By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On April 30, 2016, a Hindu tailor, identified as Nikhil Joardar (50), was hacked to death at his tailoring shop in the Dubail area under Gopalpur upazila (sub-District) of Tangail District. Hours after the incident, Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the killing saying he ‘blasphemed’ against Prophet Muhammad.
On April 25, 2016, Xulhaz Mannan (35), editor of Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s first ever Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) magazine; and his friend Samir Mahbub Tonoy (25) were hacked to death in their flat in the Kalabagan area in Dhaka city, the national capital. Parvez Mollah (18), a security guard at the building and Mamtaz, an Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) of Police, who tried to nab one of the attackers, were injured in the incident. Witnesses said the attackers used machetes to attack but fired blank shots on their way out chanting Allahu Akbar (God is Great).
On April 26, 2016, Ansar al-Islam (Sword of Islam), the purported Bangladesh branch of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for the twin murders and posted a statement at the Twitter handle @Ansar_Islam_BD,
Alhamdulillah, By the grace of Almighty Allah, the Mujahidin of Ansar Al-Islam [AQIS, Bangladesh branch] were able to assassin Xulhaz Mannan and his associate Samir Mahbub Tonoy. They were the pioneers of practicing and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh. They were working day and night to promote homosexuality among the people of this land since 1998 with the help of their masters, the US crusaders and its Indian allies.
Disturbingly, since the beginning of the 2016, nine intellectuals/ activists/ secularists/ or alleged ‘apostates’/ ‘blasphemers’ (including Joardar, Manan and Tonoy) have been killed across the country by suspected Islamist terrorists. The other six killed are:
April 23, 2016: A.S.M. Rezaul Karim Siddiquee (58), a Professor of English at Rajshahi University, was killed with sharp weapons while he was waiting for University transport at the Battola intersection in Rajshahi city.
April 6, 2016: Nazimuddin Samad (28), a blogger and an activist of Gonojagoron Mancha (People’s Resurgence Platform), who used to campaign for secularism on Facebook and was critical of radical Islamists, was killed by suspected Islamist terrorists in Old Dhaka city’s Sutrapur area.
March 22, 2016: Hossain Ali (65), a freedom fighter who converted to Christianity from Islam 17 years ago, was hacked to death with sharp weapons while he was walking on the road beside his house in the Garialpara area of Kurigram District.
March 14, 2016: Abdul Razzaq (45), a homoeopathic medicine practitioner and follower of the Shia form of Islam for over 20 years, was hacked to death with sharp weapons while he was heading back to his village in Jhenaidah District.
February 21, 2016: Jogeswar Dasadhikari (50), a Hindu priest at Sri Sri Shonto Gaurio Temple in Debiganj upazila (sub-District) of Panchagarh District was killed by slitting his throat.
January 7, 2016: Chhamir Uddin Mandal (85), a homoeopathy doctor who had converted to Christianity in 1993 was killed inside his dispensary in Jhenaidah District.
Signficantly, out of the nine murders in 2016, Daesh (Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham) claimed responsibility for six, including the murders of Nikhil Joardar, A.S.M. Rezaul Karim Siddiquee, Hossain Ali, Abdul Razzaq, Jogeswar Dasadhikari and Chhamir Uddin Mandal. Meanwhile, Ansar al-Islam claimed ‘credit’ for the twin murders of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy; and Nazimuddin Samad.
Six secular bloggers and publishers had been hacked to death by Islamist extremists in 2015 for their alleged position ‘against Islam’. They were Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rehman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Neel, Faisal Arifin and Mashiur Rahman. Three pirs (revered religious instructors, usually of Sufi orientation) and one attendant were also killed by Islamist extremists in 2015, for their ‘deviant’ religious ideology. The pirs killed included Muhammad Khijir Khan, Hazrat Moulana Mohammad Salahuddin Khan Bishal and Rahmat Ullah. Bangladesh was also stunned by the killing of two foreign nationals in 2015, including Japanese national Hoshi Kunio on October 6 in Rangpur District and an Italian charity worker, Cesare Tavella on September 28 in Dhaka city. The Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT, Volunteers of Allah Bangla Team), a purported affiliate of al-Qaeda, claimed the killing of all six bloggers, while the rest of the killings remained unclaimed.
In 2014, four persons were killed under similar circumstances. Ansar al-Islam claimed all the killings. 12 persons had been killed in 2013, when the trend of targeting secularists took an alarming turn since after the Shahbagh Movement of February 2013, which sought the death penalty for War Criminals of the 1971 genocide, most of whom were linked with the Islamist extremist formations. In an almost immediate reaction, on February 15, 2013, Ahmed Rajeeb Haider, an activist of Gonojagoron Mancha and secular blogger was hacked to death in front of his house in Pallabi, Dhaka city. The ABT had claimed responsibility for the killing.
While the recent spike in the killing of intellectuals, ‘unbelievers’ and ‘deviants’ has raised international alarm because of the purported links of the perpetrators with international jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and, particularly, Daesh (Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham), such targeted killings have long terrorized Bangladesh. Indeed, their roots can be traced back to the genocide of 1971 when the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and its terrorist activists in groups such as Al-Shams and Al-Badar were involved in the systematic slaughter of nationalist intellectuals, activists, writers and academics in Bangladesh. While no consolidated data on such killings is available for the past decades, anecdotal evidence demonstrates continuous campaigns of intimidation and murder by the Islamist groups, which received substantial protection of the state under the earlier Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)–JeI coalition regimes. Among the prominent incidents in this chain were:
September 23, 1993: A fatwa of death was issued against author Taslima Nasrin for the publication of her controversial book Lajja (Shame) which offended the extremists.
January 18, 1999: Shamsur Rahman, a leading Bangladeshi poet was targeted in a failed attempt to kill him at his residence by the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) for his writings.
February 27, 2004: Bangladeshi secular author and critic Humayun Azad, was attacked with machetes near the campus of the University of Dhaka. He survived the attempt, but was found dead in his apartment in Munich, Germany, on August 12, 2004.
2005, in particular, had seen a spate of bombings and killings by the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) targeting journalists, judges, teachers and religious minorities. In October 2005, nine journalists received death threats, with shrouds delivered to their homes, from the JMB and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), an extremist formation linked to the Ahl-e-Hadith movement. In June that year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report, Breach of Faith: Persecution of the Ahmadiyya Community in Bangladesh, which documented the campaign of violence, harassment and intimidation unleashed by the Khatme Nabuwat (KN against the Ahmadiyya community, attacking their mosques, beating and killing some Ahmadis, and preventing access to schools and sources of livelihood for others. Indeed, 19 journalists had been killed in Bangladesh in the preceding decade, including Dipankar Chakrabarty, editor of a regional daily Durjoy Bangla (Invincible Bangla), who was hacked to death with a machete in the central town of Sherpur District in October 2004. While at least four of these killings were claimed by the Maoist Purba Bangla Communist Party (PBCP), a majority were executed by various Islamist formations. The year also witnessed suicide bombings in Courts, and the killing of two judges in a bombing on November 4.
February 1, 2006, Professor Sheikh Taher Ahmed of Rajshahi University Geology and Mining Department was found dead in a septic tank of his house with hacking injuries believed to be inflicted by Islamist extremists.
February 1, 2008: A 70 year-old woman convert to Christianity from Islam, Rahima Beoa, died from burns suffered when her home was set ablaze after her conversion.
The current cycle of Islamist terrorist violence against critics of Islam and ‘deviants’ escalated after February 5, 2013, when the International Crimes Tribunal-2 (ICT-2) set up on March 22, 2012, to speed up the War Crimes (WC) Trials, handed down life sentence to JeI Assistant Secretary General Abdul Quader Mollah, for crimes committed during the war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. In the aftermath of the ICT’s verdict, a massive spontaneous protest erupted at a busy road junction in Shabagh, in the capital Dhaka. Over subsequent weeks, this “Shahbagh Movement” brought together secular political activists, women’s organizations, students, and religious minorities, all of whom called for the execution of all those responsible for the atrocities in 1971. Since then, terrorist attacks on so-called “atheists” have been accelerated in Bangladesh.
Initially, purportedly secular and atheist bloggers and writers were targeted, but the terrorists now appear to be widening the net. University Professor Rezaul Karim Siddiquee, killed on April 23, 2016, was not an atheist, but was involved with cultural activities which many hardline groups condemned as un-Islamic. Similarly, the killing of a gay rights activist and his friend in Dhaka city the day after the Professor was murdered is seen as further evidence that the terrorists are broadening their list of targets.
Principally, three terror formations have taken responsibility for the recent killings. ABT first hit headlines in Bangladesh with the assassination of Ahmed Rajeeb Haider on February 15, 2013. ABT had started advocating armed jihad towards the end of 2012, and is estimated to have over 5,000 extremist followers committed to carrying out armed jihad in the country. On May 12, 2013, ABT had issued a list of 84 “atheist bloggers” on the grounds that “All of them are enemy of the Islam (sic).” ABT operatives skilled in information technology were managing fake Facebook pages and using accounts to hunt down “atheists” so that its armed cadres could attack them. ABT is distinguished from better known Islamist extremist groups in Bangladesh by its propaganda and indoctrination capabilities and projects its doctrine of jihad through 117 web pages, including Facebook and Twitter handles, and various blogs. In addition to its own activities, ABT has been circulating statements and activities of global Islamist networks like al Qaeda through its web media. ABT was, in fact, the first to translate the Bangladesh-related parts of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri’s statements into Bangla, and to upload them on its various social media sites. Utilizing its strong presence in cyberspace, ABT has been able to locate and radicalize elements on the vulnerable fringes of Bangladeshi youth. It is the first terrorist outfit to use sleeper cells in Bangladesh to insulate its top leadership from field operations.
Ansar al-Islam, in a Twitter massage in May 2015, had listed seven categories of potential targets for killing, including any male or female academic, actor, blogger, doctor, engineer, judge, politician, or writer who insults the Prophet Muhammad and distorts Islam and its rulings. In the message, it had emphasized that it does not have an issue with atheist bloggers or bloggers from religions other than Islam, but only those bloggers who insult Muhammad “in the name of atheism”. It did not limit targets to bloggers, instead, including anyone from any field who it finds to have sought to destroy Muslim social values, oppose and stop the establishment of Sharia (Islamic law), and present Islam wrongly. Again on April 8, 2016, a statement signed by Mufti Abdullah Ashraf, claiming to be the ‘spokesperson’ for Ansar al-Islam declared that the group would be targeting people who commit eight specific kinds of offenses against their ideology. These include: people who make statements against and belittling Allah, the Prophet (SM) and Islam; people who are supporting or patronising those making insults against Islam or Allah; people who are preventing the practice of Sharia and Islamic tenets in their own spheres, whether they are school, college or university teachers, mayors or local leaders, heads of any organization, judges, lawyers or doctors; people who are implementing a western/Indian agenda by presenting a distorted view of Islam with their speeches and writings. Number five includes people opposing Sharia or undermining Islam through their speeches or statements; people who are spreading nudity and shamelessness in the society; people who are involved in efforts to remove Sharia from education, culture and the economic arena; and finally, people are those who are trying to extinguish the light of Islam from “this land”.
Daesh, which first made reported inroads in Bangladesh in 2014, is another terror formation which has been claiming these killings, having ‘formally accepted’ the allegiance of a small group of local jihadis in Bangladesh, declaring them as part its “main operations”. The latest edition of the Daesh mouthpiece Dabiq, released online on April 13, 2016, announced its new emir (chief) Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif for Bangladesh and its plans to spread Sharia in Bangladesh and India.
There is, however, at the present juncture, no evidence of any transfer of resources, personnel or capabilities from Daesh to the Bangladeshi groups purportedly acting in its name. The Bangladesh Government has, in fact, denied any Daesh presence in the country, and has blamed opposition parties for engineering the kilings. Accusing the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) clique of carrying out killings such as the Kalabagan double-murder, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed at a meeting of the Awami League (AL) at the Gono Bhaban (People’s House), the official residence of the Prime Minister, in Dhaka city on April 25, 2016, observed,
Everybody knows who were behind such killings. The BNP-Jamaat nexus has been engaged in such secret and heinous murders to destabilise the country. Having failed in their movement to foil the election, they’ve started secret killings. It’s not a matter of law and order… when the country is moving forward, such killings are being carried out in a planned way just to destabilise the country.
Similarly, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, while responding to a question in Parliament on April 25, 2016, without naming the opposition noted that a “vested quarter” is conspiring to destabilize the country by killing people, including bloggers and university teachers.
On March 19, 2016, the Counter-Terrorism and Trans National Crime Unit (CTTNCU) Chief Monirul Islam disclosed that ABT had set up eight hideouts in Dhaka city to carry out killings of secular people and a group of 20 terrorists called “the killing squad” maintained these hideouts. CTTNCU secured this information from two suspected ABT terrorists Shahin aka Jamal (26) and Salahuddin aka Hiron (30), who were arrested during a drive on February 19, 2016. Further, reports on March 30, 2016, noted that 20 terrorist outfits were trying to recruit documented as well as undocumented Rohingyas living in the Districts of Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar and Bandarban. The report added that the terrorist groups named their alliance as Hilf ul Fuzul Al Islam Al Bangladesh to recruit the Rohigiyas. The outfits exploit the distress of the refugees from Myanmar. The recruitment drives are carried out by leaders of local and foreign terrorist groups, prominently including Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), Hizbut Towhid (HT) and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) among the 20 terrorist outfits engaged in drives to recruit Rohingiyas.
The Hasina-led Government has succeeded in minimizing the threat from Islamist terrorism since assuming power in 2009. Nevertheless, extremist religious formations opposing the Government continue with their campaigns of harassment.
While strong action by state agencies continues, it has at least occasionally been undermined by some unfortunate statements intended to appease the radical sections of society. Thus, on April 14, 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed observed, “We perform our religious rituals. But why should we tolerate anyone writing filthy words against our religion? I don’t consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our Prophet or other religions. I hope no one would write such filthy words.” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan on April 10, 2016, had similarly stated, “The bloggers, they should control their writing. Our country is a secular state… I want to say that people should be careful not to hurt anyone by writing anything to hurt any religion, any people’s beliefs, any religious leaders.”
Further, despite the lengthening list of victims, the Police have made little progress relating to the investigations in any of these cases. Only in one case – the murder of blogger Ahmed Rajeeb Haider in 2013 – has a conviction been secured; no one has been punished for any of the other killings. Merely blaming the opposition parties and admonishing those who are fighting with the radicals with the ‘might of the pen’ may create more trouble in foreseeable future, unless effective investigations, prosecutions and enforcement action bring the extremist elements in Bangladesh to account.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management