Ansar Al Islam is currently one of the two most active militant organisations in Bangladesh. Arresting its top leader, sacked army major Syed Ziaul Haque, has become a big challenge for police.
The militant organisation is trying to regroup under Zia’s leadership. Counter terrorism officials say they believe Ansar Al Islam and Zia will turn out to be a big threat for Bangladesh in near future.
Zia has been on the run ever since his expulsion from the army after the failed 2012 coup. Although initially he was linked with banned Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, he has turned out to be one of the top leaders of Ansarullah Bangla Team. The group has been operating under the name of Ansar Al Islam after Ansarullah was banned.
Most of the members of the group, which follows the ideology of al-Qaeda, are highly educated and have expertise in IT. This is making it difficult for the security forces to nab them.
Police’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit officials say two militant organisations has been very active in Bangladesh in the last several years. Activities of one of them, New JMB, which follows the ideology of Islamic State, has been somewhat reined in.
But on the other hand, security forces say it is difficult to deal with Ansar Al Islam given the way it operates. They have blamed tactics used by Zia, who, according to security forces, is well trained and has more knowledge about new technologies. He is trying to make members of the group more competent.
CTTC ADC Mohammad Saiful Islam said Zia was very cunning and always took calculated steps. He communicated with other members of his organisation or went to hideouts only after ensuring his safety.
Saiful said Zia has created numerous sleeper cells who acted in the ‘cut out’ system. “This is why we do not get much information about other members from the arrested members,” he said. “Ansar Al Islam is trying to regroup using this tactic.”
Police officials said Zia has organised the militant organisation more effectively after joining Ansarullah. Bangladesh Police announced Tk20 lakh bounty forbhim last year while the government banned Zia-led Ansar Al Islam this year.
They said Zia was training his group’s members in guerrilla fighting. Their primary goal is ‘targetted killing’, which the group started four years ago.
Police officials said the group’s main targets are bloggers, atheists, secularists, politicians and media personalities. The militant group may become more violent in future.
The fear is not unfounded. Ansar Al Islam member Abu Siddique Sohel, who admitted to taking part in writer blogger Avijit Roy’s killing, has told the court: “In November 2014, he (Zia) sent me a message and ordered me to complete the basic ‘Dawra’. I went in front of Haji Camp following his order. Abeer received me there and took me to a house in Dakkhinkhan.
“There I took ‘Dawra’ training with Saimon alias Shahriar, Talha, and Habib alias Mashrur. Our trainers were ‘Boro Bhai’ [sacked] Major Zia and Abeer. The subject of training was guerrilla warfare, tactics to rent flats, rules of living, security issues, computer operation and religious teachings.”
A CTTC official, who has been closely monitoring Ansar Al Islam’s activities for a year, said they had received information about the group’s recce in Dhaka’s posh and sensitive areas. But the group is now more focused on collecting members, training, and organising themselves.
Members of the group, arrested recently, have told the law enforcers that the organisation decided on the workplan after security forces became more active following the Gulshan café attack.
The CTTC official said Ansar Al Islam was getting organised in such a way that it is not possible to crush them by arresting its members or sleeper cells. Whenever one sleeper cell is destroyed, more are created.
“Which means, arresting the head or sacked Maj Zia is the main challenge,” the official said. “The sleeper cells will automatically become inactive once the group’s top leaders, including Zia, are arrested.”
If the top leaders are nabbed, the sleeper cells will not get any directives from the above and since they do not know each other, they will not be able to establish contact among themselves, the official explained.
Zia’s training tactics
Arrested members of the group have told police that Zia was the main trainer. The members are trained on guerrilla warfare. They are mainly trained in two categories – collecting intel and taking part in attacks.
The intel group is tasked with collecting detailed information about the target while the second ‘Askari’ group takes part in the killing missions. Intel group members work to provide support during such missions.
Referring to the interrogation of Abu Siddique Sohel and Shaon, two mid-tier leaders of Ansar Al Islam, a CTTC official said the group operated completely differently to that of New JMB.
The members has been asked to follow all general rules when renting a flat, so that their movement did not raise the landlord’s suspicion. As for living in rented flats, the members have been directed to maintain good relations with the landlord. Meeting the landlord at least once a month is compulsory to establish good relations.
Another CTTC official said they were surprised after learning about the tactics Ansar Al Islam followed. During training, the members are told that they cannot stay with another member and they have to stay in mess or houses where other residents are all from normal families.
They have to keep school or college textbooks in bags when going out so that nobody doubts them. They can only exchange information through secret apps or protected texts among themselves.
The CTTC official said the group had forbidden its members to leave their house for ‘hizrat’ for now. The new members have been asked to maintain regular communication with their families so that the family members do not suspect them.
Recently arrested Sohel told police that Zia contacts members of the organisation through secret apps. All members of the militant group have to remain active at a certain time every day on the app.
The group cuts off all communication with someone who fails to log in, assuming that he had been nabbed by law enforcers. Then the intel group looks into what happened. Only after becoming completely sure that everything is okay, the member is contacted again.
Zia, too, does not go anywhere until he is 100% sure of his safety.
This article was first published on Bangla Tribune