With the world’s third largest Muslim population, Bangladesh is a logical next front for ISIS. The Prime Minister’s denial of any threat can only help Islamic State realize its ambition, write Phill Hynes, Hrishiraj Bhattacharjee and Mark Burke.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been viewed as epicenters of Islamic terrorism and conflict. Fewer have given Bangladesh any real strategic consideration. That could be a mistake.
Bangladesh’s geographical location and religious makeup make it pivotal as Islamic State pushes for an Asian Caliphate or archipelago of mini-caliphates.
Despite a growing presence in Bangladesh, Islamic State’s threat has been ignored, denied and then suppressed by the government in the face of alarming evidence. It’s a dangerous course of inaction.
Governments choosing to disregard what’s happening in their own back yards for expediency or political reasons sow the seeds of national and broader regional tensions.
Bangladesh has witnessed two recent waves of religious radicalism. The first, a hangover from Bangladeshis waging jihad in Afghanistan alongside the Mujahideen, brought to prominence the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, or JMB, in the late nineties.
Returning home, they radicalized the nation, spurring a fundamentalist-friendly coalition government in 2001 that grouped the Bangladesh Nationalist Party with Jamaat-e-Islami, or JeI. It took four years of international pressure for the government to eventually start banning the extremist groups within its borders.
Violence resurged in 2013 after the Awami League-led government set up a tribunal to put Islamists on trial – including the leaders of JeI – on charges relating to atrocities committed in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. As secular liberals took to the streets and Internet demanding the death penalty for anyone found guilty, Islamists returned with calls for the “atheist” liberals and bloggers to be hanged.
And then, last September, US officials informed authorities that terrorists linked to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were planning to ramp up activities in Bangladesh. A series of attacks followed. Islamic State claimed responsibility through social media accounts known to be used by the group.
Yet, the Prime Minister rejected the intelligence. Denying the existence of Islamic State within her country, Sheikh Hasina’s government blamed the terrorist attacks on a conspiracy by opposition parties.
Evidence in the past 18 months proves such complacency ill-founded. Successive events highlight at the very least a significant ideological and theological influence from Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over Bangladeshi nationals.
Islamic State Build-Up
- August 2014: Five Bangladeshi nationals declare an oath of allegiance to al-Baghdadi in a video posted on YouTube
September 2014: Four Indian youths are arrested for plotting to meet an IS recruiter in Bangladesh
Bangladeshi forces arrest seven JMB members including Acting Chief Abdullah al-Tasnim for establishing contact with IS in Syria, recruiting fighters and planning attacks against senior government figures
August 2015: British military drone strikes in Syria kills two UK nationals of Bangladeshi origin
September 2015: Prime Minister Sheik Hasina deflects focus on Bangladesh, calling for action from David Cameron to stop British Bangladeshis from fanning extremism
An Italian aid worker is shot and killed in the high-security diplomatic quarter of Dhaka. IS claims responsibility in a warning to citizens of the ‘crusader coalition’
October 2015: Five days later, a Japanese national is killed in northern Bangladesh. While IS again claims responsibility, Police blame JMB
November 2015: Islamic State publishes an article titled The Revival of Jihad in Bengal, heaping praise on JMB
December 2015: US drones kill a British-educated Bangladeshi national, Siful Haque Sujan aka Abu Khalid al-Bengali, near Raqaa in Syria. A prominent member of the IS External Operations Unit (EOU), he was among its top cyber experts, actively involved in hacking and counter-surveillance.
The tipping point of Islamic State activity in Bangladesh came in September 2014. This makes sense in the context of its global profile at the time.
Islamic State had just captured Mosul in Iraq, declared a Caliphate, and committed unprecedented brutalities and (strategic) violations of human rights. The headlines showed Islamic State as the undisputed leader of the global jihad movement in the eyes of radicals – including those in Bangladesh.
It was undoubtedly the most suitable time for Islamic State to leverage their ‘unprecedented achievements’ and therein mount a serious recruitment drive into Bangladesh.
Its deepening ties to JMB were laid bare only two months later in the Islamic State article, The Revival of Jihad in Bengal. Given the group’s extreme reticence to acknowledge any other jihadi organization to jealously project itself as the only true follower of Islam, its praise of JMB was remarkable and incredibly telling.
It clearly pointed toward an agreement between the two groups that goes beyond strategic understanding. Either JMB had become an affiliate of Islamic State or it was in the advanced stages of becoming one.
Enter Mr. Tac
Bangladeshi forces were arresting Islamic State recruiters, confiscating their weapons and openly declaring their counter-terrorism success on a regular basis until the murder of an Italian aid worker in Dhaka last September. Overnight, all reference to Islamic State was removed from police and security press releases.
While Islamic State activities continued at a pace throughout 2015, the attacks were attributed to JMB alone. Islamic State ceased to be recognized.
The reality is that very little difference exists between JMB and Islamic State in the context of Bangladesh. The organizations’ leaders have multiple interconnections.
In Bangladesh, Islamic State is led by a Canadian-Bangladeshi citizen. Let’s call him Mr. Tac.
As its operational chief, Mr. Tac is entrusted to develop Islamic State’s network within Bangladesh and act as a conduit to the leadership in Syria.
There, another Bangladeshi was in charge of handling nationals joining Islamic State – the now deceased Siful Haque Sujan aka Abu Khalid al-Bengali. Working alongside al-Bengali was an Australian jihadi named Neil Prakash, aka Abu Khalid al-Cambodi.
Syria Via Turkey
As a member of the external operations team, al-Bengali would have helped oversee Islamic State’s growth outside Iraq and Syria, as well the execution of cell-based attacks abroad. His department, headed by IS spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, sanctioned the Paris attacks in November.
His No. 2, al-Cambodi, is known to have recruited and radicalized the British teenager of Bangladeshi origin who planned a suicide attack in Melbourne on ANZAC Day last April.
Back in Bangladesh, Mr. Tac’s primary directive is to facilitate travel by jihadists to Syria, a mission he reportedly received guidance on from both al-Bengali and al-Cambodi.
Another close associate in this endeavor was Muhammed Aminul Islam Baig. Also a former member of JMB, he was arrested by Bangladeshi police last May on charges of being an Islamic State coordinator.
During his interrogation, Baig said he had recruited at least 25 students to join IS in Syria, sending them via Turkey disguised as volunteers for Islamic NGOs such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) and Ummah Welfare Trust (UWT) – organizations that have deep penetration in Bangladeshi society.
The IS article that praised JMB also mentioned that a leader had been appointed for Bangladesh. Although the identity of this person wasn’t revealed, it is likely that Mr. Tac was made the leader of Islamic State in Bangladesh to give him the authority to unify the various jihadist factions in the country.
Allegiance to Dead Man
That article was enlightening in another sense too. It ridiculed groups that follow al-Qaeda and called its leader, Ayman al- Zawihiri, an unwise man, hiding in some unknown place, releasing outdated video messages with pledges of allegiance to a dead man and scolding others for not doing the same.
In the Bangladeshi context, the true target of this extended diatribe was the banned militant outfit Ansarullah Bangla Team, the group responsible for the murder of several secular bloggers.
ABT is known to subscribe to al-Qaeda’s ideology and, according to some sources, is a part of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
While it may appear deeply contradictory given their ideological differences, there are reports that Islamic State recruiters have forged alliances with members of ABT. Among suspected Islamic State members arrested by the Bangladeshi police last year, a small number were identified as former known members of ABT.
Islamic State may, in fact, be favorably disposed toward ABT and seeking to bring the group into its fold. Through its radicalized members and proven capacity for violent attacks, the ABT has shown itself to be a worthy potential ally or affiliate. In this sense, the article is an outreaching to ABT members to ditch al-Qaeda and join IS.
Molotovs to Powergel
Islamic State involvement with JMB can be charted by the growing sophistication of its attacks. Before September 2014, JMB used rudimentary Molotov cocktail-style explosives.
In the country’s biggest terrorist attack, around 500 bombs exploded at 300 locations in 63 of the nation’s 64 districts, all within a 30-minute window in August 2005 – yet only two people died from the actual explosions.
A first sign of the JMB’s new potency came with the arrest of then Acting Chief, al-Tasnim. In his possession: four improvised explosive devises, 75 electronic detonators and 10kg of Powergel, among other bomb-making paraphernalia.
Yet another show of Islamic State influence came last December in the form of an attack using an Iraq-style suicide vest – something that had previously not been seen from the jihadi movements in Bangladesh.
But IS’s influence in the country extends well beyond bomb attacks. The group has worked on widening rifts between Sunnis – who make up 94% of the country’s Muslim population – and non-Sunnis: the rafidah, or rejecters.
‘All Is Fine’ Line
Such transformations would be impossible without a deepening Islamic State presence in Bangladesh. All of the trends and evidence point unambiguously to improved capabilities of indigenous terrorist groups under the stewardship of Islamic State.
While these formally disparate groups pose a larger threat combined, they could still be infiltrated and curtailed at this early stage of growth. This would mitigate all prospect of a ‘surprise’ Islamic State emergence.
But events are unlikely to play out that way.
The government will continue to pursue its ‘all is fine’ line until Islamic State makes its presence undeniably felt. Of course, by then the tentacles of Islamic State will reach far deeper and the aspirations of Islamic jihadists will have broadened toward the clash of civilizations rhetoric.
The fault lines within Bangladeshi society threaten security, the political system, the economy, investment and commerce – along with the nation’s founding secular principles.
Phill Hynes, Hrishiraj Bhattacharjee and Mark Burke are analysts at ISS Risk, a frontier and emerging markets political risk management company covering North, South and Southeast Asia from its headquarters in Hong Kong.
Bangladesh is the country of focus on the Emerging Opportunities show on Share Radio on Monday, March 21. Listen to the podcast at Frontera News from 8pm GM