Revival of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh

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A Bangladeshi police official collects forensic evidence after a small bomb exploded in Dhaka in October 2015. Photo: AFP

 

Many new recruits come from educated and relatively wealthy families

BY IFTEKHARUL BASHAR


 

After a decade of dormancy, Islamist militant groups in Bangladesh are showing signs of revival. Based on recent investigations by Bangladeshi authorities, militants from at least two banned outfits, namely Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), have revived their organisational capabilities and are preparing for attacks in the country. This includes targeted assassinations involving individuals whom they consider apostates or obstacles to establishing an Islamic State in Bangladesh.

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the launch of Al Qaeda’s South Asia chapter, also known as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) have further led to increasing militant activism in Bangladesh.

Since ISIS declared the establishment of the caliphate in June 2014, Bangladesh has witnessed the emergence of pro-ISIS outfits, pledges of allegiances to ISIS by these outfits, and recruitment drives carried out both online and on the ground on behalf of ISIS. This attests to ISIS’ rising influence in Bangladesh.

Furthermore, many members of the existing local militant groups are supporting ISIS and recruiting fighters into the Syrian theatres. In addition, a new militant platform called Jund al-Tawheed wal Khilafah (JTK, otherwise known as the ‘Soldiers of Monotheism and the Caliphate’) in Bangladesh is believed to have recruited a number of Bangladeshi nationals to fight in Syria.

Bangladeshi Islamist groups have formed a new umbrella organisation under the rubric of the ‘International Lions Force of Hindustan.’ The aim of this organisation is to bring militants from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, under its banner.

According to one report, in October 2014, a four-member team of ISIS from Syria visited the southeastern port city of Chittagong and met with the leaders from several local militant groups, including JMB, Huji, Hizb ut -Tahrir, and ABT. Police investigations revealed that the local militant groups were working in concert to establish a state based on Sharia (Islamic law) in Bangladesh by 2020, with the help of ISIS.

The recent pledges of allegiance by Bangladeshi militants to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi are a significant indication of ISIS’ impact in Bangladesh. In August 2014, an English language video entitled ‘Muslims in Bangladesh give bayah to the caliph Ibrahim (Hafizahullah)’ surfaced on YouTube, with five masked individuals declaring their allegiance to ISIS’ leader.

In October 2014, another video surfaced online, featuring the newly-emerged group called Jund al-Tawheed wal Khilafah (JTK). In the video, members of JTK are seen pledging their allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. In the video, the members of the group also stated that they were seeking recruits from Bangladesh and expressed intentions to raise funds for militant activities in South Asia for establishing a new “caliphate” called ‘Hind’. Furthermore, JTK called on all Bangladeshi Muslims to participate in armed jihad, and to contribute financially to the cause. The group also declared that it is making preparations for ‘Ghazwatul Hind’ or the ‘Final Battle of Hind’ in the Indian subcontinent, with an eye to establishing an ‘Islamic State’ encompassing Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Bangladeshi authorities suspect that JTK is the key platform for recruiting Bangladeshi militants bound for the Syrian battlefield.

ISIS RECRUITMENT

ISIS recruits in Bangladesh are mostly drawn from existing local militant groups, comprising returnees of the Anti-Soviet Afghan jihad. While ISIS cells in Bangladesh benefit from ties to their local parent organisations such as JMB and ABT, it is highly likely that they operate with some degree of autonomy. This enables ISIS cells to harness the combined expertise and networks of more than a dozen militant groups, with various levels of capability.

A majority of ISIS’ recruits in Bangladesh are from mainstream educational backgrounds, often coming from educated and relatively wealthy families. Many of ISIS’ newly recruited members are university graduates who are former members of existing militant groups. This reflects the emerging demography of Islamist militants in Bangladesh. It should be noted that prior to 2014, Islamist militants mostly recruited students who were less educated, and in most cases, from more radical madrassas.

Additionally, although only a few eventually make their way to Syria, many Islamist militants continue to stay in Bangladesh and aspire towards establishing ISIS’ version of a caliphate in the country. With an overwhelming youth majority, and with social media applications fast penetrating the country, Bangladesh is witnessing the persistent trend of radicalisation.

Prior to 2014, local Islamist militant groups like the Hizb ut-Tahrir Bangladesh and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) extensively used the internet and social media networks to disseminate propaganda and to encourage individuals to oppose the state, which the militants perceive to be overly secular. ISIS has galvanised this sentiment in their overall propaganda campaign, and has used this in their favour to recruit radicalised individuals under their banner from the predominantly religious perspective of a Muslim ummah (community), which lies at the core of ISIS’ transnational appeal.

Bangladeshi authorities believe that there are ongoing recruitment efforts by ISIS-linked radicals from among the Bangladeshi diaspora communities in Britain. Although there are no accurate figures available, a handful of Bangladeshis – mostly from its diaspora community – have joined ISIS.

For instance, in September 2014, Bangladeshi authorities arrested Samiul Rahman a.k.a Ibn Hamdan, a British citizen of Bangladeshi origin, for allegedly recruiting Bangladeshis to fight in Syria. Hamdan, a Syria returnee himself, was believed to have recruited at least two individuals from Bangladesh to travel to Syria, and was planning to recruit dozens more. His intention was to send the recruits to Syria under the ostensible cover of the Tabligh Jamaat (an Islamic movement widely perceived to be driven by apolitical goals) and even had plans to recruit militants from Myanmar as well.

Based on information received from Hamdan, Bangladeshi authorities arrested Asif Adnan and Fazle Elahi Tanzil for planning to travel to Syria. Asif Adnan and Fazle Elahi Tanzil were members of the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and also had relatively solid connections with the JMB. Also, Asif reportedly introduced Hamdan to the JMB so he could render support to the group by recruiting Bangladeshi fighters to join the JMB and eventually prepare them for jihad in Syria.

Local militants, in collaboration with some ISIS supporters from the Bangladeshi diaspora, are believed to be forming ISIS cells in Bangladesh and are recruiting Bangladeshi fighters for the Syrian theatre. These ISIS cells have a strong presence on social media with which they identify prospective recruits ready to travel to Syria to fight under ISIS’ banner.

AQIS STILL A THREAT

With its brutal and spectacular attacks, ISIS has been able to project itself as a potent transnational terrorist movement among the disparate radical groups and individuals worldwide, and specifically, in Bangladesh. ISIS has evinced itself as capable of upstaging even Al Qaeda and its South Asia wing, AQIS. Nonetheless, AQIS poses a threat that is more deeply entrenched, due to Al Qaeda’s longstanding and extensive regional networks across South Asia. The formal announcement of AQIS’ launch in September 2014 by Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, is believed to be a strategic move by the group to keep its traditional ties relevant in South Asia, particularly at a time when ISIS is gaining traction in the region.

The emergence of AQIS will further regionalise the threat, particularly since the group has explicitly stated its aim to emerge as a common platform for Islamist militant movements in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

At present, AQIS’ competitive edge vis-à-vis ISIS rests on the fact that the group members have a fairly robust local knowledge and networks across the South Asian region. Unlike ISIS, Al Qaeda has had a long history of engagement in South Asia dating back to the 1980s, a period which saw Al Qaeda and South Asian militants fighting together in Afghanistan. While ISIS focuses on holding and expanding territories in Syria and Iraq and recruiting fighters for these theatres, AQIS takes a keen interest in exploiting local grievances in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Since September 2014, Bangladeshi authorities have arrested a significant number of militants from groups linked to Al Qaeda. These include militants from Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkatul Jihad al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) as well as other smaller outfits and cells with suspected ties to the AQIS.

On 15 May 2015, Ansar al Islam Bangladesh, believed to be a new AQIS affiliate outfit in Bangladesh, posted a Bengali message on its Twitter account titled, “Who’s Next?” The message contained a full listing of potential targets. The seven categories include: any male or female academic, actor, blogger, doctor, engineer, judge, politician or writer who insults the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and distorts Islam and its rulings. On 27 May 2015, the group provided an English translation for the message. In the message, “Ansar al Islam Bangladesh” emphasised that it does not have an issue with atheist bloggers or bloggers from religions other than Islam, but only those bloggers whose postings are insulting to the Prophet.

While the JMB and HuJI-B maintain a low profile in respect of their relationships with AQIS, the ABT has openly supported AQIS through its jihadist websites and e-books. In May 2015, the Bangladesh government banned ABT. The ABT came under the detectives’ scanner about three years ago when the government was cracking down on other extremist groups. ABT’s chief Mufti, Jashimuddin Rahmani, who was arrested in 2013, is currently being tried for the murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider. Given the compatibilities in their agendas, it is highly likely that the rise of AQIS will embolden JMB and HuJI-B to carry out attacks in the country. JMB and HuJI-B are two key militant groups that have carried out many spectacular operations from 1999 until 2005. JMB reportedly has a suicide bombing squad, and is equipped with the expertise to manufacture Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

Both ISIS and AQIS threaten the security of Bangladesh. Moreover, ISIS’ rising profile among militants in Bangladesh coincides with a generational shift of the local militants. These younger members who have joined the groups are more open to the idea of fighting overseas and may see it as an opportunity to flaunt their bravery, and as a manifestation of their commitment to the cause of the Islamic State. As a group, ISIS has the potential to empower existing Islamist militant movements with the ideology, network capabilities, financing and most importantly, with its brand image.


 

Iftekharul Bashar is an Associate Research Fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This article was first published in RSIS’ Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis.

Sumber: Todayonline, 21 Januari 2016

 

Apa yang terjadi dengan serangan bom Jakarta 14 Januari ternyata telah membangunkan Asia Tenggara akan ancaman terorisme khususnya Singapura. Sebelumnya, antara November dan awal Desember 2015 Singapura telah melakukan pengangkapan 27 radikal Banglades. Sementara di Malaysia tujuh orang yang diduga sebagai anggota kelompok ISIS telah ditangkap pertengahan bulan ini.

Tidak heran kalau harian terkemuka Singapura, the Strait Times, edisi 26 Januari mengangkat beberapa tulisan disamping berita tentang ancaman ini, diantaranya: