By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On October 5, 2015, three unidentified assailants tried to slit the throat of Luke Sarkar (52), Pastor of the Faith Bible Church, at his house in the Ishwardi upazila (sub-District) of Pabna District. He survived the attack with minor injuries. Later, on October 12, 2015, five Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) terrorists, including its Pabna ‘regional chief’ Rakibul Islam Rabbi aka Rakib were arrested over this murder attempt.
On October 5, 2015, Muhammad Khijir Khan (66), the former chairman of the Power Development Board (PDB), a freedom fighter and a pir (revered religious instructor, usually of Sufi orientation) was killed by seven unidentified armed men by slitting his throat at his Madhya Badda house in the national capital, Dhaka. On October 15, Tariqul Islam Tarer alias Mithu, an organizer of JMB arrested from Delduar upazila in Tangail District, in his confession to killing Khijir Khan, stated, “As Khijir Khan was a so-called pir and his activities were contradictory to religious ideology, it was our (JMB) responsibility as believers to kill him.”
Shockingly, since December 2013, four pirs and six of their family members and assistants had been murdered by Islamist extremists.
On December 22, 2013, assailants slit the throats of six people, including pir Lutfur Rahman Faruk (60); Faruk’s son Monir Hossain; the house’s caretaker Monju; and Faruk’s followers Shaheen, Rasel, and Mojibur Rahma at Ramkrishna Mission Road in Dhaka city.
On September 5, 2015, unknown assailants slit the throat of a pir, Rahmat Ullah (60), along with an attendant inside his shrine in the Bayezid area of Chittagong city.
On September 7, 2015, assailants shot dead another pir, Hazrat Moulana Mohammad Salahuddin Khan Bishal (30), in his sleep in the Vorotpur area of Atghoria upazila in Pabna District.
Further, on August 29, 2014, the chief imam (religious teacher) of the Supreme Court mosque Shiekh Nurul Islam Faruqi (60) was killed at his East Rajabazar house in Dhaka city by 10 unidentified assailants.
Islamic extremists have been blamed for all these incidents.
Compounding the problem, foreigners in Bangladesh have become targets of Islamic extremists in recent months. On September 28, 2015, an Italian charity worker Cesare Tavella (50), a technical director working at Netherlands-based development organization Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation (ICCO), was killed by three unidentified armed men in Dhaka city’s Gulshan area. Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Intelligence Group, a website that tracks online activity of Jihadi organizations, disclosed that a communiqué by Islamic State (IS) claimed that ‘a security detachment’ tracked and killed Cesare with ‘silenced weapons’ in the streets of Dhaka city. The claim was immediately denied by Bangladesh authorities.
On October 3, 2015, Japanese national Hoshi Kunio (66), researching on a new strain of grass in Bangladesh, was gunned down by three unidentified armed men when he was going by rickshaw to his two acres grass farm at Alutari in the Kaunia sub-District of Rangpur District. Reuters and Vice News quoted IS tweets declaring, “There will continue to be a series of ongoing security operations against nationals of crusader coalition countries; they will not have safety or a livelihood in Muslim lands.”
Dismissing IS claims on October 4, 2015, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed stated, “I can say that no outfits like the IS can carry out their activities here. Our intelligence agencies are very much alert. We don’t want to see any activities of such outfits in Bangladesh.” The Prime Minister accused the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) combine of having a hand in the killings of the foreigners: “The style of the killing of the two foreign nationals is similar … These were well planned. I want to remind you of a BNP leader’s remarks before and after the [Italian national’s] murder. If you compare the remarks, the matter will become clear.”
Significantly, on October 2, 2015, Abdul Moyeen Khan, a senior BNP leader, referring to these attacks, had stated, “Such downward trends will continue until there is some kind of political reconciliation between the two major political parties in Bangladesh.”
Also, rejecting IS involvement in the murders, Home Minster Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal on October 5, asserted, “IS is not behind these murders. A vested group is seeking to create anarchy in the country. They are conducting these killings but we will track them down and bring them to justice.”
Indeed, according to an intelligence report submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs on October 4, 2015, anti-liberation forces, enraged that war criminals are being tried, convicted and executed, are murdering foreign nationals in the country to cast the Government in a bad light. The War Crimes (WC) Trials, which began on March 25, 2010, have thus far indicted 35 leaders, including 18 from JeI, six from the Muslim League (ML), five from Nezam-e-Islami (NeI), four from BNP and two from the Jatiya Party (JP). On August 11, 2015, International Crimes Tribunal-1 (ICT-1) awarded the death penalty to Bagerhat District Razakar leader Sheikh Sirajul Haque alias Siraj Master (73) and life imprisonment to another Razakar leader Khan Akram Hossain, for genocide, murder, abduction and forceful conversion of Hindus to Islam during the Liberation War in 1971. Earlier, verdicts had been delivered against 22 accused, including 16 death penalties and six life sentences. Each judgment resulted in violence unleashed by fundamentalists, led by the BNP-JeI combine. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the country has recorded at least 471 Islamist extremist violence-related fatalities since March 25, 2010, including 263 civilians, 27 Security Force (SF) personnel and 181 extremists (data till October 18, 2015).
Islamist extremists have been targeting secular and free-thinking people, with four bloggers killed in 2015 alone. On August 7, 2015, Niladri Chattopadhyay Niloy alias Niloy Neel (28), a secular blogger and a Gonojagoron Mancha (People’s Resurgence Platform) activist was hacked to death at his Goran residence in the Khilgaon area of Dhaka city; on May 12, 2015, Ananta Bijoy Das (32), a progressive writer, blogger, editor of the science fiction magazine Jukti, and an organizer of the Gonojagoron Mancha, was hacked to death with machetes by four assailants in the Subidbazar Bankolapara residential area of Sylhet city; on March 30, 2015, another blogger and online activist, Oyasiqur Rahman Babu (27), was hacked to death in broad daylight in Dhaka city for his allegedly atheist views; and on February 26, 2015, Bangladesh-born American citizen blogger Avijit Roy (42), the founder of the Mukta-mona.com blog, was hacked to death in Dhaka city.
Meanwhile, on September 23, 2015, Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT, Volunteers of Allah Bangla Team) issued a hit list of secular bloggers, writers and activists around the world, including nine bloggers based in the UK, seven in Germany, two in the US, one in Canada and one in Sweden. The statement featured a logo comprising a black flag carrying the seal of the prophet Mohammed and the phrase: “We do not forget, we do not forgive” in English. Disturbingly, the killing of bloggers in Bangladesh propelled the country onto the Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The CPJ, in a report published on October 8, 2015, observed,
At least four Bangladeshi bloggers have been hacked to death by apparent Islamic extremists this year alone, and a total of five of Bangladesh’s seven victims of unsolved murders over the last decade are bloggers who criticized religious extremism. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the nominally secular ruling Awami League party have done little to speak out for justice in these crimes, allowing political interests to trump rule of law.
While sporadic incidents by Islamist extremists have raised tensions in the country and concerns across the world, the threat of conventional terrorism continues to lurk in the background. On September 6, 2015, intelligence agencies unearthed a plot to blow up over 100 Navy and Coast Guard bases and oil refineries in southeastern Chittagong city. The little-known Hilf ul Fuzul al Islami (Islamic Alliance of the Virtuous), in collaboration with several other banned Islamist groups, were responsible for the plot, which was believed to be in retaliation to the escalating security clampdown against the Islamists.
On October 6, 2015, Chittagong Metropolitan Police (CMP) Detective Branch (DB) Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) Muhamad Babul Akhter disclosed that JMB was aiming to set up a stronghold in Chittagong District’s heavily forested hilly areas and claimed that there were 1,000 JMB militants in the District, discreetly working as sales persons at stationary shops, day laborers and hawkers to conceal their identity. Some have set up small shops in densely-populated areas of the city to enable contact within the group when required.
Further, on October 11, 2015, talking about JMB’s link with another outfit, Allahr Dol (Allah’s Party), TM Mujahidul Islam, Superintendent of Police (SP) of Lalmonirhat District, observed, “The people who have been organizing under the banner of Allahr Dol are all from the JMB. As JMB is banned, they are now trying to reorganize under a different umbrella and are applying new techniques.” Allahr Dol’s activities have so far spread to Lalmonirhat, Kurigram, Rajshahi and Dinajpur Districts in the north; Khulna District in the south-west and Jhalakathi District in the south. The outfit also gets support, shelter and backup from the local chapter of JeI.
Referring to the current situation on October 5, 2015, Supreme Court Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha noted,
We are trying hard to combat terrorism. It is a global issue, which India and Bangladesh are facing at the same time. Terrorism has become a major problem now… In Bangladesh, terrorism has become a serious threat to our national security. It has become a threat to life, economy and political as well as religious pluralism in Bangladesh.
The recent attacks against religious figures and foreigners’ in Bangladesh are reaction to the assertiveness demonstrated by the Government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, as a result of which the threat from Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh has been minimized. The speedy WC Trials have worried the radicals, and their response has been an escalation of such violence.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed on October 13 said that those behind the recent killing of two foreigners would be hunted down and tried: “There will be no place for terrorists and militants in Bangladesh… we’ll surely find out the killers … and bring them under the purview of law.” Earlier, on October 6, 2015, Bangladesh Inspector General of Police (IGP) AKM Shahidul Hoque had stated, “Anyone may personally believe in their (IS) ideology. But we will not let our country become a terrorist state. We will thwart all conspiracies that are being hatched for our country.”
Dhaka has acted with determination against the long established terrorist and radical Islamist formations in Bangladesh. Controlling randomized violence by their dispersed fragments, as well as incipient groups that are rising out of the wide base of a population radicalized over the decades, in some cases inspired by global Islamism, is, however, proving a difficult task.
*S. Binodkumar Singh, Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management