By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On February 3, 2021, the Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU) of Police arrested two Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) cadres from the Kotwali Thana crossing of Chittagong District in Chittagong Division.
On February 1, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested four Ansar al-Islam/Ansarullah Bangla Team cadres from the Paltan and Vatara areas of Dhaka. 11 books on extremism, 21 leaflets and documents of some 167 conversations on militant activities, were recovered from their possession.
On January 28, RAB arrested two Allahar Dal cadres from Merirhat Bazar in Gaibandha District, Rangpur Division. The arrested persons were identified as Mohamad Abdul Alim Mandal (42) and Mohamad Shafiul Islam (28). RAB recovered jihadi books, leaflets and a mobile phone set from them.
In 2021, at least 17 Islamist terrorists have been arrested thus far (data till February 7, 2021).
Through 2020, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 197 militants of different groupings, including 108 cadres of JMB, 55 of Ansar al-Islam, 29 of Allahar Dal, three of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) and two of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), were arrested from across Bangladesh in different raids.
Prominent arrestees included Asmani Khatun aka Asma (28), the ‘chief’ of the female wing of Neo-JMB (arrested on February 4, 2020); Abu Kaiser aka Rony, ‘coordinator’ of Ansar-al-Islam (March 10, 2020); Shirina Khatun alias Tahsin Abdullah (23), ‘second in command’ of the female wing of Neo-JMB (March 19, 2020); Muhib Mushfiq Khan, ‘financier’ of Ansar-al-Islam (March 30, 2020); Sheikh Sultan Mohammad Naimuzzaman, ‘regional commander’ of Neo-JMB (August 11, 2020); Mohamad Faisal Khan aka Kanchan aka Fahim, ‘liaison in-charge’ of JMB (December 23, 2020); Mufti Ibrahim Khalil, ‘regional commander’ of HuJI-B (December 30, 2020); and Abdul Aziz, ‘coordinator’ of HuJI-B (December 30, 2020). There were 209 such arrests in 2019 and 247 in 2018.
Moreover, 77 members of radical groupings Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI)-Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) and four of Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI) were also arrested in 2020. There were 70 such arrests in 2019 (all JeI-ICS members) and 316 in 2018 (all JeI-ICS members).
These actions of the Sheikh Hasina Government, which continues with its policy of containing Islamist extremist forces, have resulted in improved security situation in the country in terms of Islamist extremism.
The country recorded just one Islamist extremist linked fatality (a civilian) in 2020. On April 30, 2020, a child was killed in an explosion at Shubhaddya North Para in Keraniganj Upazila (sub-district) of Dhaka District. There were two fatalities (both militants) in 2019. In 2018, there were 15 fatalities (four civilians and 11 militants). The trend of declining fatalities in such violence has continued since 2017 when fatalities came down to 71 (14 civilians, five Security Force (SF), personnel and 52 terrorists) from 115 (43 civilians, four SF personnel and 68 terrorists) in 2016.
Dhaka also succeeded in keeping the menace of Left-Wing Extremism under check. Two Left Wing Extremist (LWE) fatalities were recorded in 2020 in addition to three in 2019, eight in 2018, 13 in 2017, 17 in 2016, 14 in 2015 and 12 in 2014. During all these years, LWEs failed to inflict any fatalities on either civilians or the SFs. The last civilian fatality in this category was reported on December 9, 2013, when Naxal Bahini cadres killed Bakul Hossain (32), a local trader in the Santhia sub-District of Pabna District, with sharp weapons. The last SF fatality was reported on July 20, 2010, when cadres of the Red Flag faction of the Purba Banglar Communist Party (PBCP) killed three Policemen in the Bera sub-District of Pabna District.
Talking about successful anti-militant operations in Bangladesh, RAB Director General (DG) Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun on July 1, 2020, observed,
Militancy is a global problem. The whole world is working to combat militants and Bangladesh has significantly controlled the militant outfits till date. We have successfully completed all anti-militant drives under the directives of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and I hope this trend will continue in the days to come.
According to the Global Terrorism Index 2020, released by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) on November 25, 2020, Bangladesh was ranked 33rd out of 163 countries. Bangladesh was 30th in 2019 while it was 25th the year before. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2020, Bangladesh has been the most successful South Asian country in countering terrorism. Bangladesh also fared better in the Democracy Index 2020 released on February 3, 2021. Bangladesh also ranked 76th on the latest index of the Economist Intelligence Unit – four notches up from 2019 ranking.
Meanwhile, the War Crimes (WC) Trials, which began on March 25, 2010, continued thorough 2020. On October 22, 2020, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) issued a death warrant against Jatiya Party leader and former State Minister Syed Mohammad Qaiser for crimes against humanity committed during the Liberation War in 1971. So far, a total of 125 leaders, including 50 from the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI); 27 from the Muslim League (ML); 11 from 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 125 leaders indicted, verdicts have been delivered against 95 accused, including 69 who have been sentenced to death, and 26 to imprisonment for life. So far, six of the 69 people who were awarded the death sentence have been hanged. 32 others are absconding and another 31 cases are currently pending with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, out of 26 persons who were awarded life sentences, five persons have already died while serving their sentences; 13 were absconding and another eight were lodged in various jails of the country. Verdicts against 30 accused are yet to be delivered.
Worryingly, however, a faction of HeI, the Hefazat-e-Islam–Babunagri, led by newly appointed Amir (chief) Junaid Babunagri, has started asserting radical views and engaging in violent protests. On November 27, 2020, Junaid Babunagri put forth four demands before the Sheikh Hasina Government: stop International Society for Krishna Consciousness’ (ISKCON’s) activities in Bangladesh; officially declare the Ahmadiyas ‘non-Muslim’; close the Embassy of France and expel the French Ambassador; and pass a resolution condemning France in Parliament. They are protesting against French President Emmanuel Macron because he has held his ground against attacks by Islamist extremist forces and terrorists on his country’s values and the freedom of belief. The ‘new leadership’ of HeI has taken the lead along with Islami Andolan Bangladesh (IAB) in opposing the installation of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman statues. The JeI- ICS combine has also joined the protests. Several other extremist groupings have also lent their support.
There is also a continuing threat from the Neo-JMB which emerged in 2014. Though Neo-JMB has lost almost all its leaders after the July 1, 2016, Gulshan (Holey Artisan Bakery) attack and continues to face losses in terms of regular arrests, it remains a security threat. According to reports, its cadres now operate as a “wolf pack” and they choose their leader by themselves. The Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit of the Police came to know about the new approach of the outfit after arresting five Neo-JMB cadres from Sylhet District on August 11, 2020. The outfit believes that if any of its operatives are apprehended carrying out such attacks, law enforcement agencies will not be able to nab other members of the organization.
Adding to concerns is the danger emanating from a radicalised Bangladeshi Diaspora, elements among which are planning to create trouble in and around the country after their return, even as others fund extremist elements within Bangladesh. ‘War returnees’ – those who have returned from terrorist campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other theatres of Islamist terrorist strife, have similar and sinister designs. Reports indicate at least 50 Bangladeshis travelled to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to join the Islamic State. Several Islamist extremist organisations in Bangladesh also have links with al Qaeda, the Tehreeq-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Taliban in the Af-Pak complex.
The factional clashes in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) escalated in 2020. According to official statistics, 376 people, including 120 Bengalis, were killed in three Districts of the CHT in various incidents of extortion and conflict over territorial dominance between January 2014 and October 2020.
Further, the problem created by the Rohingya refugees from the Rakhine State of Myanmar poses an acute security dilemma for Bangladesh. Available data indicates that between, August 2017 and August 20, 2020, a total of 725 criminal cases involving Rohingyas have been filed against 1,664 individuals. 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. The Bangladesh Government has started relocating the Rohingya Refugees to Bhasan Char Island. So far 6,686 Rohingya Refugees have been relocated to the Bhasan Char Island in three phases.
In addition, in order to control the spread of crime, the Bangladesh Government has erected barbed-wire fencing around the Rohingya camps.
Meanwhile, on January 19, 2021, Bangladesh, China and Myanmar held a tripartite meeting on the Rohingya repatriation issue. After the meeting, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen announced that Bangladesh expects repatriation to “begin in the second quarter” of the current year. Two earlier attempts of repatriation have failed and not a single Refugee has been repatriated.
Bangladesh has taken giant strides to root out terrorism. Nevertheless, several challenges continue to jeopardize enduring peace.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management