By Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee
For the last few months, Bangladesh has been witnessing a sudden spurt in Islamic State (IS)-inspired suicide attacks, which are rare in the country. A series of suicide attacks mostly targeting security personnel has once again brought to the fore the question of the dreaded international terror group’s links with Bangladeshi Islamic militants.
In a bizarre incident on March 24, 2017, a man carrying a bomb blew himself up in front of a police checkpoint near Bangladesh’s main international airport. The IS immediately claimed responsibility for the attack and named the attacker as Abu Mohammad al-Bangali.
This was the third incident involving explosives in the national capital in a week. Police shot and killed a suspected Islamic militant who attempted to cross a security checkpoint in Dhaka’s Khilgaon area on March 18. Just a day before that, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a temporary camp of Bangladesh’s specially-trained anti-terrorism and anti-crime force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in Ashkona Hajj area of Dhaka injuring two RAB personnel.
The incidents of suicide attacks by Bangladeshi jihadists have further complicated the country’s major problems of terrorism and violent religious extremism. The IS-linked Neo Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (Neo JMB) carried out the first suicide attack on December 26, 2015 on an Ahmadiya mosque in Rajshahi, in which militant Mohammad Tareq Aziz alias Musa was killed.
Again a female member of Neo JMB blew herself up during a police raid in Ashkona on December 24, 2016, while another committed suicide by slitting his throat during a raid at Azimpur on September 10, the same year. Bangladesh’s security forces also believe that Neo JMB suicide squad members were responsible for the grenade attack on a mosque inside a Bangladesh naval base in Chittagong on December 18, 2015.
The Bangladeshis fighting for the IS in Iraq and Syria have been a key source of inspiration for the country’s radical Islamic groups. A suicide bomber named Abu Maryam al-Bangali, who blew himself up in Iraq recently, urged his compatriots to carry out “lone-wolf” attack in their country prior to completing his fatal mission. His name was included in RAB’s list of 261 missing persons published on July 20, 2016.
It is not clear how many Bangladeshis have gone to Syria and Iraq for the cause of the “Caliphate”. There is also no precise number of Bangladeshis who have died in West Asia.
Reports indicate that only select Bangladeshis hailed by the IS as “martyrs who died in the service of khilafah” are known. According to Bengali propaganda videos released by IS-affiliated Furat Media, three Bangladeshis have attained “martyrdom” since 2015. They include Neaz Morshed Reza alias Abu Maryam al-Bangali, Ashfaqur Rahman Jilani alias Abu Jandal al-Bangali and Abu Dujana al-Bangali.
In addition to them, there was another Bangladeshi named Siful Haque Sujan alias Abu Khaled al-Bangali who died for IS but was never hailed as a “martyr”. Haque, one of the top IS hackers, was the key architect of the terrorist group’s cyber warfare and propaganda mechanisms.
The Syria-based Salafist group claims that their supporters in Bangladesh have carried out 26 attacks since September 2015, killing at least 50 people, including secular bloggers, liberal intellectuals, foreigners, non-Muslim and non-Sunni preachers and security personnel.
The radical Islamist forces have stepped up attacks on Muslim minority sects in recent weeks. On March 13, 2017, Sufi spiritual leader Farhad Hossain Choudhury and his daughter were gunned down by suspected Islamic militants in northern Bangladesh. The religious extremist groups adhering to Salafist ideology are specifically targeting non-Sunnis. Since 2013, more than 12 Sufi Muslims have been murdered in different parts of the country.
Bangladesh has also been experiencing a disturbing trend with females actively participating in suicide bombings and other terrorist acts. The country saw the first female suicide bombing during a police raid at a militant hideout in Dhaka on December 24, 2016. Reports say the female bomber, Shakira, was the wife of a Neo JMB militant.
Several female jihadists mainly belonging to Neo JMB have been apprehended from Dhaka and elsewhere in recent months. Bangladeshi investigators noted that the top jihadi leaders are recruiting females to perform organisational tasks. In most cases, the female Neo JMB militants are family members of male cadres.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s security forces have launched massive counter-terrorism operations across the country since early March this year, arresting more than 80 Islamic militants and neutralising many others.
Bangladesh Police’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) members stormed a terror den in Moulavibazar district on April 1, killing three terrorists, including a woman. Earlier on March 30, eight militants blew themselves up when security forces carried out “Operation Hitback” to flush out militants from their hideout in the same district’s Nasirpur area.
In another major anti-terror operation on March 25, Bangladesh’s security forces busted a hideout of Islamic militants in the north-eastern city of Sylhet, killing four terrorists, including Neo JMB chief Musa and a woman.
Reports suggest that the security forces launched “Operation Twilight” after Bangladesh Police’s Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crimes (CTTC) unit received information that Neo JMB leader Musa along with some other militants were in Sylhet. The death of Neo JMB chief assumes significance as the jihadi outfit was blamed for the Dhaka terror attack on July 1, 2016.
The special raid was carried out following repeated suicide attacks by Islamic militants on security camps in March. Bangladeshi jihadi groups have regrouped themselves and recalibrated their operational strategy after the country’s worst terror attack in Dhaka last year.
The Awami League (AL) government has persistently denied IS’s operational presence in Bangladesh, arguing instead that a new faction of home grown religious extremist group Neo JMB was behind most of the recent attacks. The government considers the IS-affiliated Neo JMB as a faction of the Shayakh Abdur Rahman-led terrorist outfit which surfaced in 2015.
The growing suicide attacks by Bangladeshi jihadists also pose serious threat to the region’s peace, security and stability. The unabated cross-border movement of Bangladeshi terrorists has been a major security concern for India.
A recent report from the Bangladesh government to the union home ministry over the rise in infiltration of Islamic militants from the neighbouring country has rattled India’s security establishment. The report noted that in 2016, there had been a more than three-fold increase in intrusion of Harkat-ul-Jihadi al-Islami (HuJI) and Neo JMB militants into West Bengal, Assam and Tripura, compared to that in 2015.
The Bengal government has been directed to step up vigil on the Bangladesh border and areas bordering Assam. The report said that about 2010 HuJI and Neo JMB operatives, including linkmen, have infiltrated into three Indian states bordering Bangladesh. While the Bengal government officials remain sceptical about the report, the Assam Police have taken it seriously.
During the last six months, Assam Police arrested 54 Neo JMB operatives. Higher echelons of police have pointed out that there has been a subtle change in the logistics and operational mechanism of Islamic terrorists after the 2014 Burdwan blast and this is creating problems in tracking them. Earlier, they used to come through porous bordering districts like Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda. But now, they are coming through Assam and Tripura and then entering Bengal.
Investigations into the 2016 Dhaka terror strike revealed that the attackers had used guns that were obtained from Bengal. This clearly demonstrates the existence of linkages between Bangladeshi religious extremists and support networks in India, especially in Bengal. Managing unfenced and riverine segments of the India-Bangladesh borders remains a critical area for both the countries.
During Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s momentous visit to New Delhi (April 7-10, 2017), the two neighbours agreed to deepen security and counter-terrorism cooperation. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Hasina reiterated their commitment to taking concrete steps to further strengthen cooperation and coordination among law enforcement, intelligence and security organisations of both the countries. Modi lauded the Hasina government’s efforts to contain radicalisation in Bangladesh, which is also a matter of concern for India.
(The author is an independent analyst on India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to email@example.com)