Bangladesh had perhaps forgotten the miasma of fear introduced by JMB over a decade ago, until the vicious July 2016 attack on Holey Artisan Bakery in one of the most secure areas of Dhaka. In the aftermath of the bloodbath, militancy became the number one priority for law enforcement agencies. Although there were quite a number of operations in 2016, the frequency and scale of the raids in 2017 showed how grimly determined the government was to exterminate the threat.
The home minister and inspector general of Bangladesh Police have both asserted on various occasions that the government has a zero tolerance policy towards militancy. The severity of the threat has seen the myriad branches of law enforcement work together, exchange information, and conduct joint operations.
In 2017, the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crimes (CTTC) unit of the police and Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) carried out a total of 17 raids on militant hideouts. The raids saw 47 militants dead, most casualties of their suicide bombs, the rest shot by the police.
The series of blows against the militant groups may appear to be an epitaph for New JMB and its associates, but it also raises major questions.
Could not a single “mastermind” of the major attacks be captured alive? The arrested members of New JMB are low-level members with little involvement in planning and organizing. The dissemination of propaganda, the source of funding, the methodology in recruitment and execution which were known only to the leaders, could have proven invaluable in understanding the militant mind and how it has appealed to so many.
The CTTC says the two major militant groups operating are New JMB and Ansar al-Islam. The former has been decapitated with nearly all its leadership dead, the latter has had a number of leaders arrested. The only big fish who has not been found yet is Major Zia, Ansar al Islam’s chief.
CTTC Chief Monirul Islam noted that militant elements will always exist, but it can be mitigated. He pointed at the geopolitical factors which contribute to the growth and eventual stagnation. Many militant groups allegedly have direct or indirect links to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. This year has also seen the Islamic State lose all their holdings in Syria and Iraq. The weakening of international inspirations or patrons has reflected in the performance of the domestic militant groups.
In January, one of New JMB’s top leaders, Nurul Islam Marjan was shot dead by the CTTC in Mohammmadpur. Things quieted down for some time afterwards, at least until March.
The events of March 2017 can be summed up as a month of militancy madness. There were prolonged police operations, attempts to jailbreak the notorious Mufti Hannan on his way back to prison, suicide attacks on police outposts in Dhaka, and numerous raids and encounters between militants and officers of the law.
There were three major operations in Sitakunda, Sylhet, and Moulvibazar including a dramatic hostage rescue by paratroopers. The operation in Sylhet also saw the death of RAB’s intelligence director, the highest-ranking officer to have died in the course of the actions against militancy.
In far too many cases, the militants chose to blow themselves up in last-ditch efforts than surrender. Families often blew themselves up together, including children, and even infants.
An attack on a police check-post outside Hazrat Shahjalal Int’l Airport was claimed by the Islamic State, but refuted by the police, who maintained these operations were being carried out by domestic outfits.
On August 15, a militant planning to attack a rally of mourners for the Father of the Nation found himself besieged in his hotel room in Pathapath. The action took place right across the street from the Dhaka Tribune office, culminating in yet another suicide explosion which killed the misguided young man.
The government has nonetheless continued its anti-militancy campaign and encouraging rehabilitation of those who were recruited. But it has been over a year since Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal pledged that militants who surrendered would be rehabilitated. But there are still no plans for rehabilitation, despite the CTTC chief’s insistence on proceeding with one right away.
Meanwhile, arrested militants are allegedly keeping in touch with their contacts outside prison via their lawyers and illegally smuggled mobile phones.