This essay is part of a series that explores the threat posed by the rise of ISIS to Asia and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it. Read More ...
On August 9, 2019, a day after Bangladeshi authorities arrested five self-radicalized pro-IS youth in the capital Dhaka, IS’ Amaq news agency uploaded a new video in Bengali that claimed that their fight to establish the Caliphate has not ended. It also urged its Bangladeshi supporters to target the “near enemy,” specifically the political leaders, parliamentarians and members of the security and law enforcement agencies and non-Muslims. On July 23, Bangladeshi authorities had recovered and deactivated some powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted outside two police outposts in Dhaka. A significant quantity of butane gas canisters was found with the handmade IEDs, which were possibly meant for amplifying the effect of the blast. Earlier this year, similar explosives (except butane canisters) were used allegedly by the Neo-Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (Neo-JMB), a pro-IS faction of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a Salafi-Jihadist terrorist group, to target a police outpost and a police vehicle in two different locations within the capital, injuring several police personnel. These attacks came two years after the twin bombings in Sylhet (northeastern region).
These recent developments may appear to be unrelated incidents in a country where the police have been effective so far in breaking the structure of the Islamic State. Notwithstanding the relative success of the police, these recent attacks have been officially claimed by IS through its official media channels. The incidents indicate a revival of the group in Bangladesh, and must be taken seriously as they could be early warnings of a larger attack in the country. Unfortunately, in the past, such early warnings were not understood adequately, resulting in attacks such as on the Holey Artisan Café in Dhaka.
Three Years after the Holey Artisan Café Attack
In July 2019, Bangladesh observed the third anniversary of the IS-claimed attack on the Holey Artisan Cafe in which at least 20 hostages, mostly foreigners, were killed. Two police personnel also died while confronting the attackers. The attack was a significant projection of power by the IS in the country. The counterterrorism operations conducted since the 2016 attack resulted in the neutralization of many IS cells and IED-making units across the country. Some of the operations were highly complex in nature, lasted for a few days, and required the involvement of SWAT as well as Bomb Disposal Units. More recently, there has been a visible police-led community engagement campaign to counter extremist ideologies and raise societal awareness against extremism and terrorism.
As a result, Bangladesh saw a significant decline in terrorist attacks in recent years. However, the current developments indicate that new IS cells are emerging and may possibly be planning further strikes. The developments in Bangladesh are in line with IS ‘growing focus on South Asia, a region with a substantial Sunni Muslim population where Al Qaeda has built an extensive network (since the end of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1989) and which IS appears to be trying to tap into. IS’ traction in Bangladesh should be seen within the bigger picture and latest terrorist developments in the region, such as the declaration of an IS wilayah (province) in India and Pakistan in May, and the Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka in April.
IS’ Current Strategy in Bangladesh
IS' current strategy in Bangladesh is to target the police and promote lone-wolf/wolfpack attacks mostly in the capital. Attacking the police serves three purposes: First, by attacking the police, IS generates publicity and sends the message that they can even target a force of the state they see as apostate. Second, by targeting the police, it aims to demoralize “the enemy” that has been spearheading the fight against the IS in Bangladesh. Third, the attacks are aimed at creating panic and chaos within the population. IS’ followers in Bangladesh believe that the group is fighting a total war — physically, ideologically, and psychologically. The recent investigation by the Bangladeshi authorities of a pro-IS wolfpack arrested in August 2019 sheds light on this emerging trend. According to the investigators, the pro-IS wolfpacks are generally leaderless and have an independent capability to plan operations as opposed to the sleeper cells as in the case of Neo-JMB.
IS’ promotion of lone wolf/wolfpack attacks in Bangladesh emerged from the sixth and most recent issue of the pro-IS Youth of the Caliphate magazine, released on Telegram on March 9, 2019. The magazine featured an article in English by IS operative Abu Muhammad Al-Bengali threatening attacks and urging Muslims to heed the IS call for jihad and to perpetrate attacks by any means against “enemies of Allah” in Bangladesh. The article said: “O brother put your trust in Allah. Throw away all your fears in your heart. Hit Allah’s enemies, if you have a car run over the tawaghit (apostate), kafir (non-Muslims) and their associates where you find them. Or go on with a small knife. Keep an eye on the tawaghit [apostate], their associates, atheists and enemy of Allah. If you get a chance attack severely and send them to the hell. We pray for you that Allah accepts your efforts.”
Additionally, on the At-Tamkin Media telegram channel on March 11, the IS operative ‘Abu Muhammad Al-Bengali’ urged youths living in “Dawlatul Islam of Bangla” to “regroup and communicate with their representative in Bangladesh.” Referring to a number of verses from the Qur’an, he also urged their sympathizers to work in small groups and carry out attacks with cars or knives. The message urged their members and supporters not to be afraid of security agencies, despite the “onslaught of arrests and torture.”
Nothing much is known about Abu Muhammad al Bengali and his position within the group or his whereabouts. Some media reports claim that he is the current leader of IS in Bangladesh. The last known leader, a Bangladeshi-born Canadian named Tamim Chowdhury, who is believed to have been the mastermind of the Holey Artisan attack, was killed in 2016 in a counterterrorism operation on the outskirts of the capital.
Threat from Jihadist Returnees
Jihadist returnees are seen as a key challenge by the Bangladeshi authorities. In fact, Islamist terrorism was imported into Bangladesh in the early 1990s by the jihadist returnees of the Soviet Afghan War, who wanted to turn Bangladesh into a state ruled by their version of Islamic law or Sharia.
The conflict in Syria brought a new resurgence in Islamist terrorism. While majority of IS supporters did not leave the country, at least 50 Bangladeshi citizens were confirmed to have performed “hijrah,” (i.e., they traveled to Syria to fight under the banner of IS). More than a hundred persons of Bangladeshi origin have also reportedly traveled to Syria.
According to a source from the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, at least 10 Bangladeshi nationals have died in Syria and between five to ten have returned (of whom two have gone missing upon return and four to five are currently in Bangladeshi prisons). The rest of the surviving Bangladeshi fighters may eventually return with the defeat of the IS in its last stronghold in Syria. At least one IS key recruiter, a Bangladeshi-born Japanese citizen, is currently in a Kurdish prison in Iraq. In May 2019, Bangladeshi authorities arrested a Saudi Arabia-born Bangladeshi, who returned to the country in February after fighting in Syria. According to the police’s first information report of the case recorded under the Anti-Terrorism Act, Motaj Abdul Majid Kafiluddin Bepari and five or six unnamed people were accused of “planning sabotage with different militant organisations to establish Khalifah (caliphate) by displacing the government.”
IS in Bangladesh has been able to recruit both from existing terrorist groups as well as youth with no prior record of engagement in violence. According to Bangladesh’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit, 82% of the operatives arrested were recruited online. Though there has been a significant decline in the production of propaganda materials in the local language, the existing materials available in the cyber domain are substantial and being frequently read, referred to and shared by the group’s followers.
A significant strength of the group is its ability to recruit from a cross-section of the society. However, unlike any other Bangladeshi terrorist groups, IS has been able to recruit from the more educated, urban and privileged class of society. One other interesting recruitment pattern is its ability to recruit women and children. The group emphasizes family-based units to ensure secrecy and avoid detection. Women’s role in IS cells in Bangladesh are still mostly passive, and often a result of persuasion by their radicalized husbands. However, there are several cases where women have been self-radicalized and taken a more direct role. Momena Shoma is a case in point. She became radicalized in 2013 and in 2018 stabbed an Australian national in Melbourne for which she was given a 42-year jail sentence. Momena Shoma’s sister, Asmaul Husna, who was also said to be radicalized, stabbed a Bangladeshi police officer in Dhaka.
Operational Capability and Financing
Despite the continuing kinetic response of the authorities, IS in Bangladesh appears capable of carrying out operations. The cells possibly have an independent capability to assemble IEDs and access to small arms and light weapons being smuggled into the country via India and Myanmar. As recently as July 2019, a local media report pointed out a surge in the general availability of small arms and explosives; some of the weapons, particularly the AK-22s, being similar to what IS had used in the attack on the Holey Artisan Café.
Terrorist groups, particularly IS/Neo-JMB in Bangladesh, have access to funds both from local and international sources, mostly from private donors in the Middle East. While some donors might be contributing without being aware that the money is being spent for terrorist activities, others are fully cognizant of its utilization. The Chief of Bangladesh’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) reportedly told the media in May 2019 that the ongoing crackdowns by police have created a financial crisis for the terrorist groups; as a result, they are carrying out attacks on the police so that they can prove to their donors that they are still on the ground and active.
The Bangladeshi authorities seem to be publicly downplaying the threat of terrorism as it may create panic among the foreign investors and trading partners. While they claim to have taken the threat seriously, the government does not publicly acknowledge the presence of IS in Bangladesh and instead refer to it as Neo-JMB as most of the group's members come from the pro-IS offshoot of JMB, traditionally aligned to Al Qaeda. (In 2018, the JMB renamed itself as Jama’atul Mujahedeen (JM) and opened its India chapter.) Despite its denial of IS’ existence, the Bangladeshi government has taken tough action against the IS/Neo-JMB, particularly since the aforementioned June 2016 attack. At least 100 IS-linked militants have been killed in recent years and around 2,000 others have been detained by various law-enforcement agencies. The authorities have also scaled up vigilance to respond to the possible return of the jihadist fighters from Syria. Rehabilitation of terrorist detainees and inmates is also being planned but is yet to be finalized.
A key loophole at present is the inability of the law enforcement agencies to follow through on ensuring long-term punishment of the terrorists in the court of law. According the Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), 300 out of 512 individuals arrested under militancy charges since the Holey Artisan Café attack in 2016 are at large after they were released on bail. In addition, Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies lack a dedicated unit for counter-terrorism with a mandate to carry out investigations throughout the country.
Recent developments indicate that despite ongoing counter-terrorism efforts in Bangladesh, IS remains a key threat to Bangladesh’s internal security. While the overall capability of the group has dwindled, the residual capacity should not be ignored and relevant agencies must remain vigilant. Possibilities of large-scale attacks by IS should not be ruled out. While Bangladesh must continue its pro-active counter-terrorism operations and community engagements, it should prepare its population for any future attacks. It is time for Bangladesh to set-up a dedicated unit for counter-terrorism with a nationwide jurisdiction for investigation. Bangladesh should also review and address the loopholes in the existing criminal justice system to ensure internal security.
On a final note, the success or failure of Bangladesh’s counterterrorism initiatives could also depend on the future trajectory of conflicts in its immediate neighborhood, particularly western Myanmar. Currently, Bangladesh hosts about 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who fled persecution in their homeland. A stronger commitment is needed from the international community and regional stakeholders to put an end to the Rohingya crisis by ensuring the safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. This will go some way toward ensuring that IS does not get a fresh pool of recruits from the refugee camps in Bangladesh or for the Rohingya plight to be used as part of the IS narrative of Islam and Muslims being under siege from its “enemies,” thus necessitating a jihadist response.
 “5 ‘militants’ held in Dhaka,” The Daily Star, August 9, 2019, https://www.thedailystar.net/city/news/5-militants-held-dhaka-1784137.
 Amaq News Agency, “The Best Outcome is for Pious,” Telegram, August 9, 2019.
 “2 bombs recovered at Farmgate, Paltan,” The Daily Star, July 24, 2019, https://www.thedailystar.net/city/news/bomb-object-found-near-khamarbari-dhaka-1776220.
 “Cops among 3 hurt in ‘crude bomb blast’ in Gulistan,” The Daily Star, April 29, 2019, https://www.thedailystar.net/city/news/cops-among-3-hurt-crude-bomb-blast-gulistan-1736608. See also “Bomb hurled at police van in Malibagh, female cop among 2 hurt,” The Daily Star, May 26, 2019, https://www.thedailystar.net/city/news/bomb-hurled-police-vehicle-malibagh-dhaka-female-cop-among-2-hurt-1749271.
 “IS claims responsibility of ‘bomb attacks’ near Dhaka police checkpoints,” Prothom Alo, July 26, 2019, https://en.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/news/199483/IS-claims-responsibility-of-%E2%80%98bomb-attacks%E2%80%99-near.
 Iftekharul Bashar, “Daesh Threat in Bangladesh: An Overview,” Countering Daesh Extremism, Panorama Journal: Insight into Asian and European Affairs (Singapore: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2016) 73-82, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325987888_Panorama_Insights_into_Asian_and_European_Affairs_Countering_Daesh_Extremism_-_European_and_Asian_Responses.
 Author’s interview with Mr Monirul Islam, Chief of Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit, July 8, 2019.
 “ISIS claims 'province' in India for first time after clash in Kashmir,” The Straits Times, May 11, 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/south-asia/isis-claims-province-in-india-for-first-time-after-clash-in-kashmir.
 Arifur Rahman Rabbi, “5 members of New JMB's 'wolf pack' arrested in Dhaka,” Dhaka Tribune, August 9, 2019, https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/crime/2019/08/09/5-suspected-new-jmb-members-held-in-dhaka.
 “The three types of fight of the Islamic State,” IS Bengali Telegram channel, July 8, 2019.
 “ISIS Operative Calls For Jihad, Threatens Attacks In Bangladesh,” MEMRI, March 11, 2019, https://www.memri.org/reports/jihad-and-terrorism-threat-monitor-jttm-weekend-summary-345.
 Muktadir Rashid, “Police examine IS threat on social media,” The New Age, March 16, 2019, http://www.newagebd.net/article/67543/police-examine-is-threat-on-social-media.
 Arifur Rahman Rabbi, “Saudi-born Bangladeshi IS fighter in police custody,” Dhaka Tribune, May 8, 2019, https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/nation/2019/05/08/saudi-born-bangladeshi-is-fighter-in-police-custody.
 James Oten, “Bangladeshi student Momena Shoma sentenced to 42 years for terror attack on homestay landlord,” ABC News, June 4, 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-05/bangladeshi-homestay-guest-sentenced-for-engaging-in-terror-act/11180560.
 “Involvement in Militant Activities: Sister Follows Suit,” The Daily Star, February 14, 2018, https://www.thedailystar.net/city/cop-comes-under-knife-attack-1534435.
 Author’s Interview with a member of the Bangladesh Police, January 2019.
 Nuruzzaman Labu, Jongi naki shontrashider kache jacche eshob ottadhuni agneasro (Are these modern firearms going to the terrorists or criminals?), Bangla Tribune, July 27, 2019, https://bit.ly/2LKJXqh.
 Arifur Rahman Rabbi and Ahmed Alam, “With 300 militants out on bail, is Bangladesh safe?” Dhaka Tribune, June 4, 2019, https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/militancy/2019/06/04/with-300-militants-out-on-bail-is-bangladesh-safe.
 The Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTC Unit) within the Dhaka Metropolitan Police has jurisdiction in only the Dhaka Metropolitan area. While the CTTC unit is allowed to carry out operations across the country, it needs to rely on the local police units for investigation outside Dhaka. However, local police units do not always have expertise in investigating terrorism.
 Iftekharul Bashar, “Rohingya Crisis and Western Myanmar’s Evolving Threat Landscape,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 11, 6 (June 2019): 14-18, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/CTTA-June-2019.pdf.