Bangladesh has seen high profile terrorist attacks in recent years, targeting foreigners, religious minorities and vocal secular voices. Since 2013, a variety of local extremist groups are believed to be responsible for the murders of at least 40 secular writers, activists, members of religious minorities, and foreigners.
Bangladesh watchers believe that the Islamic State or Al Qaeda affiliates were responsible for at least 24 terrorist attacks in the country since September 2015, including Holey Artisan Bakery restaurant attack in Dhaka that left 22 people dead. IS claimed the deadly attack in which the dead included Italian, Japanese, Indian, and U.S. citizens. But the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid remains in denial.
“The terror attacks faced by the country in recent years were conducted by home-grown outfits,” said Bangladesh’s deputy foreign minister Md Shahriar Alam on March 14 at a conference of senior law enforcement officials. He said there was no evidence to support the claim that they (home-grown outfits) had links with the IS or other international militant outfits. “But we need to remain alert as the global terrorist outfits may try to recruit cadres or influence the local outfits, particularly through net based communications,” he said.
Names of Bangladeshi extremists have been popping up in different parts of the world in recent years. Bangladesh is not a major source of foreign fighters. According to Counter Extremism Project, as of October 2015, fewer than 40 Bangladeshis were believed to have joined or attempted to join IS in the Middle East. Instead, Bangladeshi Islamist groups primarily recruit members to engage in local Islamist activity or domestic attacks.
IS and al-Qaeda both claim a presence in the South Asian country, and are believed to be cooperating with local terror groups in order to recruit and carry out domestic attacks. According to Counter Extremism Project, local terror groups operating in Bangladesh include the IS-affiliated Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh , a Bangladeshi terror group founded in 1998, as well as the al-Qaeda affiliated Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), formed in 2007.
Many fear that Bangladeshi society is gradually drifting towards radicalization. The growing influence of Islamic groups was witnessed earlier this year when the country’s education ministry succumbed to demands for changes in the text books by a local radical group Hefazatul-e-Islam. The education ministry made some major changes to the Bengali language textbooks that are taught in the country’s schools and Islamic seminaries. For instance, poems and stories penned by non-Muslim writers have been removed, and the pictures of girls in traditional clothes have been replaced with the ones in Islamic attire.
Even the country’s supreme court has questioned the government’s decision. On March 6, Bangladesh Supreme Court Justices Naima Haider and Abu Taher Mohammad Saifur Rahman in a ruling on a petition, asked the government to explain why the changes made to the curriculum by excluding write-ups of well-known authors should not be declared illegal.
Homegrown militant organizations including New Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (New JMB) are setting up hideouts in the hilly regions of the country. According to Dhaka Tribune, Bangladeshi police are certain of militants presence since discovery of two hideouts in Chittagong. The militants are reportedly regrouping in Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban districts in southeastern Bangladesh. According to Chittagong Range’s Deputy Inspector General Mohammad Shafiqul Islam, New JMB may have a number of dens there.
“New JMB might be planning to attack foreigners who are employed in development projects in Chittagong region. Besides, they had plans to carry out attacks on the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway,” said the DIG.
Dhaka Tribune quoted anonymous police sources claiming that the militants are in possession of large quantities of deadly explosives. “We will undertake combing operations in the region soon,” the official said.
Confrontations with Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies since the deadly Gulshan terrorist attack in Dhaka and capture or death of their top leaders have pushed New JMB away from the capital and its surrounding areas.
The group is now trying to reassert its presence by carrying sabotage across the country, said officials of the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit of Dhaka Metropolitan Police.
Chittagong Superintendent of Police Nur-e-Alam Mina said: “New JMB’s operational leader Moinul Islam alias Musa is staying in Chittagong region at present. The militant outfit is regrouping under his leadership.”
Law enforcement sources told DT that Musa is now organizing members of the outfit in Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari regions. The paper quoted a senior law enforcement official, Rapid Action Battalion 7’s Commanding Officer, Lt Col Miftah Uddin Ahmed as saying that the Muslim population of Chittagong region is generally religious, something the militants have been exploiting. “Misusing religious sentiments, the militants have brainwashed many people here.”
In the last five years, police and other law enforcement agencies have busted at least 23 hideouts of JMB, HujiB, Hizbut Tahrir, Shahid Hamza Brigade and other terrorist groups from the port city, Hathazari, Banshkhali, Sitakunda, Mirsarai, Rangunia, Cox’s Bazar and the three hill districts.
JMB bomb maker Ershad alias Fuad, arrested on March 23, 2015 from Chittagong city’s Akbar Shah area, divulged in interrogation that there were almost 500 JMB members undercover in Chittagong city alone, the paper’s correspondent Tarek Mehmud quoted unnamed sources as saying.
Emdadul Haque, who retired as a Major from Bangladesh’s army and an expert on security in the region, said the trend of militants moving to Chittagong was alarming. “Law enforcement should increase surveillance at the commercial hub of the country,” he said.
Dr Ziaur Rahman, a professor of criminology at Dhaka University, told the Dhaka Tribune: “Chittagong may be targeted for its economical importance and geographical situation but it is not their only choice.
“The militants may have their dens across the country, as evident from their activity.”