A concrete link between newly formed Islamist group Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya with the escape of death-row members of banned militant outfit Ansar al-Islam has not been confirmed yet, but officials and experts believe the two groups are connected.
It has long been the strategy of seemingly fading militant outfits to remain relevant by blending with newer adherents of extremism, according to them.
Although militant activities have been on the wane following a series of crackdowns by security forces in the wake of the horrific events at Holey Artisan Bakery in 2015, militancy has come under renewed scrutiny after two death-row convicts managed to escape from a crowded court premises in Dhaka on Nov 20.
Both of them are said to be leaders of Ansar al-Islam. A decade ago, this group gained notoriety for orchestrating the murders of several writers, publishers, and online activists.
Ansar al-Islam sprang from Ansarullah Bangla Team, led by Mufti Jasim Uddin Rahmani who is now behind bars, according to intelligence officials. Syed Ziaul Haque alias Major Zia, a sacked army officer, is believed to be the leader of the group.
Police say that Zia masterminded the daring plot to snatch the two militants from the custody of law enforcers while they were being escorted to a lockup after testifying in court. The escaped militants, Abu Siddique Sohel alias Shakib Sohel Moinul Hasan Shamim alias Samir, along with Zia were sentenced to death for the murder of Jagriti Prokashoni publisher Faysal Arefin Dipan.
Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami, or HuJI, was the first militant group to come into the public consciousness, followed by Jamaat-ul-Mujahidin Bangladesh, or JMB.
Law enforcement officials have maintained that no international terrorist group had a foothold in Bangladesh despite various messages being issued in the name of al-Qaida and the Islam State before and after the Holey Artisan attack.
Those involved in the massacre at the cafe in Gulshan six years ago were also identified by the country's intelligence agencies as members of Neo-JMB, an offshoot of JMB. Ansar al-Islam also emerged around that time.
Recently, the Rapid Action Battalion, an anti-crime and terrorism unit of police, discovered a new Islamist group, Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya, while investigating the disappearances of several young men.
Md Asaduzzaman, chief of the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit of police, said Jamatul Ansar's ranks are filled with former militants from other banned outfits.
Shafqat Munir, head of the Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research (BCTR), said,
“In our research and analysis, we have seen that one of the characteristics of militant groups is that they are always trying to reassemble. As a result, we see the emergence of new militant organisations.”
“They do this out of a desire to increase their capacity and spread their ideology to a wider audience. As part of that, they may be trying to recruit young people by making them leave their homes and create an 'operational alliance'.
"It is obvious that they [militants] are trying to do something. People from different groups who share the same radical beliefs are involved in militancy," said Muhammad Nurul Huda, who was the police chief at the turn of the century.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan believes the condemned convicts were snatched from police as they could provide information on the whereabouts of other militants who are in hiding.
According to retired Maj Gen Abdur Rashid, militant outfits are now trying to reform and regroup.
“This is a tactic of militants. When there is strong resistance, they fold, and when the resistance wanes, they try to head up.”
WHY NEW MILITANT GROUPS FORM
Elaborating on the rise of new militant groups, Abdur Rashid said, "The main reason is that the ideological appeal of the militant organisations of the past has been lost. Supporters and active members have become inactive due to organisational isolation. They come in with new agendas and new strategies to revive the ideas they espouse.”
Rashid believes that the formation of new militant outfits is the consequence of clashes within the leadership of groups that preceded them.
"Although they talk about ideological differences, there is basically a leadership conflict, which creates factions. If these factions meet strong resistance and can't ward it off by themselves, then a common agenda is created.”
Patrons also play a big part in the genesis of new organisations, according to him. They often put pressure on disaffected elements to reunify and regain strength, he said. But the task of identifying the patrons and the sources of funding for militants is a difficult one.
“Militancy in Bangladesh always revolves around politics. The national election is approaching. Concerns about militant groups being used for political gains cannot be ruled out."
Khandaker Farzana Rahman, chairperson of Dhaka University’s criminology department, flagged the shortcomings of the police and prison authorities.
“Since militant groups are recruiting members online, we saw many young people go missing in recent months. Elections are also nearing at the same time. All in all, I feel that they have started a kind of conspiracy to subvert patriotism and the spirit of the Liberation War by disrupting the law and order situation to create instability."
Militant groups rope in new members by offering various financial incentives to them, according to Rashid.
"They have to provide some sort of incentive to keep people engaged. It could take the form of legal aid to another militant, financial assistance to the family when someone dies and even help for death-row convicts to escape. This is a part of their strategy,” he said.
About 70 young men have left home in the last two years, many of whom have joined Jamatul Ansar, according to the RAB.
The RAB published a list of 38 suspected militants in October after tracing as many as 55 young adults who went missing in the last two years.
As the head of Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya, RAB named The agency identified Shamin Mahfuz, a former student of Dhaka University, as the leader of the group and revealed that he formed an alliance with an separatist group, led by Nathan Bawm, whom he had known from university. The separatists trained the budding militants deep in the Chattogram Hill Tracts in exchange for money, according to the RAB.
CTTC chief Asaduzzaman believes the new militant outfit decided operate out of the hill tracts where they would be to track.
Although the RAB and the police have arrested some of the missing youths, Shamin remains elusive.
DID COMPLACENCY LEAD TO A LAPSE IN VIGILANCE?
Some analysts believe the success of the operations to root out militancy after the Holey Artisan attack, the deadliest act of terror in Bangladesh’s history, may have developed a sense of complacency among security officials, which allowed new militant groups to surface.
“Due to the lack of a visible threat lately, a sense of complacency may have creeped into the security forces, which resulted in lapses within the security apparatus. Active militants have been paying attention to those lapses and used it very successfully to break their cohorts out of custody,” said Rashid.
Rashid fears that the way the yet-to-be-identified militants pulled off the operation close at the court premises, an area which is usually teeming with law enforcement personnel, may serve as encouragement for their brethren.
AKM Shahidul Haque, who was the chief of police during the 2016 attack, echoed Rashid.
“At least 70 successful operations post-Holey Artisan may have led to the feeling that the threat of militancy had been thwarted. Nobody should forget militants captured or killed in those operations have friends, families and followers. So, the radical ideology never actually ceased to exist. Keeping militancy at bay is not routine work. Security and intelligence agencies need to be more proactive,” he said.
Shahidul’s predecessor, Nurul Huda, agrees.
“Nobody said militancy was completely wiped out. Rather it’s been said time and time again that it’s under control. It has to be kept under control,” he said.
Primarily, the CTTC was conducted anti-militancy operations across the country, but lately, another specialised force called the Anti-Terrorism Unit, or ATU, is at the helm.
ATU Superintendent (media) Aslam Khan dismissed allegations of complacency.
“This specialised unit is strictly monitoring [militant activities]. We are closely monitoring known members and possible fresh recruits of eight outlawed organisations. I can assure you that all law enforcement agencies working to root out militancy are stronger and paying close attention to the chatters and suspicious activities at the field level,” he said.
Criminologist Farzana Rahman has a different point of view. “I agree that vigilance and monitoring are necessary to keep militancy in check, but society at large has a responsibility to create an inclusive environment so that no one opts for such destructive ways,” she said.
To this end, CTTC chief Asaduzzaman said his unit helped rehabilitate at least 50 former militants back to normal life.
“If someone needed a job, we assisted him in getting it. We helped some to change their outlook towards the society they live in. Those who have already been released from prison are being monitored and motivated so that they don’t go down that same path again.
RAB officials said 20 former militants have been rehabilitated by them.
[Writing in English by Arshi Fatiha Quazi and Adil Mahmood]