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star. “I managed to flee during this confusion.”
) During the standoff, police erected a cordon around the restaurant, where family members of those inside gathered to await information. Fazley Rahim Khan, a businessman, waited on the edge of the police line, barely able to see the restaurant. He said he believed that his son Tahmid Hasib Khan, 22, was being held hostage.
Khan said Tahmid, a student in Canada, had just returned home Friday for Ramadan. The family celebrated the iftar, the evening meal breaking the Ramadan fast, and then the son headed to the restaurant.
“I’m just praying to get back my son,” he said. The son survived, along with two of his friends, the police said.
At least two Sri Lankans were among the hostages, Harikesha Wijesekera, a former president of the Sri Lanka-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce, and his wife, Shyama, according to the group’s current president, T.D. Packir.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said later that two Sri Lankan citizens had been rescued and were unharmed.
At least one Japanese citizen was among those rescued, Japan’s deputy chief Cabinet secretary, Koichi Hagiuda, said at a news conference.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency said the Japanese were employees of three Tokyo-based companies that were working on a transportation-related project sponsored by the agency. The project’s goal was to relieve chronic traffic congestion in Dhaka, the agency said.
NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting network, identified the Japanese survivor as Tamaoki Watanabe. It quoted a hospital spokesman in Dhaka as saying Watanabe suffered a gunshot wound to the face and was in surgery.
In recent interviews, John O. Brennan, director of the CIA, has been unusually blunt about the slow nature of progress in the fight against the Islamic State outside Syria and Iraq. He has voiced fears that allied policy is not keeping up with a formidable and resilient enemy that is accelerating its shift to a new phase of terrorism.