Reuters: "Bangladesh's missing militant link: the threat from abroad"

August 03, 2016

When Bangladeshi authorities last month released the names of 261 men who have gone missing from their families, in an attempt to find militants hidden in this country of 160 million people, at the very end of the list was "Jilani alias Abu Zidal".

He was not in Bangladesh. The young man, an engineering school dropout, travelled to Syria last year to fight for Islamic State. In April, IS announced he was blown to bits during battle by a 23-millimeter gun, the sort used to shoot down aircraft. 

Asked why Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion, a domestic anti-terrorism agency, listed Jilani among the 261 names, its spokesman Mufti Mohammad Khan said neither the man's family nor the police had notified the battalion of the death. "So we included him in the list." A Google search for Jilani, whose real name was Ashequr Rahman, would have brought up an Islamic State notification of his death.

Distributing the alias of a dead jihadi in an all-points bulletin is just one illustration of how Bangladesh authorities have failed to confront the international links of radical Islamist groups in the country. Police and government officials here continue to insist they are facing a home-grown threat -- a "grave error," according to regional experts on militant groups. 

Banking officials admit being lost when it comes to interdicting foreign funding for attacks. Law enforcement officers have been slow to complete basic steps of intelligence-gathering, weeks after a July 1 assault in which five young men killed 20 people they'd taken hostage at a cafe in the capital.


The government says the July 1 attack -- and another on July 26 in which police killed nine militants believed to be plotting a similar assault-- were the work of domestic militants and it has dismissed claims of responsibility from the Islamic State. 

That fits with a pattern of the nation's rulers reflexively blaming their rivals in Islamist opposition political parties for fomenting unrest.

Dhaka has recently doubled down on its position that IS does not exist in Bangladesh. Authorities on Tuesday named a prime suspect in the café attack, Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury. Analysts say he is the same person IS identified in April as its commander in Bangladesh, who goes by the alias of Sheik Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif.

Asked whether by naming Chowdhury officials had implicitly acknowledged Islamic State is in Bangladesh, Monirul Islam, head of a counter-terrorism cell for the Dhaka police, disagreed. "Our stand is very clear," Islam told Reuters, "that there is no IS inside the country." 

Many "lone wolf" and self-styled jihadist groups have pledged support to IS around the world, in addition to a reported 22,000 foreigners who have left their countries of origin to fight on behalf of the group. However, the line between self-declared adherents and actual IS command-and-control is often unclear. 

Bangladesh has for years denied that global jihadi networks like al Qaeda and Islamic State operate on its soil. But the recent spate of attacks by scattered and hard-to-detect groups of gunmen claiming loyalty to both shows such distinctions are losing relevance. 

That has left authorities struggling to contain an escalating offensive by militants in a nation with a $28 billion-a-year garment industry and which, crucially, sits between south and southeast Asia, regions that contain the largest Muslim populations in the world.


Officials in Dhaka have ordered crackdowns on long-standing Bangladeshi domestic Islamist political and militant groups, arresting more than 11,000 people in June alone in an effort to stop a wave of killings, including by machete hacking, that have targeted liberal bloggers, academics and religious minorities.

The attention to old foes is diverting attention from an emerging international problem, said Animesh Roul, executive director of a New Delhi-based think tank, the Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict.

"They are still focusing too much on the existing militant networks and have failed to realise that the IS or AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) monsters are fishing in the troubled waters and succeeding to a large extent by enticing the youths or grassroots extremists," Roul said.

Roul, who penned a study of the militant threat in Bangladesh published in May by the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy, called it "a grave error."

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Reuters, August 3, 2016