(RNS) Before being shot by security forces, the Islamist militants who attacked a café in Dhaka said they would happily become “martyrs” because they had successfully completed their jihadi mission and were bound for heaven, eyewitnesses said.
The militants burst into the upscale Holey Artisan Bakery on Friday (July 1), screaming “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest) and shooting many of the patrons. Twenty-two people, mostly foreigners, died in the attack.
The militants later hacked the victims with machetes and cleavers, leaving many bodies badly mangled.
After an 11-hour standoff, army commandos stormed the restaurant and killed five militants; a sixth attacker reportedly survived and was captured.
But the militants could have easily escaped, said some of the witnesses who were taken hostage after the killings.
“They could have easily fled before the security forces surrounded the café,” said a café worker who was taken hostage. “But they didn’t make any attempt to flee the place.”
The militants asked some hostages if they could prove themselves to be Muslims by reciting verses from the Quran. Those who couldn’t were shot.
The scene in the main hall of the restaurant was horrifying, with bodies, many badly dismembered, lying in pools of blood. The militants appeared calm. At around 1 a.m., they asked the staff to cook sehri, a pre-dawn meal during Ramadan.
Mohammad Sobuj Hossain, a junior chef who worked at the restaurant, was among those taken hostage. He said the attackers offered a morning prayer after eating the meal.
“The terrorists began preaching like imams before us,” Hossain said. “They said that we the Muslims should follow Islam properly and we should avoid parties, alcohol and lavish life. They had enrolled themselves for ‘jihad’ and so they were out on the mission to kill all those who don’t accept ‘Allah as the authority’ and who are polytheists, they said.”
Hossain, too, said the militants could have fled after killing the foreigners and before commandos raided the popular restaurant.
“After their morning prayer at around 4 a.m., one terrorist who looked like the leader said that the security forces must be preparing to storm the café as soon as the day broke," he said.
Hossain recounted what the alleged militant leader said: "We have performed our duty well as jihadists. We are satisfied. We will happily face the bullets from the forces and embrace the martyrdom on our way to the heaven. Those who among you are Muslims must lead a good life as Islam preaches and make your way to the heaven where we will meet again.”
After the militants released the hostages, army commandos stormed the café around 7:30 a.m. and the standoff ended.
The attack marked an escalation in militant violence in the traditionally moderate Muslim-majority nation. The recent wave of religious intolerance began in 2013 when militants brutally killed an atheist blogger. More recently, victims have included foreigners, Shiites, liberal Muslims and members of other religious minorities. The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for most of the killings.
(Akhtar Ali is a correspondent based in New Delhi, India)