The leadership structure of Ansar al-Islam, al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent's local proxy, remains hazy as AQIS Wednesday claimed its Bangladesh unit chief died in a suicide operation in Afghanistan.
The Bangladesh-born jihadist, identified as Tariq alias Sohel, was killed in a battle in Kandahar, according to a statement issued by AQIS chief Asim Umar.
The original audio message titled “Verily, the help of Allah is near” was released in different formats on Telegram early Wednesday. It does not mention the date of the incident when Sohel carried out the suicide attack.
“Our beloved brother who made hijrah to Waziristan, after bidding farewell to the sparkles of Dhaka, Tariq Bhai (Sohel), head of Bangladesh Affairs, passed away irrigating the desert of Qandahar [Kandahar] in hopes that the spring of Islamic system [of governance] shall come back to the land of Bangladesh,” Asim Umar said.
Al-Qaeda supremo Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a separate statement Tuesday.
Sohel’s aides who had “embraced martyrdom” with him were Qari Abdul Aziz alias Abdul Halim, Yaqub alias Saddam Hossain, Asadullah alias Nazimuddin Maimoon, Abu Ibrahim alias Saiful Islam Hasan and Abu Bakr alias Anuj Hasib, the statement said.
The Dhaka Tribune could not independently verify their identities.
News of Sohel’s death was first aired in a video released by al-Qaeda’s As-Sahab Media last month, as mentioned by Ansar al-Islam members in the Dawahilallah online forum.
Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil told the Dhaka Tribune he believed Sohel was the handler of Bangladeshi affairs in Afghanistan, not the Bangladesh chief of AQIS. He said it was likely that the others killed during the same operation were also Bangladeshis.
Ashiqur Rahman Sulaiman, who also supported Hefazat-e-Islam, was the first Bangladeshi to have been killed in Afghanistan fighting for al-Qaeda in recent years. An al-Qaeda video from March 2015 described him as a martyr.
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“Sohel and his companions were all members of the Bangladeshi markaz in Afghanistan,” Tasneem told the Dhaka Tribune Wednesday.
AQIS was formed in late 2014 with the declared intention of waging jihad in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is headquartered in Pakistan.
[caption id="attachment_60110" align="alignleft" width="285"] Jasim Uddin Rahmani
Ansarullah Bangla Team, which started targeted killings of war crimes trial campaigners and secularists in 2013, was declared banned in 2015 after AQIS claimed responsibilities for several murders in Bangladesh. It is now known as Ansar al-Islam.
Since January 2013, the group has killed 11 activists and injured four others in 13 attacks. The last operation killed two LGBT rights activists in Dhaka on April 25, 2016.
Its members are now believed to be working in concert with Rohingya militants along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border to wage jihad in Rakhine State.
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Several Bangladeshi Islamist militant leaders and their outfits have had longstanding relations with al-Qaeda and its leaders. They travelled to Afghanistan via Pakistan in the 1980s to fight against the Soviet army, visited Taliban militant camps and also met then al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Most are believed to have been madrasa students and teachers.
Upon their return, they formed the Bangladesh wing of Pakistan-based militant group Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami (Huji).
In 2009, a small group of men – linked to JMB and other militant groups – went to Yemen and met Anwar al-Awlaki to declare their allegiance to him. Terrorism experts and detectives say Ansarullah was formed following that meeting.
Maj (dismissed) Syed Ziaul Haque alias Zia is the only known top-ranking leader of Ansar al-Islam. He is believed to be the chief of the outfit's operational wing.
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The home minister last year claimed that Zia was under surveillance but had not yet been arrested.
Mufti Jasim Uddin Rahmani, believed to be the founder of Ansarullah who considered both al-Qaeda leader bin Laden and Taliban leader Molla Omar as his emirs, and supported the activities of Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat, has been in jail since August 2013.
His five-year jail term for instigating the murder of secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in the midst of Shahbagh movement in February 15, 2013 was upheld by the High Court on April 2 this year. He has also made confessional statement in Oyasiqur Babu murder case.
Even though it is unclear who succeeded him, sources suggest that the group is now led by Tamim al-Adnani, a name believed to be an alias.
Details about Adnani and his whereabouts could not be known. But unconfirmed sources say he is now living in Malaysia. His YouTube channel regularly publishes provocative videos.
[caption id="attachment_12147" align="alignleft" width="283"] Maj (dismissed) Zia
Detectives claim that they have got two of the five Shariah Board members of Ansarullah in custody. The three absconding members, including Maj (sacked) Zia, are believed to be behind the outfit’s activities, decisions, and the compilation a kill-list, according to the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit.
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Members of the group have been carrying out energetic online campaigns to recruit future jihadists. The extent of its campaigns increased recently after they extended support to Harakah al-Yakin or Faith Movement, a Rohingya militant group that attacked three Myanmar border outposts on October 9 last year, an attack the group described as armed jihad.
In a public statement issued on December 15, AQIS urged Muslim youths of Bangladesh to join the fight to avenge the persecution of the Rohingyas.
The group also supports Hefazat-e-Islam's 13-point movement, which includes the formulation of a blasphemy law and demands the removal of statues across Bangladesh.
It uses the May 5, 2013 Motijheel demonstration by Hefazat members as a symbol of mobilisation to inspire extremists.