Updated at 5:41 p.m. ET on 2017-10-30
Bangladesh is tightening security ahead of hosting next week’s Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference, which was moved to London last year over safety concerns following a massacre by terrorists at a café in Dhaka, the home minister told BenarNews.
Three suspected members of Neo-JMB, a militant group linked to the Islamic State (IS) that local authorities blamed for the July 2016 attack, were arrested in northwestern Bangladesh on Sunday and weapons and explosives were seized during a raid targeting their hideout, officials said.
The raid by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) came as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina prepared to inaugurate the 63rd Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference (CPC). Opening on Nov. 5 and running through Nov. 8, it will bring together 550 parliamentarians from countries belonging to the British Commonwealth.
“The anti-militant drive is continuous. We are going to host the conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Dhaka. So, we have to ensure maximum security to the foreign delegates,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews.
“We maintain zero tolerance for terrorism and militancy. Since the Holey Artisan café attack, we carried out aggressive operations against the militants across the country to save the people. We have broken their backbone. They are no more a threat,” he added.
He was referring to last year’s attack that left 29 people dead, including 17 foreigners who were among hostages slaughtered inside the café and the five Bangladeshi gunmen who carried out the overnight siege.
The 62nd edition of the CPC was scheduled to take place in Dhaka in October 2016, but was shifted to the British capital because of security concerns following the café attack. Organizers allowed Dhaka to host this year because of improved security.
After the Holey Artisan attack, Bangladesh launched a massive crackdown on suspected militants groups nationwide aimed at decapitating the senior leadership of Neo-JMB, a faction of homegrown militant group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and other extremist organizations.
Twenty-nine raids launched by police and RAB since then have left at least 80 suspects dead, according to a list compiled by the police and obtained by BenarNews. The list includes four minors.
Of those senior militants from Neo-JMB, JMB and Ansar al-Islam who are still alive, they and other key leaders of Muslim extremist groups are on the run, Khan said.
Bangladeshi authorities have blamed Ansar, also known as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), for being behind a series of murders targeting secular writers and activists.
A spate of those attacks took place after February 2015, but there have been no others since April 2016, when two gay-rights activists and intellectuals were murdered by machete-wielding intruders inside a Dhaka apartment.
Neo JMB and ABT leaders including Tamim Chowdhury, a Canadian-born militant who was said to be the main mastermind of the café attack, were among the scores of suspects killed in the post-Holey Artisan counter-terror raids.
The home minister, however, has adamantly denied that IS was involved in the café attack or has a presence in Bangladesh, even though the extremist group claimed responsibility for the massacre and IS media circulated photos online of the five attackers standing with assault rifles in front of the group’s black flag.
Since the café attack and a terrorist attack on a massive Muslim prayer gathering that followed soon after, “the militants have not been able to stage any sabotage,” Masudur Rahman, a spokesman for Dhaka Metropolitan Police, told BenarNews.
“Their activities have been reduced drastically. We have [maintained] a strict vigilance on militancy,” he added.
A terrorism analyst expressed skepticism that the crackdown had wiped out the terrorist threat in Bangladesh.
“It does not mean that they are finished. They nourish a distorted Islamic ideology. And an ideology cannot be crushed. They have been hiding to reorganize,” security analyst and retired Brig. Gen. Sakhawat Hossain told BenarNews.
The 29 raids included Sunday’s raid in the northwest.
Acting on a tip, RAB personnel raided a house in Chapai Nawabganj, the seat of a northwestern district by the same name, and arrested three Neo-JMB suspects.
They were identified as Jenarul Islam, 25, Rasul Bux, 50, and Mohammad Islam, 70, RAB spokesman Mufti Mahmud Khan told BenarNews.
RAB had obtained information that 10 to 12 Neo-JMB members were holding a meeting inside the suspected militant den, he said.
“Three of them were caught red-handed while the others fled. We have been working to trace them,” the RAB spokesman said, adding weapons and bomb-making materials were found in the suspects’ possession.
An earlier version contained wrong information about when Bangladeshi security forces last carried out a counter-terrorist raid.