Darkness Befalls: Road 79
Through this disgraceful attack, an attempt was made to assassinate the non-communal character of Bangladesh …. The positive image of Bangladesh, known for peace and harmony, was tarnished a bit."
Anti-Terrorism Special Tribunal
With the evening sun going down and the sky turning a dusty pink, a quietness descended at the Holey Artisan Bakery on July 1, 2016, towards the end of Ramadan that year.
The Western-style glitzy restaurant on Road 79 in Gulshan-2, a posh neighbourhood of diplomats and corporate executives, had a thin crowd after the break of the day's fast.
As the evening progressed, the two-storey eatery -- with a wood-and-stone facade and a sprawling garden facing Gulshan Lake -- got busier.
By 8:00pm, a few Bangladeshis were dining, but the tables were largely occupied by expatriates -- a group of Italians and another group of Japanese.
Around 8:45pm, the diners heard a loud sound like that of a firecracker.
Shouting "Allahu Akbar", five youths carrying weapons including semi-automatic rifles, grenades and machetes burst into the eatery and started firing indiscriminately.
Shrieks and screams pierced through the air. Panicked and bewildered, the diners ducked under tables, scurrying for safety.
Holding the diners hostage, they sorted out non-Muslim targets by a grim test of reciting verses from the Holy Quran.
The worst-ever hostage crisis then unfolded before the nation. It wasn't until the next morning, around 12 hours later, that para commandos broke the siege, killing six attackers.
What the commandos found was traces of mindless butchery. Twenty hostages, including 17 foreigners, were brutally murdered with the restaurant's floor strewn with bodies and blood. Two police officials and a chef of the restaurant were also killed during the standoff.
Amidst the terror and bloodbath that shook the country to its core, a young man -- aged only 20 -- stood out as an example of courage, friendship, and humanity.
Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain, who went to the restaurant to meet his friends, could have walked free but refused to abandon his friends, choosing to stay with them even in the face of terror and death.
Faraaz, a student of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in the US, and his friends Abinta Kabir, a US citizen of Bangladeshi origin and of the same university, and Tarishi Jain, an Indian and a student of the University of California, Berkeley, were among those killed.
The Gulshan attack, carried out by IS-inspired outfit known as Neo JMB, formed by a faction of Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), served as a wake-up call for the government and triggered a massive hunt for militants and a crackdown on terror networks.
Law enforcers succeeded in busting a number of militant dens through counterterrorism operations. The mastermind of the attack -- Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi-origin Canadian -- was killed during one such drive a month later on August 27, 2016.
Tamim spearheaded Neo JMB after coming to Bangladesh in 2013 and took charge as its chief in 2015. On July 11 that year, his group joined mainstream JMB leader Sarwar Jahan Manik's group. Sarwar was also killed in a drive on October 8, 2016.
Since the Holey Artisan massacre, law enforcers have carried out 20 high-risk anti-militancy operations where 63 militants were killed, as of last month. As many as 535 other militants have been arrested during the same period of time, added Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit officials.
NEW LEADER, NEW TACTICS
Five years after the mindless massacre, containing future activities of Neo JMB remains a big challenge as it is attempting to re-emerge with new tactics.
The militant outfit is now focusing on rearranging its military wing. It is forming teams using Islamic scholars to recruit people, according to an intelligence report.
The outfit declared Abul Abbas Al Bangali alias Mahadi Hasan Jon as its new ameer last year. Mahadi is now running the outfit's activities from Turkey, according to intelligence sources.
However, Neo JMB is mulling appointing a new ameer as Mahadi is facing difficulty operating in Bangladesh from abroad, they said.
According to the intelligence report, obtained by The Daily Star, the outfit's future plan is to conduct "drone attacks" at important establishments and its members are now trying to collect funds for this.
It has planned to hack cable TV networks in the country to recruit others to join their militant outfit. It has formed a team to buy arms from home and abroad, sources said.
Rahmatullah Chowdhury, chief of the bomb disposal unit of CTTC, said Neo JMB operatives are now trying to collect drones and explosives to make drone IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
"The drone IED would be very risky for major establishments of the country. We are now learning how to prevent IEDs and efforts are on to arrest those trying to make it," he told The Daily Star.
Rahmatullah said the outfit is giving training to all of its members about how to make IEDs through video tutorials. "Every member of the outfit now knows how to make an IED and it will be a challenge to control Neo JMB in upcoming days," he said.
Intelligence officials said Neo JMB's present strategy is now to bring all outfit members under a single platform and form a separate cell to conduct sabotage activities.
The outfit is also trying to get its arrested members out of jail and attack law enforcers as revenge, states the report.
According to intelligence officials, main targets of the IS-inspired outfit are police, religious institutes, mazars, NGO staff, and ruling Awami League members.
While it recruits members and communicates internally through online platforms like Telegram and Facebook, the military wing's activities are totally offline, the report also stated.
Md Asaduzzaman, chief of the CTTC unit, told The Daily Star that the activities of the militant outfit are largely under control because of the operations of CTTC and other law enforcement agencies.
"Their activities are based only in cyber space -- motivating and recruiting new members, doing publicity of their content to radicalise people -- which is under our watch," he said.
ROAD TO JUSTICE
Following the massacre, a case was filed with Gulshan police under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
On July 23, 2018 the CTTC unit submitted a charge sheet against eight militants to a Dhaka court.
Thirteen other militants were also found to be involved in the attack. Their names were not included in the charge sheet as they had been killed in different anti-militant drives across the country.
The court recorded testimonies of 113 witnesses -- including survivors, victims' family members, police personnel, and restaurant staffers -- and closing arguments from both the prosecution and defense counsels. It delivered a verdict on November 27, 2019.
The court sentenced seven militants to death for their involvement in the attack, terming it a disgraceful attack aimed at assassinating the country's "non-communal character".
The seven death-row convicts are Jahangir Hossain, Aslam Hossain Rash, Hadisur Rahman, Rakibul Hasan Regan, Md Abdus Sabur Khan, Shariful Islam Khaled, and Mamunur Rashid Ripon.
The Anti-Terrorism Special Tribunal acquitted one of the accused, finding him not guilty of the atrocity.
"Through this disgraceful attack, an attempt was made to assassinate the non-communal character of Bangladesh. Foreigners here suffered from a sense of insecurity. The positive image of Bangladesh, known for peace and harmony, was tarnished a bit," said the court in its verdict.
Now the High Court will examine the lower court judgement through holding hearings on the death reference. The HC is expected to start hearings soon, according to court sources.