By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On February 2, 2022, an Army soldier and three members of the Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma aka Santu Larma faction of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS-Santu Larma) were killed during an exchange of fire in Ruma Upazila (sub district) of Bandarban District in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The Army team recovered one sub machine gun, 254 bullets, three guns, four uniforms and BDT 52,900.
On January 3, 2022, a member of PCJSS-Santu Larma was shot dead by gunmen, while visiting his father-in-law’s house in the Lama Upazila of Bandarban District. The deceased was identified as Monkyaching Marma (35).
On December 29, 2021, two persons were killed in a factional clash between PCJSS-Shantu Larma and United People’s Democratic Front – Democratic (UPDF-Democratic) in the Dui Kilo area of Rangamati District. The deceased were identified as PCJSS-Shantu Larma leader Tujim Chakma (38) and UPDF-Democratic leader Janong Chakma (32).
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, 629 people have been killed in CHT in fratricidal clashes since the signing of the CHT Peace Accord on December 2, 1997 (data till February 6, 2022). These include 318 members of UPDF-Prasit Khisa, 208 members of PCJSS-Santu Larma, 86 members of the PCJSS-M. N. Larma, 11 members of UPDF-Democratic, and six members of PCJSS-Reformation. 12 of these fatalities were reported in 2021. These included six members of UPDF-Prasit Khisa, four members of PCJSS-Santu Larma and one member each of UPDF-Democratic and PCJSS-M.N. Larma.
The security situation in the CHT is a significant concern and needs urgent attention.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh recorded a single fatality in Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-linked violence in 2021. On June 27, 2021, a ‘regional leader’ of the Purba Bangla Sarbahara Party (PBSP) was shot dead by rivals near his house in the Purbo Charpara village of Pabna District in Rajshahi Division. Police stated that Bellal might have been killed over previous enmity. There were two fatalities (both militants) in 2020, killed, in similar fashion, by rivals. A high of 212 persons had been killed in such violence in 2004. A maximum of 55 civilians were killed in 2003. 2003 also recorded the highest of seven Security Forces (SF) killings in a year. The last civilian fatality was reported on December 9, 2003, while the last SF fatality was recorded on July 20, 2010. The last arrest related to such LWE was on September 25, 2018, and the last arms recovery was on November 18, 2019. There is, evidently, significant respite from LWE-linked violence.
Bangladesh’s success against Islamist extremism continued in 2021. No Islamist extremism-linked fatality was recorded during the year. The country recorded just one fatality (a civilian) in this category in 2020. On April 30, 2020, a child was killed in an explosion at Shubhaddya North Para in the Keraniganj Upazila of Dhaka District. There were two fatalities (both terrorists) in 2019. In 2018, there were 15 fatalities (four civilians and 11 terrorists). The trend of declining fatalities in such violence has continued since 2017, when fatalities came down to 71 (14 civilians, five SF personnel and 52 terrorists) from 115 (43 civilians, four SF personnel and 68 terrorists) in 2016. At its peak, in 2013, Bangladesh recorded a total of 376 fatalities in Islamist extremism-linked violence (236 civilians, 18 SF personnel and 122 terrorists).
2021, however, recorded one Islamist extremism-linked incident of violence. On September 17, 2021, a young man hurled a petrol bomb at a car belonging to the American International University of Bangladesh on a road adjacent to the Embassy area in Dhaka city. No casualty was reported. The attacker, Delwar Hossain, was arrested from the spot. After the arrest, Police raided his village home in Singair, Manikganj District, and recovered multiple electronic devices and a few documents. According to Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) officials, he was a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist, inspired by the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT)/ Ansar al-Islam’s ideology, after reading various extremist articles online and watching videos. In 2020, there had been six Islamist terrorism-linked incidents, resulting in one fatality (the April 30 incident) and 16 persons injured.
The menace has been controlled as the SFs have exerted sustained pressure against groups involved in Islamist-extremism. SFs arrested at least 159 militants of different groupings, including 105 cadres of ABT/ Ansar al-Islam, 30 of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), eight of Neo-JMB, seven of Allahar Dal, five of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) and four of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) in 2021. There were 197 such arrests in 2020 and 209 in 2019. Prominent arrestees in 2021 included Sheikh Kamal Hossain, ‘second-in-command’ of Allahar Dal (arrested on February 3); Mohammad Mainul Islam aka Mahinalias Mithu aka Hasan, ‘operations head’ of HuJI-B (March 4); Baki Billah aka Abu Samir aka Zafar aka Faisal, IT wing ‘chief’ of ABT/ Ansar al-Islam (April 5); Rezaul Haque aka Reza aka Tanvir Mahmud aka Shihab, acting Amir of JMB (April 11); Ali Hasan Osama, ‘spiritual leader’ of ABT/Ansar al-Islam (May 6); Mahmudul Hasan Gunobi aka Hasan, ‘spiritual leader’ of ABT/ Ansar al-Islam (July 15); Jahid Hasan Raju aka Ismail aka Furkan, ‘military wing chief and bomb expert’ of Neo-JMB (August 10); Hasibur Rahman aka Azzam Al Galib, ‘chief recruiter’ of ABT/ Ansar al-Islam (November 15); and Ahidul Islam Palash, ‘regional military wing chief’ of JMB (December 4).
Country Reports on Terrorism 2020 published by the US State Department on December 16, 2021, confirmed that Bangladesh experienced a decrease in terrorist activities in 2020, accompanied by an increase in terrorism-related investigations and arrests. The Bangladesh Government continued to articulate and practice a zero-tolerance policy toward terrorism and toward the use of its territory as a terrorist safe haven. In January the Government’s new national Anti-Terrorism Unit initiated operations, eventually to assume a role as a lead counterterrorism agency.
Talking about her Government’s stance against extremism, terrorism and drugs, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared, on December 16, 2021,
We have declared ‘zero tolerance’ policy against militancy, terrorism, repression on women and drugs as we want to ensure peace and security of the people of the country aimed at building a developed and prosperous Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, the War Crimes (WC) Trials, which began on March 25, 2010, continued thorough 2021. On February 11, 2021, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT-1) sentenced three persons to life imprisonment and another five to 20 years for committing crimes against humanity at various places in Gafargaon of Mymensingh District during the Liberation War of 1971. All the convicts were members of the anti-independence Razakar force during the war. On November 24, 2021,ICT-1 sentenced absconding war crimes accused and former Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) lawmaker Abdul Momin Talukder aka Khoka (69) to death for committing crimes against humanity at Adamdighi in Bogura District during the Liberation War. So far, a total of 125 leaders, including 50 from the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI); 27 from the Muslim League (ML); 11 from the Nezam-e-Islami (NeI); five from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP); two each from the Jatiya Party (JP) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP); 27 former Razakars; and one former Al-Badr member have been indicted. Significantly, out of these, verdicts have been delivered against 104 accused, including 70 who have been sentenced to death, 29 to imprisonment for life and five for 20 years imprisonment. So far, six of the 70 people who were awarded the death sentence have been hanged; 32 are absconding; and another 32 cases are currently pending with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, out of 29 persons who were awarded life sentences, six persons have already died while serving their sentences; 13 were absconding and another 10 were lodged in various jails of the country. Verdicts against 21 accused are yet to be delivered.
Worryingly, however, on July 6, 2021, Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit officials disclosed that Neo-JMB, an Islamic State (IS)-inspired outfit, had formed a 20-member committee. The committee members, all from the ‘military wing’ of the outfit, named the committee ‘Islamic State of Bengal Province.’ Neo-JMB’s improvised explosive device (IED) expert, Sabbir Hossain (26), also the ‘military wing commander’ of the outfit’s Mymensingh region unit, formed the committee. Sabbir is now believed to be planning to make bulletproof jackets, collect modern firearms from Kashmir and manufacture or acquire at least 2,000 firearms to distribute among military wing members of Neo-JMB.
In another worrying revelation, CTTC unit officials disclosed, on December 24, 2021, that ABT/ Ansar al-Islam’s recruitment and training activities were continuing. ABT/Ansar al-Islam now has around 700 to 800 active members and at least 274 of these are sleeper cell members. The organisation has at least 56 sleeper cells. Its ‘military wing’ is being operated by Sayed Mohammad Ziaul Haque aka Major (sacked) Zia. Haque is hiding somewhere in Bangladesh. Ansar al-Islam is said to be finalising a list of its targets.
There was also a series of attacks targeting Hindu communities between October 13 and 22, 2021. The attacks started in Comilla District on October 13 and gradually spread to at least another 13 Districts, including Bandarban, Chandpur, Cox’s Bazar, Dhaka, Gazipur, Kurigram, Lakshmipur, Moulvibazar, Noakhali, Pabna, Rajshahi and Sylhet. Seven persons were killed and another 99 were injured in the violence. At least 20 puja mandaps (pavilions for worship) and numerous idols were defaced and ransacked by unruly mobs. 102 cases were filed in different parts of the country in connection with the attacks. As many as 583 people were arrested over the attacks on puja venues, temples, Hindu homes and businesses, and for spreading rumours on social media amid the Durga Puja, the largest festival of Bengali Hindus.
In March 2021, Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI, ‘Protection of Islam’), a Qawmi Madrasa-based radical Islamist group that emerged in 2010, created mayhem in Bangladesh, mostly targeting Hindus. At least 17 people were killed as HeI men clashed with SFs in different parts of the country, especially in Brahmanbaria District, between March 26 and 28, 2021. The HeI men were on the streets protesting against the two-day visit (March 26-27) of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh. Modi was visiting Bangladesh to participate in the celebrations of Bangladesh’s Golden Jubilee of independence. HeI’s links with terrorist groups are well established. Following HeI’s three-day mayhem in different parts of the country from March 26, the Government took a tough stance against HeI. According to Police Headquarters data, at least 154 cases were filed against HeI men and around 1,230 people, including more than 50 top HeI leaders, were arrested following the violence.
Further, the problem created by the Rohingya refugees from the Rakhine State of Myanmar poses an acute security dilemma for Bangladesh. Reports indicate that 10 to 15 armed gangs have become active in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar District. The rate of crime in the camps has been increasing drastically. In 2019, 263 cases were filed; in 2020, 184, and in 2021, 570. The crimes include possession of illegal arms and drugs, robbery, abduction, smuggling, murder, and human trafficking. 1.1 million Rohingya Refugees are living in 34 extremely congested camps in Cox’s Bazar District. Urging the international community to give proper attention to the Rohingya issue, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated, on November 26, 2021, “The security situation in the Cox’s Bazar camps is getting complicated. The growing violence and crimes can soon spread beyond our borders.”
Even though the overall capabilities of the terrorist groups – both Islamists and Left-Wing Extremists – have dwindled as a result of ongoing and sustained counter-terrorism efforts in Bangladesh, violence in the CHT region and the Rohingya camps area needs to be stopped. At the same time, security measures against Islamist and LWE terrorist groupings need to continue, even as efforts against Rohingya crime-terror syndicates and groups involved in CHT need to be intensified.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management