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Bangladesh: Lingering Darkness

By S. Binodkumar Singh

March 27, 2017

On March 25, 2017, six people, including two Policemen, were killed and 43 were injured in two powerful bomb explosions in Sylhet city of Sylhet District.

On March 24, 2017, a suspected suicide bomber blew himself up in front of the Shahjalal International Airport intersection in the capital, Dhaka. As the intersection is some distance from the airport security area, only the attacker was killed and there was no other casualty. Two hours after the incident, Islamic State (IS, formerly, Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, also Daesh) took credit for the attack through its Arabic Amaq News.

On March 17, 2017, a suspected suicide bomber sneaked into a Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) barrack and blew himself up in the Ashkona area of Dhaka city. Two RAB personnel suffered splinter injuries in the attack. According to reports, Daesh claimed credit for the attack.

On March 7, 2017, Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) terrorists attacked a Police team during a routine check of a bus on Dhaka-Chittagong Highway in Comilla District. Two attackers Jasim (20) and Hasan (20) were arrested. Four crude bombs and a sharp knife were recovered from their possession.

On March 6, 2017, two crude bombs were hurled at a prison van carrying Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) chief Mufti Hannan and some of his associates at Tongi towns in Gazipur District. The bombs went off on the road missing the target. Police escorting the prison van arrested two suspects from the spot and recovered a bag containing two petrol bombs, two stun grenades, two crude bombs and two machetes.

On February 28, 2017, two Policemen were injured as JMB militants stabbed them in Bujruk Rajarampur village of Rajshahi District. Police arrested one suspected attacker Aminul Islam from the spot.

Despite major Government successes against Islamist groups in Bangladesh, such attacks have persisted. There have been several operations launched against extremists in the recent past, including:

On March 26, 2017, two militants were killed in an Army-led operation codenamed 'Operation Twilight', inside a terror den at Atia Mahal in Sylhet city.

On March 16, 2017, five persons, including a toddler, were killed in a Police raid on a Neo-JMB den at a two-storey building at Sitakunda in Chittagong District. Police recovered 10 bombs, three suicide vests and explosive substances adequate to make 40 to 50 powerful bombs.

On March 16, 2017, Tajul Islam Mahmud aka Mama Hujur (46), a 'regional commander' of HuJI-B, was killed during a gunfight with the Police in the Kuti Chowmuhani area of Brahmanbaria District. Three Policemen were also injured in the incident. Police recovered 25 improvised bombs, five pipe guns, four bullets and five locally made sharp weapons on site.

On March 2, 2017, Aminur Islam aka Alam (23), the 'military chief' of Neo-JMB's Rajshahi Divisional unit, was killed in a gunfight with the Police at Jamnagar village in the Bogra District. Police recovered a pistol, three rounds of bullets and two magazines from him.

On February 14, 2017, Abu Musa alias Abujar alias Abu Talha alias Robin alias Samiul (32), a 'regional coordinator' of JMB was killed in a gunfight with Police at Kahalu in Bogra District. Police recovered a pistol, three bullets and several sharp weapons after the encounter.

On January 6, 2017, two Neo-JMB leaders - Nurul Islam Marzan, who coordinated the Gulshan cafe attack, and Saddam Hossain aka Rahul, who led Neo-JMB activities in the Northern Region - were killed in a gunfight with the Police in Dhaka city. Police recovered a pistol, three bullets and a knife from them.

Since the beginning of 2017, according to partial data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 14 Islamist terrorists have been killed and another 311 arrested across Bangladesh. Prominent among those arrested were JMB 'regional commanders' Fazlur Rahman Taher aka Raj (23) and Mostafizur Rahman Shahin (41); Neo-JMB 'IT chief' Ashfaq-e-Azam Apel; and Neo-JMB 'spiritual leader' Maulana Abul Kashem (data till March 26, 2017).

Claiming significant transformations that her Government had engineered, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed declared, on February 28, 2017, "Huge mass awareness has been created against militancy and terrorism due to the Government's ongoing campaign against these social menaces." Further, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal reiterated, on March 7, 2017, that the 'militancy problem' remained under control as a result of continuing people-police joint efforts, adding, "We are determined to free the country from the curse of militancy and terrorism."

Continuing these efforts, the Government banned Ansar al-Islam (Defenders of Islam), the Bangladesh chapter of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), on March 5, 2017, as its activities constituted a threat to public security. The ban circular observed that the militant organization's activities went against peace and order in the country. The radical group was earlier known as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT, Volunteer of Allah Bangla Team), which was banned on May 25, 2015, for the killing of several secular writers, bloggers and online and gay rights activists critical of religious bigotry. Ansar al-Islam is the seventh extremist formation, whose activities have so far been banned in Bangladesh. The six other groups already banned are JMB, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), HUJI-B, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, ABT and Shahadat-e-Al Hikma. Three other extremist outfits - Dawat-e-Islam, Allar Dal and Harkat-e-Islam Al Jihad - are also reportedly under scrutiny of the Home Ministry for a possible ban.

On March 9, 2017, Police officials asserted that the prison van attack in Gazipur District on March 6 and the attack on a Police team during a routine check of a bus in Comilla District on March 7 indicated that Neo-JMB was reforming outside Dhaka city. Separately, Chittagong Range Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Mohamad Shafiqul Islam stated, on March 16, 2017, "Neo-JMB might be planning to attack foreigners who are employed in development projects in Chittagong region. Besides, they had plans to carry out attacks on the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway." An official of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit added, on March 17, 2017, "Neo-JMB militants have built their hideouts in Cox's Bazar, Bandarban and Rangamati Districts, apart from Chittagong District. The militants have set up dens in those areas as it would help their safe movement through the sea. A plan to recruit Rohingyas could be another reason."

Another disturbing trend in Bangladesh is the uptick in the participation of female jihadists, as Humayun Kabir, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Crime Management at Police Headquarters remarked, on March 22, 2017, "Militants now cannot carry out their activities in an organized way as they've got scattered due to repeated crackdowns by Police and RAB. So, they're now desperate and preferring to conduct suicide attacks. As they're getting alienated from their own groups, the militants are now trying to motivate their family members to indulge in militant activities." The Bangladeshi authorities discovered the first female unit in the Neo-JMB on July 21, 2016, after the arrest of Neo-JMB 'commander for the southern region' Mahmudul Hassan Tanvir. On July 24, 2016, Police arrested four militants of the JMB female wing from a house in the Mohalla area of Sirajganj District. Similarly, RAB arrested four female JMB militants, including the 'adviser' of its women's unit, from Dhaka city on August 15, 2016. Another four female members of JMB's 'suicide squad' were arrested at Boroitola village in Sirajganj District on September 5, 2016. Significantly, Bangladesh recorded its first female suicide bombing during a Police raid on a JMB den at Ashkona in Dhaka city on December 24, 2016. Further, on March 16, 2017, another female suicide bombing occurred in a Police raid on a Neo-JMB den at a two-storey building at Sitakunda in Chittagong District.

Calling upon people to extend their support to the Government to build Bangladesh as a peaceful nation, Prime Minister Hasina stated, on March 17, 2017, that the people's united efforts can enable the nation to combat militancy and terrorism. Reiterating the Government's tough stance, Hasina warned, on March 18, 2017, "There will be no place for militancy and terrorism on Bangladesh soil... the stern stance that we've taken against it will continue. You have to remain vigillant so that no one of your children can get involved in militancy and terrorism."

Separately, Inspector General of Police (IGP) A.K.M. Shahidul Hoque announced, on March 18, 2017, "We have already identified masterminds of extremists and their networks alongside the Neo-JMB. The law enforcement agencies are working to arrest militants and their close associates. The government under the dynamic leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is determined to root out terrorism and extremism from the country alongside preventing other crimes with sincere efforts."

Sheikh Hasina's unrelenting response to Islamist groups has been remarkable, and Bangladesh's law enforcement agencies have neutralized a number of hardcore terrorists. Nevertheless, significant risks persist, as the terrorist groups continue to attack law enforcement agencies and personnel. Moreover, the weapons and resources recovered during recent raids suggest that there are significant flows of resources to these groups. The involvement of women as combatants can also have grave implications, as most women in societies like Bangladesh depend on informal sources and traditional institutions like madrasas for guidance and religious knowledge. Bangladesh has taken giant strides against terrorism and Islamist extremism, but the struggle is far from over.

S. Binodkumar Singh is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

Source: South Asia Intelligence Review