Bangladesh says some restaurant attackers were well off and educated

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh police sought more information on Monday from friends and family of the men suspected of carrying out a deadly attack on a restaurant in the capital, and some are believed to have attended top schools and colleges at home and abroad.

The gunmen stormed the restaurant in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone late on Friday and killed 20 people, most of them foreigners from Italy, Japan, India and the United States, in an assault claimed by Islamic State.

It was one of the deadliest militant attacks to date in Bangladesh, where Islamic State and al Qaeda have claimed a series of killings of liberals and religious minorities in the last year while the government says they were carried out by local groups.

Whoever was responsible, Friday’s attack marked a major escalation in the scale and brutality of militant violence aimed at forcing strict Islamic rule in Bangladesh, whose 160 million people are mostly Muslim.

Islamic State posted pictures of five fighters it said were involved in the atrocity to avenge attacks on Muslims across the world.

“Let the people of the crusader countries know that there is no safety for them as long as their aircraft are killing Muslims,” it said in a statement.

Posts on Facebook identified the men, pictured on an Islamic State website grinning in front of a black flag, as Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz, Meer Saameh Mubasheer, Andaleeb Ahmed and Raiyan Minhaj.

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Most went to prestigious schools or universities in Dhaka and Malaysia, officials said. One of them was the son of a politician.

A police officer said the pictures of four of the attackers matched the bodies, although he gave a different name for the fourth.

Rohan’s father, a mid-ranking leader of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling party, had lodged a complaint in January that he had gone missing since Dec. 30, 2015, a police officer said.

On Monday, there was nobody at the family apartment in an affluent neighborhood of Dhaka, and a security guard said the parents had left the house on Sunday.

“A majority of the boys who attacked the restaurant came from very good educational institutions. Some went to sophisticated schools. Their families are relatively well-to-do people,” Bangladeshi Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu told India’s NDTV.

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Several posts on social media said the man identified by police as Nibras Islam attended Monash University in Malaysia. A friend who knew him while he studied at Dhaka’s North South University told Reuters that Islam later went to Monash.

Two others went to an elite public school in Dhaka called Scholastica.

Saifaul Islam, another investigator, said police were holding two people suspected of involvement in the assault, including one detained soon after the attack.

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“We have two persons with us, but we don’t know if they are victims or suspects. They are currently undergoing treatment and we’d get to know about their role in the incident only after they recover.”

Nobody had yet come forward to claim the bodies of the six dead men, he said. “We are taking DNA samples of them and will see if it matches with the families. We have some suspicions, we know some boys had gone missing over the last two-three months.”

Just days after the attack claimed by its rival jihadi movement Islamic State, a regional branch of al Qaeda urged Muslims in India to revolt and carry out lone wolf attacks.

The call by al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) follows warnings by security officials and experts that the two groups are trying to outdo each other in the region and claim the mantle of global jihad.

Rohan Gunaratna, a professor of security studies at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the Dhaka gunmen’s background may have helped them mount the attack at the Holey Artisan restaurant, popular with the city’s well-heeled and foreigners.

“As they were well educated and young, they could blend into and operate in the upmarket diplomatic enclave without evoking red flags,” he said.

“The IS (Islamic State) attack team was also technologically savvy and they uploaded the photos during the attack both to (the) IS command cell in Bangladesh and IS central in Syria.”

On Monday, hundreds of people gathered in central Dhaka to remember the victims, holding placards in different languages.

“We bleed from similar veins, we cry. Bangladesh, stand up for the next fight,” read one large banner written in English.

The attack could be a huge blow for Bangladesh’s $26 billion garment industry, as fears mount that major retailers from Marks and Spencer to Gap Inc could rethink their investments.

Japan’s Fast Retailing Co, owner of the Uniqlo casual-wear brand, said it will suspend all but critical travel to Bangladesh and has told staff there to stay home.

Additional reporting by Zeba Siddiqui in MUMBAI, Rupam Jain and Tommy Wilkes in NEW DELHI and Ruma Paul and Reuters Television in DHAKA; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani and Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Nick Macfie