'Two of three militant outfits operate from abroad'

Holey Artisan cafe after the attackProthom Alo file photo

Almost all of the militant outfits are somehow active in the country though they have no visible appearance recently. Each outfit carries out various activities that include opening various online groups and recruiting new members.

And two of the three much-talked-about militant outfits operate from abroad while leaders of other organisations are in the country now. Militant outfits have been cornered since the Holey Artisan Cafe attack in Dhaka’s Gulshan and Thursday (1 July 2021) marks the 5th anniversary of the deadliest attack.

Experts believe people especially, youths, are to stay at home for most of the time during coronavirus pandemic. So they remain connected online for long. And militant groups are taking advantage of it to spread extremism and recruit members. A large number of people whom the law enforcement agencies have arrested over one and a half years were active online.

According to multiple sources involved in observing and preventing militancy, there are three much-talked-about organisations among the active militant outfits. They are the neo-JMB (Jamatul-Mujahideen Bangladesh) pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), the JMB and the Ansar Al Islam that follows the ideology of Al-Qaeda. Leaders of neo-JMB and JMB operate their organisations from abroad. On the contrary, leaders of Ansar Al Islam are in the country, according to people concerned of the law enforcement agencies.

Besides, the oldest militant outfit of the country Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) nearly ceases to exist. However, several old members of Huji-B were reportedly involved in robbery. There is another organisation, Allar Dal, based on the northern region. Once, an associated body of JMB, Allar Dal has not much organisational capability now.

The militants of the Holey Artisan Cafe attack on 1 July 2016 were the members of neo-JMB. The rise of IS in Iraq and Syria was their main inspiration. The Holey Artisan Cafe attack left 22 people including foreigners and two police officials dead. After the tragic attack, a nationwide operation was launched with a view to destroying the organisational strengthen of the neo-JMB.

According to Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTC), at that time 63 militants were killed in 23 major operations. Some 493 militants were arrested before and after these operations. At that time, the fall of IS in Iraq and Syria destroyed the morale of the organisation to recruit new members.

But experts now expressed concern over the revival of Taliban in Afghanistan because a large portion of the militants in Bangladesh is pro-Afghan or influenced by the thoughts of Taliban since the beginning. If Taliban becomes successful in Afghanistan, the pro-IS militants may be inspired here in Bangladesh again, experts observed.

Drives go on

RAB has arrested 518 members of different militant organisations since 2020. Of them, 199 are members of Ansar Al Islam or Ansarullah Bangla Team while 179 are JMB members. Nine members of both the organisations have also surrendered.

Anti Terrorism Unit (ATU) of police detained 94 men in 62 drives from the beginning of the last year to 28 June. Twenty seven of them were members of Ansar Al Islam. The CTTC unit of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) also arrested many militants during this period.

Sources, however, said neo-JMB is trying to recruit members from online through creating groups on social networking sites. They are using different apps for facilitating communication. Some leaders staying in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia have maintaining their activities as they get funds from their well-wishers from the two countries. They orchestrated six incidents of hurling and planting bombs at police in Dhaka and Khulna from April to August in 2019.

Director general of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) Chowdhury Abdullah Al Mamun on Tuesday said they arrested around 1,500 militants since Holey Artisan Bakery attack. The militant’s network has weakened and they are being arrested on tip-off whenever they plan to carry out an attack.

JMB-Ansar Al Islam nexus

Like the pro-IS neo-JMB, the old JMB is operating from outside the country. The old-JMB is, in fact, led by Salauddin alias Salehin. He has been in India since the terrorists snatched him away from police escort launching an attack on the prison van carrying him in 2014. Law enforcement agencies obtained intelligence that Salauddin has led the JMB over the past few years to expand its network in India.

According to a source involved in anti-militancy activities, a large number of old JMB members is from various districts in the northern region of the country. Salauddin stays in bordering area and is trying to form a new group based in the North Bengal.

The sources further said Salauddin has established ties with the Al-Qa'ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) for several years. Old JMB and Ansar Al Islam have developed relations because of similar Ideological belief. Ansar Al Islam follows Ideology of Al-Qa'ida and claimed itself as AQIS’s branch in Bangladesh.

According to a government source involved in anti-militancy activities, JMB and Ansar Al Islam might have jointly carried out the killing of writer and publisher Shahjahan Bachchu in Munshiganj on 11 June 2019. The design of the both organisations' webpages are similar.

An official involved in anti-militancy activities said there are several important members and top leaders of JMB and Ansar Al Islam are behind bars and both organisations have built a communication and coordination there. If they launch sabotage jointly, it will be a matter of concern.

Established in 2008, Ansarullah Bangla Team or Ansar Al Islam came to limelight with killing a blogger in 2013. However, there is no visible appearance or any sabotage by the outfit reported over the past five years.

According to the reliable sources, at present Ansar Al Islam is more organised than any other militant outfit in the country. Most of its members are educated and many are trained and have knowledge about technology. They are lying in wait. The spiritual leader of the outfit Mufti Jasimuddin Rahmani has been behind bars for seven years. Sacked army officer Syed Ziaul Haque, known as major Zia, is operating the activities of the organisation in absence of Jasimuddin Rahmani. Major Zia is the chief of so called military wing of Ansar Al Islam. Law enforcement agencies couldn’t arrest him as yet.

Sources said Ansar Al Islam opened groups in various apps to build a communication system of its own. The banned organisation is trying to increase its members and followers. They are very active in spreading extremism online.

The chief of Anti Terrorism Unit (ATU) additional inspector general Md Kamrul Ahsan told Prothom Alo that online activities of the militants are being monitored through cyber patrolling. Whenever anyone is being identified is being brought to book. No militant group is capable of launching any major attack in the country for now, the police official observed.

Yet concern remains

Experts said whether local militant groups would resurface depend on the global situation on militancy. It’s important now whether the Bangladeshis, especially, who went to Syria or Afghanistan inspired by the IS would try to expand their operation afresh in the country or some of them would take the helm of neo-JMB or not. Though it is learnt a big number of Bangladeshis who went to Syria and Iraq have died or perished in jail. No specific data is available on how many Bangladeshis are still free. Some of them have returned to the country and police have arrested one of them in Chattogram recently.

According to the president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) major general (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, militancy will continue to exist in the country. He told Prothom Alo there are three concerns. Firstly, youths pass huge time online. Militant groups having motive to instigate terrorism in cyberspace will exploit this opportunity.

The second concern, according to AANM Muniruzzaman, is the revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It will also have a direct influence here in the country because the members of the organisation that founded militancy in Bangladesh were the fighters in the Afghan war.

So their successors would always look to Afghanistan. The revival of the Taliban there will motivate their followers here to start anew, he added.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna