July 1 is of course an important day for Canadians. We may not wear our patriotism on our sleeve as often as out southern neighbours in the US, but July 1 – Canada Day – is an exception. Average Canadians drape themselves in the national red and white flag, paint maple leaves on their cheeks and generally have a pretty good time celebrating the success (and envy of many in the world) that is Canada. This year’s 150th may have been protested by some as not worth commemorating, especially First Nations, but we did have one helluva party.
Alas, not all Canadians have seen that day as a reason to mark all things Canadian. On July 1, 2016 the centre of Bangladesh’s capital city was rocked by a terrorist attack at the Holey Artisan Cafe, a popular spot for expats and locals alike. Nine Italians, seven Japanese, one US citizen and an Indian citizen were among the dead as terrorists took hostages and separated Muslims from non-Muslims by having their victims recite Quranic verses: those that could not were tortured and killed. The siege lasted 12 hours before security forces entered and killed most of the assailants. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the incident, a fact that has led to much consternation among Bangladeshi leaders who maintain that there is no IS presence in their country.
The mastermind of the plot, by the way, was a Canadian from Windsor, Ontario named Waseem Chowdhury. More on him later.
I have just returned from a visit to Dhaka where I met with UN and local officials to talk PVE (preventing violent extremism) with a colleague from Canada’s SecDev and it is clear that this attack has had a huge impact on Bangladesh. No, violence is not uncommon in this densely-packed nation of 163 million (in an area about twice the size of New Brunswick), a topic I will return to in a later blog, but according to one local academic this tragedy has ‘seared into the common man’s psyche’ and has been also described as ‘tectonic’ and ‘cataclysmic’. It even has its own short form: 7/16 (akin to 9/11). That Bangladeshis, many of them educated and well-off, would torture and kill defenceless people having dinner has changed the calculus of security for many.
But back to Mr. Chowdhury. He was an above average student who got a scholarship to the University of Windsor. Thanks to reporting by Global News (then National Post) reporter Stewart Bell, we now know that Mr. Chowdury had links to the infamous 8th and 8th mosque in Calgary, the fount of many jihadis who joined IS in Syria and Iraq. In bragging of his exploits at the Holey Artisan Cafe, Mr. Chowdhury posted that he had chosen the venue because it was a ‘sinister place’ where “Crusaders would gather to drink alcohol and commit vices through the night,” and vowed to lead more attacks that would target ” expats, tourists, diplomats, garment buyers, missionaries, sports teams and anyone else from the Crusader citizens to be found in Bengal until the land is purified from the Crusaders and all other kuffar (non-believers) and the law of Allah is established.” He was thankfully killed in a raid on an apartment by Bangladeshi security forces a scant six weeks after his infamy. To this day, police are still arresting those tied to the plot and a police operation known as ‘Storm 26’ that was carried out in the days following the attack has been described as a ‘turning point’ in their fight against terrorism.
The crime at the bakery was not, unfortunately, an isolated incident when it comes to Canadians who commit terrorism abroad. Three other noteworthy cases include:
- Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej of London, Ontario were among a group that besieged a gas plant in southeastern Algeria in January 2013, killing 40 (mostly) foreign workers
- former York University student Mahad Ali Dhore is believed to have been one of six Al Shabaab suicide bombers who attacked a courthouse in Mogadishu in April 2013, killing 29 and wounding 56
- Salman Ashrafi, a business analyst with the Calgary firm Talisman, executed a car bombing in Baghdad in June 2014 that killed at least 19 Iraqis.
What is going on here? Quite simply, a handful of Canadian Muslims (converts and those born into Islam) are embracing a hateful, intolerant interpretation of their faith and expressing a desire to kill in its name. Some go abroad to fulfill their ‘destiny’; others (Toronto 18, etc.) do the deed here; while still others want to leave the country to join aberrations like IS but choose to act locally when their plans are thwarted (passport seizure, peace bonds, etc.). Truth be told, both CSIS and the RCMP have their hands full in cases like this.
At the end of the day we as a nation cannot be seen as indifferent to the deaths and injuries of others at the hands of our citizens. We have international obligations – and I would add moral ones as well – to interdict these terrorists before they can kill innocents abroad (although this is not as easy as some paint it to be). This means that CSIS and the RCMP need to adequately resourced to do their investigations and courts need to fully understand what the terrorist threat is and punish those who seek to carry out these acts harshly. Being seen as a ‘net exporter’ of terrorism is not a good thing.
Bangladesh is a nation already under tremendous pressures: economic, demographic and from the weather (I got a snapshot of what a monsoon season is like and I now better appreciate the hardship it brings). Terrorism and violence are also part of the mix and we cannot let our people make things worse. Our reputation as Canada undoubtedly suffered by what our own Mr. Chowdhury sickly planned and abetted. Let us do whatever we can to prevent a repeat performance.