ISIS, al Qaeda and Bangladesh

21 Mar 2015


It is generally believed that radical Islamists of Bangladesh are locally organized and not like the Arabs and Pakistanis in terms of Islamic fervor or Jihadi spirit,

 and they are far less supported, organized, and ideologically committed. But some recent developments give the lie to such assumptions, particularly after the brutal murder of Avijit Roy, a humanist blogger.


Mohammad Sakhawatul Kabir, Bangladesh Coordinator of the dreaded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was arrested on January 19, 2015 along with three other suspected ISIS activists from Jatrabari and Khilkhet areas in Dhaka.


Shaikh Nazmul Alam, Deputy Police Commissioner, Detective Branch (DB), said that the militants were carrying large  number of pamphlets related to Islamic militancy, laptops, videos on militant training, mobile phone sets, passports, visa application forms of Pakistan Embassy and other  incriminating materials, reported the widely read Pakistani daily Dawn.


Alam further said that Kabir  revealed to his interrogators that the terror cell he ran from Dhaka was planning to procure funds and weapons for carrying out deadly attacks on Bangladeshi targets and also that they had trained in Pakistan. Kabir went to Pakistan several times, received motivational and arms training there and worked for al Qaeda under leadership of Javed Akhter Ejaz. It was further revealed that Javed Akhter Ejaz went to Pakistan in 2009 to evade anti-militancy drive launched by Bangladesh government and ended up becoming Karachi Commander of al Qaeda in South Asia.


Bangladesh ISIS Coordinator Kabir and three others arrested along with him were earlier associated with radical Islamist group Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). After emergence of ISIS, all JMB activists were now preparing to switch over allegiance to ISIS.


In September 2014, West Bengal police arrested four young men including two engineering students in Kolkata. The four were on their way to Bangladesh to join the ISIS. It was evident from their statement that some ISIS activists were camping in Bangladesh to recruit youngsters from the Indian subcontinent. They said that they were in touch with the ISIS recruiters and they have specific information about the ISIS cell as well as their rendezvous spots in Bangladesh.


Intelligence operatives in Bangladesh have come round to the view that the ISIS cell is operating in Bangladesh with support from Jamaat and some other hardliner Islamist groups such as Hifazat-e-Islam, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Ansarullah Bangla Team and JMB. All these organizations are engaged in promoting Caliphate rule in Bangladesh.


At a time when al Qaeda grabbed global attention with its announcement of opening of a branch in the Indian subcontinent, the ISIS militants have stepped up activities to spread their network in this region. Reports indicate that some radical groups in Bangladesh have opened channels of communication with the ISIS kingpins and declared solidarity with them.


Earlier, an audio message of al Qaeda chief Aiyman al Zawahiri released in mid January 2014,  warning the government of Bangladesh of serious consequences unless it stopped ‘wanton killings of Islamic scholars’ and ‘other anti-Islamic acts’, generated heated debates in Bangladesh about presence of al Qaeda and its affiliates in the country. Zawahiri’s audio message titled “Bangladesh: Massacre Behind a Wall of Silence” pointed out the “anti-Islamic atheist movement at Shahbag and atrocities committed by security forces against pro-Islamic protesters”. In this message Zawahiri also called for setting up Sharia-based Caliphate in Bangladesh.


Now the ISIS, like al Qaeda before it, is turning to global recruitment by upholding its cause not as a regional but as a pan-Islamic issue. Both these international terrorist groups share identical ideologies, professing establishment of Caliphate. Religiously charged environment in Bangladesh has drawn these global jihadists’ attention towards the country.


Bangladesh intelligence agencies have evidence that al Qaeda extended financial assistance to JMB for its advocacy of “Allah’s rule”. JMB was formed in 2002 with the mission of staging Taliban-like Islamic revolution in Bangladesh. The JMB militants, involved in synchronized country-wide bomb blasts across the country in 2005 and subsequent suicide bomb attacks that had left around 70 people killed and scores of others injured, are now coming out of their secret hide-outs, getting inspired by Zawahiri’s message and heightened ISIS activities. They are coming out of their dens and reorganizing and revitalizing their organizations.


Terror outfit HUJI was formed on the pattern of al Qaeda with the objective of ushering in Islamic revolution. It had sent around 5000 Bangladeshi Mujahids to Afghanistan initially to help the Hizb-e-Islami group of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and later, after abandoning Hekmatyar in1995 to join the Taliban fold.


The linkages between HUJI and al Qaeda were established when HUJI leader Fazlul Rahman signed the Fatwa issued by ‘International Islamic  Front for Jehad Against Jews and Crusaders’ in 1998 declaring ‘holy war’ on the US. Other signatories to the Fatwa included top al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri, as well as Rifat Ahmad Taha @ Abu Yasir of Egyptian Islamic Group and Sheikh Mir Hammah, Secretary of Jamiatul Ulema-e-Pakistan. The US State Department, in an executive order on March 5, 2008, designated HUJI as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and Specially Designated Global Terrorist.


Activities of another al Qaeda affiliate have lately come to notice in Bangladesh. Ansarullah Bangla Team, an extremely militant organization, has made its presence felt by ruthlessly assassinating Ahmed Razib Hyder, a young Shahbag activist, on February 15, 2013. Those who masterminded the murder of Shahbag activist Hyder included Salman Yaseer Mahmud who was earlier an activist of Jamaat’s student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir.


Activists of Ansarullah Bangla Team were deeply motivated by the sermons of Ansarullah chief and spiritual leader Mufti Jasimuddin Rahmani. Following the murder of Shahbag activist, police arrested Rahmani along with 30 of his followers from a hideout at South Khejurtola, district Barguna.


Rahmani is a follower of Anwar al-Awlaki, Yemeni spiritual leader of al Qaeda in the Arab peninsula who was killed in a US Drone attack in 2011. He is a motivator par excellence. Youngsters motivated by him include Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, a 22 year old Bangladeshi recently jailed for 30 years in the US for plotting to bomb US Federal Reserve Bank in New York. Another is Razib Karim, a computer expert working for British Airways who was jailed for 30 years in the UK for plotting to blow up a British plane in March 2011. Rahmani has more than 4000 militant followers spread across the country and abroad who are deeply motivated by him for armed jihad.


In 2013, the US intelligence services intercepted a conference call between Zawahiri and more than 20 operatives from across the al Qaeda’s global network. This prompted the US and several allies to shut embassies across the Muslim world fearful of a major attack. The US Embassy in Dhaka also remained closed on August 1, 2013 for the same reason.


The sudden one day closure of the US Mission in Bangladesh demonstrates that international marginalization is a real danger for Bangladesh. The government will need to ensure that such threats to Bangladesh’s security, economic development and international standing are eliminated before they can take root.

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