By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On July 15, 2021, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested Mahmudul Hasan Gunabi aka Hasan, the ‘spiritual leader’ of banned Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT)/ Ansar al-Islam from the Shah Ali area of Dhaka city. Gunabi used to deliver religious speeches at different madrasas (seminaries) to identify a target group, lure them into militancy and train them in secret dens in the country’s hilly areas.
On June 29, 2021, RAB arrested two cadres of ABT/Ansar al-Islam from the Sabujpara area of Kurigram District. The arrestees were Mohamad Abdul Quader Salman (25) and Mohamad Minhazul Islam (21). Extremist literature, mobile phones, SIMs and memory cards were recovered from them.
On June 26, 2021, the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) Unit arrested three ABT/Ansar al-Islam cadres from the Rampura area of Dhaka. The arrestees were Maruf Chowdhury aka Farhan, Mohamad Foyzul Morsalin and Sayed Taimia Ibrahim aka Anowar.
On June 11, 2021, the CTTC Unit arrested the ‘IT [Information Technology] expert’ of ABT/Ansar al-Islam from the Khulshi residential area of Chittagong District. The arrestee was identified as Shakhawat Ali aka Lalu (40).
According to partial data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 42 ABT/Ansar al-Islam cadres/leaders have been arrested in 2021, thus far (data till July 18, 2021). 54 such arrests were made in 2020. Since 2013, Security Forces have arrested at least 304 ABT/Ansar al-Islam cadres/leaders from across the country.
Some of the other prominent recent arrests included:
May 6, 2021: Ali Hasan Osama (27), the ‘spiritual leader’ of ABT/Ansar al-Islam, was arrested in the Rajbari District of Dhaka Division. Osama had assumed the role of ‘spiritual leader’ of ABT/Ansar al-Islam after the arrest of Mufti Jasim Uddin Rahmani in 2013.
April 6, 2021: ‘IT chief’ of ABT/Ansar al-Islam, Ariful Islam Zahed aka Ayman aka Arahan aka Rehan (30) and his accomplice Baki Billah aka Abu Samir (34) were arrested by the CTTC Unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police from the Paltan area of Dhaka city.
March 10, 2020: Abu Kaiser aka Rony ‘coordinator’ of ABT/Ansar-al-Islam was arrested by the CTTC Unit of Dhaka Metropolitan Police from the Bangshal area of Dhak city. The CTTC team recovered two passports and a mobile phone from Rony.
March 4, 2018: RAB arrested the ‘military commander’ of ABT/Ansar al-Islam Sadman Rahik aka Jabir from the Tikatuli area of Dhaka city. Since 2014, Rahik had been serving as the commander of the military unit of the militant group.
One ABT/Ansar al-Islam cadre has been killed in Bangladesh so far. On June 19, 2016, Shariful aka Shakib aka Sharif aka Saleh aka Arif, ‘IT trainer’ of ABT/Ansar al-Islam, was killed in a gunfight with the Police in the Khilgaon area of Dhaka city.
During 2007 a group named Jama’atul Muslemin, funded by different Non-Governmental Organisations, started its activities in Bangladesh. The group, however, ceased to operate when funding ended. It resurfaced during 2013 as ABT. The ABT was banned on May 25, 2015. It resurfaced as Ansar al-Islam, which, in turn, was banned on March 5, 2017.
The outfit came to prominence when its cadres started hacking to death bloggers, free thinkers and secular activists in 2013. It started with the killing of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider near his house in Mirpur, on February 15, 2013. Till date, 10 bloggers, free thinkers and secular activists have been killed, with the last killing reported on April 8, 2016, in which cadres of ABT/Ansar al-Islam killed blogger Nazimuddin Samad (26), a master’s student at Jagannath University, in Dhaka city. All the victims were hacked to death in a similar manner.
ABT/Ansar al-Islam, like other Islamist extremist groups in Bangladesh, has suffered losses due to measures taken by the Sheikh Hasina Government since it came to power in January 2009. Like other terrorist formations, it is currently finding it difficult to operate.
Nevertheless, there are continuous efforts to engineer a revival. Indeed, officials of the CTTC Unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police asserted, on March 6, 2021, that ABT/Ansar al-Islam was regrouping.
ABT/Ansar al-Islam now has a new ‘spiritual leader’, Sheikh Tamim Al Adnani [now living in Malaysia]. A former madrasa teacher, he is responsible for reorganising the group. Sheikh Tamim’s sermons are published in different platforms to attract potential militants.
Apart from making recruitments on online platforms, including Facebook, ABT/Ansar al-Islam is targeting the needy, even non-Muslim and transgender people, who would not ever come under suspicion of joining militancy.
ABT/Ansar al-Islam now has around 700 to 800 active members and at least 274 of them are sleeper cell members. The organisation has at least 56 sleeper cells. A sleeper cell comprises three to four full members. In every cell, a chief gets appointed to coordinate activities of the other full members. Only the sleeper cell chiefs are connected with each other and they can communicate up to the section chief.
Inputs suggest that the organisational activities of ABT/Ansar al-Islam appear strongest in Dhaka and Chittagong Districts. The group also has bases in Satkhira and Kushtia Districts.
The outfit continues to receive financial support from some businessmen in the country and abroad. Indeed, two ABT/Ansar al-Islam terrorists arrested on September 25, 2019, disclosed that they collected large sums of money from Pakistan and Gulf countries in the form of cryptocurrency. The militants claimed that earlier they used to collect money through ‘hundi’, but that is now under surveillance by enforcement agencies. Due to this, they shifted to Bitcoin, which, according to the militants, is an easier method to transfer illegal funds used in organising radical activities.
More worryingly, on July 4, 2021, CTTC officials disclosed that ABT/Ansar al-Islam was trying to represent Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh. Their plan is to send people to Kashmir in India and to the Rakhine State in Myanmar, to work for Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). For this, the dawah (invitation) wing of ABT/Ansar al-Islam was focusing on recruiting new members in Bangladesh. The outfit members sent financial support to Kashmiri militants through hundi and cryptocurrency.
It has also been observed that ABT/Ansar al-Islam has been continuously trying to provoke the Muslims of Bangladesh for jihad, particularly since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the country to participate in Bangladesh’s 50th Independence Day celebrations on March 26, 2021. The outfit, which has called for a war against the US and its allies and called US the global enemy, classified India as an ally of the US and alleged that Indian Muslims are tortured and that India is consequently also a prime enemy.
Despite the ongoing counter-terrorism efforts in Bangladesh, recent arrests of ABT/Ansar al-Islam cadres and their revelations indicate that the group remains a key threat to internal security in Bangladesh, as well as in the wider Indian sub-continent.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management