DHAKA–A first ever attack on a Shia religious procession in Bangladesh has led to the death of a boy and left over a hundred injured. An alleged statement from the Islamic State (IS) has claimed indirect involvement in the Dhaka attack, but terrorism and conflict experts and police officials in Bangladesh are still not confirming IS involvement in the attack.

The Tazia procession has been a mourning tradition for Shia Muslims across the world on the day of Ashura, to commemorate the sacrifices of Imam Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad, and 72 others who were brutally killed during the battle of Karbala in the seventh century.

In Bangladesh, the tradition can be traced as far back as 400 years. In Dhaka, the procession is always initiated from Hussaini Dalan, a Shia shrine in the old part of Dhaka city. Despite Bangladesh’s Sunni-majority, the Shias have observed the tradition for centuries without any sectarian issues, unlike Pakistan, Iraq and other countries in the Middle East.

Hospital scene in aftermath of Dhaka bombing
Hospital scene in aftermath of Dhaka bombing

All that changed on Saturday, when hundreds of Shia Muslims gathered near the Hossaini Dalan shrine after 1:00 am.

Munir Hossain, 23, was in the crowd with his eight-month old baby. “The procession was about to leave the premises 10 to 15 minutes before 2:00 am when the first crude bomb fell near me and there was a thunderous explosion,” Hossain told Asia Times, while lying in bed inside the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) on Oct. 24.

Hossain said that he had heard at least two other explosions after the first. “I was wounded but I tried to save my child,” he said. Both Hossain and his child are currently recovering at the DMCH.

According to DMCH hospital authorities, Mitford Hospital and other hospitals nearby, more than a hundred people were admitted immediately after the explosions. A 15-year-old boy named Sazzad Hossain died on the spot. The shrine authorities claimed that there were at least 15,000 people in the Dalan shrine area prior to the attack.

MM Firoz Hossain, Superintendent of Hussaini Dalan, told Asia Times, “We are collecting names from the hospitals. As soon as the list is prepared we will try to help the wounded and their families.”

Security was beefed up in the area soon after the attack.

Hours later, an alleged statement from the Islamic State claimed  “soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh” detonated explosive devices in Dhaka during “polytheist rituals.” Islamic State — an ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim group that sees Shias as apostates — claimed responsibility for the attack.

A Bangladeshi policeman collects forensic evidence after a small bomb exploded outside a Shia religious site in Dhaka on Oct. 24
A Bangladeshi policeman collects forensic evidence after a small bomb exploded outside a Shia religious site in Dhaka on Oct. 24

Similar claims were made following the murders of Italian NGO worker Cesare Tavella in Dhaka on Sept. 28 and Japanese national Hoshi Kunio in Rangpur of Bangladesh on October 3. All three claims were first reported by terrorism monitoring group SITE.

Although the law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh had arrested 15 IS suspects over the last year, authorities have downplayed the claims following the foreigner murders and even after the recent attack on the Shia procession.

“The case was filed on Sunday and we are still investigating into the Shia attack,” said Muntashirul Alam, Dhaka Metropolitan Police spokesperson to Asia Times on Sunday. “It is too early to say anything”, he added.

Also, on the foreigner murders, Alam said, “We have identified the murderers of Tavella from CCTV footage. We are hoping to apprehend them soon.”

On Monday morning, the detective branch of the DMP informed the media that they have arrested four suspects along with the motorbike allegedly used during the Tavella murder. The police also waived off any IS involvement while claiming that they have discovered the conspiracy behind the murder.

International relations and conflict experts in Bangladesh shared their doubts about the IS claims with Asia Times.

“While it cannot be confirmed whether Islamic State is involved, undoubtedly the three incidents were planned,” said Professor Dalem Chandra Barman, founder chairman of the Peace and Conflict Studies department at the University of Dhaka.

An international relations expert, who didn’t want to be named, said that it is unlike Islamic State to swoop on “soft targets” like the foreigners or the Shia procession. He noted that militant organizations have a tendency to attack targets where the “casualties are likely to be higher” ensuring that their names make headlines across the world.

“By all means, this seems to be a conspiracy at maligning the global image of Bangladesh, which has been phenomenally better than most (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries,” said the expert.

Ever since the attacks, diplomatic missions in Dhaka have issued alerts limiting travel by their nationals to Bangladesh in some cases. Traders in Bangladesh, especially in the ready-made garments sector whose annual revenue acts as the lifeblood for the foreign exchange reserve in the country, have complained that most foreign investors have cancelled plans to visit the country due to the current situation. A tour by the Australian cricket team was also cancelled immediately after Tavella’s murder.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is a Dhaka, Bangladesh-based freelance journalist and the editor of  Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, a leading English daily in Bangladesh.

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