Three years since the brutal militant attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery in the capital city, pro-IS militants are rearing their heads again. The militants are becoming the focus of attention once more after the militant attack in Sri Lanka, followed by two attacks on the police in Dhaka within a month’s time and IS claiming responsibility.
Officials of the law enforcement involved in anti-terrorism, however, say that the militants here do not have the capacity for any big operation like that of the Holey Artisan. They are more likely to take up ‘lone wolf’ operations.
After the fall of the last stronghold of international militant group Islamic State (IS) in Syria, they have been inspiring their followers to carry out attacks such as that in Sri Lanka on 21 April this year. This poses as a threat for Bangladesh too, analysts said. This is also evident from the online campaigns propagated by the IS followers.
A week after the militant attack in Sri Lanka, IEDs or improvised explosive devices were hurled at police in Gulistan, Dhaka. There was little damage, but IS claimed responsibility for the attack. And a day after the incident, IS’ Amir Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s video message was uploaded on an online channel of the militants, calling for revenge for the defeat they faced in Syria. Baghdadi claimed that the Sri Lanka attack too was in revenge for the fall of Baguz. Germany’s Deutsche Welle reported that the message had mentioned the attack on police in Bangladesh too.
Then on 26 May, an explosive blasted in a police pickup van in Malibagh, Dhaka and IS again took responsibility. It was later discovered that a time-controlled explosive had been used for the purpose.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police commissioner Md Asaduzzaman Miah told Prothom Alo, “Militants carry out such action for three reasons – one, to make their presence known. Two, to draw international attention. And three, to catch the attention of IS or Al Qaeda and let them know they are active in their efforts to establish khilafat in Bangladesh.” He said they were still investigating as to whether militants were involved in the Malibagh and Gulistan incidents or whether a third party was involved.
The militants of the IS ilk in Bangladesh, whom police term as ‘neo-JMB’, have made their presence felt through the two attacks on the police. There had been intelligence information that two serious incidents would take place in Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar during Eid-ul-Fitr this year, and diplomatic circles were concerned too. Later the prime minister announced that there had been a militant scare, but that was successfully thwarted by the intelligence and law enforcement.
While the authorities claim that militancy is under control in Bangladesh, the online messages of the militants and the confessions of those under arrest, indicate that the recruitment process is still going on. There are efforts at reorganisation and empowerment.
Active despite operations
The law enforcement agencies carried out extensive operations around the country after the 1 July 2016 militant attack on Holey Artisan Bakery. The main planner Tamim Chowdhury and quite a few other top militants were killed in these operations and many arrested.
In police and Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) operations that year, 35 men and women militants were killed. In 2017, another 18 raids were carried out on militant dens, killing 38 militants and their children who were with them. During the raid on Atia Mahal in Sylhet, Lt Col Abul Kalam Azad of RAB’s intelligence unit, two police inspectors and four bystanders were killed.
During their confessions, seven recently arrested militants said that even during the extensive operations in 2019, the militants carried out their campaigning and recruitment efforts, studies and procurement of arms and explosives, in the capital city as well.
A senior official of the law enforcement, on condition of anonymity, said, “What was the result of the operations following the Holey Artisan attack? Has public awareness been raised? Have any steps been taken to use the Qur’an and Hadith interpretations to reject the militant dogma?” He said that the long term strategy needed to tackle such ideological-based groups was totally absent.
These groups are more active online in their recruitment and in spreading their message. They communicate with each other online too. In fact, surveys show that 82 per cent of the recruits have come through internet communications.
A RAB official involved in anti-terrorism said that everything is done online nowadays and the militants use this too. Yet there is no arrangement to tackle them online, to disprove their ideology with religious scripture. Then again, certain alems of the salafi school also instigate militancy in their sermons. This can be seen on YouTube.
How capable is neo-JMB?
According to relevant police and RAB officials, the pro-IS militants groups were significantly defused after the operations which followed the Holey Artisan incident. They faced fund and leadership crises. However, there is no clear idea as to how many members neo-JMB has at present.
A certain official told Prothom Alo that there are at least 250 active members online. Many of the militants are quiet for the time being, but will rise up if summoned. A group of 8 to 10 militants is reportedly headed by a leader of the southwest and that is a cause of alarm.
A group of expatriate Bangladeshis also support the militant ideology. They provide funds from time to time. They collect funds for the poor and for Rohingya refugees and also send those funds to the militants.
Lone wolf scare
In a letter from the Special Branch (SB) of police to police in various districts on 18 June, it was said to remain alert against ‘lone wolves’ at important sites and key installations.
In April the militants brought out an online Bangla magazine called Lone Wolf. It contained details of lone wolf attacks and objectives.
Last month the inspector general of police (IGP) Mohammed Jabed Patwari told the media, the militants have targeted the law enforcement agencies including the police. All over the world the militants are undertaking ‘lone wolf’ operations. It is near impossible to prevent this. He said militant activities were under control, but they had not been totally uprooted. He said if people provided information concerning militants or suspicious persons, then it would be possible to tackle the propensity towards lone wolf attacks.
* This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir