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Indian Police to Question Suspect in Bangladesh Café Attack

Prapti Rahman and Paritosh Kanti Paul
Dhaka and Kolkata, India
2017-07-10
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170710_Sohel_Mahfuz_620.jpg
Police escort suspected militant Sohel Mahfuz (center) following his arrest in from Chapai Nawabganj, a northwestern district of Bangladesh, July 8, 2017.
Newsroom Photo

Updated at 9:30 a.m. ET on 2017-07-17

Indian investigators will interrogate a suspected Bangladeshi militant in custody who allegedly took part in planning a deadly terrorist attack at a café in Dhaka last year, police officials in Bangladesh’s capital said Monday.

Suspect Sohel Mahfuz had been at large for 11 years and was wanted by Indian police in connection with an accidental bomb blast that killed two people in Burdwan, a district of West Bengal state, in October 2014.

He was arrested along with three other suspected members of the militant group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) during a raid by authorities in Chapai Nawabganj, in northwestern Bangladesh, on Friday.

“The police in Bangladesh and India have been looking for Sohel for a long time,” Monirul Islam, chief of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s (DMP) counter-terrorist and transnational crimes unit, told BenarNews. “The Indian police have shown their interest in interrogating Sohel.”

A team from India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) will be coming to question the suspect and learn more about his cross-border militant network that operated in Bangladesh and India, but an arrival date has yet to be fixed, DMP officials said.

Sohel, who had lost part of an arm in an explosion of a Molotov cocktail, was the “emir” or chief of Neo-JMB, a faction of JMB, in Bangladesh’s northern districts, according to Islam.

He said Sohel had attended a meeting in which he and other Neo-JMB leaders plotted a terrorist siege on July 1, 2016 at the Holey Artisan Bakery, a café in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter that left 24 people dead, including 18 foreigners.

Islamic State claimed the attack, but Bangladeshi government officials have since denied that IS has a presence in Bangladesh, although local police have conceded that Neo-JMB – the outfit whom they have blamed for the café massacre – had aligned itself with the Middle Eastern-based terror group.

“In addition to attending the meeting, we have information that he [Sohel] supplied arms and ammunition for the Neo JMB,” Islam told a news conference in Dhaka on Monday.

He said Sohel could provide information on whether more people were involved.

Five young men who carried out the attack were all killed when Bangladeshi security forces broke the terrorist siege by raiding the café on July 2, 2016. Sohel’s arrest brings to five the number of people in police custody who are accused of playing a role in the attack.

‘We share real-time intelligence’

An NIA official told BenarNews that Indian investigators were likely to take Sohel to India for questioning.

“If that is not possible, then we will interrogate him in Dhaka. We are not in a hurry as he is in Bangladesh police custody,” said the NIA official.

Sohel, who is known to the Indian police by an alias, Nasirullah, was one of the 33 persons suspected in connection with the bomb blast in Khagragarh, Burdwan, Shyamol Kumar Ghosh, a lawyer for the NIA, told BenarNews.

On Oct. 2, 2014, two suspected militants – Shakil Gazi and Karim Sheikh – were killed when a bomb they were building blew up inside a two-story house there. Indian police said their probe put them onto the trail of how the banned Bangladeshi outfit JMB operated in some states in India.

“We have a mutual legal assistance agreement with India,” said M. Moniruzzaman, a counter-terrorism official at Bangladeshi police headquarters.

“We share real-time intelligence with India,” he told BenarNews. “Agreements have been in place to facilitate the interrogation of the accused persons and sharing information on them.”

According to Monirul Islam, Sohel evaded arrest by Indian authorities by fleeing to Bangladesh after the Burdwan blast, but, years earlier, he had crossed into India while feeling from Bangladeshi police.

“He fled to India in 2006 as the authorities in Bangladesh launched an anti-militant drive.  Between 2009 and 2014, he had been operating as the emir [chief] of the Indian unit of the JMB,” Islam said.

From western Bangladesh

Sohel hails from a village in Kushtia, a district in the Khulna division in western Bangladesh.

“His nickname is Hasan,” Abu Bakka, the chairman of a union council in the area, told BenarNews, saying he hadn’t seen Sohel in years.

“We have heard that Hasan lost one hand while making bombs. Several months ago, the Rapid Action Battalion arrested his brother, Hafiz.”

Sohel was radicalized while he was a tenth-grade student at the Pabna Zilla School, officials said.

“His arrest will help us to contain the Neo JMB operations in the northern districts,” M. Khurshid Hossain, the deputy inspector general of police in charge of the Rajshahi Range, told reporters on Friday after Sohel was taken into custody.

An earlier version misidentified India’s National Investigation Agency.

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