By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On November 16, 2017, Police raided a house at Nawduli village in the Naogaon District (in Northern Bangladesh) and arrested five cadres of the Neo-Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (Neo-JMB). Police recovered two foreign-made pistols, 13 rounds, electronic devices, explosives and grenade making materials from their possession.
On November 7, 2017, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested two cadres of Ansar al-Islam from the Narayanganj District’s Siddhirganj area in Bangladesh. RAB recovered local weapons, jihadi literature and leaflets from their possession.
On October 31, 2017, RAB arrested four Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) cadres, including a pilot of Bangladesh’s national flag carrier Biman Bangladesh Airlines, in the capital Dhaka city’s Darus Salam area. The four were planning to attack houses of Government high-ups and to take air passengers hostage in the Middle East.
On October 29, 2017, in a counter-terrorism (CT) drive, RAB arrested three Neo-JMB cadres from Balabona village of Chapainawabganj District. RAB recovered a pistol, one magazine, three bullets, 1.1 kilogram explosive substances and three books on jihad from their possession.
On October 18, 2017, two recruiters of Neo-JMB identified as Mohammad Gias Uddin (34) and Mohammad Liton (34) were arrested from Sabujbagh and Wari areas in Dhaka city.
In its unremitting effort against terrorist formations in Bangladesh since the Gulshan Cafe attack on July 1, 2016, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 103 Islamist terrorists have been killed and another 1,379 arrested across Bangladesh. Prominent among those killed were the Neo-JMB leader and mastermind of the Gulshan Cafe attack, Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury aka Shaykh Abu Ibrahim Al Hanif aka Amir (30); the JMB ‘military commander’ for the northern region Khaled Hasan aka Badar Mama (30); Neo-JMB ‘military commander’ Murad aka Jahangir Alam aka Omar; JMB ‘regional commander’ Tulu Mollah (33); JMB ‘regional coordinator’ Abu Musa aka Abujar; Neo-JMB ‘military chief’ Aminur Islam aka Alam (23); Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) ‘chief’ Mufti Abdul Hannan; and HUJI-B ‘regional commander’ Tajul Islam Mahmud aka Mama Hujur (46) (data till November 19, 2017).
To expand its anti-terror operations to hunt down suspected extremists, the Government approved a full-fledged Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU) with a nationwide jurisdiction to combat militancy and terrorism, on September 20, 2017. The Home Ministry issued a notification after the approval of the Ministry of Finance. According to the Government order, the 581-member ATU will be headed by an Additional Inspector General of Police (AIGP). The unit will work solely on terrorism related issues and combating terrorists. The new unit will have one Deputy Inspector General (DIG), two Additional Deputy Inspector General (ADIGs), five Superintendents of Police (SPs), 10 Additional Superintendents of Police, 12 Assistant Superintendents of Police, 75 Inspectors, 125 Sub-Inspectors, 140 Assistant Sub-Inspectors, 200 Constables, and 10 office staffs. In addition, the unit will have 16 jeeps, two SWAT vans, eight double cabin pickups, one ambulance, one truck, an armored personnel carrier (APC), one water canon van, one prison van and 10 motorcycles.
Further, on October 25, 2017, to curb controversy regarding the madrasa education system, the Government directed Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board to remove the chapters on Jihad. The new textbooks of the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board will not contain any chapters with lessons on Jihad, for the first time in nearly four decades. The Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board also known as the Alia Madrasa Education Board is one of three types of madrasa education systems in Bangladesh, along with the Qawmi and Hifz madrasas. Since the inception of the board in 1979, chapters on Jihad were included in the madrasa textbooks from class VIII to the degree level. Jihad has been defined in madrasa textbooks as a “struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam”. Moreover, on November 7, 2017, the Government shut down Lakehead Grammar School for patronizing militancy. In a letter signed by the Education Ministry’s Joint Secretary Salma Jahan, the Ministry observed that the school was inspiring religious extremism, building extremist organizations, and carrying out activities against the nation and its independence.
In a startling revelation at the meeting of the National Committee on Militancy Resistance and Prevention in Dhaka on September 4, 2017, members from security agencies disclosed that 440 persons accused in 331 terrorism related cases had fled the country after getting bail. Frustratingly, an official of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit, seeking anonymity, noted, “We work tirelessly for months to put these terrorists behind bars and then all that hard work goes down the drain when they are granted bail and flee the country. Once they are out, these terrorists either go into hiding or start their terrorist activities all over again. If this keeps happening, we cannot stop militancy in Bangladesh.” According to different law enforcement agencies, more than 200 suspected terrorists are out on bail since January 2017. Most of these are members of Neo-JMB, old JMB, Ansar al-Islam, HuJI-B and Hizb-ut Tahrir. It is usually the delay in investigation and legal proceedings that allow terrorists to take advantage of the system.
In another revelation, on October 1, 2017, ATU officials disclosed that terrorist outfits have apparently smartened up and become tech-savvy, as they are increasingly using encrypted communications applications (apps) to maintain communications online, making it harder for law enforcement agencies to trace them. They noted that terrorists initially used popular apps like Facebook and its Messenger, and Google Hangouts to communicate, but had recently begun shifting to encrypted messaging apps such as Threema, Telegram and Wickr to maintain secrecy. Terrorists also use WhatsApp, Viber, Tango, Hike and several other similar apps, as most of them also have the encryption facility, but they are rapidly switching platforms to avoid detection. They may also use Silent Circle, Signal, Chat Secure, OS Tel or Red Phone, which are highly advanced and more privacy-conscious messaging apps, in the future. If they do this, tracing their secret and online networks will prove even more challenging. For instance, Abu Siddique Sohel aka Sakib aka Sajid (34), an Ansar Al Islam terrorist told Police during interrogation that their ‘big brother’ Major Zia communicated with all the members of the organization through secret apps. Sohel was arrested on November 5, 2017, in connection with the murder of writer-blogger Avijit Roy in Dhaka city’s Mohammadpur area on February 26, 2015. Sohel added that every member of the organization had to attend to the app at a particular time every day. Earlier, during the International Police Conference held in Dhaka city from March 12-14, 2017, Bangladesh Police disclosed that research on 250 arrested terrorists found that 82 percent of them had become involved with their respective terror outfits online.
The radicalization of a segment of Bangladesh’s expatriates is another key concern for the country. Hundreds of Bangladeshi workers living in European, West and Southeast Asian countries, have come under the influence of jihadi ideologies and programmes. On January 20, 2015, Singapore Police arrested 27 Bangladeshi construction workers for connections with Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS, formerly, Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, also Daesh). On August 19, 2016, Peyar Ahmed Akash, a Bangladeshi expatriate was arrested by Malaysian Police for his suspected involvement in terrorist activities. On January 19, 2017, two Bangladeshis working as salesmen were arrested in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for suspected links with Daesh. On July 4, 2017, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi linked to JMB was arrested by the Malaysian Police. The expatriates’ exposure to radical ideologies emanating from the Arab world has brought a qualitative change in their approach, life-style and operational strategy. As a result, IS-style terror operations have been engineered or plotted in the country as well.
Moreover, terror financing by Bangladeshi expatriates is another area that remains a matter of urgent concern. It is estimated that about USD 7 billion comes to the country every year via the “hundi” system – an alternative transfer method akin to the “hawala” network that persists in West and South Asia. Investigations into the financial operations of the terrorist groups such as JMB and HUJI-B demonstrate that a sizeable proportion of their funding comes through this hundi or hawala route. In July 2016, four Bangladeshi workers were convicted in Singapore for financing terrorism back home. Calling themselves the Islamic State in Bangladesh (ISB), the four had been planning attacks in Bangladesh to topple the Awami League (AL) Government. Their objectives were to form an Islamic state in Bangladesh and make it part of the so-called IS Caliphate.
On October 30, 2017, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal observed, “We maintain zero tolerance for terrorism and militancy. Since the Holey Artisan café attack, we carried out aggressive operations against the terrorists across the country to save the people. We have broken their backbone. They are no more a threat.” Earlier, on June 28, 2017, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told Parliament “Our Government has always taken stern action against terrorism and militancy and would continue to curb the twin demons with an iron hand. There would be no place of terrorism and militancy on the soil of Bangladesh.”
The Sheikh Hasina Government hardened its resolve to root out terrorism from Bangladesh after the country suffered its worst terrorist attack on July 1, 2016. It has demonstrated the efficacy of determined and relentless action against terrorist formations over the past year and more. However, as terrorists adapt, exploiting new technologies and new tactics, the challenge is kept alive. Bangladesh’s “war on terror” may not end any time soon.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate; Institute for Conflict Management