In an attempt to re-assert itself in Bangladesh, extremists belonging to the banned Jam'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) targeted a prison van and freed three of their comrades on February 23, 2014. The prison transport was taking them from Kashimpur Prison in Gazipur District to a court in the Trishal Sub-district area of Mymenshingh District. The driver of the van, Police Constable Atiqul Islam, was killed in the attack, while two other Policemen sustained injuries. The freed terrorists were identified as Jahidul Islam alias Boma Mizan, Salauddin Salehin alias Sunny and Hafez Mahmud alias Raqib Hasan alias Rasel. All three were members of the Majlish-e-Shura(highest decision making body) of JMB. Later, on February 24, 2014, Raqib was killed in crossfire between terrorists and the Police in the Mirzapur sub-District area of the neighbouring Tangail District.
While Raqib and Salauddin were on death row, Jahidul was serving a life sentence, each for his involvement in the August 17, 2005, countrywide explosions. 459 explosions had occurred in 63 of Bangladesh's 64 Districts (excluding Munshiganj) killing three and injuring more than 100 people. On the day of the prison van attack, the three were scheduled to appear before the court in connection with another bombing at a cinema hall in Mymenshingh on December 7, 2002, in which 18 people were killed and 300 were injured.
A massive manhunt is underway for their capture and authorities have declared a bounty of BDT 200,000 for each of them. A high alert has also been issued in prisons across Bangladesh, where convicted or under-trial Islamist radicals are lodged.
Tangail Police have claimed that the present JMB 'chief' Anwar Hossain Faruk led the operation and over BDT six million was spent for the mission. On September 15, 2012, in a report handed over to the Government by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), it was stated that Bangladesh faced a significant risk of money laundering and some risk of terrorism financing. The report, inter alia, also observed that some outfits, including JMB, were active in Bangladesh and JMB cadres had publicly claimed receiving funds from Saudi Arabia.
With the exception of this latest attack, the JMB has not carried out any significant operation in the recent past. However, in 2011, JMB had threatened to kill Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, and to blow up the Chittagong District Central Jail and Court Building. A letter, claimed to have been signed by JMB terrorist, Abdul Mannan reached the Jailor, Rafiqul Quader, by post on January 5, 2011, threatening to bomb the Jail and Court building if detained JMB cadres and leaders were not released within a month. The attack never took place. The last major attack carried out by JMB was on November 14, 2005, when a JMB cadre belonging to the suicide squad exploded a bomb, killing two senior assistant judges, Shaheed Sohel Ahmed and Jagannath Pandey, and wounding three people in the District Headquarters of Jhalakathi District.
The long hiatus in activities was, most likely, primarily due to intensive security measures undertaken by the Security Forces (SFs). Most recently, on February 24, 2014, Police recovered one shotgun, one bullet and three shells from Tangail District after killing Raqib. Again, on March 14, 2014, 4.5 kilograms of explosives were recovered from a JMB hideout in Mymenshingh District, and two JMB terrorists were arrested. Earlier, on August 23, 2013, a cache of arms and ammunition, including a Submachine Gun (SMG), a Light Machine Gun (LMG), foreign made pistols, and 80 bullets, were recovered from three JMB terrorists in Thanthania of Bogra District. On, January 9, 2012, several publications of the banned organisation and some books giving instructions on how to make bombs and operate firearms like AK-47, were recovered from the Uttara area of Dhaka city, along with the arrest of JMB activist Emdadul Haque Uzzal.
According to partial data collected by Institute for Conflict Management, since 2005, a total of 521 JMB terrorists have been arrested from across Bangladesh in 260 incidents (data till March 28, 2014). Prominent among these were: former 'chief' Moulana Saidur Rahman; 'commander' of the Dhaka zone, Mohtasim Billah alias Bashir; former 'second-in-command' Mahtab Khamaru; Mohammad Asaduzzaman 'chief' of the Khulna divisional unit; Mohammad Wahab, 'head' of the Savar zone; former 'acting chief' Anwar Alam alias Nazmul alias Bhagne Shahid; Chittagong 'divisional commander’ Javed Iqbal; Mehedi Hasan alias Abeer, in charge of the Khulna Division; Zahirul Islam alias Zahid alias Badal, in charge of the Dhaka Division (North); Dhaka ‘divisional commander’ Salahuddin alias Salehin; Sherpur ‘district commander’ Mujahidul Islam Sumon; and Emranul Haque alias Rajib 'chief' of the information technology (IT) wing.
These arrests, as well as intermittent recoveries, enormously weakened the outfit. Crucially, JMB lost its strength considerably in 2007. On March 30, 2007, six top JMB terrorists, including the outfit’s then 'chief' Abdur Rahman and ‘second-in-command’, Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai’ were executed. The other terrorists hanged were Majlish-e-Shura members Abdul Awal, Khaled Saifullah and Ataur Rahman Sunny and suicide squad member Iftekhar Hasan Al-Mamun.
JMB was founded in 1998 by Shaikh Abdur Rahman, with the objective of establishing Islamic rule in Bangladesh and to replace the current state and constitution. It opposes the existing political system and seeks to "build a society based on the Islamic model laid out in Holy Quran-Hadith." It opposes democracy, socialism as well as cultural functions, cinema halls, shrines and NGOs. A report issued in November 2011 by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point notes: “JMB's actual cadre strength is unknown. Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies identified 8,096 JMB members, of which 2,000 were allegedly part of the group's ‘suicide squad’...”
Current reports suggest that JMB still has around 1,000 active workers, mostly in the Ahl-e-Hadis belt of northern Bangladesh. Its current strategy is to re-build the outfit into a Taliban-like organisation to establish a Shariah based state.
Intelligence sources indicate that the Bangladesh Government had succeeded in arresting and trying a significant number of terrorists over the last seven years. According to media report, between 2007 and 2014, 478 JMB operatives were tried in 177 cases; of these, 51 top leaders of the outfit were sentenced to death, but are also facing trials in several other cases and accordingly, their execution may take years. Meanwhile, many of the arrested terrorists have slipped through legal loopholes and regrouped to strengthen the terrorist formation. Moreover, another approximately 270 cadres, wanted in different cases are still at large, raising a significant threat of terror attacks.
The enormity and protraction of ongoing cases and the lack of a fast-track trial process creates ample opportunities for the outfit to attempt future 'hijack' incidents to rescue their convicted operatives. Unsurprisingly, on February 24, 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed asked the Law Ministry to take effective measures to ensure speedy disposal of cases relating to terrorism.
Crucially, since the establishment of International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) on March 15, 2010, the country has been engrossed with the War Crimes Trials, even as the administration is preoccupied with protest rallies and general shutdowns orchestrated by Islamist extremists led by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and its students' wing Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) in collusion with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The rising graph of fatalities in attacks carried out by these extremists since the establishment of the ICT has become a matter of immediate concern. At least 435 people - 255 civilians, 27 SF personnel and 153 terrorists - have been killed in such violence between March 15, 2010 and March 30, 2014. This has resulted in a measure of neglect as far as other terrorist formations in the country are concerned, primarily including JMB, which also has proven links with the JeI. In July 2010, detained then 'chief' of JMB, Saidur Rahman had disclosed the JMB link with JeI.
Inspector General of Police Hassan Mahmood Khandker, on February 23, 2014, admitted that “terrorists are still active in the country,” but asserted further that “the situation is under our control now.” With desperate efforts at revival, however, the surviving extremist organisations in the country continue to pose a tangible threat to the fragile sense of control that has been established in Bangladesh, and the danger of a rash of terrorist incidents is never entirely excluded. The freeing of leadership elements of the JMB in the February 23 incidents underlines, and can only compound, this latent risk.
First published South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings
Volume 12, No. 39, March 31, 2014
Volume 12, No. 39, March 31, 2014
Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management