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Anita Khan: Behind the Hostage Detention of Bangladeshi Tahmid Hasib Khan

After a deadly siege a month ago, Bangladesh wrestles with the rising specter of extremism.

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Image Courtesy of The Free Tahmid Facebook Group.

by Anita Khan

As a child, Tahmid Hasib Khan was playing cricket in the Dhanmondi neighborhood of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka when he found a bird with a broken wing. Instead of finishing the game, Khan went home and nursed the bird for three weeks before setting it free.

Khan survived an eleven-hour deadly siege on July 1 at the Holey Artisan Bakery in the diplomatic enclave in Gulshan in Dhaka that killed 22 people. Afterwards, alongside Hasnat Karim, who was dining in the restaurant with his wife and children, Khan has now been in police custody for five weeks- only to be produced today in court, with police claiming that he was only arrested yesterday.

Khan had been out that night meeting two friends for an overdue reunion after arriving the same morning from Canada.

The Bangladeshi attackers were five young men. Three appear to be just like the hostages they killed, but with important distinctions: media hungry ISIS, who eagerly took credit for these attacks and who published photographs of the attackers, did not publish photographs of Khan or Karim. The five deranged gunmen – three of whom were from affluent backgrounds – posed with guns in these photographs, and had been missing for several months prior to the attacks.

Unlike the gunmen, Khan never disappeared, according to his best friend at the University of Toronto, Josh Grondin.

Grondin last saw Khan on June 30, when Khan took a cab to say goodbye to his brother, en route to Dhaka from Canada. “Tahmid was excited to see his parents and couldn’t stop talking about his UNICEF internship for the last two months,” Grondin recalls.

Grondin had booked a flight to Bangladesh to meet Khan’s parents on July 5. Instead he woke up the day after Khan left, to find that his friend was stuck inside the Holey Artisan Bakery.

“All of Tahmid’s friends and family find it impossible that he would be in touch with ISIS,” says a source close to Khan.

Grondin last saw Khan on June 30, when Khan took a cab to say goodbye to his brother, en route to Dhaka from Canada. “Tahmid was excited to see his parents and couldn’t stop talking about his UNICEF internship for the last two months,” Grondin recalls.

In a bid to maximize his short vacation time in Dhaka before starting a UNICEF internship in Kathmandu, Khan met two friends for dessert at the now infamous café, the same night he landed. One of the friends- who spoke under the condition of confidentiality, relays that it was an impromptu decision of hers to go to the café, given its proximity to the third friend’s house, and because she was due home at 9 PM.

She was sitting with her friends in the lawn eating chocolate and hazelnut ice cream, when they heard loud noises – what initially appeared to them to be firecrackers. A gunman wearing baggy pants and a loose T-shirt came out and immediately shot at one of the foreigners in the table of five next to them.

Bhaiyya, don’t kill us,” the hostages shouted to the gunman.

“Don’t worry, we are not here to kill Bangladeshis,” the terrorist said.

This hostage kept looking at her watch, as the gunmen went around the lawn shooting each victim with rifles and pistols, before hacking them with machetes to ensure death.

By 8.59 PM, the gunmen were done with the majority of the killings. The hostages were ushered inside the restaurant at gunpoint, and the horror of being preached to and subsequently belittled by the terrorists, began. From being forced to eat sea bass and pastries in a pool of dead bodies, to being forced to watch the brutal murder of US citizen Abinta Kabir, who was still breathing and said “Allah,” pleading for her life after being hacked, to having phones snatched by terrorists, to communicate with outsiders, the night was filled with intense moments.

The hostage confirmed previous reports that the gunmen had forced Khan to hold an unloaded gun during the night and they also took him upstairs with Karim. The purpose appears to have been to use Khan as a human shield in case the police tried to shoot the attackers.

“Tahmid was crying when the gunmen asked him to carry a gun. I asked Tahmid after we got out, ‘What happened when the terrorists took him upstairs?’ Tahmid said the gunmen made him hold an empty gun pointed to Hasnat Karim. They wanted to show the snipers that they still had hostages,” this hostage says.

From a two-hour interview with this hostage, it seems the attackers had expected to face an early raid and were not prepared for a lengthy stand-off with police. After they had separated and killed the foreign hostages they were unsure what to do with those they spared. Chillingly, the gunmen seemed to enjoy the killings and joked about the events.

According to this hostage, Khan is the hero of the ghastly siege, complying with demands because he was being threatened with death by the terrorists, but simultaneously using the terrorists’ twisted logic to plead for freedom. Evidently the attackers were ready to die themselves, but became restless in the morning waiting for the authorities. “The gunmen just wanted to fight the police. Tahmid explained to the gunmen that the police wouldn’t come inside, as long as they knew the gunmen had hostages. The terrorists did not think they would have hostages. You could tell by the fact that they didn’t seem to know what to do with us.”

Since Khan and Karim’s police detention began, Bangladesh’s government has provided conflicting information regarding their whereabouts. The hostages are apparently still under interrogation, although Khan’s family has not been allowed any contact, and neither men have been allowed legal representation after being forced to complete tasks for the attackers.

According to this hostage, Khan is the hero of the ghastly siege, complying with demands because he was being threatened with death by the terrorists, but simultaneously using the terrorists’ twisted logic to plead for freedom.

This fall, Khan was planning on returning to Toronto to complete his studies, and to mentor in a U of T immigrant support program, as well as at the NGO Ruya Worldwise. Ruya uses education initiatives to raise awareness of global health issues. Friends reveal Khan loves Linkin Park, plays bass guitar, sings traditional Bangla music, performs in theatrical plays through the Bangladesh Students’ Association at the University of Toronto, fundraises for orphans, studies global health, supports Real Madrid, admires Christiano Ronaldo, and has epilepsy.
I don’t know Tahmid Khan, and have never met him. Regardless of what the Bangladeshi government may eventually decide, his arrest defies global human rights standards, and hence it is important to present him as those who know him would describe him. Based on hostage accounts, he appears to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another source close to Khan insists, “Tahmid is squeaky clean.”

Perhaps, the Bangladeshi government is comparing Khan’s case to Nibras Islam – the twenty-two-year old “privileged” café attacker and apparent leader of the terrorist attack. Nibras Islam was expelled from Monash University’s Kuala Lumpur campus this past year. Yet, despite their closeness in age, Nibras Islam appears to be a drunken mess turned radicalized militant, while Khan seems to have maintained a robust and healthy social life.

According to Grondin, Khan has also expressed growing concern about global terrorism over the last months. “He’s the kind of person that was shaken up enough by finding an injured animal, so he can’t even imagine how someone could hurt another person on purpose,” Grondin said. “When he comes back, the trauma will have changed him, but we are here for him. And we are all worried.”

After the siege in Dhaka, Khan contacted his father saying he was alive. The attackers, on the other hand, were reportedly not in contact with kin for months, after staging their disappearances.

Canada based counterterrorism expert Amarnath Amarasingam, weighed in on Khan’s case over email. Speaking to Bangladesh’s processes regarding terrorism, and the country’s decision to offer money for the whereabouts of those who have gone missing in recent months, Amarasingam said, “The list of 260+ [missing individuals] that [Bangladesh] produced is now under question because not all that are missing have been radicalized… Instead of holding students behind for questioning for a month now, they should examine these networks more closely.”

Khan and Karim’s arrests follow in the wake of the country’s drive to arrest 11,000 suspected “terrorists,” mere days before the attack on the café. After these arrests, Human Rights Watch called on Bangladesh’s government to “immediately stop arbitrarily arresting people without proper evidence of a crime.”

“The attack on the café was a horrific event, and the authorities should conduct thorough investigations by questioning those held hostage – but they must do so in a rights-respecting manner,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Khan and Karim’s arrests follow in the wake of the country’s drive to arrest 11,000 suspected “terrorists,” mere days before the attack on the café. After these arrests, Human Rights Watch called on Bangladesh’s government to “immediately stop arbitrarily arresting people without proper evidence of a crime.”

The larger question hence becomes: while Bangladesh arrests people who may not be terrorists, is it also using these same hostages as scapegoats to pretend that it has a grip on the rising specter of extremism?

Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan insists Bangladesh harbors only homegrown extremism, even while investigators have begun looking for connections outside the country. The Minister for Planning and Works, Engineer Musharraf, has now labeled hundreds of restaurants in the Gulshan area illegal – including Holey Artisan Bakery. North South University – one of the country’s premier universities – is currently being flouted as a terrorist breeding ground, despite producing many of the country’s finest graduates. These steps detract attention from the growing extremism in the country. They confound the ideals of liberalism on which the Sheikh Hasina government grounded its platform when elected in 2009.

Based on accounts, Khan convinced the terrorists to release a group of hostages. Now the world watches Bangladesh’s reactionary measures in the wake of the largest terrorist attack in the country’s recent history with growing unease, wondering when the government will correct its missteps. Meanwhile, Holey Artisan has attempted returning to some semblance of normalcy. It is currently selling pastries from upscale Japanese restaurant Izumi, in a defiant act of bittersweet justice, given that several Japanese were amongst those murdered.

Anita Khan is a New York based human rights specialist, with over ten years of experience working for global justice issues. She has spent the past four weeks interviewing people who were held hostage by the terrorists who attacked and killed 20 people at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Bangladesh.

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3 comments for Anita Khan: Behind the Hostage Detention of Bangladeshi Tahmid Hasib Khan

  1. Comment by jen Moss on August 5, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Great article about Tahmid – would you like to be part of an on-air conversation about Tahmid on Roundhouse Radio in Vancouver? Monday morning at 8 am PST (11 am ET)?

    Please let me know — sincerely,

    Jennifer Moss
    Producer
    Roundhouse Radio.
    jen@roundhouseradio.com

  2. Comment by Citizen of the world on August 5, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    Media suppression, political opposition suppressed, curbing freedom of speech, forced unfair election, illegally in power, forced unethical and ineligible loan to borrowers. Political pressure on government on govt and private banks to sanction large loans on overvalued assets. Destroying Sundarbans, destroying small business and restaurants with demolition hurting middle class, signing unfavorable deals for Bangladesh with Indian govt. It seems like she is taking revenge of her family’s killing on the entire nation and the ordinary people 🙁

  3. Comment by Megh on August 7, 2016 at 7:07 am

    Where are those hostage who are giving character certificate to tahmid? There was no name given. This only indicates some people are trying to cover up. Give the name of hostages, let police question him, cross examine him. This article suggests hasnat is innocent while police have clear evidence that hasnat is related to the terrorists.

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