Bangladeshi police said Monday they had arrested 19 suspects in an intensified anti-terror sweep during the past three days ahead of this week’s expected verdict in the July 2016 massacre of hostages by pro-Islamic State militants at a Dhaka café.
Twenty-nine people, including 17 foreigners, were killed in an overnight siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter – the deadliest terrorist attack carried out in Bangladesh’s history as a nation. A tribunal brought terror-related charges against eight defendants in custody.
“We have intensified our anti-militant drives and intelligence operations so that none can cause any violence over the Holey Artisan cafe attack verdict,” Saiful Islam, a deputy commissioner of the police’s counter-terrorism and transnational crimes unit, told BenarNews.
The long awaited ruling in the trial of the eight accused is expected Wednesday.
Officials said the men standing trial could face the death penalty or life in prison, if convicted of the charges of “conspiring and aiding in a deadly terrorist act.”
Shah Abdur Rouf, a police spokesman, told BenarNews that authorities had arrested 15 members of the banned extremist group Hijbut Tahrir in Dhaka and in the southeastern city of Chattogram, also known as Chittagong, on Saturday as part of the anti-militancy drive.
On the same day in Dhaka’s Baridhara residential area, police also arrested a member of Neo-JMB (Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh), the pro-Islamic State (IS) Bangladeshi militant group blamed for carrying out the Holey Artisan attack, officials said.
On Sunday, three JMB members were arrested in the Bhatara area of the capital, Monirul Islam, chief of the police’s counter-terror unit, told a news conference in Dhaka on Monday.
Law-enforcement officials raided suspected militant hideouts across the country because they were expecting militants to unleash violence before the verdict, according to security analyst Abdur Rashid.
“The militants have a strategy to threaten to retaliate, whenever they are in danger or under pressure,” Rashid, a retired major general, told BenarNews.
But he acknowledged that while the militants were trying to beef up their forces, they did not have the ability to launch a large-scale attack.
Police on alert to thwart attacks
Monirul Islam, who heads the police’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crimes (CTTC) unit, said the intelligence community had been placed on heightened alert to thwart any possible attack.
“We are active so that they cannot carry out any attack or sabotage,” he told BenarNews, referring to the militants.
IS claimed that five of its Bengali members carried out the attack at the café on July 1, 2016. Authorities said the attackers used machetes to hack to death hostages and battled security forces with crude bombs and homemade rifles and pistols. Two police officers and all five gunmen were among those killed.
The attack jolted the government of Prime Minister Sheik Hasina, which played down the threat of foreign terror groups and repeatedly denied the presence of IS in Bangladesh. Instead, it blamed the Neo JMB, a faction of a home-grown radical extremists.
Altogether 21 suspects were named in a charge-sheet that police submitted earlier this year, after they completed a two-year investigation into the attack, but only eights suspects are alive, officials said.
Five of the other suspects were the alleged gunmen who were killed when commandos stormed the café premises to break the siege, which lasted from July1-2, 2016. The other eight suspected Neo JMB members were killed during a counter-terror crackdown launched by Bangladesh in the months that followed the attack.
The militants staged the attack to portray Bangladesh as a “country infested with militancy,” the police charge-sheet said.
The eight defendants are listed as: Rashedul Islam (alias Rash); Jahangir Alam (alias Rajib Gandhi); Sohel Mahfuz; Mizanur Rahman (alias Baro Mizan); Hadisur Rahman Sagar; Rakibul Hasan Regan; Shariful Islam Khaled; and Mamunur Rashid Ripon.
None of the defendants was on site when the attack unfolded, but they are individually accused of playing key roles, such as planning the attack, recruiting the five gunmen, or supplying them with weapons and grenades.
A.K.M. Shahidul Haque, a former police inspector-general, told BenarNews that militants in Bangladesh had carried out terrorist activities using different names.
“It’s been established that the same members are sometimes involved with JMB, sometimes new JMB, sometimes with Ansarullah Bangla team. They change their organizational position to their advantage. They use the Islamic State name to increase their brand value.”