Updated at 12:35 p.m. ET on 2019-10-14
Bangladeshi investigators do not know if the notorious Major Zia is alive, Dhaka police said Friday, as authorities announced the arrests of four alleged members of Ansar al-Islam, the banned militant group that the ex-army officer allegedly led.
Former Maj. Syed Mohammad Ziaul Haque (alias Major Zia) has been accused of masterminding the killings of bloggers and LGBT campaigners since 2014.
“Major Zia is no longer involved in organizing activities of Ansar-al-Islam. He has not been active in the organization for a long time,” Monirul Islam, chief of the police Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC), responded to BenarNews during a news conference.
“We are not sure,” Monirul replied when asked if Major Zia is alive.
The chief announced the arrests of Md Shahin (alias Omar), Md Saiful Islam, Hanifuzzaman (alias Biplob), and Md Al Mamun.
Acting on a tip, a team of CTTC unit conducted a raid in a section of Dhaka, arresting the four Thursday night, according to Monirul. The suspects, along with two others, were working as a cell for Ansar al-Islam, a group aligned with al-Qaeda.
“Shahin was a second-year aviation engineering student at a university in South Korea. He returned to Dhaka without completing his educational course with the goal of unifying Ansar al-Islam and the Neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh,” Monirul said. While Ansar al-Islam is aligned with al-Qaeda, Neo-JMB aligns with the Islamic State.
It was not immediately clear if the suspects had hired lawyers.
Major Zia’s history
Major Zia has been on the run ever since he was kicked out of the army over accusations he was involved in a failed coup to topple the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2011.
“He became involved in militant outfits after being sacked. We have no information about his whereabouts,” Lt. Col. Abu Ibn Zayed, director of the Bangladesh military Inter-Services Public Relations, told BenarNews.
The former major moved on from his military career.
“Zia joined different militant groups and became the chief of Ansar al-Islam within a short time,” DMP spokesman Masudur Rahman told BenarNews.
The group targeted secular activists, writers and bloggers, as well as LGBT activists.
In February 2018, Monirul told journalists that Major Zia was directly involved in the killing of blogger and writer Avijit Roy, who died following a machete attack in February 2015 as he left the Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka. His wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, was seriously injured but survived.
Meanwhile, a security analyst questioned the police reports about Major Zia, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
“His silence may be a ploy to evade arrest,” retired Brig. Gen. Shakhawat Hossain told BenarNews. “He might have been working in a way which is untraceable by police or intelligence agencies.”
Clarification: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Neo-JMB and note its alliance with the Islamic State.