‘3 police officers suffered injuries from some cocktail blasts in Gulistan.’ These were the words spoken by a senior sub-editor relayed to an entire newsroom, or perhaps to no one at all, as she got off the phone at our sister newsagency UNB’s central newsdesk. It was late in the evening of April 29, and the newsroom had largely thinned out by then. Some of the reporters were tired from having covered the Bosila raid that had started prior to dawn that day. Nobody was in any mood really, to engage with anything mundane. And in the newsroom of a national news agency such as UNB, cocktail blasts in Gulistan with no casualties is probably as mundane as it gets.
Except this one didn’t just dissipate into the din of keyboards and television and reporters chattering. It somehow hung heavily in the air, and within 10-15 minutes a news editor asked for a follow up. By now the tv scrolls were relaying the news as well, but as the night drew to a close, our knowledge of this relatively small incident had not advanced much beyond the initial information received. The next day, most of the morning papers would stick the story in the inside pages, where the mundane stories belong. But online, an old acquaintance would catch herself in Bangladesh’s crosshairs once again.
SITE intelligence, a U.S.-based group that monitors online communications among Muslim militants, said the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack that involved the use of an incendiary firebomb often described as a “poor man’s grenade,” which consists of a bottle filled with fuel-soaked rag and a combustible liquid.
“A case has been filed and today we are sending the case to the counter-terrorism and transnational crimes unit to investigate whether terrorism is the motive,” a police source said.
SITE said the IS-linked Al Mursalat Media posted an electronic image in English, Bengali and Hindi on its Telegram pages threatening new attacks.
A SITE spokesman confirmed the authenticity of the image, which shows five members of Bangladesh militant group Neo-JMB who died in the Holey Artisan Bakery café attack that killed 20 civilians in July 2016. As that attack was ongoing, IS-linked media posted pictures of the same five men and claimed responsibility.
Some graphic image also includes a caption that said: “Do you ever think that the anger of the mujahideen will suddenly bring destruction upon you? Then wait for that day … coming soon insha’allah (God willing).”
The IS message went out on same day the group’s supreme leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appeared in a video for the first time in five years, according to news agencies. He acknowledged IS’ defeat in Syria, but vowed to take revenge.
The sudden militant activities in Dhaka have put the law enforcers on alert. Vigilance across the country, especially in the capital, has already been stepped up in the wake of Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka, which claimed more than 250 lives.
Earlier, three including two traffic police constables, were injured after unknown miscreants hurled cocktails on a police patrol team in front of Gulistan subway in the city. The injured are traffic constables Nazrul (45) and Liton (42), and community policeman Ashik (28).
While visiting Dhaka Medical College and Hospital (DMCH) to see the wounded cops, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia told reporters that the authorities were looking into the involvement of “any foreign militant groups” behind the Gulistan attack.
“The improvised bomb that went off in Gulistan is unlike the ones we usually see. Our bomb disposal and counter-terrorism officers have already inspected the scene of the blast. We have checked the nature of the survivors’ injuries. Necessary evidence has been collected as well. We are in the process of analysing them,” he added.
When asked about any foreign militant groups’ involvement in the blast, Asaduzzaman Mia said: “Our counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism experts are looking into the matter. We don’t know if ISIS is indeed involved with the incident. We’re investigating into foreign militants’ links. It is possible that other nefarious parties are involved and they are making an issue out of this. Our cyber crime unit is working to get confirmation regarding the matter.”
“We’ve destroyed the militant network in the country after the Holey Artisan café attack in 2016. We’re working to curb extremism,” he added.
Adequate plainclothes police personnel and other intelligence officials have already been deployed throughout the capital to avert any untoward incidents, he added.
Meanwhile, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said the law enforcement agencies are on high alert and vigilant to deal with extremists and militants with an iron hand. “Law enforcers have destroyed the militant dens and networks across the country. Now, the police and intelligence agencies are on high alert in dealing with any untoward situation,” he added.
Asaduzzaman Khan told reporters that if law enforcers get any information about any militants or subversive activities, stringent action will be taken. He, however, stressed the need for forging a collective resistance of all against extremism as it has become a global problem hindering peace, prosperity and development. The minister also said that law enforcers have intensified their operations and vigilance across the country.
Speaking at a programme titled “Global Militancy-Terrorism and Bangladesh” at the National Press Club, Monirul Islam, chief of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of DMP, said: “Bangladesh is not facing any specific security threat like Sri Lanka or New Zealand. However, we should remain vigilant to face any sporadic terror attacks.”
Noting that the police have busted all the hideouts of banned outfits and several numbers of suspected terrorists were killed during gunfights with law enforcers, Monirul Islam further said: “After the Holey Artisan café attack, the US authorities told us that the attack was carried out by ISIS militants and we cannot control the situation without their help.”
Regarding the presence of ISIS in Bangladesh, Monirul Islam said: “There is no ISIS militant here. JMB tried to establish the militant group here, but their attempts failed.”
JMB was founded in Bangladesh in 1998 with the aim of establishing an Islamic state in Bangladesh. Weakened by security operations in the early 2000s that swept up hundreds of its purported members and saw its leadership executed, a faction of the organization called Neo-Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh re-emerged in the 2010s and refers to itself as “Islamic State Bangladesh.” Although it has been featured in ISIS central propaganda, the faction is not thought to have been recognized official wilayat, or province, and the Bangladeshi government does not acknowledge an ISIS presence in the country.
Almost a week after the Gulistan attack, Counter-terrorism officials have arrested a Saudi-born Bangladeshi man on charges of violating anti-terror laws after he allegedly tried to join a local militant group upon his return from Syria, where he was believed to have fought for the Islamic State. Motaj Abdul Majid Kafiluddin Bepari, 33, was arrested in Dhaka while meeting with members of the banned IS-linked group Neo-JMB, police said.
“Motaj was arrested under the anti-terrorism act. He is now in four-day remand,” Masudur Rahman, deputy commissioner for media and public relations of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, told the media. The arrest took place about two months after Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kama that Bangladesh would bar any citizens who joined IS overseas from coming home.
“If any suspect in some way manages to arrive, we will arrest them and try them in accordance with the law. We will not allow any terrorists to come to Bangladesh,” he said.
The government has not determined exactly how many Bangladeshis left the country to join the militants who rampaged across Syria and Iraq and seized territory in 2014. But Khan said suspected IS fighters or supporters would be taken into custody if they landed at any airport in Bangladesh.
According to the United Nations, more than 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries might have travelled to join terror groups in Syria and Iraq. That figure includes 40 Bangladeshis, according to a July 2018 report from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) in London.
Motaj, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, entered Bangladesh in February. During his arrest, police seized his Bangladeshi passport, a Saudi driver’s license and literature related to radicalization, a police report said. Investigators said Motaj’s deceased father was Bangladeshi and his mother came from Pakistan.
According to the police report, Motaj had established contact with the Neo-JMB “and was planning to establish a caliphate in Bangladesh after uprooting the government.” It has since been revealed that Motaj had communicated with more than a hundred Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) while staying in Bangladesh, counter terrorism investigators claimed. The arrestee, Motaj Abdul Majid Kafiluddin Bepari alias Motaj, 33, a Saudi-expatriate, snuck into Bangladesh on February 1.
Based on information, a team of CTTC arrested Motaj in Uttara when he, along with five to six other “Neo JMB” members, had gathered on a road near Baitur Nur Jame Mosque in Road 10 in Sector 11. His associates managed to flee, according to the statement of the case filed with Uttara West Police Station in connection with the arrest.
CTTC officials recovered his passport, four pages of articles and translations published in IS propaganda magazine Rumiyah, his Saudi resident ID card and more than a hundred pages of write-ups.
According to the case statement, Motaj was born and brought up in Saudi Arabia. His father Abdul Majid Bepari, a Bangladeshi, went to Saudi Arabia when he was 10. Motaj’s mother is Pakistani. He has 16 siblings, including stepbrothers and sisters. Motaj had made a number of failed attempts before getting into Syria.
He managed to make a Bangladeshi passport in 2014, using which he went to Turkey in 2016 in an attempt to get into Syria. The attempt failed and he had to go back to Saudi Arabia after three months. He then tried to reach Syria via Egypt in 2017 but again failed and returned to Saudi Arabia. He again chalked out a new route and tried to reach Syria through a waterway the same year but failed due to inclement weather.
Finally, in May last year, he successfully reached Syria, where he stayed for over six months, according to counterterrorism officials. After the fall of IS in Syria, he fled to Turkey and went into hiding. He worked in a restaurant during his around one and a half month stay there. Meanwhile, his Saudi residential permit expired but he did not renew it for reasons unknown.
As the Islamic State group (IS) lost its last patch of land in the east Syrian village of Baghuz, many are asking the question: is this the end of the IS “caliphate” and could it ever come back?
IS’s caliphate model was already brought to an end in late 2017, when the group lost its key bases in Syria and Iraq. Since then, IS has struggled to project the image of a functioning and flourishing state - which formed the very basis of its claim to have revived the caliphates of early Islam. But its threat did not go away and IS swiftly reverted to being a terror group that employs guerrilla tactics to destabilise the countries and communities where it is active.
For example, in Iraq where IS now holds no ground, the group carries out almost daily hit and run attacks, operating from hideouts and through a dispersed network of operatives and sleeper cells. This strategy is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, although its intensity will depend on the efforts of local forces, intelligence work and Western support. Also, the IS ideology, which is a more severe form of the overall Islamist extremist ideology, is not easy to eradicate.
But it will be very difficult for IS to replicate its 2014 caliphate model and restore the appeal that prompted many Muslims to cheer the group and flock to its territory. Even if the political conditions that helped IS rise in countries like Iraq and Syria have not changed considerably, one important variable surely has: IS has lost the advantage of novelty, according to extremism monitors.
The “Islamic State” is no longer a new and intriguing phenomenon capable of grabbing headlines and dazzling some Muslims with its claim of reviving the Islamic caliphate and the implied duty for them to pledge allegiance and live under its rule.
Local communities and foreign recruits now know IS first hand. They have experienced its brutality and its empty promises of giving them security and the good life - a lie the group sold through slick propaganda videos. In fact, all Sunni communities got from IS in the end was death, displacement and the destruction of their towns and cities.
The bloodshed and ultra-violence unleashed by extremists in Algeria in the 1990s made the population strongly shun jihadists, many of whom now admit they lost Algeria and a lot of their “credibility” due to the excessive violence. IS has also been humiliated and broken, a far cry from its claim to be the “victorious” group (al-Ta’ifah al-Mansurah), even if it tries to justify its defeat as a temporary setback and a ‘test’ to believers.
Another reason why IS is not going away any time soon is that the ideology that groups like IS adopt is alive and well and difficult to eradicate simply by crushing terrorist groups on the ground or taking away their bases and training camps.
In the 21 February edition of its weekly newspaper, IS adapted its trademark slogan “Remaining and Expanding” in a defiantly-worded editorial that said: “the banner of the Islamic State is remaining...and its war against the infidels is expanding”. This could be interpreted as IS implicitly acknowledging that it has lost its bases on the ground but that its ideology and jihad are not over. Moreover, IS will continue to try to inspire attacks in the West, even though such incitement efforts have not proven hugely fruitful recently.