The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American is among 20 dead in terrorist attack in Bangladesh

What the scene outside of a hostage situation in Bangladesh looked like

TOPSHOT - People carry an injured man near the Holey Artisan Bakery restaurant during an attack by unidentified gunmen in Dhaka's high-security diplomatic district on July 2, 2016. Gunmen stormed a crowded restaurant popular with foreigners in the Bangladeshi capital on July 1 night, apparently taking diners hostage and sparking a firefight with police in which at least two officers were killed, police and witnesses said. / AFP PHOTO / STRSTR/AFP/Getty Images (Str/AFP/Getty Images)

A 12-hour standoff with assailants who had taken hostages at a Dhaka restaurant ended early Saturday when Bangladeshi police stormed the business, killing six attackers and rescuing 13 hostages, but 20 of the captives, including an American, and two police officers were reportedly killed. At least one of the assailants has been taken into custody, according to reports.

U.S. State Department officials confirmed Saturday that an American was among the hostages killed in the attack. The identity of the victim, however, was not released.

The latest developments out of Dhaka

Three U.S. college students have been reported reported as victims.

Emory University President James Wagner said in emails to employees that Faraaz Hossain and Abinta Kabir were killed, according to the Associated Press. Both were students at the Atlanta school's Oxford College.

Kabir, who university officials say was from Miami, was visiting family and friends in Bangladesh when she was taken hostage and killed. Hossain had completed his second year at Emory and was headed to the business school in the fall.

According to CNN, University of California at Berkeley student Tarishi Jain, a 19-year-old Indian national, was the third U.S. student killed.

U.S. officials are keeping in contact with authorities in Bangladesh, according to a White House statement.

"Our deepest condolences go out to the families and loved ones of those killed, and we hope for a speedy recovery for those wounded," the statement said. "This is a despicable act of terrorism, and the United States stands with Bangladesh and the international community in our resolve to confront terrorism wherever it occurs."

All or most of the slain hostages are believed to be foreigners. They also include Italians, Japanese, Bangladeshis and one Indian, according to the AP. The restaurant is located in an upscale Dhaka neighborhood where many foreign embassies are located.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni has said nine Italians are among the dead, according to the AP. He also said one Italian citizen is still unaccounted for. And Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Saturday night that five Japanese men and two women had also died in the attack.

Earlier reports said South Koreans were believed to be among the victims, but South Korea’s Foreign Ministry says Bangladeshi officials have told them that no South Koreans are among the dead or injured, according to the AP.

The assailants took control of the popular Holey Artisan Bakery at 9:20 p.m. Friday, reportedly chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as they fired their weapons. An online media group linked to the Islamic State took credit for the attack, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist activity. It's not clear, though, that the organization has a genuine operational presence in the country.

A witness describes the moment when gunmen stormed a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital and captured hostages. (Video: Reuters)

According to Bangladeshi officials, the gunmen wielded sharp weapons. A report in a local newspaper said they allegedly tortured anyone who didn't recite the Koran and only allowed Bangladeshi captives to eat during the grueling standoff.

"It was an extremely heinous act," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in a televised statement, according to the BBC. "What kind of Muslims are these people? They don't have any religion. My government is determined to root out terrorism and militancy from Bangladesh."

The assault marks a dramatic new phase in Bangladesh's battle with Islamist militancy. As news broke of the raid, which came days after three suspected Islamic State suicide bombers struck Istanbul's main airport, speculation immediately fell on extremist groups believed to be operating in Bangladesh, including outfits affiliated both with al-Qaeda's South Asian wing and the Islamic State.

In the past two years, self-declared Islamists have targeted Hindus, intellectuals, secularist writers and bloggers. Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are keen to build their violent brand in Bangladesh, a country with one of the world's largest Sunni Muslim populations. Militant propaganda deems the ruling secular government as "apostate" traitors.

According to one count, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for more attacks in Bangladesh through its social media accounts than in Pakistan or Afghanistan. These include the killing of Italian and Japanese expats and multiple strikes on Shiite Muslims. The extremist organization had called on its fighters and proxies to launch such strikes on soft targets around the world during the holy month of Ramadan.

This attack, though, seems different from what has preceded it: It was a coordinated, brazen assault on one of the country's most protected enclaves of wealth and power. Gulshan, the neighborhood where the cafe sits, is a leafy district that's home to diplomats as well as the country's elite. The restaurant that was under siege is a bakery in the daytime and a Spanish eatery at night.

According to reports, both a large Japanese delegation as well a sizable contingent of Italian nationals in the garment industry — one of the linchpins of the Bangladeshi economy — were dining at the establishment at the time it was struck.

Hasina's government has been accused of mishandling the Islamist threat. It has repeatedly rebuffed any suggestion that the Islamic State has a foothold in the country. And it has sought to deflect blame for its perceived mishandling of the security crisis.

Last month, a senior minister pinned the escalation in violence on a vague Israeli conspiracy rather than domestic problems. In police crackdowns, authorities have rounded up some 12,000 people, including hundreds of militants, but also many petty criminals and supporters of opposition parties, the AP reported.

Counterterrorism experts say the Hasina government has expended more energy consolidating its position and suppressing its opponents than tackling the spread of Islamist violence in the country. A recent report from the International Crisis Group argued that a skewed judicial system and the heavy-handed rule of Hasina's ruling Awami League party, which is traditionally secular and center-left, was laying the foundation for further militant violence and unrest.

"There is no time to lose," the report concluded. "If mainstream dissent remains closed, more and more government opponents may come to view violence and violent groups as their only recourse."

The prime minister "has blamed much of the country’s extremist violence on the political opposition, namely the Jamaat-e-Islaami (JI) and the Bangladesh National Party," wrote Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "This accusation may not be altogether false. ... Still, to seemingly rule out that groups other than Dhaka’s chief political foes are perpetrating Bangladesh’s intensifying extremist violence is naïve at best, and dangerous at worst."

In the shadow of creeping extremism, the ruling government of Hasina has been criticized for its growing authoritarian style.

Controversial moves to prosecute and execute war criminals from the country's bloody struggle for independence in 1971 pushed Islamist factions deeper underground and have perhaps provoked a violent counter-response. Meanwhile, other dissidents and journalists have found themselves subject to state censure and intimidation.

The political environment, in other words, has left Bangladesh deeply susceptible to such havoc.

"By merely shrugging off Bangladesh’s alarming levels of extremist violence, Dhaka puts the country in greater peril," Kugelman wrote. "And it strengthens the forces that wish to undermine Bangladesh’s founding identity as a pluralistic, secular state."

An editorial in the Hindustan Times, an Indian newspaper, laid into Dhaka's failures: "The Hasina government … suffers a crisis of credibility and legitimacy when it comes to its fight against extremism and radicalism. … It will also have to shake itself out of denial even if investigations show that this attack may not have been carried out by the [Islamic State]."

Bangladesh, as a nation, exists on the periphery of the American imagination. Few in the United States would probably know it has one of the world's largest Muslim populations, larger than that of any country in the Middle East. But in the wake of the Istanbul terrorist attack, attention has fallen on the chosen tactics of the Islamic State and its proxies. A coordinated strike on Gulshan, the epicenter of wealth and elite power in Dhaka, has all the hallmarks of the terrorist organization's strategy.

More on WorldViews

These Bangladeshi bloggers were murdered by Islamists. Here's what they wrote.

Bangladesh is in the grips of Islamist violence. So it blames Israel.