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Why the Revelations About the Dhaka Attackers Are Not Surprising

4 minute read

As Bangladesh investigates the carnage at the Holey Artisan Bakery restaurant in Dhaka on July 1, many have been struck by revelations about the gunmen suspected of mounting the gruesome attack. Accounts from family members, online posts and local reports show that many of them were drawn from the country’s middle and upper classes — well-off, educated privately at the best schools and universities, the kind of people who would not have been out of place at the upmarket eatery where they murdered 20 hostages, including 18 foreign nationals and 2 Bangladeshis.

One suspected gunman has been identified as the son of a day laborer from outside Dhaka who studied at a madrassa or Islamic religious school. But most of the others identified since the attack appear to come from backgrounds that have surprised many in the Bangladeshi capital.

“I am stunned to learn this, dumbfounded,” Imtiaz Khan Babul, a mid-level leader of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party, whose son has been identified as one of the suspected killers, told the BBC’s Bengali service. Rohan Imtiaz attended Scholastica, one of Dhaka’s top private schools, where the city’s elite send their children. He went missing late last year, only to emerge when he and seven others laid siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Bangladesh’s worst terrorist atrocity in recent times. Another suspected gunman is also reported to have attended the same school.

But to analysts, the backgrounds of the Dhaka attackers present little surprise. “These identifications that you see, their socioeconomic backgrounds, should not come as a surprise to anybody,” says Ali Riaz, an expert on Bangladesh who teaches at Illinois State University. “There is no one single stereotype, no single template of any terrorist. But [the backgrounds of the alleged Dhaka attackers are] not inconsistent with what we have seen both globally and in Bangladesh.”

According to Riaz, numerous terrorist suspects arrested in Bangladesh in recent years, as the country battled a growing extremist militancy, also have privileged backgrounds. In a paper published earlier this year in Perspectives on Terrorism, an academic journal that tracks global terrorism, he drew on reports in local newspapers to take a closer look at the profiles of alleged militants arrested in Bangladesh between July 2014 and June 2015.

The arrests were made by Bangaldesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, an elite paramilitary force that has been leading the country’s efforts to fight terrorism. Its officers were on the ground over the weekend, when security forces stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery after a tense overnight standoff with the gunmen in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone.

Riaz’s findings, based on the study of 112 suspects, are instructive: for the suspects for whom Riaz could find ages, most were young men ages between 18 and 30 years old. Six were sons of former high-ranking public officials, including former military officers, a former navy commander, senior civil servants and a former justice.

Among the nine suspects identified as students who did not attend Islamic religious schools, the study found that all “have completed at least 12 grades and are studying at the university level.” One was a doctoral candidate in sociology. Three other cases involved students of electrical engineering, business and chemistry. Riaz’s sample also included nine suspects identified as businessmen, most of whom, he found, were also well educated. The list of suspects included madrassa students and teachers at Islamic religious schools, but they were by no means the norm.

“It is impossible to generalize. But what is clear is that in many cases [suspected] militants arrested in Bangladesh don’t fit into the stereotypical narrative of madrassa students who were religious and indoctrinated because of their religious education,” he says.

In the case of the alleged Dhaka attackers, he adds, more than their backgrounds, the biggest question mark is over their whereabouts. In addition to Imtiaz, other suspected gunmen had also been reported missing. Khairul Islam Payel, who studied at an Islamic religious school outside Dhaka, had been missing for almost a year, his mother Pewara Begum tells TIME. The local police chief in his home district said Payel had stopped communicating with his family six months ago.

“Where have these people been? We don’t know,” says Riaz, adding that with their backgrounds, some of the alleged gunmen would have aroused little suspicion passing through local airports. “These missing months could prove to be very important in understanding what happened. Their backgrounds are not unusual. It is the missing months that could [now] reveal what happened.”

— With additional reporting by A.K.M. Moinuddin / Dhaka

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