Neo-JMB, a pro-IS militant group created widespread havoc in the country through a heinous attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery. The organisational network of this militant group, however, is almost shattered after seven years of the attack.
But law enforcing agencies could not control Ansar al Islam in the similar way they controlled the neo-JMB. Rather, the sources related to anti-terrorism activities have the information that the militant organisation has brought Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, another militant organisation under the same umbrella. There are also talks about the relationship of Ansar al Islam with Jamaatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharaqqiya, a new militant organisation.
For this reason, people related to monitoring and prevention of terrorism think all the security concerns are now related with Ansar al Islam, the Pro-IS militant organisation. According to them, the relation between Ansar al Islam and other two organisations are mainly ideological. JMB and the new organisation Sharaqqiya also follow the ideology of al-Qaeda.
Notwithstanding the acknowledgement of Bangladesh law enforcers, Jamaatul Ansar claims itself as al-Qaeda’s subcontinent branch (AQIS). Altogether the sources who have knowledge about the militant orgnisations think the activities of pro-al-Qaeda militant organisations are most active in the country.
According to the officers of the law enforcing agencies who are involved with prevention of terrorism, after the collapse of IS in Syria the impact of this militant organisation is reduced throughout the world. That also impacted upon the militants of the country. Before that following the Holey Artisan attack 64 militants of neo-JMB died in 15 operations of law enforcing agencies. Later, the group could not organise despite many attempts.
Law enforcement officials believe that the network of this organisation, which claims itself as IS, is now fragmented. A concerned senior official told Prothom Alo that the neo-JMB’s chapter is almost over. Although the organisation has some members or supporters, they have no leader as such. Neither there is any organisational ‘chain of command’, nor is there any activity of recruiting new members. There are some dispersed members who are believed to have been trying to establish contact with IS-Khorasan, active in Afghanistan.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police commissioner Khandker Golam Faruq said on Saturday that Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and neo-JMB no longer exist. However, some latent seeds remain. A few new militant organisations have been trying to get organised. They tried to mobilise young people from all over the country by bringing them to the hill tracts. But their efforts have failed, thanks to the continuous operations of police and RAB, he added.
The DMP commissioner further said, “Militancy has not been eradicated, we would say it is under control.”
JMB and Ansar al Islam
JMB amir Maulana Saidur Rahman has been confined to jail for many years. In his absence the leadership of the organisation is basically endowed to Salehin alias Salahuddin. The law enforcement has information that under his leadership the JMB spread its organisational network in India after 2014.
A source involved in anti-terror operations said that Salahuddin has been in contact with AQIS in the last few years. Later, due to ideological similarities, JMB and Ansar al Islam came under the same umbrella. Also, several important members including top leaders of JMB and Ansar al Islam are confined in jail now. A coordination has been achieved between both the organisations there. It is believed that the first joint attack of the two militant organisations as an alliance was the murder of Munshiganj publisher and writer Shahjahan Bachchu on 11 June, 2019.
Apart from the Shahjahan Bachchu killing, Ansar al Islam had last killed a person on 25 April, 2016. On that day militants hacked LGBT rights activist Xulhaz Mannan and his friend theater worker Mahbub Rabbi Tanay to death by entering the Kalabagan residence of Xulhaz in Dhaka. Ansar al Islam has apparently been inactive for the past seven years since then.
However, law enforcement officials involved in cyber-patrolling (online surveillance) said that the organisation is very active in online propaganda and member recruitment. According to some officials, Ansar al Islam is almost in ambush. Compared to other militant groups in the country, they are the most organised. Most of its members are educated and tech savvy. They are very careful in ensuring organisational security and privacy.
According to a relevant source, there are at least 23 leaders in the top tier of the leadership of Ansar al Islam.
In this regard, deputy commissioner of DMP’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC), SM Nazmul Haque told Prothom Alo, as militancy is an ongoing process, its control is also an ongoing process. Militants are not able to carry out direct activities due to the activities of law and order forces. They are conducting online invitation or membership recruitment activities. Due to this, online surveillance or cyber-patrolling is given utmost importance.
New organisation Sharaqqiya in the horizon
While searching for the seven youths who went missing from Cumilla, the existence of a new militant organisation called Jamaatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharaqqiya was revealed. The new aspect of the organisation’s activities is that they have started by setting up camps in the remote areas of Chittagong Hill Tracts. Law enforcement agencies said Sharaqqiya trained at least 55 people from different parts of the country at the camp, which was launched in the hills in 2021.
The new group has come into the limelight due to the fact that they trained in a camp they set up in collaboration with a new armed group in the hills called the Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF). In October last year, law enforcement agencies launched operations in those training camps in the remote areas. Many members of KNF and Sharaqqiya were also arrested. So far five army personnel have been killed by KNF firing and IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
Later, law and order forces during a press conference said that in exchange of money, KNF has provided training and weapons to these militants. A written agreement has also been signed between the two parties.
Before this, such a relationship between a religious militant group and an armed group of a hill tribe or ethnic minority was unheard. It surprised many.
When asked about the link between two organisations of two different religions and ethnic groups, DMP deputy commissioner Nazmul Haque said to Prothom Alo, there are two types of significance in Sharaqqiya’s activities, setting up training camps at the hill tract. One is militancy and the other is geopolitics. How these militants interacted with Christian tribes like the Kuki-Chin and whether there was any inter-country collusion is also to be investigated.
He also said that Sharaqqiya received financial support from Ansar al Islam. Therefore, the relationship between the two organisations will also be investigated.
The security analysts say there is no room for complacency regarding the militancy. After the Holey Artisan attack many militants were killed, many of their camps were destroyed through massive operations. After that, some sort of relaxation in the anti-militancy activities is observed. By taking the opportunity a new militant group was born. Cumilla’s seven youths went missing, the incident was reported to the police station and while investigating the matter RAB found a new militant group and their hideout in the mountains. If the matter had not been publicised in this way, these militants could have made a terrible exposé in a few years. As was the case with the Holy Artisan terrorist attack.
According to Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies president Major General (retd.) ANM Muiruzzaman, activities of the militants in the country are temporarily subdued but they are not inert. They continued their activities. A new dimension or a new angle has been added to this by the association of militants with separatist groups in the hills.
He said, “I do not see a solution in the way we have been progressing to fight against terrorism. The whole matter is left to the activities of the police. The kind of strategy needed to be formulated at the national level in the context of Bangladesh to deal with militancy is not seen here.”
According to this security expert, preparation for countering extremism must be done by engaging the entire society and various groups and harnessing the capabilities of the government. A specialised national strategy like ‘de-radicalisation’ needs to be formulated. A programme should be taken to rehabilitate the militants, and it must be ensured that the prisons do not become a breeding ground for militancy.
* The report has originally been published in the print edition of Prothom Alo and was rewritten in English by Syed Faiz Ahmed