By S. Binodkumar Singh
On May 12, 2015, Ananta Bijoy Das (32), a progressive writer, blogger, editor of science fiction magazine Jukti, and an organizer of Gonojagoron Mancha (People’s Resurgence Platform), was hacked to death, using machetes, by four assailants at Subidbazar Bankolapara residential area of Sylhet city, for writing against religious fundamentalism. Within hours of the murder, a Twitterusername “Ansar Bangla 8”, an apparent reference to Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT, Volunteer of Allah Bangla Team), a militant outfit, expressed their delight and claimed responsibility for killing the blogger. The same page, Ansar Bangla 8, later Tweeted: “Al-Qaeda in Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS) is taking responsibility of killing Ananta Bijoy.” AQIS, in another message posted on justpaste.itdeclared: “We want to say to atheist bloggers! We don’t forget and we will not forget others who insult our beloved Prophet Muhammad and Allah. Another file closed! Stay tuned for next target.”
On the same day, Police Headquarters sent a letter to the Home Ministry suggesting a ban on ABT, citing its involvement in multiple attacks on secular bloggers and writers. If banned, ABT would be the sixth such organization to be outlawed for terrorist and anti-state activities in the country. The other five are: Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Shahadat-e Al-Hikma (SAH).
Earlier, on March 30, 2015, another blogger and online activist Oyasiqur Rahman Babu (27) had been hacked to death in broad daylight in Dhaka city for his allegedly atheist views. On April 1, 2015, Detective Branch’s (DB) Joint Commissioner Monirul Islam at a press briefing disclosed “Zikrullah and Ariful, who were caught by locals immediately after the murder, are the active members of radical ABT.” The killers, Zikrullah (22), a student of Hathajari Madrasa in Chittagong District and Ariful Islam (22), a student of Darul Ulum Madrasa in Dhaka city, also confessed to the Police during preliminary interrogation that they had killed Rahman Babu for his writings against Islam.
On February 26, 2015, Bangladesh-born American citizen blogger Avijit Roy (42), the founder of theMukta-mona.com blog, had been hacked to death in Dhaka city. His wife Rafida Ahmed Banna was also injured seriously in the attack. In a video posted on May 2, 2015, on the Jihadist Media Forums of Jihad Intel (presented by the Middle East Forum, which promotes American interests in the Middle East and protects Western values from Middle Eastern threats), AQIS claimed responsibility for Avijit Roy’s murder. On May 4, 2015, however, Detective Branch (DB) Joint Commissioner Monirul Islam asserted, “ABT organized the killing mission”. In fact, ABT had owned up to the attack soon after the Roy killing, declaring, “Anti-Islamic blogger US-Bengali citizen Avijit Roy is assassinated in capital Dhaka due to his crime against Islam.”
In 2013, ABT had issued a list of 84 “atheist bloggers” on the grounds that “All of them are enemy of the Islam (sic).” ABT operatives skilled in information technology were managing fake Facebookpages and using accounts to hunt down “atheists” so that its armed cadres could attack them. Of the 84 atheist bloggers named in the list, nine, have been killed so far (till May 17, 2015). In addition to the three already mentioned, the other six who have been killed include Jagatjyoti Talukder, on March 2, 2014; Mamun Hossain, on January 12, 2014; Ziauddin Zakaria Babu, on December 11, 2013; Arif Hossain Dwip, on April 9, 2013; Ahmed Rajib Haider, on February 15, 2013; and Jafar Munshi, on February 14, 2013.
ABT first hit headlines in Bangladesh with the assassination of anti-Islamist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, an architect and an activist of the Shahbag Movement, which began on February 5, 2013, in Dhaka city, demanding capital punishment for Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leader Abdul Quader Mollah for War Crimes. The movement later spread to other parts of Bangladesh and became known as the Gonojagoron Mancha in Dhaka city. Five students, enrolled at North South University, a private university in Dhaka city, were arrested on March 2, 2013, in connection with the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider. In their confessions, they mentioned ABT’s ‘spiritual leader’ Mufti Jasimuddin Rahmani as the instigator for the ‘blogger’ murder. Later, Police arrested Mufti Rahmani, along with 30 of his followers, while they were holding a meeting at a house in Khajurtola on the outskirts of Barguna Town on August 12, 2013.
Using Ansar al Mujahideen English Forum (AAMEF), an al Qaeda affiliated website, ABT started advocating armed jihad towards the end of 2012. Militants belonging to some other pro-al Qaeda groups, such as JMB and HuJI-B, which had come under extraordinary pressure from authorities and had lost much of their top leadership, started joining ABT in the due course, inspired by Rahmani’s sermons. It is useful to recall that, after assuming power on January 6, 2009, the Sheikh Hasina Government took strong measures against Islamist outfits, primarily the JMB and HuJI-B, considerably weakening these.
ABT’s main base in Dhaka city, Markajul Ulum Islamia, became a rallying point for all Islamist militants, including JMB and HuJI-B cadres, primarily because ABT succeeded in filling up the vacuum created due to the waning prowess of these groups. ABT is now estimated to have over 5,000 militant followers committed to carrying out armed jihad in the country.
ABT is distinguished from better known Islamist extremist groups in Bangladesh by its propaganda and indoctrination capabilities. ABT projects its doctrine of jihad through 117 web pages, includingFacebook and Twitter handles, and various blogs. In addition to its own activities, ABT has been circulating statements and activities of global Islamist networks like al Qaeda through its web media. ABT was, in fact, the first to translate the Bangladesh-related parts of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri’s statements into Bangla, and to upload them on its various social media sites. Utilizing its strong presence in cyberspace, ABT has been able to locate and radicalize elements on the vulnerable fringes of Bangladeshi youth.
The potential for ABT inspired violence is significant. On January 6, 2015, the fugitive ABT cleric Tamim al-Adnani, in an 11-minute video statement released on You Tube, called upon the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the student wing of JeI, the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh, to sever ties with Begum Khaleda Zia, the Chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and instead break jails to free JeI leaders indicted for War Crimes. In a daring operation on April 21, 2015, 10 ABT terrorists robbed a branch of the Bangladesh Commerce Bank Limited (BCBL) in Ashulia District. The incident left eight people dead, including the Bank Manager and one of the robbers, and another 24 injured. On May 5, 2015, one of the suspected robbers, Muhamad Jasim Uddin alias Asad (22) was arrested from Doulatpur town in Manikganj District, and claimed that the motive behind their robbery to fund ABT operations. Bangladesh Taka (BTK) 700,000 was looted in the heist.
Remarkably, on December 16, 2014, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) personnel arrested two ABT cadres along with drone making equipment, from Dhaka city’s Jatrabari area. The next day, Masudur Rahman, Deputy Commissioner of DMP disclosed, “In primary investigation, they confessed that they were making plan to capture photos of key Government infrastructures by the device in order to launch attacks on those.” Further, Sheikh Nazmul Alam, Detective Branch Deputy Commissioner of Police added, on April 3, 2015, that, together with aggressive members of JMB, ABT was planning to create a new outfit, Al-Jamah, to commit ‘silent killings’ using sleeper cells. Detectives learned about the plan to form the new outfit from two ABT cadres arrested on March 30, 2015, in connection with the murder of blogger Oyasiqur Rahman Babu.
ABT is the first terrorist outfit to use sleeper cells in Bangladesh to insulate its top leadership from field operations. Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Abul Kalam Azad, Director (Intelligence) of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), disclosed on April 5, 2015, that as many as 100 ABT sleeper cells were operating across the country, including the capital city Dhaka. The cells, each comprising three to seven people, were tasked to carry out assassinations of “anti-Islamists” across the country.
The emergence of ABT demonstrates the speed with which violent extremists adapt to even to the most extraordinary pressures and changes in the security environment. Despite the country’s extraordinary success against terrorists and Islamist extremists, Bangladesh will need to continue with its efforts to suppress rapidly transforming threats, building greater counterterrorism capabilities to continue with the effective implementation of its zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism. Pakistani terrorist formations and the Inter-Services Intelligence continue to seek opportunities to restore their networks, linkages and influence in Bangladesh, even as global Islamist terrorist formations such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State seek recruits and operational capabilities on the country’s soil. At the same time, a range of international organizations, prominently including HuT, International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), Lajnat-al-Birr-al-Islam (Benevolence International Foundation, BIF) and Al Rajhi Bank are bringing enormous resources into the country to promote Islamist radicalization. New technologies also lend themselves to a discontinuous escalation of the threat. The processes of Islamist entrenchment have been ongoing for decades in Bangladesh, before the Sheikh Hasina Government began to act with determination against the extremists. While leaderships of extant groups have come under pressure, hundreds of thousands who have undergone various degrees of radicalization remain in the country as a potential pool of recruitment for violent mobilization, and in Bangladesh’s unstable political environment, it is difficult to predict what could trigger a new cycle of escalating terrorism. The only defence is constant vigilance and unwavering action to nip every extremist manifestation in the bud.