Six years on since the brutal militant attack on Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan, Dhaka, most of the militant groups in the country are more or less inactive. But while the militants have not been visibly active over the past few years, they have maintained their presence online. They are using encrypted apps to carry out their campaigns through various groups, according to law enforcement agencies.
According to an analysis by an agency of the law enforcement dealing with the prevention and monitoring of militancy, the pro-Islamic State (IS) groups from 2018 have created various ‘virtual cells’ or ‘modules’. These cells, or those motivated by these groups, can at any time attempt to carry out a ‘lone wolf’ attack. Such cells and small organised groups were involved in the sporadic attacks against the police in various locations in 2019.
However, law enforcement officials involved in anti-militant activities say that the pro-Al Qaeda militants seem more dangerous at present than the pro-IS elements. This is because after the 1 July 2016 militant attack on Holey Artisan Bakery, the law enforcement carried out a continued cleansing operation and effectively wiped out to a greater extent the pro-IS neo JMB organisational and leadership network in the country. Most of the kingpins of this organisation have been killed and many caught. But Ansar Al Islam hasn’t been that harmed and is managing to recruit members both online and offline.
Outside of this, the oldest militant outfit in the country, Harkatul Jihad (Hu-Ji), is almost dead. The Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (the old JMB) may have some support groups in North Bengal, Mymensingh and Jamalpur, but the law enforcement is not seeing them as a threat at the moment.
Experts in militancy issues, however, feel that even though the militants seem apparently inert at present, the concerned quarters must remain alert. Any complacency that the ‘militants are all under control’, could lead to serious danger.
Pro-IS elements in ‘attrition warfare’
Sources monitoring IS activities say that after the fall of IS in Syria in 2019, their next campaign was for ‘attrition warfare’, a lengthy war to wear down the enemy. They called to their supporters and followers all over to follow this method of attrition warfare in their attacks.
This organisation follows the ‘cut-out’ method in all its activities, including recruiting members. One group is kept in the dark about the other group. And so even if anyone is arrested, they cannot divulge any details
In this country too, believers in IS ideology and their followers also have formed small groups and created online modules and cells, according to the law enforcement agencies.
Intelligence sources say, they create a virtual network by recruiting members and supporters online and these are the cells or modules. Within these cells, the members are motivated to carry out subversive activities with the objective of establishing the ‘khilafat’ in the country. The members use encrypted apps to communicate with each other.
The law enforcement is the target of these virtual cells created by the pro-IS militants after 2018. In their latest spate of attacks, from April to August 2019 there were six incidents in Dhaka and Khulna in which bomb attacks were carried out against the police and bombs were planted in various places. Improvised explosive devices (IEF) were used to cause explosions in front of the traffic police box. But officials involved in anti-militant operations feel that this group does not have the capacity to carry out any large scale operation. They feel that they may try ‘lone wolf’ attacks or minor random attacks.
Ansar Al Islam
Ansar Al Islam came to limelight through its killing of writers, bloggers and publishers. They claimed to be the Bangladesh unit of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Initially it had been known as the Ansarullah Bangla Team.
This organisation follows the ‘cut-out’ method in all its activities, including recruiting members. One group is kept in the dark about the other group. And so even if anyone is arrested, they cannot divulge any details. This strategy has prevented the law enforcement from getting a full-fledged picture of this organisation. That is why Ansar Al Islam is considered a threat. Till now, the target of this group has been bloggers, atheists, those insulting the religion and the prophet, and gay rights activists.
According to officials involved in anti-militant programmes, even though Ansar Al Islam hasn’t carried out any militant operations for long, they continue to recruit members, collect ‘sadaqah’ (contributions or fees) from members and funds from other sources. They are extremely cautious in recruiting members, in order to ensure the security and secrecy of their organisation.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, the head of Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC), Md Asaduzzman, said militancy is under control at present due to the efforts of the law enforcement. The militants do not have any ability at present to carry out sabotage or attacks. Bangladesh has a very good positioning on the Global Terrorism Index. Bangladesh is the safest country in South Asia.
We see a sense of complacency among us. This can be harmful. There is still need to be alert. There remains the scope for militancy to spread. There is no visible national policy or strategy to bring an end to this. The work that is being done, is all on an ad hoc basis
The global think-tank, Institute of Economics and Peace, from 2000 has been publishing the Global Terrorism Index annually, based on analyses of terrorist attacks and the activities of militant groups. In the index published in 2022, Bangladesh ranked at 40. Afghanistan ranks at the top, in the worst degree of such terrorism. Bhutan is in the best position in South Asia, at 93 on the index. India ranks at 12 and Pakistan at 10. Nepal and Sri Lanka fare worse that Bangladesh too, at 34 and 25 respectively. No terrorist attacks have taken place in Bangladesh since 2020.
Speaking to Prothom Alo on this issue, president of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS), Maj Gen (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, said while there has been no operational terrorism and killings over the past few years, it cannot be said that these organisations have completely lost their capabilities. Often there is news of militant dens being unearthed and their equipment being recovered. The militants may be inert, but they are not powerless. Their online activities have increased during the Covid outbreak.
According to ANM Muniruzzaman, "We see a sense of complacency among us. This can be harmful. There is still need to be alert. There remains the scope for militancy to spread. There is no visible national policy or strategy to bring an end to this. The work that is being done, is all on an ad hoc basis."
* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir