Updated at 11:02 a.m. ET on 2015-07-24
Bangladesh’s government has banned a group it blames for a series of machete slayings of atheist bloggers and a bloody bank heist, but experts question whether the Islamist organization Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) even exists.
Skepticism about whether there really is such a group has deepened largely because law enforcement agencies have yet to provide hard evidence of ABT’s involvement in these crimes.
Following the killings of three bloggers by suspected Islamists in three separate attacks earlier this year, and amid reports that ABT has compiled a hit-list of future targets and issued death threats, the authorities have paraded some 30 suspects before the cameras.
But officials bar reporters from asking questions or interview suspects at these media events.
“I’m not sure what is going on as the police never came up with any solid information regarding ABT’s involvement in the high-profile murders of these bloggers,” Mohiudin Ahmed, a former diplomat and columnist who writes frequently about militancy, told BenarNews.
“The manner in which the suspects are being presented before the media without giving any chance for the reporters to talk to them is bound to raise questions,” he added.
“It looks like police are trying to hide their incompetence in finding the real culprits behind these murders by presenting these alleged perpetrators without any shred of evidence.”
ABT’s name first came to light in February 2013 when police arrested six students at the private North South University (NSU). They were sought in connection with the murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was hacked to death in front of his house in Dhaka’s Mirpur suburb, allegedly because he was an atheist.
Early last year, police filed a charge-sheet against the six students and their alleged spiritual leader, Mufti Jashim Uddin Rahmani, who was arrested in August 2013 in connection with Haider’s murder. But, so far, no date has been fixed for their trial.
The charge-sheet was based solely on what police said were confessions made by suspects in custody during interrogation.
Legal process in limbo
Legal experts say the case is unlikely to move ahead. Lawyers, they say, simply aren’t interested in taking on militancy-related cases because the government shows almost no interest in resolving these kinds of cases.
“Once they are put in jail, nobody seems to be interested in them anymore and they just languish there for years,” Faruk Ahmed, a lawyer who has experience in dealing with militant cases, told BenarNews.
“Every arrested person must have access to the judicial process but my experience shows that is not the case with alleged militants,” he said, adding, “This perhaps explains why lawyers are not interested in taking up these cases.”
After three bloggers – Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das – were hacked to death this year, the police force and Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested or detained about 30 suspected ABT members.
ABT also is known by other names, including Ansar Bangla 7 and Ansar Bangla 8. When Das was slain in the northeastern city of Sylhet on May 12, Ansar Bangla 8 praised his killing on Twitter but disavowed any responsibility, saying that al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) was behind the attack. And Ansar Bangla 7, according to police, claimed responsibility via Twitter for Roy's murder in Dhaka on Feb. 26.
Last month, ABT also was implicated in the death threats made against 25 prominent people, including H.T. Imam, the prime minister’s political adviser, and Dhaka University Vice Chancellor Arefin Siddiqui.
Those threats, combined with the murders of the bloggers and a daring bank robbery near Dhaka that left eight people dead in April – appear to have prompted the government to formally outlaw ABT on May 25.
But equivocal comments by State Minister for Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal about the ban sowed more uncertainty about the group.
“It is true that the clandestine organization is already banned. So there is not much of a difference in its formal banning,” he told reporters at the time.
Hard to trace
Law enforcement officials say it is hard to pursue ABT because it lacks a formal organizational structure compared with prominent Islamist groups, such as Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) or the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), which the government has also banned.
“Their activities are mostly limited to distributing leaflets or issuing statements on social media,” Monirul Islam, Joint Commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (Detective Branch), told BenarNews. “That makes it very difficult to catch them.”
When asked why police do not allow reporters any chance to verify their claim independently, he responded, “It is unlawful to allow reporters to interview the criminals in custody and there is a high court ruling on this.”
‘Designed to deflect public attention’
Independent observers, however, reject Islam’s assertion, raising the question that even if police cannot allow reporters to talk to alleged militants, what is stopping the authorities from putting captured suspects on trial?
“The whole thing appears designed to deflect public attention from the pressing issues like corruption and the deteriorating law and order situation, and earning kudos from the international community,” Sharifuzzaman Sharif, coordinator of Nagorik Udoyg (Citizens Initiative), an NGO campaigning for social justice and rule of law, told BenarNews.
Indeed, the United States and India, the two countries that matter most in Bangladesh politics, appear to be happy with the ruling Awami League for its ‘zero tolerance’ policy against extremism.
Militants on the run
Some analysts say that even if there are doubts about the ABT’s existence, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina deserves credit for keeping militant groups in general on the run.
“They have clearly been cornered and there’s no visible sign that the militants can pose any serious threat to our national security any time soon,” Abdur Rashid, a retired major general and security analyst who now heads the Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies, a think tank in Dhaka, told BenarNews.
He further said that there was no reason for complacency and “we should not let our guard down as they could rise up in the midst of political turbulence, which unfortunately, is not uncommon in Bangladesh.”