By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On December 27, 2017, Kohinur Rahman aka Ketu (43), a ‘regional leader’ of Purba Banglar Communist Party (PBCP), was killed in a ‘gunfight’ with Police in Sadar upazila (sub-District) of Chuadanga District. Five Policemen were also injured in the incident. Police recovered one revolver, six bullets, six crude bombs and six knives from the spot.
On November 28, 2017, three Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) terrorists were killed in a raid at their hideout at Char Alatuli in Chapainawabganj District. Three Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), seven detonators, 12 packs of explosive gel and two pistols were recovered from the spot.
On November 28, 2017, Abbas Sardar aka Khokon (48), a cadre of Purba Banglar Sarbahara Party (PBSP), was killed in a shootout with Police in Rajbari District’s Beninagar village. Police recovered one rifle, another firearm and five rounds of ammunition from the scene.
On September 6, 2017, remains of seven dead bodies were recovered from a JMB hideout in the capital Dhaka city’s Darus Salam area after the terrorists blew themselves up, ignoring the Rapid Action Battalion’s (RAB’s) repeated calls to surrender. A large quantity of bombs and bomb making materials, including 24 high-impact explosive devices, 60 improvised hand grenades, 70 chemical bombs, 15 kilograms (kgs) of splinters, nine empty cages, 20 kilograms of charcoal, and 1,500 pieces of igniting cord were also recovered from the area.
On August 25, 2017, a Neo-Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (Neo-JMB) militant was killed in a gunfight with the Police in Boalia village of Kushtia District. Police recovered a foreign pistol, two bullets and three sharp weapons from the spot.
Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s Awami League (AL)-led Government, which retained power winning the 10th General Elections held on January 5, 2014, has enormously consolidated its secular commitments through 2017, reining in Islamist extremist groups and targeting the Left Wing Extremist (LWE) movement in the country. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 52 Islamist terrorists were killed and another 905 arrested including 569 cadres of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI)-Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), 166 of JMB, 126 of Neo-JMB, 19 of Ansar al-Islam, 12 of Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), five each of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), two of Jamaat-e-Taliban and one of Allah’r Dal across Bangladesh in different raids in 2017. Prominent among those killed were the Neo-JMB ‘operational commander’ Nurul Islam Marzan (28), JMB ‘regional coordinator’ Abu Musa aka Abujar aka Abu Talha aka Robin aka Samiul (32), Neo-JMB ‘military chief’ Aminur Islam aka Alam (23), HuJI-B ‘chief’ Mufti Abdul Hannan and HuJI-B ‘regional commander’ Tajul Islam Mahmud aka Mama Hujur (46). By comparison, 74 Islamist terrorists were killed in 2016 and 31 in 2015.
Dhaka has also continued its campaign against the LWE movement. 15 LWE-linked fatalities were recorded, all of terrorists, in 2017. These included five PBCP ‘regional leaders’, Abdur Razzak (42), Jony Molla (31), Rakibul Hasan ‘Roky’ aka Bappi (35), Maidul Islam Rana (38) and Kohinur Rahman aka Ketu (43); two PBSP ‘regional leaders’ Kubad Ali Sikder aka Kubad (40) and Nistar aka Jahid aka Nizam (40); two PBCP ‘local leaders’ Oltu Mondol (40) and Korom Ali (36); four PBCP cadres Bidyut Bachhar (46), Sheikh Abu Talha (22), Alim Uddin (46) and Lalon Mollah (40); and two PBSP cadres Moazzem Fakir (32) and Abbas Sardar aka Khokon (48). Similarly, there were 18 LWE fatalities, all of terrorists in 2016; and 17, all of terrorists, in 2015. Meanwhile, a total of five LW extremists including PBCP ‘operational commander’ Mohamad Dulla Sheikh alias Shamim (25) and two cadres each of PBCP and PBSP were arrested through 2017. There were 14 such arrests in 2016 and 10 in 2015.
Meanwhile, the War Crimes (WC) Trials, which began on March 25, 2010, has thus far indicted 89 leaders, including 44 from Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI);16 from the Muslim League (ML); five from Nezam-e-Islami (NeI); four from Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP); two each from the Jatiya Party (JP) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP); 15 former Razakars (a prominent pro-Pakistan militia); and one former Al-Badr member. Verdicts have been delivered against 59 accused, including 37 death penalties and 22 life sentences. So far, six of the 37 people who were awarded the death sentence have been hanged; 18 are absconding and another 13 cases are currently pending with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, out of 22 persons who were awarded life sentences, four persons have already died serving their sentence; 11 are absconding and another seven are lodged in various jails of the country. Significantly, on March 11, 2017, Parliament unanimously adopted a resolution to observe March 25 as ‘Genocide Day’, marking the brutality carried out by the Pakistani Army and its collaborators on unarmed Bengalis on the black night of March 25, 1971. On the night of March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army launched ‘Operation Searchlight’ and an estimated 7,000 people were killed and 3,000 arrested in a single night. Further, referring to the horrors of March 25, 1971, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, during her speech at the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 22, 2017, stated, “I call upon the international community to take collective steps to ensure that such crimes are never committed at any time in the world. I believe, international recognition of all historical tragedies including the genocide of 1971 will play an important role in achieving our goal.”
A new security dilemma for Bangladesh in 2017 was the problem created by the Rohingya refugees from the Rakhine State of Myanmar. A new wave of refugees swept in after the incident of August 25, 2017, in which hundreds of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents armed with machetes and rifles attacked 30 security posts in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, killing 12 Policemen, a soldier and an immigration officer. In response, the military unleashed what it called “clearance operations” to root out the insurgents. On December 24, 2017, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) disclosed that in four months since the start of the influx of Rohingyas, 655,000 people had arrived in Bangladesh, bringing the estimated total number of Rohingyas in the country to 867,500.
Disturbingly, terrorist outfits both at home and abroad tried to cash in on the Rohingya crisis. On September 3, 2017, in a video message released by al Qaeda’s al-Malahem Media Foundation, Khaled Batarfi called on Muslims in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Malaysia to support their Rohingya Muslim brethren against the “enemies of Allah.” Similarly, on September 12, 2017, Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) Chief Maulana Masood Azhar declared, “All of us must do whatever we can for the Myanmar Muslims. Just say your prayers and get up to help them. You don’t need to show off what you are doing: just do it, and never stop.” On the home front, an intelligence report on November 26, 2017, noted: “The Hizb-ut Tahrir members are committing transgressions by using the excuse of helping the displaced and oppressed Rohingyas. They are trying to bolster their organization and bag more support from the masses by exploiting their emotion over the Rohingya crisis.” Meanwhile, on December 19, 2017, RAB arrested two Neo-JMB terrorists from Dhaka city’s Saidabad area. Later, on December 21, 2017, RAB identified the arrestees as Neo-JMB amir (chief) Mohamad Mizanur Rahman (37) and his associate Ibrahim Khalil (30), and revealed that Mizanur Rahman married a Rohingya woman to spread militancy among the displaced Myanmar nationals staying in Bangladesh. On December 19, 2017, Bangladesh Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu warned that the influx of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh could fuel terrorism and the movement of illegal drugs.
On November 23, 2017, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement for the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The development came one day after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a written statement, declared, “After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.” Earlier, United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, while addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on September 11, 2017, slammed Myanmar for conducting a “cruel military operation” against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, branding it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. As per the agreement signed between Dhaka and Naypyidaw on November 23, 2017, the repatriation process must start within two months of its signing, that is, from January 22, 2017. However, it could not be known how many Rohingyas will be repatriated in the first phase as the Joint Working Group (JWG) is yet to complete the physical arrangements.
To expand its unremitting effort against terrorist formations in Bangladesh, the Government approved a full-fledged Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU) with a nationwide jurisdiction to combat militancy and terrorism, on September 20, 2017. Further, on October 25, 2017, to address the controversy regarding the madrasa education system, the Government directed the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board to remove the chapters on jihad. New textbooks of the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board will not contain any chapters with lessons on jihad, for the first time in nearly four decades. The Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board, also known as the Alia Madrasa Education Board, is one of three types of madrasa education systems in Bangladesh, along with the Qawmi and Hifz madrasas. Since the inception of the Board in 1979, chapters on jihad were included in madrasa textbooks from class VIII to the degree level. Jihad was defined in madrasa textbooks as a “struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam”.
In a startling revelation at the meeting of the National Committee on Militancy Resistance and Prevention (NCMRP) in Dhaka on September 4, 2017, members from security agencies disclosed that 440 persons accused in 331 terrorism related cases had fled the country after getting bail. Frustratingly, an official of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit, seeking anonymity, noted, “We work tirelessly for months to put these terrorists behind bars and then all that hard work goes down the drain when they are granted bail and flee the country. Once they are out, these terrorists either go into hiding or start their terrorist activities all over again. If this keeps happening, we cannot stop militancy in Bangladesh.” According to different law enforcement agencies, more than 200 suspected terrorists are out on bail since January 2017. Most of these are members of Neo-JMB, old JMB, Ansar al-Islam, HuJI-B and HuT. It is usually the delay in investigation and legal proceedings that allow terrorists to take advantage of the system.
In another revelation, on October 1, 2017, ATU officials disclosed that terrorist outfits have apparently smartened up and become tech-savvy, and are increasingly using encrypted communications applications (apps) to maintain communications online, making it harder for law enforcement agencies to trace them. They noted that terrorists initially used popular apps like Facebook and its Messenger, and Google Hangouts to communicate, but had recently begun shifting to encrypted messaging apps such as Threema, Telegram and Wickr to maintain secrecy. Terrorists also use WhatsApp, Viber, Tango, Hike and several other similar apps, as most of them also have the encryption facility, but they are rapidly switching platforms to avoid detection. In the future, they are likely to also use the more advanced Silent Circle, Signal, Chat Secure, OS Tel or Red Phone, which are more privacy-conscious. If they do this, tracing their secret and online networks will prove even more challenging.
On June 28, 2017, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told Parliament “Our Government has always taken stern action against terrorism and militancy and would continue to curb the twin demons with an iron hand. There would be no place of terrorism and militancy on the soil of Bangladesh.” Further, on October 30, 2017, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal observed, “We maintain zero tolerance for terrorism and militancy. Since the Holey Artisan café attack, we carried out aggressive operations against the terrorists across the country to save the people. We have broken their backbone. They are no more a threat.”
Bangladesh has taken giant strides to root out terrorism after the country suffered its worst terrorist attack on July 1, 2016. Dhaka has demonstrated the efficacy of determined and relentless action against terrorist formations through 2017. By bringing the perpetrators of war crimes to justice, Dhaka has also succeeded in minimizing the threat of Islamist extremists within the country, both because they have become conscious of the clear intent of the incumbent Government, and because many of their top leaders are among those arraigned or convicted for the War Crimes. However, as terrorists adapt, exploit new technologies and new tactics, the challenge is kept alive. Moreover, the scope for a coalition of terrorists with the radicalized elements among the Rohingyas, who have been forced across the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, could create new headaches for authorities. Bangladesh’s “war on terror” is unlikely to end soon.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management