By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On August 31, 2019, two Policemen, including a security official of the Local Government and Rural Development (LGRD) Minister Tazul Islam, and a traffic Police Constable, were injured in a bomb attack at the Science Laboratory intersection in the capital city, Dhaka. The Minister escaped unhurt as he was in his car some yards away from the blast site. Hours after the incident, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack. The US-based Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) on their Twitter account, published: “IS claims credit for bomb blast on police in Bangladeshi capital.”
This was the third attack on the Police in 2019. On April 29, two traffic Police Constables and one community traffic member were injured in a bomb attack in Dhaka city’s Gulistan area. In another incident, on May 26, 2019, an Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) and two rickshaw-pullers were injured in a bomb attack targeting a Police vehicle at the Malibagh intersection in Dhaka city. The IS claimed responsibility for both the bomb attacks.
Separately, on July 23, 2019, an improvised explosive device (IED) was recovered near the traffic Police booth at the Khamar Bari intersection of Dhaka city around 9:15pm [BST]. Later, the Bomb Disposal Unit of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit detonated the IED at 2:52 am. The blast caused 20-25 foot wide fire. Another IED was recovered on July 24, 2019, near the traffic Police booth at the Paltan intersection of Dhaka city at 10:45 pm. It was defused at 1:00am. The IS claimed responsibility for planting the IEDs near the traffic Police booths.
The Bomb Disposal Unit of the CTTC unit who examined both the bombs, on July 25, 2019, revealed that devices the Police found and detonated in the capital’s Paltan and Khamar Bari areas were similar to each other and were powerful enough to kill people and destroy properties in the surrounding areas. Seven cans of butane gas were attached to each of the devices to amplify the explosion and fire. The bombs could have killed people within 10 to 15 meters. Splinters were found even 150 meters away from where the devices were detonated. “The use of gas in IEDs had not been seen in Bangladesh before,” an official disclosed, preferring anonymity.
Meanwhile, Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader while briefing journalists at his Secretariat office in Dhaka on September 1, 2019, warned that the August 31 attack might have been a precursor for worse to come: “The Science Laboratory blast was a remote controlled attack. It might be a test case for carrying out any big attack.” Indeed, a CTTC official, requesting anonymity, on September 1, 2019, stated that the bomb used at the Science Laboratory intersection was similar to the IEDs recovered at Paltan and Khamarbari on July 23 and 24: “We suspect that the same group who planted the IED’s at Paltan and Khamarbari are behind this attack. But investigation could prove that.”
However, Bangladesh authorities have always rejected the claim and the notion that IS was active in Bangladesh. Bangladesh, Information Minister Hasan Mahmud, speaking to journalists at his Secretariat office in Dhaka on September 1, 2019, reiterated, “There is nothing called IS in Bangladesh. IS claims responsibility when a tyre of a vehicle explodes, and also when a handmade cocktail bomb explodes. I do not know who spreads such information.” Similarly, Monirul Islam, chief of CTTC unit during a briefing to a group of journalists at his office in Dhaka on September 2, 2019, asserted,
The activists of Jamaat-e-Islami, and its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir are carrying out targeted attacks on police under the name of ‘New-JMB’. The investigation has unearthed the mysteries of all the terror attacks, except four or five of those, and charge sheets have been filed in most of the cases. Some cases have been resolved in court, and some are under trial. Because of it, they do have anger on police.
In the meantime, the release of a number of terrorist suspects on bail in recent times, due to weaknesses of the prosecution, has emerged as a big concern. In the aftermath of the Holey Artisan Bakery terror attack at Gulshan, Dhaka city, on July 1, 2016, in which 29 people were killed, law enforcement agencies conducted a rigorous anti-militancy campaign around the country to curb the growing risks of extremist movements, including raids and public awareness programs. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) Director General (DG) Benazir Ahmed on June 2, 2019, had disclosed that 300 of the 512 terrorists arrested after the Holy Artisan attack were at large after they were released on bail. The RAB DG further stated that those who were working to help secure bail for the extremists could become victims of terrorist attacks themselves. He warned, “It will be suicidal to give legal assistance to militants.”
Another big concern is the release of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) men convicted in the August 17, 2005, serial bomb blast cases. Investigators pressed charges against 1,072 militants. According to Police Headquarters statistics, 322 accused were convicted, 358 were acquitted, another 392 were still facing trials as of September 2018 (no further updates are available). According to reports, many of the convicts have come out of jail after completing their terms. Keeping them under surveillance remains a big challenge for law enforcers.
Online radicalization is another and growing problem. In a shocking revelation, on June 21, 2019, Mohamad Moniruzzaman, Additional Deputy Inspector General of Police, currently serving at its Anti-Terrorism Unit, at a seminar titled “Preventing Terrorism and Extremism through Community Engagement” held at BRAC University in Dhaka, claimed that some 56 per cent of people involved in militancy came from a general education background, compared to 22 per cent from a madrasa (seminary) background. The Police headquarter conducted the study based on a sample of 250 persons arrested between 2015 and 2017 for their involvement in militancy. Moniruzzaman also revealed that 80 per cent of those arrested were radicalized through the internet while 20 per cent were swayed by their peers. Further, he revealed that students of Bengali and English-medium schools used the internet more often, compared to madrassa students.
The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) Government has done commendable work to rein in terrorism in the country since it came to power in January 2009. Renewing her call to the people as well as the intelligence and law enforcement agencies to remain alert against terrorist attacks, Prime Minister Hasina declared, on April 25, 2019, “Not only the intelligence agencies, but also the country’s people will have to remain alert and immediately inform the law enforcement agencies after finding out those who are involved in terror and militant activities. Because, we want peace in the country.” The Prime Minister also urged imams across the country to deliver sermons against terrorism and militancy before Juma prayers: “I want you all to speak up against militancy and terrorism, and highlight Islam as a religion of peace in the next Juma Khutba in every mosque across the country.”
The law enforcement agencies have been doing well to combat extremism and terrorism in Bangladesh. But as more and more people are radicalized via the internet, through various social media platforms, new threats are emerging. The Government will have to evolve a range of anti-radicalization strategies, even as enforcement agencies continue to combat terror. The enforcement agencies have again been alerted by the recent bomb attacks of the threat that persists.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management