Updated at 4:21 p.m. ET on 2017-10-31
Bangladeshi officials said Tuesday they had foiled a terrorist plot to hijack a commercial airliner or crash it into the homes of top-level politicians, as authorities announced the arrests of four suspects including a pilot from the national carrier.
Police said Sabbir Amam, a 31-year-old first officer of Biman Bangladesh Airlines, was arrested and detained with three others on suspicion of having links with militants who carried out a terrorist attack at a Dhaka café last year that left 29 people dead, including 17 foreigners.
Amam was arrested with his mother, Sultana Parvin, 55, and two men early Tuesday when counter-terrorist police commandos raided several areas in Dhaka’s Mirpur neighborhood, said Mufti Mahmud Khan, spokesman for the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).
“RAB has been able to save Bangladesh from probable unwanted and serious terrorist incidents by arresting Sabbir Amam,” Khan told a news conference.
“As part of a sabotage design, Sabbir Amam planned an attack using an aircraft to strike the houses of top-ranking officials of the government,” Khan said. “Or he planned to take the passengers as hostages and take the plane to the Middle East.”
Khan did not identify the government officials who were targeted and did not elaborate on the alleged hijacking plan.
The foiled plot evoked the 9/11 attack carried out in the United States 16 years ago. Nearly 3,000 people were killed when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa. on Sept. 11, 2001.
Bangladeshi officials uncovered the alleged hijacking plot days before the government was to host 550 delegates from many countries at the 63rd Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference.
Khan said Amam was linked to an alleged militant named Abdullah, who was killed in early September along with six other people during an anti-terror raid on an apartment building in Dhaka owned by the pilot’s father.
After the raid, police told reporters that Abdullah was one of the ranking leaders of Neo-JMB, a faction of the homegrown militant group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Government officials have blamed Neo-JMB for the terrorist attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery café. The extremist group Islamic State claimed responsibility for that overnight siege.
At least 80 suspected extremists have been killed in 29 raids launched by police and RAB after Bangladesh launched a massive crackdown on suspected militant groups nationwide following the café attack.
Who is Sabbir Amam?
Khan said Amam was one of trainees at the Bangladesh Flying Club in 2009. Amam completed a special flight training in Spain, before joining Biman Bangladesh Airlines as a pilot in 2014 and subsequently received flight training in Turkey, Khan said.
He said Amam usually piloted Boeing-737 flights for Biman Bangladesh Airlines and was flying a Dhaka-Kolkata run on Monday.
Khan said Amam’s mother, Sultana Parvin, was arrested because she had provided cash that allowed Abdullah, the slain militant, to purchase a 9 mm pistol.
Police also arrested 25-year-old Asifur Rahman, who allegedly provided Abdullah some chemicals to make bombs, and 30-year-old Mohammad Alam, who allegedly agreed to provide a truck to another militant who carried out a recent attack on a police outpost.
Ishfaq Ilahi Chowdhury, a retired air commodore, said Amam’s arrest should compel the government to carry out thorough background checks of pilots for the national flag carrier.
“Bangladesh Biman is a very important organization. This is, no doubt, an alarming sign that an official from this important body is alleged to have been involved in militancy,” he told BenarNews.
“I hope there would be a fair investigation,” he said.