March was a bloody month in Bangladesh’s war on terror – the single deadliest month since terrorists laid siege to a cafe in Dhaka in an Islamic State-claimed attack that left 29 dead in July 2016.
At least 30 people were killed amid a flurry of bombings, grenade attacks and other types of violence that began March 6 and unfolded as Bangladeshi security forces launched counter-terrorism raids nationwide. Eighteen suspects, three law enforcement officials and five children were among the dead. (See timeline)
Officials and security experts said militants have re-organized and are bolder now, resorting to new tactics and more powerful explosives. Moreover, 10 of the slain militants died by blowing themselves up – a tactic rarely seen in Bangladesh since 2006.
“The bombs recovered from the JMB are much more powerful than those they used before,” Sanowar Hossain, an additional deputy commissioner with the Bangladeshi police’s counter-terrorist branch, told BenarNews.
The sudden prevalence of suicide bombings is yet another sign that local militants have developed links with the so-called Islamic State (IS), according to Nur Mohammad, a former police chief in Rajshahi district, where banned domestic group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was born.
“What happened is the JMB got connected with the destructive IS ideology. Like the IS, the JMB radicalized the youth with the misinterpretation of Islam that they would straight go to heaven if they were killed in suicide bombings for the cause of Islam,” Mohammad told BenarNews.
“This is an undeniable fact that the local militants belonging to the JMB have connections with the IS,” he said.
Sanowar Hossain pointed to a 10-kilogram (22-pound) bomb found in a bag recovered from a man who died in a blast at a police checkpoint at the entrance to Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka on March 24. At least six police personnel were injured while trying to defuse the bomb, he said.
“[T]he militants are regrouping with renewed violent strength. They are not eliminated; they went into hibernation following the death of their members in police raids after the Holey Artisan café attack,” security analyst Sakhawat Hossain, a retired brigadier general, told BenarNews.
‘More Musas may emerge’
At least 59 suspected militants have been killed in 16 raids carried out by police and security forces since the Holey Artisan Bakery café siege in July 2016.
They include Tamim Chowdhury, the alleged leader of the café attack, killed in a raid last August; and the man who took over for him as commander of Neo-JMB, a faction that embraces IS ideology.
Mainul Islam, alias “Musa,” was killed in a 72-hour operation against a militant hideout in northeastern Sylhet district in late March, police said.
“Musa’s killing was a blow, but more Musas may emerge in the future,” a source in the Bangladeshi police’s counter-terrorist branch told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
Neo-JMB militants stockpiled “huge quantities” of bombs and explosives at dens that were raided last month in Sitakundo, Sylhet, Moulvibazar and Comilla districts, another police source told BenarNews.
Sources cited an intelligence report detailing how the Neo-JMB had become more organized following the death of Chowdhury, a Bangladesh-born Canadian citizen. The group has recruited a pair of bomb experts who have experience working in Syria. Between December 2016 and February 2017, Neo-JMB added other recruits, the sources said.
Neo-JMB is an offshoot of JMB, which was founded in 2003 with the mission of turning Bangladesh into a state governed by Sharia law. In 2005, JMB carried out 600 simultaneous bombings across the country, but they resulted in only two deaths.
JMB became dormant for several years after its founder, Sheikh Abdur Rahman, and his second-in-command, Siddiqul Islam (“Bangla Bhai”), were executed in 2007 for the bombings two years earlier.
“But they were not finished. They have come up full strength. Not only JMB, al-Qaeda subscriber Ansarullah Bangla Team has been very powerful and active in Bangladesh,” Shafqat Munir, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, told BenarNews.
ABT is a group that local police have blamed for targeting secular bloggers, intellectuals and gay-rights advocates in killings that took place in the country from February 2013 to May 2016.
But while Bangladeshi authorities have killed many more suspected Neo-JMB members than they have arrested, the chief of the national police’s counter-terrorist branch recognizes guns and firepower alone aren’t enough to eradicate the militant threat.
The authorities need to attack extremism at its roots, developing a more comprehensive approach to help young people resist the lure of joining radical groups, Monirul Islam said.
Counter-terrorism programs at present are largely limited to police operations but they need to be expanded, he said.
“Militants cannot be eliminated in this way. The religious affairs ministry, education ministry, information ministry and cultural affairs ministry must work together. We need a separate program for those who are in jail,” Islam told BenarNews.