A cafe in Dhaka was attacked yesterday because it was popular with foreigners. 18 of them were killed. We all know this now.
When I first arrived in Dhaka in October the first thing that I was told was that an Italian guy was gunned down around the corner a few weeks before. The next thing I was told was that a Japanese guy was similarly murdered outside the city a week later. The third thing I was told was that it wasn’t ISIS.
“It was more than likely a political opponent of the government who wanted to cause problems for the current president.”
“The Japanese guy, we think it may have had something to do with land. He was investing in land and that can make people angry.”
ISIS isn’t here. All the terrorists are from Pakistan. We are a peaceful Muslim country.
I stayed in the Gulshan part of Dhaka — where the embassies are, where the rich people are, where the foreigners are. It was previously regarded as a safe zone, a compound of sorts harking back to the days of colonies. I even went to the British embassy’s social club one night for drinks. For an armed individual to come in here and pluck off a random foreigner going for an evening jog was to send a big message. It rattled the country.
After this attack, the Gulshan area was stocked with even more security forces. All the roads leading into it had road blocks / inspection points. Armed police were everywhere.
But it seemed overtly ineffectual.
The inspection points amounted to little more than a traffic nuisance. All lanes would come to a bottleneck where a kid with a shotgun would look at you as you drove through. There was no further inspection, unless he thought you had a suspicious look to you or something. As this place was full of both rich foreigners and Bangladeshis as well as the poor Bangladeshis who worked for them it was hard for me to determine what could trigger an inspection at the blockade. I watched a couple of them interested. Cars were rarely pulled over. I once saw a guy riding in on the back of a bicycle rickshaw carrying a plastic jug of gasoline stopped for questioning, but that was it.
“Do these checkpoints actually do anything besides make traffic jams?” I asked a local expat as he jostled for position as he drove his truck through one.
He laughed. “No, not really.”
For my first day in Dhaka I walked around on alert — Is that bicycle rickshaw driver who was waiting outside my guesthouse and slowly following me down the street up to something? Why is that van stopping near me? But after 15 minutes of this I shrugged and said fuck it. The place was incredibly friendly, seemed as safe as places come. I spent my days walking across it, as it was faster than taking transportation.
Even for a place that had just endured two terrorist attacks (whether by ISIS or a domestic political group), security in Bangladesh seemed lax. I was able to walk right into the country’s central bank and into the office of its governor for a meeting without a metal detector screening or even a pat down. On a domestic flight I didn’t bother taking my computer out of my bag, dumping out my water bottle, or removing my big engineer boots with the big steel buckles. When I set off the alarm I received a pat down that was hardly a formality. I looked back at the guy running the x-ray machine — he was playing on his phone, not even looking at the screen.
At that time this made me feel safe. My reasoning was that if there was an actual security threat the place would be locked down. Nobody seemed to be on edge, everything seemed business as usual and overtly benign.
All of this is now seeming more and more untrue.
But the word in Bangladesh seems to be the same as before: It wasn’t ISIS, it was Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen — a local group apparently looking to make difficulties for the current government. But for anyone looking to do business in Bangladesh or go there as a tourist, does that make it any better?
Of all the countries that I’ve so far visited along the New Silk Road, Bangladesh is one of the ones with the most promise. The country has it all, and is getting ready to be ready. But after a third attack in not even a year on foreigners — the second in the diplomat enclave — makes me wonder what the future will be. It seems as if Bangladesh can go two ways: up and international, or down and in disarray. It doesn’t seem as if the country can ride out the middle road for much longer.