Bangladesh police said Thursday they had thwarted a plot by the banned militant group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen to launch terror attacks on Christmas Day, by arresting seven suspected JMB members in a Dhaka raid.
Police said they seized a suicide-bomb vest, 16 homemade grenades and a huge quantity of explosives during the raid in an apartment building in the city’s Mirpur area that lasted 12 hours.
“They had the plan to carry out attacks on the Christmas celebration and against other minorities. This is a big relief that we caught them before they did any damage to us,” Mashruqur Rahman Khaled, deputy commissioner of the detective branch for Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s southern division, told BenarNews after Thursday’s raid.
At least three of the suspects were top-ranking operatives who oversaw JMB’s military wing, police said.
The Christmas Eve arrests followed calls by Christian leaders for Bangladeshi authorities to safeguard their churches and other worship places during year-end services.
Leaders of Bangladesh’s tiny Christian community had expressed deep fears for the safety of its flock during the build-up to Christmas celebrations, saying that Christian clergy and congregants nationwide had received at least 28 death threats from suspected Islamists since late September.
Since then, two priests have survived separate attempts on their lives.
The arrests also came two days after the Australian government issued a travel alert for Bangladesh, which called on citizens living in or visiting the South Asian nation to watch out for terror attacks during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
On Thursday, a SWAT team and members of the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) took part in a 12-hour operation at a six-story apartment bloc in Mirpur that resulted in the capture of the seven suspects.
Police did not name the suspects whose ages are between 25 and 35.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Jahangir Alam told BenarNews that the militants were captured from a three-room apartment on the fifth floor of a building in the Shah Ali section of Mirpur.
The militants could have made at least 200 homemade grenades with the explosives recovered from the apartment, police bomb expert Sanowar Hossain told BenarNews. A bomb squad defused the 16 grenades in a yard near the building.
The grenades were similar to those used in an attack on a minority Shiite procession in Dhaka that killed two people and wounded dozens more on Oct. 24, police said.
The Islamic State (IS) extremist group has claimed responsibility for that and other recent attacks in Bangladesh, but government officials have denied that IS has a presence in the country, saying that home-grown militants carried these out.
“We will also question them about whether they issued death threats to two Christian priests,” Khaled said, referring to the latest death threats that were reported Tuesday in northeastern Bangladesh.
The threats were sent via text messages from the same mobile phone, according to police. Officials told BenarNews that the threats came from Mirpur.
A JMB den in Dhaka
Khaled, who took part in the operation, said police came to know about the JMB den in Dhaka following the arrest of one its leaders on Wednesday night.
“Based on his information, the police encircled the building from 2 a.m. Thursday. We tried to get into the building, but failed as they were not opening the door,” he said.
Police officers heard a blast from inside the apartment as they tried to enter it.
“All the tenants were evacuated from the building before we started the operation. We fired at the glass windows and finally we arrested seven JMB members,” Khaled said.
Commenting on the arrests, security expert and retired Brig. Gen. Shahedul Anam told BenarNews, “This is alarming that the militants have been maintaining dens in the heart of the capital.”
But he also rated the raid as “a success story for the law enforcement agencies.”
JMB came to light when it carried out synchronized bombings in 63 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts on Aug. 17, 2005. Its political-wing leader, Shaikh Abdur Rahman, and militant-wing leader, Siddiqul Islam Bangla Bhai, were charged in 2006 with killing two judges in southern Jhalkathi district.
The organization lost strength in 2007 following the executions of these two leaders, but JMB has reportedly regrouped and made a comeback.
According to Monirul Islam, joint commissioner of the Dhaka police’s detective branch, the suspected JMB militants who occupied the apartment in Mirpur had identified themselves as students when they rented it.
Neighbors said they did not know anything about them as the strangers rarely talked to anyone.
“We could not even think that such dangerous people had been living here,” Mukhtar Hossain, who lived nearby, told BenarNews.