Remnants of HujiB still exist but the possibility of the group regaining its past prowess is highly unlikely; Ansar al-Islam is now the biggest threat
A week after the Islamic State (IS) gunmen had stormed Holey Artisan Bakery on July 1, 2016, brutally killing 17 foreigners and several locals, two top leaders of the al-Qaeda-backed Ansar al-Islam sat for an analysis of the organizational and operational capacities of the two ferocious militant groups in Bangladesh at the time.
Identifying themselves as Abdullah Al Bangladeshi and Abu Arabi Al Hind (pseudonyms or organizational names), they explained why ISIS’s shortcut strategy for establishing a caliphate would fail but al-Qaeda’s (AQ) long-term vision to mobilize Muslims around the world to form an Islamic order would be sustained.
Soon an audio clip of their 40-minute discussion spread through the Tawhid Media run by Ansar al-Islam.
“Unlike ISIS, AQ works silently and lets people know only when it deems necessary,” one speaker said, explaining: “Although ISIS was trying to be a competitor of AQ in Bangladesh, the new group lagged behind in terms of organizational strength. AQ will sustain in long-term warfare, not ISIS.”
The other added: “AQ has the ability to carry out an ISIS-style attack at Holey Artisan Bakery, can take over any important building in the country by sending two of our militants, but it will not do that just to show its strength or prove its ability. AQ will wait for the appropriate time for such a high-profile operation.”
Today, Ansar al-Islam, not ISIS, remains the bigger threat for Bangladesh.
Organized under the leadership of sacked army major Syed Ziaul Haque, widely known as Major Zia, Ansar al-Islam may bare its fangs in the future, investigators predict.
Ansar al-Islam holds the ideology held by Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (HujiB) — establishing Islamic rule in Bangladesh through armed struggle, a philosophy nurtured by al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
After the formation of HujiB in 1992 with an objective primarily to empower Rohingyas to stand against the Myanmar army, it later shifted its focus to Bangladesh.
Starting with the assassination attempt on poet Shamsur Rahman at his Shyamoli residence on January 18, 1999, HujiB has carried out many horrific attacks, including the August 21 grenade attacks on an Awami League rally in 2004.
Although the law enforcement agencies every year arrest a few suspected HujiB operatives who were reportedly trying to regroup, it is widely learnt that the possibility of the group regaining its past influence is highly unlikely.
However, there are some other homegrown radical groups which may carry the banner of Jihad on behalf of HujiB, Ansar al-Islam being the one that possesses such organizational ability.
In the five years since the Holey Artisan attack, particularly amid the Covid pandemic, Ansar al-Islam exclusively focused on new recruits, strengthening the group and its operational capacity with combat training to strike again at a suitable time.
Formation, functioning of HujiB
HujiB started functioning secretly in Bangladesh about two years after al-Qaeda was founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden and some other Arab volunteers during the Afghan-Soviet war. That year, a delegation of 10 self-proclaimed ulamas or Islamic scholars from Bangladesh had gone to Afghanistan.
Shafiqur Rahman, one of the war veterans, maintained close contact with Huji leaders for a formal launching of the group’s Bangladesh chapter. However, it is learnt that Maulana Abdur Rahman Faruki, another Afghan war veteran, began clandestine HujiB operations in 1989 but died in a mine explosion in Khorasan on May 10 of the same year.
HujiB formally began its journey on April 30, 1992, when some Afghan war veterans at a press conference at the National Press Club identified themselves as members of Huji Bangladesh. The formation came a week after Afghan Mujahideen had seized Kabul. The Afghan returnees present at the press briefing expressed delight over the victory.
The following day, HujiB members brought out a procession from Baitul Mukarram Mosque, chanting slogans in support of Afghan Mujahideen and the Taliban. For the first four or five years, it was based in the southeastern hilly areas close to Myanmar, apparently with the objective of helping Rohingyas in their resistance to the Myanmar military.
In February 1996, during the political chaos in Bangladesh around the holding of parliamentary elections, 43 HujiB leaders and activists were arrested from a training camp in Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar. They had come there from across the country for Afghan-style combat training. After that, HujiB spread out in the southern and northern parts of the country and shifted its objective from helping Rohingyas to Jihad.
Since HujiB members were experienced in war and had expertise in handling explosives, they thought it would not be hard for them to go ahead with their new mission in Bangladesh.
Beginning of terror attacks
The HujiB leadership took seven years to launch terror attacks in the country.
In January 1999, a group of young HujiB operatives tried to behead Poet Shamsur Rahman, an outspoken opponent against religious fundamentalism, at his Shyamoli residence. He was unharmed but his wife was injured.
Neighbours caught the attackers, who identified themselves as HujiB members.
Barely two months after the assassination attempt on the poet, HujiB carried out its first successful operation in Jessore, blasting powerful bombs at a cultural function of Udichi Shilpi Goshthi, killing 10 people and injuring 100 others in the process.
This is how the Bangladeshis who had travelled to Afghanistan during the 1980s to fight alongside foreign Mujahideen from different countries against the Soviet army brought Jihad to Bangladesh.
HujiB carried out some deadly grenade attacks after the BNP-Jamaat coalition government came to power in 2001, including the killing of former finance minister Shah AMS Kibria and the attack on former British high commissioner in Bangladesh Anwar Choudhury.
But the grenade attack on August 21, 2004 was the deadliest of all. Several grenades were hurled into an Awami League rally at Bangabandhu Avenue in an attempt to assassinate then opposition leader Sheikh Hasina. She escaped with injuries but 24 others were killed.