Bangladeshi police have arrested 17 suspected militants who wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia by land to meet up with an engineer believed to be recruiting for jihad, a counter-terror official said Tuesday.
Terrorism-related cases have been filed against the suspects who remain under detention after their arrests late Monday in front of a mosque in Dhaka, according to Saiful Islam, a deputy commissioner of the police’s counter-terrorism and transnational crimes unit.
“They belong to the old JMB,” Islam told BenarNews, referring to the banned militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, which affiliated with al-Qaeda in the past.
“During primary interrogation, they informed us that they were going to Saudi Arabia via India,” Islam said.
He said an expatriate Bangladeshi engineer “spread an online message to go to Saudi Arabia to wage the so-called jihad there,” and 19 men had assembled outside the Kakrail mosque in Dhaka to begin the journey.
“We caught 17 of them before they headed for Tamabil,” an area in the country’s northeast, Islam said, adding that two others fled as police officers were about to close in.
Police have also gathered information about the Bangladeshi engineer, who entered Saudi Arabia in 2016, Islam said.
“Earlier, we had informal communication with the Saudi authorities about the suspected militant’s role,” Islam said. “As we have established concrete proof of his militant activities, now we will formally write to the Saudi government to detect and extradite him, if possible.”
Bangladesh banned JMB in October 2005, the same year the group staged a nationwide wave of near-simultaneous but low-impact bombings that killed two. It later executed most of the group’s leaders.
Nevertheless, JMB persists. Indian authorities told BenarNews in February that they had narrowly missed capturing the chief of JMB after tracking his movements near the Bangladesh border in West Bengal state.
An offshoot of JMB allied to the Islamic State carried out the nation’s deadliest terrorist attack at a Dhaka café in July 2016, leaving 29 dead including the five attackers.
Security analysts told BenarNews that the arrest of 17 suspects on Monday indicated that militant groups were taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to boost their ranks.
“[M]ilitants have been exploiting the situation. They have been circulating among the people that coronavirus was sent by Allah to punish the people,” retired Army Maj. Gen. Abdur Rashid told BenarNews.
“Due to the lockdown-like situation, people have been spending more time online. So, the militants have been spreading their propaganda online,” he said.
Bangladesh, which has loosened movement restrictions and reopened some factories to diminish the pandemic’s economic impact, reported 10,929 infections and 183 COVID-19 deaths as of Tuesday. Its coronavirus shutdown has been extended to May 16.
Ataur Rahman Miazi, a professor of Islamic history and culture at Dhaka University, told BenarNews that the militants, possibly including the Bangladeshi engineer in Saudi Arabia, had been brainwashing regular citizens.
“We very often see that some people claim themselves as the messenger of Allah,” Miazi said. “This engineer could have taken such a ploy to mislead people.”