Before Eid in the holy month of Ramzan, terrorists attacked the Holey Artisan Bakery in upscale Dhaka taking about forty customers and staff captive. No demands were made but by the time the siege ended, 20 people (including nine Italians, six Japanese, one American, one Indian), had been brutally killed while 13 were allowed to live because of their religion.
In hindsight, the restaurant was a sitting duck. It was located in Gulshan, one of Dhaka’s poshest neighborhoods, adjoining the diplomatic enclave where most of the Dhaka-based embassies and high commissions are located; it was popular with foreigners; there were Islamic State (IS) instructions to wanna-be self-motivated terrorists to kill during Ramazan. By targeting foreigners the terrorists clearly hoped for international publicity, which is what they got. Such an attack was a first for Bangladesh. Till now, terrorists had targeted individuals- secular writers, LGBT activists, university professors, religious minorities like the Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and even Sufi Muslims.
In an escalation, the terrorists now resorted to mass-killings. It has been just over a week but for the international community, the terrorist attack in Dhaka is already fading from memory. But for another attack on July 07 at an Eid congregation near Dhaka, the July 01 attack would by now have become just another statistic in the long list of terror attacks that the world is facing on a day-to-day basis. For the families of those who were killed in Dhaka and for those families who have lost dear ones in similar attacks around the world, the memory can never fade. It is they who would be seeking justice, retribution and some form of closure. Unfortunately, the decks are stacked against them. Take the case of the Dhaka attack.
In Bangladesh and among international analysts and experts, the focus is whether the group that carried out the attacks was local (Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) or Ansarul Bangla Team (ABT)) or international (Daesh/IS or Al Qaeda in the Subcontinent (AQIS)) or a local group self-identified with international affiliation (JMB is supposedly ‘affiliated’ to the IS while the ABT is ‘aligned’ with the AQIS) or were the international groups just trying to claim credit to show a wider presence than in reality. Some have even speculated whether this foreshadows a potential proxy war between ISIS and AQIS in Bangladesh in which Bangladeshis would be the victims. Identification of the group(s) involved is undoubtedly a crucial factor in the investigation of the tragedy and a subject best handled by the local security agencies. However, by too narrow a focus on the identity alone, the larger picture of international terrorism is being lost.
What is being overlooked is that today the threat from international terrorism is dynamic, encompassing an increasing number of terrorist organizations, splinter groups, activists, and ‘lone wolves’. Three trends are of special importance: one, the nature of attacks has undergone a change from ‘spectacular’ attacks like 9/11 to smaller attacks that are far more difficult to detect since the perpetrators keep themselves below the security radar; two, the use of social media rather than secrecy to publicize attacks generating a media frenzy that is oxygen for the terrorists and wannabe terrorists; three, the use of extreme brutality to shock and numb the world into inaction. In the case of the Dhaka attack, the terrorists used mobile phones from the hostages to post images of the throat-slitting carnage they had carried out on the internet which were immediately put out by the IS media wing.
Are countries like Bangladesh geared to tackle such challenges when even the more advanced countries are unable to do so? In fact, it is unlikely that any one country or even a group of countries working in concert can tackle the evolving trends of international terrorism by themselves. More than mere lip service, the international community will have to prioritize unitedly tackling terrorism on the ground. Undoubtedly, there is international consensus against terrorism. Everyday and after every tragedy we hear leaders saying that terrorism is destructive of human rights, of democracy, of the rule of law, of the values of the UN, that the terrorists have no religion etc.
Yet, the tragedy is that the international community has failed to reduce this consensus into writing in the form of an anti-terror convention. The biggest stumbling block to such a convention is that the international community has been unable to adopt a legal definition of terrorism, despite debating it for over a decade. Undoubtedly, certain specific acts of terrorism like hijacking are covered through some existing declarations, resolutions and universal “sectoral” treaties of the UN, but even they do not set out a comprehensive definition of the term terrorism. What a legally accepted international definition of terrorism would do is to ensure that firstly, states do not unduly suppress political opposition under the pretext of fighting ‘terrorism’, as has been alleged in the case of the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh.
Her government had arrested over 10,000 ‘suspects’ even before the July 01, 2016 attack, ‘suspects largely believed to be political opponents rather than terrorists. Second, an accepted definition would also enhance not only bilateral intelligence sharing but also international cooperation that would strengthen the legitimacy of the fight against terrorism. Third, it would be far easier for the international community to impose sanctions on states that support terrorism. Fourth, a definition of terrorism is critical to legally interdict and disrupt terror financing and fifth it would enable the establishment of legal measures to deal with outlawed terrorist organizations and arrest and extradite terrorists. The farcical situation of international terrorists like Hafiz Saeed roaming around freely in Pakistan, making hate speeches and appearing on television shows would be prevented. If those killed in Dhaka are not to become another statistic, if the relatives of those killed are to find some closure, then it is incumbent that the international outrage provoked by the terrorist attack is converted into concrete international action. Else we will still wringing our hands when the next terrorist attack takes place and hearing leaders say ad nauseam that terrorism is destructive of human rights, democracy, rule of law, values of the UN and that the terrorists have no religion.