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Security heads brief reporters after commandos ended the overnight siege at Holey Artisan Bakery

© bdnews24.com/md asaduzzaman pramanik

Bangladesh has not fallen off the precipice in its fight against Islamist terror, as many would have imagined after the Jul 1 terror strike at Gulshan’s Holey Artisan café. There is quiet optimism that its security architecture is finally getting its act together. Within two months of the Gulshan café attack, Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism grid managed to ‘neutralise’ some of the top guns of Islamist militancy in the country. But much needs to be done, not only because some of the top guns of Islamist militancy, like former army major Syed Zia, are still at large but also because precisely little has been done to address the jihadi recruitment base.

Some would ask, and not without justification, why it took the Gulshan café attack, in which nearly 20 foreigners were butchered, to shake Bangladesh’s security forces from their slumber to go after the likes of Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, the Canadian-Bangladesh national who headed the ‘neo-JMB’ and was the Islamic State’s cell leader in Bangladesh. Was the series of murders of bloggers, publishers, writers, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian priests not good enough to spur them into action? The events after the Jul 1 terror strike serve as an answer.

Not that the security forces had not eliminated or arrested some Islamist militants before the Holey Artisan café attack, but the top guns of Bangladesh’s latest phase of Islamist militancy were not amongst them. People like Tamim were out and about, planning strike after strike, picking out targets like secular Muslim and minority personalities almost at will. The Holey Artisan strike changed that. Suddenly there was a realisation that the arrest or killing of some small time Islamists was not good enough. The big guns had to be tracked down and neutralised.

A Crime Scene Unit(CSU) team is at work after a raid on a militant hideout outside Dhaka.
© bdnews24.com

The first counter-strike came on Jul 26 at Dhaka’s Kalyanpur. Media reports suggest a police patrol on a routine search was fired upon from a nearby house. A police SWAT team trained in counter-terrorism action retaliated with a massive raid on the six-storey building and emerged with a huge success. Nine jihadis were killed – among them Raihan Kabir alias Tarek, who was the Dhaka region coordinator of the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Kabir had trained the jihadis who attacked the Holey Artisan Café. Dhaka police counter-terrorism unit chief Monirul Islam described him as a key figure in the revival of a section of the hardline ‘neo-JMB faction’ behind most of the recent killings and the Holey Artisan strike. Among the other jihadis killed were two interesting figures – US citizen Shehzad Rauf Arka, grandson of the first chief of Bangladesh spy agency DGFI and Akifuzzaman Khan, grandson of Abdul Monem Khan, who was governor of East Pakistan in the 1960s and collaborated with the occupying Pakistan army in 1971 until Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign state through a nine-month war of liberation. Shehzad was a close friend of dead Gulshan café attacker Nibras Islam and both had been campus mates for a time.

But the bigger success came a month later, on Aug 27. Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, the chief of the ‘neo-JMB’, the faction that had developed close rapport with the Middle East based Islamic State, was gunned down alongside two close lieutenants at Paikparha in the river port city of Narayanganj. Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said the security forces had tried to get him alive and had called out to him to surrender after encircling the building he was holed up in. But Kamal said Tamim had chosen to fight it out, leaving the security forces no choice but to attack him. BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia made this a big issue next day, insisting the police should have taken him alive. She was stating the obvious – much information could be gathered from Tamim if he was caught alive. Bangladesh intelligence and counter-terrorism officials say they were obviously aware of the information bonanza that would follow Tamim’s arrest, but they were left with no choice when he decided to fight. “I hope Madam Zia is not suggesting we should have let him escape in a bid to catch him alive,” said one senior counter-terrorism official on condition of anonymity.

Tamim’s death has surely left the ‘neo-JMB’ in disarray. The group has not pulled its act together to put out the name of a new leader, not even an Arabic alias that Tamim used. The IS, which was quick to claim credit for the Holey Artisan café attack and many others before that, has also gone quiet on Bangladesh. If Tamim was indeed the emir (head) of IS in Bangladesh, they would they announce his death as martyrdom and make some political capital. One could point to the huge setbacks suffered by the Islamic State in its own core area in Iraq and Syria – including the assassination of its overseas operations and publicity chief Abu Muhammad al-Adnani – as the reason for its leadership not bothering with Bangladesh as it faces local setbacks.

Tamim’s death was followed by two more successful strikes, one up north and the other in Dhaka. Two days after the ‘neo-JMB’ chief was killed, police shot dead Khalid Hasan alias Badar Mama at Sherpur Upazila in the Bogra district. Khalid was the JMB’s northern region military wing commander and a close associate of Tamim. Then on Sept 2, Dhaka police raided a house at the capital’s Rupnagar and killed ‘Major’ Murad, said to be the deputy to Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury in the ‘neo-JMB’. Three policemen were injured in the encounter with Murad. Dhaka police now says ‘Murad’ was indeed a former major of the Bangladesh army and claims his real name is Jahidul Islam. He had left the army job after a visit to Canada in 2014 and it is conjectured he might have met Tamim there. Both Tamim and Jahidul have family roots in Sylhet – which produces most migrants in Bangladesh.

There is at least one more former soldier in Bangladesh’s jihadi ranks for sure – former Major Syed Zia who was cashiered from the army in 2011 for jihadi links. Bangladesh intelligence says he is abroad, possibly in a Western country. The other danger man at the moment is JMB leader Mohammed Suleiman, who was handling JMB activist Mohammed Musa arrested in West Bengal, who they think is operating from India.

No one would suggest that the various tentacles of the new jihadi wave in Bangladesh have all been neutralised. In fact, the counter-terrorism grid has so far focused on the immediate threat posed by the ‘neo-JMB’… the road is long and the operations have to be relentless

No one would suggest the various tentacles of the new jihadi wave in Bangladesh have all been neutralised. In fact, the counter-terrorism grid has so far focused on the immediate threat posed by the ‘neo-JMB’ focusing on hunting the organisation. Though the top leaders of Ansarullah Bangladesh Team and the offshoot Ansar al Islam are still active, though in muted form, and not much action has been reported against them. So, as one Bangladesh counter-terrorism official said recently, the road is long and the operations have to be relentless. He pointed to the complacency that affected the security forces and agencies after the jihadi groups in the 1990s were decapitated. Many had said it would never happen again. But things have changed and now police have even arrested top suspects involved with the murder of bloggers and publishers before the Jul 1 attack. Abdus Sabur alias Samad, who is said to be mastermind of publisher Faysal Arefin Dipan’s murder was picked up on Sept 3 from Tongi railway station. The ABT ‘intelligence chief’, responsible for the murders of blogger Niloy and publisher Dipan, has also been nabbed.

It is also critical for Bangladesh to look to global, especially Indian, support to boost its ability to fight terror. During the recent Tripura Conclave at Agartala, India’s former secretary (security) AB Mathur stressed the need for India-Bangladesh intelligence cooperation. The conclave, apart from its usual open session, had a closed door session for Indian and Bangladesh intelligence officials, including some from Indian states neighbouring Bangladesh, where several proposals to strengthen intelligence cooperation were discussed. Mathur was supported by Commodore Nurul Absar, a top serving Bangladesh NSI director, when he said the ‘threat is common and calls for coordinated action’. The proposals on intelligence sharing cannot be discussed here because all participants, including myself, were covered by Chatham House rules, but one can safely say substantial ground was covered.

Both Mathur, now a NSAB member and known to be close to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, and Absar, now based in the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Office, agreed to carry back the proposals to their government for further progress.  India’s cyber capability will surely come in handy to boost Bangladesh counter-terrorism capability but one can also look to efforts such as the joint interrogation of JMB leader Musa in West Bengal by Bangladesh and Indian intelligence, which provided some critical breakthrough about Tamim and other JMB leaders. Indian states like Assam, where more than 60 JMB members have been arrested in recent months, are particularly keen on direct intelligence sharing with Bangladesh to fight the jihadi menace.

Female militant suspects are in custody. © bdnews24.com/asif mahmud ove

The fact that some of the JMB cadres arrested in Assam are local Muslims of East Bengali origin, while others are Bangladesh nationals worries all in India because of the cross-border character of the new post-2013 jihadi phenomenon in Bangladesh. West Bengal is also waking up to this threat for similar reasons, though its response has not been as proactive as Assam. As the Bangladesh counter-terrorism grid seems to come to terms in its fight against jihadi terror, the least West Bengal can do is to tighten its belt and go after the likes of Musa and Suleiman (a JMB leader still at large, possibly hiding in West Bengal) with the same urgency displayed across the border.

Bangladesh has learnt two important lessons in its fight against terror in the aftermath of the Jul 1 Gulshan attack. One, that its security forces and intelligence need to go after the top guns of the jihadi groups, the group tend to fall apart if they are neutralised. ‘Striking the top’, as they say, is the right way. Second, Bangladesh seems to have realised it was important to turn off the resource tap – which is why Dhaka has asked Delhi to look at the illegal weapons manufacturing facilities in eastern Indian states, which produced the AK-22 rifles used in Gulshan cafe raid.

But Bangladesh is yet to systematically look at the movement of terror funds that flows into the country under many covers, including the funding of religious facilities by Islamist foundations. The war against counterfeit currency has to be intensified, because a large part of terror funds available to jihadi groups are in Pakistan-printed fake currency. This is as true of India as of Bangladesh.

But the government in Dhaka has to now look at a larger issue – the recruitment base for the jihadis. Recent experience has shown new generation jihadis are not all exactly madrassa educated. Many seem to have gone to English-medium schools. Bangladesh needs a new political movement to reinfuse the country’s youth with the values of the 1971 Liberation War, and a more comprehensive education system that inculcates these values in the new generation. This is a herculean task, but one that is as important as chasing down the jihadis.

Subir Bhaumik, a former Senior Editor and Head of South Asia at bdnews24.com, has authored several books including Troubled Periphery and Agartala Doctrine.