A Year of Bangladesh’s War on Terror

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A Year of Bangladesh’s War on Terror

A year after the Dhaka bakery bloodbath, counterterrorism remains deeply political.

A Year of Bangladesh’s War on Terror

Crime Scene Unit works on the spot where police shot dead a suspected militant who tried to enter a security checkpost on a motorcycle armed with explosives in Khilgaon, outskirt of Dhaka, Bangladesh (March 18, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

On July 1, 2016, Bangladesh saw a bloodbath at the Holey Artisan Bakery, a ritzy eatery a stone’s throw away from the American embassy inside the heavily fortified diplomatic enclave of the country’s capital Dhaka.

The organization that claimed the attack has many names: Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham (Daesh), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Islamic State (IS). The nomenclature depends mostly on who’s talking, but the names are usually used interchangeably. The Bangladeshi government however, refuses to use any of the above and instead called the attackers neo-JMB, referring to the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh.

“What is in a name?” one might wonder. A terrorist organization by any other name would kill equally. But the year gone by since the attacks and the path down which Bangladeshi politics has gone, highlights the complex politics that lie behind what one calls the enemy.

“No Islamic State in Bangladesh”

Despite widespread acts of violence by Islamic extremists, officially Bangladesh had always denied the presence of international jihadist forces inside their borders.

“There’s no Islamic State in Bangladesh,” Bangladeshi Prime Minister and Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina had declared as recently as February 2016.

“We know from Syria that there is no common [ideological] ground for Islamic State and al-Qaeda,” Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam, had said in the face of rising international concerns during the infamous blogger assassinations.

“But the funny thing is that in some instances both have claimed responsibility [for attacks] here [in Bangladesh],” he continued, and labeled the killings as being done by internal elements.

The Holey Artisan Bakery attack made this stubborn denial a very difficult line to keep up.

Even before the smoke had cleared, speaking through their news agency Amaq, the Islamic State’s emir for the Bengal region Shaykh Abu Ibrahim Al Hanif (aka Tamim Chowdhury), hailed the dead militants as fallen comrades. Images released on the internet showed the attackers Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz, Andaleeb Ahmed, Meer Saameh Mubasheer, Khairul Islam Payel, and Raiyan Minhaj – all young men in their 20s – posing with the black flag of the Islamic State.

Reports in the local press confirmed the young men as having been “missing” for a while — buttressing speculations of them having received training during the months leading up to the Holey Artisan attack.

In fact, barely two months before the attack, Chowdhury had openly laid his future plans out in the 14th edition of the Dabiq — the Islamic State’s online magazine at the time.

“Bengal is an important region for the caliphate [Islamic empire] and the global jihad due to its strategic geographic position,” he’d said. “Bengal is located on the eastern side of India, whereas Wilāyat Khurāsān [the Af-Pak region] is located on its western side. Thus, having a strong jihad base in Bengal will facilitate performing guerrilla attacks inside India simultaneously from both sides and facilitate creating a condition of tawahhush [fear and chaos] in India along with the help of the existing local mujahideen there.”

“Holey Artisan’s only the beginning,” Chowdhury boasted in his closing statements, and promised more violence “soon.”

Sure enough, on July 7, 2016, just five days from the bakery attack, a group of militants attacked an Eid congregation in Sholakia, 60 miles northeast of Dhaka city.

A ‘New Chapter’ for Terror in Bangladesh

“Holey was a totally new phenomenon – a new chapter for us in law enforcement,” Deputy Commissioner Mohibul Islam, the lead investigator of the Holey Artisan and Sholakia cases, told me. Our conversation was the first time he’d agreed to speak with a journalist.

Having started his career in the detective branch of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, the soft spoken and staid officer had been shifted in April 2016 to the newly formed anti-terror unit called the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit as chief of counter-intelligence.

“There has been a general uptick in violence ever since the war crimes trials started in 2013,” the detective continued. “The rioting, executions of freethinkers and bloggers, and anti-minority violence etc. And at first we thought the new episodes were all a part of that series. But from 2014, we began seeing things that didn’t quite fit in. The tactics, the motivations, communications, recruitment, equipment — everything seemed different. We suspected that a new organization had joined the scene but couldn’t put our finger on it. Holey did that for us.”

An attack on a police checkpoint in Ashulia had left one constable dead and another with severe stab wounds. An assistant inspector had been shot dead in Gabtoli. A suicide bomber had tried to blow himself up in the headquarters of the Rapid Action Battalion.

These episodes had happened shortly before the Holey Artisan attack. And all of them had hinted at something new. Unlike the violence in the past, these militants weren’t just targeting civilians. They were trying to engage the state.

The weapons were changing too.

The freethinkers, bloggers, and missionaries had all been killed with knives and machetes and other easy to procure weapons. But the attack on Holey Artisan saw grenades and guns, and also brought back IEDs  (improvised explosive devices) after a long time. Instead of using regular text messages and phone calls, the new bunch used encrypted communication.

The approach toward killing had changed as well. Where previously attackers would ambush targets and run away, the new ones stayed their ground and died in combat.

“They came ready to die,” Mastaan*, a cook at the Holey Artisan said to me. “They broke their Ramadan fast after sundown – cooking themselves meals in the kitchen with the help of one of our colleagues. When eating they’d said to him: ‘The next meal will be in heaven — see you there.’”

Barely five months after the Holey Artisan attack, in December 2016, Bangladesh saw its first women suicide bombers.

Acting on a tip off, the anti-terror unit raided an apartment building in the Ashkona neighborhood in Dhaka’s Uttara sector. At around 12:20 pm local time, the police surrounded the building and demanded that the occupants surrender. According to other residents of the building, the police assured the militants over a megaphone that if they surrendered, they’d be given legal recourse and no physical harm would be done to them.

“Jebunnahar, please come out, I want to see you alive,” one old woman wept over the police megaphone. She was the mother of a militant holed up inside.

Clad in a burqa, Jebunnahar did come out – with her seven-year-old daughter in tow. But instead of surrendering, she blew herself up chanting: “We will go to heaven!”

In the same raid, a 15-year-old boy laid his life down too.

Taken together, the attacks in the second half of 2016 pointed to a whole new level of indoctrination. Where Islamists of the past had killed in the name of religion, the new breed was willing to die for it.

Another indicator of change was the socioeconomic backgrounds of the new terrorists – something that had taken Bangladesh by surprise.

Unlike the fanatics of past decades, who had modeled themselves after the Taliban of Afghanistan, the Holey Artisan attackers weren’t schooled in madrassas imparting religious education. Instead, similar to iconic Islamic State militants like Muhammad Jassim Abdulkarim Olayan al-Dhafiri (aka Jihadi John) and or Siddhartha Dhar (aka Abu Rumaysah al-Britani), these young men hailed from well-to-do families and had access to expensive English language higher education.

“I can’t, for the life of me, imagine Nibras as a radical militant. I mean, let alone being radical, he wasn’t even religious. He was such a cool dude — a playboy — a real ladies’ man,” Shaukat, an acquaintance of Nibras Islam, told me sitting in a café two blocks from the Holey Artisan’s old location. Nibras was the leader of the hostage operation.

“I mean he had a poster of Ozzy Osbourne in his room, for fuck’s sake!” Amin, another acquaintance, added.

Shaukat and Amin*, both Dhaka based musicians, knew Nibras on account of him frequenting the close-knit rock band scene of the city.

Bangladesh’s War on Terror

Words notwithstanding, the Bangladesh government’s actions spoke volumes about how seriously they took the Islamic State’s threat. Simply put, Holey Artisan was Bangladesh’s version of 9/11 and much of what’s transpired in the last year has been its own version of the War on Terror and all that it entails for democratic politics.

For example, in the wake of the Holey Artisan attack, the government encouraged the massive arming of civilian police, even giving them legal carte blanche to kill without due process.

“The need for a professional and unbiased police unit has been around for a long time now,” an official of the counterterror unit said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Holey Artisan Bakery attack just catalyzed the process.”

With just 96 police personnel per hundred thousand citizens, Bangladesh ranks among the ten countries with the smallest police presence in the world. The feeble force handles everything from criminal investigation to human trafficking, the narcotic trade, traffic, and industrial and VIP security. Moreover, because of the centralized nature of the Bangladesh police, the deployment of personnel is lopsided – focusing on a handful of major cities like Dhaka, Chittagong, and Sylhet and leaving the vast countryside with little or no law enforcement.

In addition to this, corruption and political bias runs deep within the ranks — something highlighted during the blogger killings of 2015.

So for all practical purposes, the Rapid Action Battalion has been Bangladesh’s primary counterterror unit. The battalion, formed in 2004, is an autonomous paramilitary unit made of officers from the army, navy, air force, and civilian police and was responsible for crushing the old Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, Harkat-ul Jihad Islami, and a host of other outfits.

The efficacy of the Rapid Action Battalion notwithstanding, Sheikh Hasina was wary of arming them any more than they already were. The battalion was a part of the military, an establishment that had on multiple occasions usurped civilian power and put the country under martial law — and even more importantly, assassinated her father and founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

What the government needed was a unit of the civilian police that was under the control of the civilian government. And that’s where the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit, or CTTC for short, came in handy.

The unit was formed as a part of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police in 2014 to tackle increasing cyber crime, fight online fraud, and track illegal money coming into the country. But it had remained largely on paper. After the Holey Artisan attack, the government pulled out all stops and put the arming of the anti-terror unit on an absolute fast track.

Indian agencies and the FBI supplied forensic equipment and training on cyber investigations and surveillance. And a separate budget was opened up, resulting in the team going from under a dozen officers to a battalion of over 600 armed men in a matter of months.

To avoid political biases, combatants were drawn exclusively from fresh recruits between 19 and 26 years old and relatively young officers from the Dhaka Metropolitan Police were put in charge. Separate teams for bomb disposal, SWAT, cyber, and special operations were raised and joined under a military style unified command.

Bypassing the infamously tardy bureaucracy, the cabinet of ministers issued an executive order that gave the unit autonomy from the main police establishment and allowed the anti-terror unit to operate all over the country without seeking permission from local authorities.

As of today, it reports directly to the prime minister’s office and works autonomously outside the formal structure of the Bangladeshi police. And ever since the Holey Artisan attack, the unit has become the face of the anti-terror operations and has carried out raids in far out places like Mirpur, Narayanganj, and Azimpur.

Operation Storm 26 – one such raid in Kalyanpur that took place based on intelligence from the Eid attack in Sholakia – brought to the fore the curios debate about what to call the terrorists.

What’s in a Name?

Of the nine people holed up in the house, eight were killed and later identified using Bangladesh’s biometric database, the National Identification Cards System. One, Rakibul Hassan, aka Reagan, survived with severe bullet injuries.

At the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital, where Reagan was treated, journalists of the news website BDNews24 recorded conversations between him and the police and leaked them.

Reagan was heard telling the police that he had been with the group for over ten months and they were all set to travel to Syria – the place where the real Islamic State was headquartered and where mastermind Tamim Chowdhury, aka the emir of Bengal, had traveled to build his official connections to the global entity.

Yet, post-Operation Storm 26, Bangladesh’s top cop, inspector general AKM Shahidul Hoque, personally addressed the press and said: “We are primarily suspecting that the militants are members of the banned outfit Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh and they had no link to IS members.”

Headed by Siddique-ul Islam aka Bangla Bhai (big brother of Bengal), the original Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh was an al-Qaeda affiliate that operated between 2001 and 2005. Following an operation by the RAB, the top leadership was captured and sent to the gallows, crushing the outfit.

Yet the Bangladeshi government insists on calling the terrorists of today neo-JMB. Clearly in naming the new terrorists neo-JMB, the Bangladesh government had found an apparatus to deal with the renewed emergence of Islamic terrorism while denying its global links.

To be fair, there was room to doubt the claims of the Holey Artisan attackers or the later ones being linked to Islamic State.

For one, both manpower and equipment were of extremely poor quality – nothing close to the battle-hardened mercenaries of Syria and Iraq and their firepower. The grenades used in the Holey Artisan attack weren’t military grade and the guns were the kind usually smuggled in from India.

Even in the case of Jebunnahar, the suicide bomber of Ashkona, the bomb vest was so lacking in power and the assassin so untrained that she ended up only killing herself and burning her little daughter.

As for the killing of religious minorities and freethinkers, the sole weapons had been knives and machetes – the kind available to anyone in the open markets of Dhaka.

Also on the political front, it really is difficult to demarcate where internal attacks end and where global or international jihad starts. And there is more than a grain of truth to saying that the use of terror as a political “ism” is Bangladesh’s internal problem.

When Politics Meets Violence

Wanton violence has been an indivisible part of Bangladeshi partisan politics and even the most mundane of contests often turn into bloody battlefields. Moreover, inside Bangladeshi polity there’s always been genuine support for the idea of making Bangladesh a theocratic Islamic state and those sections have never shied away from extremism and violence.

Second, the idea of using Bangladesh as a launchpad of attacks against India — as laid out by the now-dead Chowdhury — is an old military doctrine that has been officially backed by the Pakistani military establishment since the 1950s and ’60s. Older Bangladesh-based organizations like the Harkat-ul Jihad Islami have actively worked on those lines, coordinating with Pakistan-based outfits like Lashkar-e Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen.

So if there is any real line between a violent internal Islamist and a jihadist influenced by global movements, then it’s a blurred one lying somewhere in the gray area of mainstream Islamist politics in Bangladesh.

“Where the Jamaat-i-Islami ends and where this or that terrorist organization begins is nothing but an academic debate,” says Sumi Khan. Khan is one of the very rare women crime journalists in Bangladesh and the 2005 recipient of the Guardian Courage in Journalism Award. Much like the blogger Avijit Roy, assailants upset with her work attacked her when she was taking a rickshaw on a crowded street. Even though severely injured, she survived the murderous attack.

“All of these terrorists have come out of the ranks of the Jamaat-i-Islami,” she reasons. “It’s just their age-old duplicity that they actively aid and abet terrorism and when confronted with evidence, they wash their hands off of that member. The BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the current opposition] is no different. They pretend to be all constitutional but then feed off the crimes of the Jamaat.”

But Dr. Maidul Islam, the author of Limits of Islamism: Jamaat-i-Islami in Contemporary India and Bangladesh, disagrees with this view.

“If the Jamaat-i-Islami was itself a terrorist organization, why would Bangla Bhai or anyone else need to move out and form another organization to carry out their work?” he asks. “There is a difference between being Islamist and being a terrorist organization. Banning the Jamaat-i-Islami to tackle terrorism is like taking a sledgehammer to surgery instead of a scalpel.”

According to him, the ban will simply push the majority of the Jamaat-i-Islami underground and make it easier for jihadist groups to recruit in their ranks. It will also cut off the sources that the government had in their ranks.

“This judge-jury-executioner-rolled-into-one approach will create more problems than it will solve” Dr. Ali Riaz said.

Riaz, scholar of South Asian politics and author of God Willing: The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh had been an important voice that supported the setting up of the International Crimes Tribunal. But he has now distanced himself from the anti-terror operations.

Accusing the government of political vendetta, he asks: “Why shoot and not interrogate? Why bypass the judiciary and due process? What is needed is not a police state but a program for de-radicalization.”

“That’s not our job,” intelligence chief Mohibul Islam bluntly said when asked about de-radicalization. “There is only one strategy for terrorism that’s followed the world over – we follow the same one – catch, kill and crush.”

The anti-terror unit’s ever growing list of kills has been true to that strategy.

The ‘Neo-JMB’

“The reason for naming the terrorists neo-JMB and not Islamic State is not a trivial one,” Baki Billah, one of the blogger leaders of the Shahbag Square movement, remarked. Though his Communist Party is a member of the Grand Alliance, he distances himself from the path taken by the government post-2013.

“The name decides who takes action against the organization and thereby who reaps the political fruits of its annihilation,” he explains. “Call it Islamic State and the reins go into the hands of the international community. Naming it neo-JMB makes it home grown and therefore the reins stay in the hands of Sheikh Hasina. And when she keeps saying ‘BNP-Jamaat BNP-Jamaat,’ it builds the ground for effectively annihilating the political opposition in the name of fighting terrorists.”

It’s not just Hasina’s anti-terror operations that have been the cause of political anger building up against her government. She’s brought in sweeping changes to election laws that have forced the opposition to boycott the elections.

For example, as per the Bangladeshi constitution, to ensure free and fair elections, at the end of an elected tenure, the government passes into the hands of the executive, which then runs a non-partisan caretaker government. As a safety measure, the caretaker government isn’t allowed to pass new laws or amend the constitution. It must simply run the day-to-day affairs of the state, conduct the elections and thereafter pass on the reins to the newly elected government.

But after coming to power in 2008, using the Grand Alliance’s absolute majority Hasina changed that rule.

The 15th Constitutional Amendment Bill passed on June 30, 2012 scrapped the need for a caretaker government and gave the election commission the power to conduct elections while the incumbent party remained in power.

This arrangement wasn’t acceptable to the opposition and they boycotted all elections thereafter. Even the Jatiya Party, the second largest party in the Grand Alliance of 2008, parted ways with Hasina and joined the opposition in boycotting the polls of 2014.

“There exists no proper environment for the polls,” said H M Ershad, the founder of Jatiya Party and the former army chief who ruled Bangladesh from 1982 to 1990.

“We will not participate in the upcoming elections, as most opposition parties had decided to stay away,” he had said a day after the last day to file nominations for the 10th general election in 2014. His ministers had resigned from active service a few months prior to that.

“When 150 out of 300 seats in the Jatiyo Sangshad [ the national parliament] are decided unopposed, do you call it an election?” Kanak Sarwar, of Ekushey TV asked. “Only 11 of the 41 registered parties had participated in the elections. This is a bogus democracy!”

Sarwar was later jailed for airing a program considered to be critical of the ruling party.

“You see that?” Sharmee Hossain, a professor at Northwestern University and a prominent liberal voice, asked me, pointing at the traffic island that was the famous Shahbag Square. A huge television screen now stands atop a white concrete structure on the island broadcasting government propaganda.

“This was the square that made the government hear the people’s voice,” she said. “Now with that television mounted up there, the people have to hear the government’s voice. They don’t want another Shahbag to happen.”

Siddharthya Roy is a journalist specializing in politics and global affairs who has reported extensively from South Asia.

*Names have been changed.