The Sheikh Hasina government has finally resolved to root out terrorism from Bangladesh after the country suffered its worst militant attack on July 1. The Bangladesh government was expected to initiate tough anti-terrorism measures as it had been pressure from the international community in the wake of the brutal killing of 20 foreigners at the Gulshan café. The government had to act promptly to foil the diabolic designs of the terrorists linked to the dreaded international jihadi group Islamic State (IS).
Recent breakthroughs in the fight against terrorism
Following the Gulshan terror attack, Bangladesh’s security forces stepped up search operations across the country for hideouts used by the militants. In a major encounter with the security forces on August 27, the Gulshan and Solakia attacks mastermind Tamim Ahmed Choudhury and two other Neo Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh or “Neo JMB” militants were killed in Narayanganj, about 30 km south of capital Dhaka. This was the second key breakthrough for the country after the Bangladesh police neutralised nine suspected “Neo JMB” operatives in a special raid at Kalyanpur in Dhaka on July 26. In another counter-terror operation on September 2 in Dhaka, police killed “Neo JMB” leader Murad, who was allegedly Tamim’s deputy. According to Bangladesh police’s counter-terrorism unit, Murad had been the “military trainer” of the “Neo JMB”.
A brief profile of Tamim and the security implications of his death
The developments over the last few weeks amply demonstrated Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government’s commitment to its “zero-tolerance” policy towards violent religious extremism and terrorism. Bangladesh’s intelligence and anti-terrorism agencies successfully tracked down and cornered the kingpin of the Gulshan carnage Tamim and two of his accomplices in a Narayanganj locality. Police believe that the Islamist militants carried out most of the recent attacks under Tamim’s leadership. He led the “Neo JMB” that emerged following the JMB split. Intelligence inputs indicated that 30 year-old Tamim had been in the country since 2013 when he was reported missing from Canada. Investigations uncovered that he had recruited and trained the five Gulshan restaurant attackers. International reports described Tamim as the coordinator of IS’ Bangladesh chapter.
The death of Tamim is a serious setback for the jihadi outfit “Neo JMB” of which he was the chief. The external linkages of the “Neo JMB” are much stronger than the other radical Islamist groups active in Bangladesh and the death of Tamim has wider security implications. While some of Bangladesh’s security experts reasoned that the jihadists are now likely to change their operational tactics and may even maintain low profile for some time, others did not completely rule out the possibility of organising more audacious attacks by the “Neo JMB” to prove its existence.
It is too early to conclude that all the jihadi modules, including “Neo JMB” operating in Bangladesh have been dismantled in the recent crackdown. Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan sounded more realistic when he noted after the Narayanganj raid that the Tamim chapter of militancy ended with his death. Religious extremism and terrorism in Bangladesh has many facets. Studies conducted by Bangladeshi scholars have pointed out that there exist more than 100 Islamist parties and extremist organisations in the country. Only a few of such organisations have been banned so far but even those continue to operate under different names. In the face of continuous crackdown, the Bangladeshi radical Islamists regroup themselves and float new outfits. One of the reasons attributed for this has been the free flow of funds into the hands of religious extremists from multiple sources.
Role of expatriates in the proliferation of jihadi activities
Terror financing by the Bangladeshi expatriates is one such area that remains a matter of concern for the country. In a significant development on August 31, a Singapore court jailed two Bangladeshi workers for terror financing. They were charged with contributing money for attacks in Bangladesh. Earlier, in the second week of July, a Singapore court convicted four Bangladeshi workers for funding terror attacks back home under the banner of Islamic State in Bangladesh. The prosecution observed that their aim was to establish an Islamic state in Bangladesh by overthrowing the current secular-democratic dispensation and make the country a part of so-called Caliphate of the IS.
The Bangladesh government is worried about the country’s more than 2 million expatriates working in Gulf and Arab nations who are highly vulnerable to radicalisation. Many Bangladeshi youths living around the war zones of West Asia had been attracted towards the jihadi ideologies and programmes of the transnational groups like al Quida and IS. The terrorist attacks in Bangladesh these days have become more lethal and sophisticated with the incorporation of expatriates among the jihadi ranks who had been indoctrinated and trained by members of al Quida and IS. The expatriates’ exposure to radical ideologies such as Wahabism and Salafism in the Arab world has brought a qualitative change in their approach, life style and operational strategy. As a result, Bangladesh has been witnessing IS-style terror operations in the recent months.
United States-Bangladesh counter-terrorism and security cooperation
The AL government is fully aware that terrorism, which has become a regional and global phenomenon, can not be fought only at the domestic level. Following the Gulshan attack, the government had sought cooperation from Bangladesh’s close allies especially United State and India in sharing intelligence to prevent terror attacks in future. Amid international concerns over rising Islamist violence in Bangladesh after a series of attacks targeting secularists, rights activists, liberal intellectuals, foreigners and members of Muslim minority sects and religious minority groups, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Dhaka on August 29 to further strengthen counter-terrorism and security cooperation with the South Asian country.
Highlighting the transnational threat posed by terrorism, Kerry urged the Bangladeshi leaders to step up efforts to fight extremist violence and come to terms with the nexus between the local and international militants. During his talks with the leaders of Bangladesh, Kerry made it clear that the IS elements are “connected to some degree” with the local jihadists. Kerry’s assertion assumes significance as the AL government has persistently denied the organisational presence of transnational groups in the country and blamed the home-grown militants for the recent killings.
During the bilateral talks in Dhaka, the US assured Bangladesh of extending all cooperation to face possible challenges in safeguarding democracy and combating violent extremism. The US secretary stressed on information sharing and constant communication between the two sides. Dhaka and Washington agreed to enhance cooperation between the intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the two countries. The US has been actively engaged with Bangladesh over the recent years in streamlining the South Asian country’s counter-terrorism structure.
India-Bangladesh security ties
The Bangladesh government also underscored the need for expanding security cooperation with regional ally India in the aftermath of the Dhaka terror attack. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan paid a two-day visit to New Delhi on July 27-28 and discussed ways to boost counter-terrorism and security cooperation between the two neighbouring countries with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh. Earlier on July 20, Bangladesh Information Minister Hasanul Huq Inu held a meeting with Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka Harsh Vardhan Shringla and sought strong cooperation from New Delhi in fighting terrorism. Shringla reaffirmed that India as a neighbour fully supported the steps taken by Bangladesh not only to maintain law and order but also to reach out to the people in its fight against terrorism.
In the face of the recent terror attacks, New Delhi reportedly renewed its offer to Dhaka for a comprehensive framework agreement to broaden bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation, including sharing of intelligence inputs and training of neighbouring country’s security personnel in India. During a meeting between the home secretaries of the two governments in early 2015, India first proposed to sign the pact with Bangladesh. The growing linkages between the IS and Bangladeshi jihadi outfits especially “Neo JMB” has been a major security concern for India. Immediately after the deadly terror attack in Dhaka, the Indian intelligence agencies apprehended that the IS might be planning to target India. It was feared that the IS could launch terror attacks in India from its bases in Bangladesh.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe into the October 2014 Burdwan blast unearthed that Bangladesh-based JMB had established terror modules in bordering Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. The interrogation of JMB operatives apprehended from Assam and other parts of the country revealed that the juhadi outfit had been recruiting local youths and imparting arms training to them. Mohammad Masiuddin alias Abu Musa, a key IS operative arrested in India some weeks back, had told his interrogators that the recent militant attacks in Bangladesh, including the barbaric killing of Rajshahi University professor Rezaul Karim Sidiqque was executed by senior JMB leader Suleiman.
The Bangladesh-based JMB leader also asked Abu Musa to carry out “lone-wolf” attacks on foreigners in India. Fearing reprisals from Bangladesh’s security forces, Suleiman fled to Kolkata immediately after killing the professor. Abu Musa’s revelations vindicated the Bangladesh government’s position that some of the IS handlers linked to the “Neo JMB” had been using India as a hideout. Musa’s interrogation also revealed that West Bengal was used by JMB militants as a sanctuary whenever the AL government intensified counter-terrorism operations in Bangladesh. Reports suggest that a team of Bangladesh’s elite anti-crime and terrorism agency Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) visited Kolkata in the second week of August to question Musa further on his claims.
The political leaders of India and Bangladesh reiterated several times that cross-border terrorism poses a common threat to both the countries and pledged to fight the menace jointly by broadening security cooperation. New Delhi and Dhaka need to act together as the militants often forge alliance to subvert the friendly relations between the two neighbouring countries. Bangladesh is expected to enhance security cooperation at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels to counter the jihadi threats in the coming days.