By Prapti Rahman
A Bangladeshi man charged with allegedly bombing the New York City subway had visited Rohingya camps three months before the Dec. 11 attack, according to his wife who said that his sole mission was to hand out medicine to desperate refugees.
While visiting Bangladesh in September, Akayed Ullah made a side trip to camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district housing Rohingya Muslim refugees from neighboring Myanmar, his wife, Jannatul Ferdous Jui, told BenarNews.
Since October 2016, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled cycles of violence and brutal military crackdowns in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which have angered Muslims in many countries.
Before her husband returned to the United States, “he went to Rohingya camps at Cox’s Bazar to distribute aid,” Ferdous Jui said, saying it took him nine hours to travel there from Dhaka by bus.
“He distributed medicines to the Rohingya. It did not seem to me that he went there with any other purpose.”
Ferdous Jui said Ullah showed no signs that he was planning a terrorist act in the United States.
Ullah faces five federal terrorism-related charges punishable by up to life in prison, according to court documents.
“He spent most of his time with us,” Ferdous Jui told BenarNews. “But I never saw anything that may give the idea that he can do anything like this.”
“I want the U.S. authorities to investigate him. If he is guilty, he deserves punishment,” she added.
New York police said four people were injured in the pipe-bomb explosion in a subway tunnel beneath the Times Square area, but Ullah was the only person seriously hurt. He was burned on his hands and torso.
Police said the bomb was strapped to his body when he allegedly set it off during the Monday morning rush-hour on Dec. 11. Ullah, a 27-year-old lone suspect, built the bomb out of matchheads and a piece of pipe he found at a construction site, and he carried out the attack in the name of the extremist group Islamic State (IS), U.S. federal investigators said.
Ullah was informed of the charges via video on Dec. 13 as he lay in a hospital bed in New York. He did not enter a plea and said little during the hearing, which lasted a little over 10 minutes.
Ullah’s mother-in-law, Mahfuza Akhter, expressed doubts over the federal terrorism charges.
“My son-in-law cannot do that,” she told BenarNews. “This is a conspiracy. I want a fair investigation.”
In an earlier interview with the New York Times, Akhter said Ullah “seemed happy” when he left his home in Dhaka to visit the refugee camps, but was “so upset” when he returned from the southeast.
“He said those people were living in hell, each and every minute,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.
Sermons from radical preacher
Last week, Bangladeshi police quoted Ferdous Jui as saying that her husband may have been influenced by sermons and writings of radical Muslim preacher Jasim Uddin Rahmani, the imprisoned leader of a banned Bangladeshi militant group Ansar al-Islam, also known as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and which is linked to al-Qaeda.
Rahmani, who is serving prison time for his involvement in the Feb. 2013 killing of Bangladeshi secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, was also the ideological guru of another local militant group, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).
Ferdus Jui said her husband, who had been living in Brooklyn since 2011, visited Bangladesh in early September, months after she gave birth to their son.
Despite their distance, Ullah was close to his wife and he made the trip to arrange U.S. immigration paperwork for his family, officials said. Ullah arrived in the United States on an F43 family immigrant visa six years ago because he had an uncle who was already a U.S. citizen.
Before the bombing, Ullah had no criminal record in the United States and in Bangladesh according to law-enforcement officials from both countries.
When police searched Ullah’s home in Dhaka, they also did not find any books written by the militant preacher Rahmani, officials said.
Ullah could have been self-radicalized after watching militant videos online, Monirul Islam, chief of Bangladeshi police’s counter-terror unit, told a news conference last week.
“He is self-radicalized by watching militant contents online,” Islam said. “We do not have any proof of his militant links.”
Last week in New York, FBI Assistant Director William Sweeney Jr. told a news conference that Ullah “was inspired by a group that exploits technology in an effort to spread a violent ideology, effectively convincing sympathizers to commit terrorist acts worldwide.”
The court documents had identified that group as Islamic State. IS had claimed responsibility for a terrorist siege at a café in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, during which 29 people, including 20 hostages and five gunmen were killed last year.
Federal officials said Ullah had penned anti-American messages in his passport, which they found while searching his apartment in Brooklyn.
“O AMERICA, DIE IN YOUR RAGE,” a handwritten message said, according to investigators.
‘A very calm person’
Ullah’s old neighbors and acquaintances in Dhaka expressed disbelief that he could have become radicalized and committed a terrorist act.
Abul Boshor, 70, said he was a neighbor of Sanaullah, Ullah’s father, since 1971.
“Ullah’s father was a good man,” Boshor told BenarNews. “I am confused how his son could do this.”
Ullah’s father, who owned a grocery store in Dhaka’s Hazaribagh neighborhood, died years ago of still unknown natural causes, neighbors said. Ullah was born and grew up in Hazaribagh, they said.
“I saw Akayed growing up. He was a very calm person,” said Abu Chhayed Miazi, a local businessman.
In interviews with BenarNews, neighbors described Ullah’s father as a “freedom fighter” and veteran of Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Ullah led a humble life, they said, and his father “had strong hatred for terrorism and militancy.”
“None of Akayed’s family member had any link with fundamentalist politics or ideology,” said Miazi, who also ran a grocery store beside Sanaullah’s. “He [Akayed] never got himself involved in any altercation with anyone,” he said.
Abdul Wahab, another local resident, said Ullah was one of his son’s friends at the Kakoli School in Dhaka.
Ullah and his son also went to the Munshi Abdur Rob Riffles School in the same neighborhood and studied business administration, but Ullah quit before receiving his bachelor’s degree.
He said the bombing suspect was a shy man, too shy to even mention his name to new acquaintances.
“He came to my house several times. He had a beard and used to say his prayers regularly. Akayed’s behavior was never suspicious,” Wahab told BenarNews.
Kamran Reza in Dhaka also contributed to this story.