Well-educated and hailing from wealthy families, the gunmen who killed 20 hostages in a Bangladesh cafe defy the increasingly outdated stereotype of jihadists from poor backgrounds who have been radicalised in madrassas. Six young men were shot dead Saturday at the end of the all-night siege in a Dhaka cafe claimed by the Islamic State group.
One may have been an innocent bystander, but among the remaining five are a graduate of Bangladesh’s leading private university, an 18-year-old student at an elite school and the son of a ruling party official.
As jihadist groups such as IS focus their recruitment efforts on disenfranchised middle class youth, government efforts to eradicate extremism become ever more complicated.
“They are all highly educated young men and from well-off families,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan told AFP. Asked why they would have become jihadists, Khan said: “It has become a fashion.”
While the Bangladesh government has continued to deny IS has a foothold in the country, the group claimed the attack and its associated news agency, Amaq, posted pictures of the five gunmen posing with weapons.
Similarly in militancy-ravaged Pakistan, the government denies that the international jihadist network has a formal presence in the country.
But a Pakistani security official recently told AFP that authorities had busted several IS recruitment cells focused on a similar affluent demographic.
Taj Hashmi, a Bangladeshi who teaches security studies at the Austin Peay State University in the United States, pointed out that many of the Saudi hijackers behind the September 11 attacks were also from wealthy families.
But he says that middle-class youth have been providing Islamist terror groups with footsoldiers since long before the emergence of IS.
“Marginalised and angry people from the higher echelons of society have been swelling the ranks of Islamist terrorists for the last 30-odd years,” he said.
Bangladeshi authorities have so far only released code names of the cafe assailants after interrogating a gunman who was captured alive, but they have released photos of their bloodied corpses.
Friends of one confirmed his identity as 22-year-old Nibras Islam who had been studying at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University before going missing in January.
A school friend remembered him as popular pupil. “He was a good athlete whom everyone admired,” the friend told AFP on condition of anonymity.
After leaving school, Nibras went to North South University (NSU), a private university which came to prominence when one former student tried to bomb the Federal Reserve Bank in New York in 2012.