Bangladesh is fighting Islamic State – in a propaganda war at least. Despite the terror group claiming responsibility for a recent string of deadly attacks, the government is hearing none of it. Instead, it blames local militants.
The truth lies somewhere in between: aspiring home-grown Islamist groups, such as those in Bangladesh, are being subsumed by global jihadists. In short, terrorism has evolved a new structure: the pool matrix.
What’s happening in Bangladesh reflects how jihadist networks are changing globally. Consider the country’s three recent terrorist incidents: the Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka, the Sholakia Eid Day attack and the police raid in Kalyanpur, Dhaka. We initially identified about 20 terrorists directly involved. Most were already dead.
But further investigation showed connections through training camps, common residence, funding or other links to over 200 further terrorists. We then discovered at least 500 pairs who knew each other personally in a terrorism context.
Among the 200 or so terrorists, about 45 were isolated from the main network, along with a further four small groups. But the majority – around 160 terrorists – were interlinked through a complex web of intermediaries.
This is what Bangladesh’s complex pool matrix looks like:
Those killed or arrested had the highest number of links. This means we can assume that Bangladesh’s security agencies have been successful in neutralising the “best connected” terrorists. Yet the large number of absconders and missing persons indicates a serious intelligence gap in terms of understanding the strength and spread of the network.
More worrying still, our map doesn’t begin to represent the entire terrorist landscape of support for Islamic State or the home-grown and interconnected JMB within the population at large. As such, Bangladesh’s security agencies have touched only the tip of a patently deeper intertwined web.
What’s clear is that a large number of jihadists are roaming free in Bangladesh, with the capabilities and the intention to carry out further acts of terror.
At the center of the terrorist map is “Mr TAC” – Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury. The now deceased Emir of ISIS in Bangladesh was the most highly connected individual in Bangladesh’s jihadist landscape.
Most of those killed were also connected to far larger numbers of terrorist associates than those surviving the incidents. This reflects the lengthy vetting process potential jihadists must pass through to prove their ideological commitment. Only candidates endorsed through this screening process are given access to the internal secret activities of the organization, including training and operational planning.
In this sense, in spite of their youth, the individuals taking part in any terrorist attacks are senior figures within the organization, with a significant period of service behind them. The fact that most of the terrorists killed had been missing for several months prior to their attacks is further evidence of this vetting process.
Yet, despite the multiple links between them, our mapping also illustrates a significant degree of compartmentalization. Each incident cell is almost totally isolated from the next. This is no accident. The cells are intentionally kept isolated for operational security, secrecy and to avoid potential infiltration by the security agencies. The exception here is the Dhaka and Sholakia cells, which have several terrorists in common. This makes it highly likely that, in fact, one cell carried out both attacks.
Mr TAC is directly connected with the Dhaka, Sholakia and Kalyanpur incidents. As the formally appointed Emir of Islamic State in Bangladesh, it’s likely that he received instructions directly from the ISIS external operations unit in Raqaa, Syria. It points strongly to activities carried out in Bangladesh receiving direct approval from ISIS HQ.
The ISIS Matrix continues on Monday with a look deep inside the structure of sleeper pools and intelligence units.
The authors are Phill Hynes and Hrishiraj Bhattacharjee, analysts at ISS Risk, a frontier and emerging markets political risk management company covering North, South and Southeast Asia from headquarters in Hong Kong