Dhaka Attack: How Extremists Use Colonial History as a Tactic

Grief in Dhaka, Bangladesh
A relative mourns after receiving the body of a victim who was killed in the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O'Kitchen Restaurant during a memorial ceremony in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 4. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

One of the first acts of the Indian rebellion of 1857 took place in Bengal in late March. In the weeks preceding, British officers, most of whom oversaw regiments composed entirely of Indian soldiers, had been edgy and nervous. Piles of chapatis, the round, unleavened, Indian bread that is the mainstay of the sub-continental diet, were being delivered from village to village at a rate faster than the British mail. No source and no explanation could be found. Then on March 29, Mangal Pandey, a soldier in the 34th Bengal Native Infantry, began to goad the soldiers of his regiment to rebel. When the British adjutant general, Lieutenant Baugh, heard what was happening, he immediately rushed to confront Pandey. Both men were armed with bullets and swords. In the ensuing scuffle, it was Pandey who was able to wound Baugh with his sword. When finally apprehended, Pandey tried to shoot himself.

As details emerge from the carnage in Dhaka, Bangladesh, claimed by militant group Islamic State (ISIS), aspects of the modus operandi of the attackers connect to the historiography of that long-ago war against foreign occupation. Drawing attention to them vis-a-vis the Dhaka attack reveals crucial aspects of how global extremist groups like ISIS, recruiting in postcolonial states, are able to adapt and indigenize their global campaigns to the perspectives of local populations. It also reveals the measure of theatrics and cinematography that undergird the modern extremist attack, its multiple meanings, subtexts and performativity geared to delivering differing messages to differing populations. It even exposes the extent to which ISIS appropriates anti-imperialism to justify its acts.

The basic juxtaposition of any attack, its mechanics of horror, rely on the contrast between ordinary acts and sudden annihilation. The remnants of these ordinary acts, the child's toy amid the rubble, communicate to the viewer the penetrability of any moment with sudden and terrific destruction. It is no surprise, therefore, that the first images of the Dhaka attack released by Amaq, the ISIS news agency, show a half-eaten meal. Three glasses of wine sit at a table, completely untouched by the carnage around them. Two plates of food, unwitting last meals, are half-eaten; a third is wiped completely clean. Not one of the three pictures shows the victims' faces; it is fear, not empathy that is the pictorial goal.

Beyond the ubiquitous posing of the ordinary against the extraordinary, the attack in Dhaka makes historic allusions particular to Bengal, half of which is now independent Bangladesh. As can be seen in the stories of the mystery chapati bread and Mangal Pandey, bakeries and death by sword have particular connotations in the postcolonial milieu of the subcontinent.

During the day-long siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery, frequent mention was made of the fact that it was an artisanal bakery serving up the sort of bread preferred by Westerners. A glance at the menu reveals some very British offerings: there is "steak and gravy pie" and a dish called "Bengal turnover"; you also find ciabatta and scones and even brioche and baguettes. There is no chapati. In singling out the bakery for attack, the terrorists were attaching themselves to a particular postcolonial confusion: what role must the legacy of occupation, its bread and bakeries, be permitted to play in the state that exists after?

Beyond the menu, there are the postcolonial politics of location and exclusion. Following the rebellion of 1857, and in a few cases prior to it, the British lived in areas reserved for them and divided by "lines." For the most part, natives were not permitted in these environs, beyond those who worked as cooks or cleaners, or those who were, in the words of Lord MacAulay, "Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect."

The diplomatic enclaves of present day South Asia follow similar lines of segregation, the natives separated from the foreigners, admission regulated then and now in the name of security. Now as well as back then, local elites flaunt their ability to access these cordoned-off areas as a status symbol, unavailable to the vast millions of resentful, excluded others, who would settle for chapatis and never crave scones.

To a non-Western, Bangladeshi audience, the message of the carnage in Dhaka is centered less around Islam and more around anti-imperialism, betting cleverly on the latter as attractive to even secular Bangladeshis. As The New York Times reported, upon entering, the attackers immediately separated foreigners from non-foreigners. The native Bangladeshi cooks and workers reported as being treated with respect, told to not worry. Among the foreigners were Italians, there to negotiate deals with Bangladesh's textile sector (notorious for enriching local and foreign bosses and tossing meager scraps to workers), who were singled out, shot first then butchered with daggers, the latter seemingly essential for this macabre terrorist performance piece. For a moment, then, the world order where native Bangladeshis are at the bottom and foreign others at the top was upended. Witnesses were left to tell this story, deliver the message of this carefully choreographed bit of terror's cinematography.

There is absolutely nothing venerable or brave or redemptive about the grotesque attack on the Holey family artisan bakery in Dhaka. Terror, however, relies on moral confusion, on pinning the inequities of history to the innocent of the present, hence the cruel and arbitrary deaths. In reclaiming the metaphors of the past in the brutal enactments of the present, extremist groups like ISIS expose how their global franchise of fear and destruction localizes its offerings, makes itself relevant to a population culturally and ideologically disconnected from the Middle East where it is centralized. Mangal Pandey, who took his sword to the British officer in 1857, is considered a hero in all parts of the subcontinent; in staging their carnage to resemble his courage, ISIS terrorists think they can become the same.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan and Veil , and is a columnist for The Boston Review and The Nation Magazine . Follow her on Twitter @rafiazakaria.