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Is Bangladesh still under militancy threat?

  • Published at 02:00 am July 2nd, 2018
Holey Artisan Cafe and Bakery
File photo the Holey Artisan Bakery, where a group of militants carried out a barbaric attack on the night of July 1, 2016, at Gulshan, Dhaka Dhaka Tribune

Two years on, law enforcement officials say the militant groups have mostly been neutralized.

The July 1, 2016 terror attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery, an upscale cafe in Gulshan, Dhaka, was a wake-up call not just for Bangladesh's law enforcement agencies, but the entire nation. 

Since the attack, law enforcement agencies have conducted a rigorous anti-militancy campaign around the country to curb the growing risks of militant movements, including raids and public awareness programs. 

Two years on, law enforcement officials say the militant groups have mostly been neutralized. 

But security and militancy experts and analysts believe that militancy in Bangladesh is not yet fully under control. 

Cases in point are the March 3 attack on prominent writer and academic Dr Muhammad Zafar Iqbal in Sylhet, and the June 11 attack on publisher and writer Shahzahan Bachchu, 60, who was shot to death in the Sirajdikhan upazila, Munshiganj. Police said both attacks had been carried out by militants. 

However, Benazir Ahmed, director general of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), said the attacks in Sylhet and Munshiganj were isolated incidents and conducted by local groups of extremists. 

“We are trying to bring all such groups under our surveillance, but we may have missed a few,” he told the Dhaka Tribune. 

The current status of militancy

Several sources in the government and police said the risk of militant operatives – fugitives who either have been in hiding since the crackdown began, or who went into hiding after obtaining bail – regrouping and planning more subversive acts remains. 

Arresting these fugitives is a major challenge for the law enforcement agencies right now, the experts said. 

Since the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery, law enforcement agencies have conducted over 200 anti-militant small and large scale raids, where at least 87 people have been killed and more than 700 arrested. The deceased include prominent militant leaders, some of whom were directly involved with the Holey Artisan attack, according to the law enforcement sources. 

Of the anti-militant raids, RAB alone conducted 156, in which at least 21 people were killed and 486 arrested. 

“We have come this far in two years, but it is still not the time to give ourselves a pat on the back. We should put more effort into making sure that no one else gets radicalized, and continue de-radicalization, counselling and rehabilitation of those who have already strayed,” said the RAB chief.

 “Militants are always trying to reorganize. We have to stay alert so that they cannot become a threat again,” said Additional Commissioner Monirul Islam of the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crimes (CTTC) unit of police. 

Asked about the current status of the new faction of Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (New JMB) and Ansar al-Islam, militant groups affiliated to global terrorist groups Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, respectively, Monirul said: “Many leaders of these organizations were killed during the anti-militant operations. The younger members are now trying to recruit new members and arrange for funds. We are aware of what they are doing and working to thwart their plans,” he told the Dhaka Tribune. 

Sources said militants have now resorted to mugging and robbery to collect funds for their organizations, according to two letters written by operatives to their superior authorities that were recovered by police when they arrested three JMB Rajshahi Zone leaders in Bogra on March 19.

What are the risks now?

Sources in the Ministry of Home Affairs said intelligence units learnt in May about possible plans to launch attacks on police, which they conveyed to Police Headquarters. Since then, police stations across the country have been advised to remain alert. 

However, law enforcement high-ups said there is no specific threat of militant attacks in the country, even though they are trying to regroup.

Intelligence sources said Salahuddin alias Salehin and Zahidul Islam alias Boma Mizan, two of the three JMB members who escaped by breaking out of a police van in Mymensingh in 2014, are currently hiding in India and running the original faction of JMB.

Meanwhile, New JMB Mamunur Rashid Ripon and Shariful Islam Khaled, who were involved in the Holey Artisan attack, are also likely to be hiding in India and working to re-organize New JMB, according to police. 

“Our operations are in progress,” said Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia. “Containing militancy is a priority, even if some of our work may not be visible to people. These things take time.” 

Nur Khan Liton, former executive director of rights advocacy organization Ain O Salish Kendra, said: “Despite repeated assurances by law enforcement agencies that they have broken the militants' backs, in the past we have seen that small militant attacks are usually followed by a big incident like the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery.

“You cannot just fight this menace with law enforcement. It's an ideological fight and until we can start that, we can never say that we are out of risk,” he added.