5th anniversary of Holey Artisan Cafe attack: Bangladesh’s night of infamy

Holey Artisan cafe after the attackProthom Alo file photo

Today (1 July) marks the 5th anniversary of the Holey Artisan Cafe attack, the deadliest night of terror in the country’s history that saw 22 civilians killed, most of them were foreigners residing in or visiting the capital’s swanky diplomatic quarter in Gulshan and Baridhara areas.

Commemorations among relatives and those close to the victims will therefore span the globe from Japan at one end to Italy at the other. Indeed, those are the two countries that suffered the most casualties.

Five heavily-armed young men who didn’t fit the profile of typical ‘jihadist’ executed the audacious attack, that clearly drew inspiration from ISIS, the global death cult and terrorist motherboard that was at the peak of its influence at the time.

However, investigators never uncovered any evidence of direct operational training or support from the caliphate’s headquarters.

The unlikely militants, all in their late teens or early 20s, were not madrasah students from the hinterland, but rather city boys who grew up among Bangladesh’s elite, having attended top private schools and universities in Bangladesh and abroad. Their pathways to radicalisation were not foreseen, are still not very well-understood, but would seem to have been abrupt and even rapid.

On the evening of 1 July, a little after 9:00pm, they made their move and laid siege to the upmarket cafe popular with expatriates - a calculated choice that paid off with maximum foreign casualties. Initially they held everyone inside the café as hostage before executing them based on nationality or religion. Some Bangladeshis were allowed to leave – one (Faaraz Ayaaz Hossain) bravely refused to leave without his two foreign friends, and died with them.

The victims included nine Italians, seven Japanese, one Indian, one Bangladesh-born American and two Bangladeshis.

Besides, two police officers called to the scene were also killed by grenades during the first wave of the attack - this demonstrated how well-armed they were, and law enforcers subsequently backed off to wait for specialist commandos to come in and do the job, causing a nightlong standoff.

Thirteen people, including three foreigners, were rescued while 20 bodies of the hostages were recovered from the restaurant after a successful operation led by the 1st Para-commando Battalion, an elite force in the Bangladesh Army, the following morning (2 July).

Five militants and one restaurant staff were killed and one suspected militant was arrested during the drive.

Including the militants and two policemen, the total death toll was 29 from what is definitively described as “Bangladesh’s 9/11,” after the 2001 attack that brought down World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers in New York, described as the most infamous terrorist attack of all time.

A case was filed with Gulshan police station in connection with what still stands as the deadliest terror attack ever in the country. Later, the case was transferred to the Detective Branch of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP).

Twenty-one people were identified behind the attack. Among them, 13 were killed in gunfights at different times.

Police pressed charges against eight people in the case on 23 July 2018. The tribunal framed charges against them on 26 November that year. On 3 December, the trial began with the deposition of witnesses.

On 17 November last year, the tribunal set 27 November for delivering its verdict.

On 27 November 2019, seven men were sentenced to death for their roles in the Holey Artisan café attack.