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Bangladesh Grapples With Extremist Threats 12 Years after Nationwide Bombings

Prapti Rahman
Dhaka
2017-08-17
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Police officers cordon off an area outside the Hotel Olio International in Dhaka after a suspected JMB member killed himself by setting off a bomb, Aug. 15, 2017.
Police officers cordon off an area outside the Hotel Olio International in Dhaka after a suspected JMB member killed himself by setting off a bomb, Aug. 15, 2017.
Newsroom Photo

Twelve years after militants attacked Bangladesh with a nationwide wave of near-simultaneous bombings, police officials acknowledged on Thursday that security forces have not completely eliminated the extremist group suspected of involvement in the blasts.

Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the militant group that claimed responsibility for the explosions, suffers from an internal leadership crisis, but authorities still consider it a security threat, said Monirul Islam, chief of the police’s counter-terrorism and transnational crimes unit.

“Militancy is a byproduct of bad domestic and international politics. We have placed it under control, now our aim is its complete elimination,” Monirul told BenarNews.

Between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Aug. 17, 2005, the JMB led by its founder, Shaikh Abdur Rahman, set off almost 600 bombs in 63 of 64 districts across the country, police said. The bombs, mostly detonators or without explosive charges, killed two people, forcing the government to admit the presence of militants in Bangladesh.

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.

On July 1, 2016, five young members of Neo-JMB stormed the upscale Holey Artisan Bakery café, taking dozens of hostages and killing 20 of them using guns and knives. In all, 29 people, including the five militants, died in the attack, police said.

After interrogating Sohel Mahfuz, a JMB member who had been at large for 11 years and was believed to have taken part in the planning of the deadly café attack, investigators uncovered that “mistrusts and contests” among the members of the two JMB factions have taken place, Monirul said.

“This internal rivalry handicaps them from carrying out all-out attacks,” Monirul told BenarNews.

That rivalry, investigators said, triggered a leadership crisis. The old JMB is led by Salahuddin Salehin, but officials said they were not sure of the identity of Neo-JMB’s leader. Salahuddin and Mahfuz are suspects in a bombing that killed two people in Burdwan, India, in October 2014.

Hundreds convicted after 2005 blasts

As a result of crackdowns following the 2005 blasts, more than 300 JMB militants have been convicted and jailed in 93 cases, according to the Daily Star.

Officials could not say how many were already released, but said many were about to be released.

“Since most of the cases were filed under the Explosives Substances Act and the highest punishment is 10 years' imprisonment, many of the convicts have completed their terms,” the newspaper quoted a counter-terrorism official as saying.

In March 2007, the government shattered JMB’s organizational network by executing its founder, Rahman, and other high-ranking leaders, including the chief of the group’s military wing, Siddiqul Islam.

But the militants have not been rooted out completely, criminologists said.

“The first condition for eliminating militancy is to stop use of religion in politics,” Sheikh Hafizur Rahman Carzon, a Dhaka University law professor, told BenarNews.

He compared police operations against individuals to tearing a leaf from a tree.

“We have to find out the causes that woo the youths in militancy and initiate social moves for redress,” he said.

Nur Khan, executive director of human rights group Ain-o-Salish Kendra, told BenarNews that police pre-emptive operations since the Holey Artisan attack have resulted in the deaths of at least 70 suspected militants.

But the death of a suspected JMB militant who blew himself up in a Dhaka hotel room on Tuesday has sparked concerns about fresh recruitment efforts, Nur said.

The suspect, identified as 21-year-old Saiful Islam, planned to attack people during Bangladesh’s National Mourning Day but set off the bomb after officers confronted him at the Hotel Olio International, police said.

Dhaka Metropolitan Police commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia told reporters Saiful had not acted alone, but his accomplices fled the scene and had not been caught.

“Look, police said Saiful recently joined Neo-JMB. This means recruitment has not stopped,” Nur said.

“This is clear: Not only Saiful, but more youths have joined Neo-JMB,” he said. “These youths possess bombs and explosives, so risks of more attacks are not over.”

Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.

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