Indian authorities have narrowly missed capturing the chief of the Bangladeshi militant group JMB after tracking his movements in recent weeks to communities near the Bangladesh border in West Bengal state, a ranking Indian security official said Wednesday.
Salahuddin Salehin is wanted for murder in Bangladesh and for a bomb blast at an Indian temple in 2018. He fled to India after escaping from a prison van in 2014 when militants mounted a daring daylight rescue that killed a police officer and wounded two others.
“We raided three places. … He fled at the last moment,” an official with the Indian National Intelligence Agency (NIA) told BenarNews on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Salehin remains at large, he said.
“Salehin has been hiding in the districts bordering Bangladesh,” the official said, adding that Indian counter-terrorist agents had pursued his trail in the districts of Cochbihar, North Dinajpur, Maldah, Murshidabad and Nadia, where they believe he took on a new alias.
Bangladeshi police have offered a 500,000 taka ($5,900) reward for Salehin’s capture, while the website of New Delhi-based NIA includes him on its Most Wanted list, providing details about his extremist activities and showing his photographs.
“It is assumed that Salehin, along with fellow militant leader Zahidul Islam (alias Boma Mizan) opened a newer faction of the JMB, naming it Jama’atul Mujahideen India or JMI,” the NIA website said.
Suspected members of the militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) stunned Bangladeshi authorities on Feb. 23, 2014 when they attacked a police van transporting Salehin, his fellow death-row inmate Rakib Hasan and Zahidul Islam, who was serving a life sentence.
The van was transporting the three men from a high-security jail to their court hearing in Mymensingh, about 120 km (75 miles) north of Dhaka, when the attackers blocked its path using a van, lobbed explosives and opened fire with rifles.
Hasan was re-captured but local media quoted police as saying that he was killed in a gunbattle on the same day. A government inquiry concluded that police officers were involved in helping the three prisoners escape.
A high-ranking official of the Kolkata police’s special task force corroborated the NIA official’s accounts to BenarNews, saying suspected associates of Salehin during interrogation had recenlty confirmed that the Bangladeshi militant was operating in southern India.
Salehin (alias Hafizur Rahman Sheikh or Mahin) had hideouts in the south Indian states of Kerala, Karnataka and Chennai, said the official, who did not want to be identified for security reasons.
“There, he [Salehin] has been involved in preparing a module for the JMB,” he said.
Bangladesh officials also told BenarNews on Wednesday that Salehin was hiding in India.
“We are also aware of Salahuddin Salehin’s activities in India,” said Saiful Islam, the Bangladeshi police’s deputy commissioner for counter-terrorism and transnational crimes.
“We have information that Salehin has been active in spreading the activities of the militant outfit in India. Here in Bangladesh, he has some followers who maintain links with him,” Islam said.
“After escaping from Bangladesh, Salehin tried to make the JMB as a regional militant outfit named Jama’atul Mujahideen India or JMI,” he said.
In July 2017, a propaganda publication for JMI, Saham Al Hind, published an interview with Salehin, who bragged that he was capable of organizing a militant group in India.
Bangladeshi police say Salehin faces at least 40 charges across the county. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2013 for the killing of a Christian named Hridoy Roy in 2005 in Jamalpur district.
Militant group claims responsibility
JMB claimed responsibility for a nationwide wave of near-simultaneous bombings on Aug. 17, 2005 in Bangladesh. The bombs, mostly detonators or without explosive charges, killed two people, forcing the government to admit the presence of militants in the South Asian nation.
Kamruzzaman, an assistant inspector-general at the Dhaka police headquarters, told BenarNews on Wednesday that Salehin was one of the 700 people suspected of involvement in the explosions.
Before those blasts, the government of then-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia repeatedly accused the media of publishing “cooked and fabricated” stories about the presence of extremists in the country.
But the bombings catapulted JMB onto the national consciousness. Despite attempts to crush the group, it recently gave rise to a new faction, Neo-JMB, whose members align themselves with the Islamic State.
Neo-JMB was involved in Bangladesh’s deadliest terror attack at a Dhaka café in 2016. Authorities said Salehim had no links to that siege that left 29 people dead, most of them foreigners.
Indian authorities, however, had filed charges against Salehin, accusing him of participating in the 2014 explosion that killed two people at a rented two-story house in the Burdwan district of West Bengal state.
Counter-terror officials in New Delhi also believe Salehim and JMB members were involved in low-intensity explosion at a Buddhist pilgrimage site in India’s northeastern Bihar state on Jan. 19, 2018, when Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was visiting the area.
No casualties were reported in the explosion and West Bengal police said they arrested two suspected JMB members. Police said they could not confirm whether the bombs were intended to target the Dalai Lama.