Abstract: Despite government denials, Bangladesh has increasingly become fertile ground for al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State. Both groups have taken advantage of an upsurge in Islamist militancy in the country over anger at the execution of Islamist political leaders in 2013, and both hope to expand their footprint there by building alliances with local groups. Bangladeshi police suspect the Bangladeshi wing of al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which has claimed a series of attacks on secular bloggers, is liaising with top leadership of the terrorist network in Pakistan. An increasingly assertive, local chapter of the Islamic State has launched attacks on foreigners and sectarian targets in a bid to build its support base in the country. With radicalized Bangladeshis being drawn to both groups, the security climate is likely to worsen until the government acknowledges the threat. Follow @sspconline
Bangladesh, the fourth-largest Muslim majority country in the world, has been in the limelight of late because of growing political and religious violence, including increasingly frequent targeted killings of secularists by radical Islamists. Over the last three years the country has become increasingly polarized between moderate and secular-leaning forces on one side and Islamists on the other, which has resulted in growing radicalization and increasingly energized and strengthened local radical networks. While local dynamics explain much of the rise of violence, this article will document how both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State are increasingly eyeing Bangladesh for expansion and taking advantage of local radical networks to expand their presence and support base in the country.[a]
Fast-moving political, economic, and social changes, as well as settling of historical scores, have set off the current convulsions in Bangladesh. The current cycle of violence dates back to the Shahbagh protest movement in early 2013. This involved moderate and secular-leaning Bangladeshis demanding maximum punishment for Islamists accused of colluding with the Pakistani military junta to carry out massacres against nationalists during the 1971 War of Liberation[b] and punitive action against the leaders of Bangladesh Jamaat-e Islami (also known as Jamaat or JeI), the largest politico-religious party in the country. They were particularly angered that Abdul Quader Mollah, a leading figure in the JeI and the so-called “butcher of Mirpur,” only received a life sentence. Following the protests, the Supreme Court sentenced him instead to death, and he was executed in December 2013 despite violent demonstrations from Islamists.
To counter the secular and progressive challenge, radical Islamists geared up for fierce retribution under the banner of Hefajat-e-Islam (protector of Islam) and demanded death for “atheists and apostates” as well as prohibitions against blasphemy and un-Islamic cultural practices. Much of their ire was directed against secular blog writers.
Fearing a complete secularization of the country by the Shahbagh movement, radicals demanded the reinsertion of the phrase “Absolute trust and faith in Allah” (a 1977 constitutional clause) into the constitution of Bangladesh and the introduction of a blasphemy law primarily targeting free-speech writers and bloggers whom the Islamists allege are denigrating Islam.
Within this troubled and polarized atmosphere, there has been a surge in Islamist militancy in the name of “defending Islam.” Well-entrenched but subdued Deobandi militant groups like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami-Bangladesh (HuJI-B), both of which trace their lineage to JeI, have become increasingly militant and energized. New groups have also emerged such as Ansar al-Islam, which has acted as the Bangladeshi wing of al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and Jund al-Tawheed wal Khilafah (JTK), whose loyalties lie with the Islamic State, making Bangladesh a new field of competition for the global jihadist powerhouses.
History of Islamist Extremism
The conducive atmosphere of Bangladesh for Islamist militancy has been broadly created by two historical factors: the country’s political patronage of Islamism that nourished over a dozen extremist groups over the decades, and the rise and consolidation of the Deobandi-oriented JeI organization and its clamor for sharia-based governance in Bangladesh.
Ever since Bangladesh emerged as a nominally secularist state in 1971 after a war against Pakistan, the country has witnessed a sporadic, internal politico-religious tug-of-war. Even though the constitution emphasizes secularism as one of its four state principles and has banned the use of religion in politics, the clamor for a sharia-based Islamic state, ostensibly propounded by the JeI, has powerful backers in the country even today. The JeI has strong connections with a myriad of militant groups that have mushroomed throughout the country in recent decades under its patronage. These groups look at JeI as their spiritual and ideological fountainhead.
Two groups have been responsible for a significant share of the violence in Bangladesh. One of them, HuJI-B, was secretly founded in the late 1980s by the members of the Bangladeshi volunteer mujahideen who took part in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, where it developed strong operational connection with al-Qa`ida and Pakistani intelligence agencies. It has focused its attacks on the political leaders of the Awami League party (the secularist party that currently governs Bangladesh) as well as cultural events. Two particularly devastating attacks were a grenade attack on an Awami League rally in August 2004 that killed 24 and a bombing in Ramna Batamul in Dhaka during Bengali new year celebrations in April 2001 that killed 10.[c]
An even more hardline group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) emerged in 1998, bringing attacks to a new level in the country.[d] The group was responsible for a series of countrywide bombings in August 2005 as well as subsequent suicide attacks against government officials, including judges, lawyers, and professors.[e] Both HuJI-B and JMB have been aiming to establish an Islamic state through the political process as well as resorting to violence.
There was a half-decade respite from Islamist-related violence after a crackdown on Islamist groups after the military intervened in January 2007 to impose a caretaker government and during the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami government which came to power in elections the following year. In March 2007 authorities executed several senior JMB leaders, including its paramount commander Sheikh Abdur Rahman and senior commander Siddiqul Islam (alias Bangla Bhai). This coincided with multiple arrests of both HuJI-B and JMB rank-and-file members in the country, more aggressive policing, and the blanket proscription on many Islamist groups. But the period of relative calm ended with the Islamist backlash against secularists in 2013, unleashing violence onto Bangladesh’s streets.
HuJI-B and JMB have both reemerged in new forms since the surge in Islamist militancy in 2013, and intelligence suggests they are now working together to some degree. HuJI-B’s latest known offshoot is Tanjim-e-Tamiruddin (TeT).[f] In October 2013 one of its leaders, Khalilur Rahman, was arrested in Dhaka along with his followers after investigations revealed they were trying to reorganize the network.[g] That same month, security forces seized a large cache of arms and ammunitions from TeT members. Investigations have yet to reveal fully its spread and strength.
JMB’s new incarnation is BEM. Following the trial and execution of its top leadership in 2007, the group was thrown into complete disarray with its remaining commanders making sporadic attempts to revive its armed campaign. BEM came into the limelight after security forces arrested several militants in the town of Bogra in August 2013. There is little further detail available on the group making it difficult to assess its strength.
A number of TeT and BEM members have made clear their support of JeI and Hefajat-e Islam (defenders of Islam), an umbrella group of pro-Islamic groups. Interestingly, symbiotic ties between HuJI-B and JMB also surfaced during mid-2013 when Masiur Rahman Milon, a one-time JMB militant arrested in Jhalakathi along with other HuJI operatives, confessed to attempting to reorganize HuJI-B. In December 2015 a previously unknown JMB splinter group, “Al Mujaheed of Bangladesh,” came to light when six of its operatives were arrested in Dhaka’s Motijheel area while planning to assassinate a Sufi pir (spiritual master).
Drumbeat of Terror
The last three years have seen over 30 machete attacks, shootouts, and bombings in Bangladesh in a renewed surge of Islamist violence that has often been directed against critics of religious fanaticism, including U.S.-based Bangladeshi intellectual Avijit Roy who was hacked to death while visiting a Dhaka book fair in February 2015. Pinpointing who is responsible for this violence has been difficult because of a lack of government transparency about its investigations and its tendency to reflexively blame domestic groups like HuJI-B and JMB or the JeI movement and its student wing Islami Chaatra Sibir, despite the fact that nearly all the attacks have been claimed by the Bangladeshi affiliates and allies of al-Qa`ida or the Islamic State.[h]
While groups affiliated with al-Qa`ida have targeted activists from the Ganajagarana Mancha (People’s Resurgence Platform), which led the Shahbagh protests in 2013, and bloggers campaigning for secularism or critical of religion, militants affiliated with and allied to the Islamic State have targeted foreign nationals, minorities, and even security forces.
Critics of the Bangladeshi government accuse it of blaming domestic groups to downplay the transnational jihadist threat to the country, deflect criticisms it is not doing enough to combat the extremist threat, and tarnish its Islamist political opponents. The lack of government transparency has made it difficult to assess the degree to which HuJI-B and JMB and its new incarnations and their followers have overlap with groups acting on behalf of al-Qai`da and the Islamic State in Bangladesh, but Bangladeshi police officials interviewed by the author say there are strong indications a significant number of followers of JMB, historically the most violent jihadi group in Bangladesh, have gravitated toward the Islamic State and are acting in its name. HuJI-B, whose ties to al-Qa`ida core date back to the Afghanistan War, has seen their operatives gravitate toward AQIS.
Al-Qa`ida’s Bangladesh Venture
A pro-al-Qa`ida-linked grouping calling itself Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). which in reaction to government bans has also operated under the name of Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al Islam Bangladesh-2,[i] has been responsible for a significant proportion of recent attacks in Bangladesh. It claims to operate now as the Bangladeshi wing of AQIS.[j] Some academics are skeptical of the notion that al-Qa`ida has an organized presence in Bangladesh, but there is mounting evidence that ABT’s affiliation with al-Qa`ida is beyond name-only. Although much remains unknown about the nature of its ties and contacts with the senior leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s terror network domiciled in and around the tribal areas of Pakistan, there are indications, as will be outlined in this article, of coordination between the groups.
ABT emerged in 2013 as a mostly online network with much of its early membership made up of students at North-South University in Dhaka. As one of its alternative names suggests, the group was modeled on Iraqi salafi-jihadi group Ansar al-Islam. Its key inspirational figure was the firebrand spiritual leader Mufti Jasimuddin Rahmani, who openly supported both al-Qa`ida and the Taliban. He and his followers were also particularly inspired by the teachings of American AQAP (al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula) cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Rahmani incited jihad in Bangladesh through online blogs and other social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook.[k]
Rahmani’s incendiary Friday sermons and speeches at madrassas inspired many ABT activists, mostly former Chhatra Shibir cadres, to attack secular bloggers and activists working under the banner of Ganajagaran Mancha. At his Friday sermons at a mosque in Dhaka, Rahmani spoke of a duty to kill anyone who was against Islam and the Prophet. In his writings Rahmani listed progressive intellectuals such as Ahmed Rajib Haider, Asif Mohiuddin, Daud Haider, Taslima Nasrin, and Ibrahim Khalil as people who should be persecuted because they defamed Islam.
In February 2013 ABT militants inspired by Rahmani’s sermons hacked to death the secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider. Rahmani’s followers also attacked but failed to kill three other bloggers involved in the Shahbagh movement that year. Asif Mohiuddin survived an attack near Uttara locality in Dhaka in January and Sanaur Rahaman was injured by machete-wielding militants in early March in the Mirpur area. In August 2013 another Ganajagaran Mancha activist, blogger Tonmoy Ahmed Moon, was also knifed in Kashiabari area in Gaibandha district.
Rahmani was arrested in August 2013 and subsequently given a five-year prison sentence in connection with the killings and attempted killings. Around this time, likely in response to the crackdown, ABT started to refer to itself as Ansar al-Islam in social media pronouncements.
At the beginning of 2014 al-Qa`ida maneuvered to take advantage of the rising Islamist anger in Bangladesh. It had had a long history of engagement with Bangladesh-based Islamist groups and had enjoyed considerable support since at least the late 1990s within the myriad radical and militant communities in Bangladesh, especially from the Soviet-Afghan war returnees.[l] In a January 2014 video titled “Bangladesh: Massacre Behind a Wall of Silence,” al-Qa`ida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged Bangladeshis to foment a popular uprising to “confront the crusader onslaught against Islam.” The video dwelt on alleged atrocities committed by the security forces against pro-Islamic protesters and called for a sharia-based emirate in Bangladesh. Al-Zawahiri urged Islamic scholars and clerics of Bangladesh to lead the protesters from the front, telling them to teach Bangladeshis how to defend Islam and to instill in them a love for martyrdom.
Al-Qa`ida’s two-pronged strategy of “Jihad and Dawa” for Bangladesh seems to have invigorated Ansar al-Islam, despite the imprisonment of its spiritual leader, Rahmani. In March 2014 two teenage bloggers, Mahbubur Rahman Raihan and Ullash Das, were attacked near their alma mater, Chittagong College.[m] In mid-November that year militants belonging to Ansar al Islam Bangladesh-2 (another front for ABT) claimed the murder of Shafiul Islam, a sociology professor in Rajshai University, for his opposition to the practice of women wearing the burkha (full veil) in educational institutions.[n] He had been on the “hit list of targets” released earlier by Ansar al-Islam.
Ansar al-Islam received a further boost when al-Qa`ida established AQIS in September 2014 to wage jihad across south Asia. AQIS has encouraged attacks in Bangladesh through its online English-language publication Resurgence, which has vividly detailed alleged atrocities against Muslims in Bangladesh and urged a revolt against the democratically elected government by invoking Haji Shariatullah’s Faraizi movement, an Islamic revivalist movement of the 19th century.[o]
Ansar al-Islam began referring to itself as the Bangladeshi wing of AQIS from mid-2015 onward. Even before then, the satellite group and the global jihadist powerhouse had launched strikingly similar messaging campaigns, with Resurgence championing the killings of secular bloggers in Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi police officials told the author they suspect Ansar al-Islam is communicating with the top leadership of AQIS in Pakistan. There are several further indications Ansar al-Islam has developed organizational links to AQIS. Last month Bangladeshi media reported that recent raids on the group in Bangladesh revealed a former JMB operative, Ejaz Hossani (aka Sajjad), had acted as a point man between Ansar al-Islam and AQIS after fleeing Bangladesh and becoming an AQIS commander in Karachi. Hossani was reportedly killed in a Karachi shootout in January 2015. Other Bangladeshis have also climbed up the AQIS hierarchy, notably an operative called Suleiman (aka Ashiqur Rahman) who was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan.[p]
Encouraged by government inaction against the killers of the bloggers and al-Qa`ida’s pronouncements, Ansar al-Islam militants upped the ante in 2015, killing and maiming half a dozen secular and free-speech activists. Among them was Avijit Roy, a U.S.-based Bangladeshi scientist and blogger who wrote for the Mukto Mano (Free Mind) blog and was hacked to death as he left a book fair in Dhaka that February. Three other secular bloggers—Washiqur Rehman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niloy Chetterjee—were killed later that year, as were publisher Faisal Arifin Dipan[q] and journalist Mashiur Rahman Utsho. In all these killings the same tactic of multiple stabbings with sharp-edged weapons were used.
In May 2015, AQIS chief Aasim Umar exhorted further killings of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh in an video release entitled “From France to Bangladesh: The Dust Will Never Settle Down.”[r] In July 2015, Bangladesh police arrested two jihadist operatives described as heading the Bangladeshi chapter of AQIS—the alleged chief coordinator of the group Mufti Mainul Islam, a former HuJI-B operative, and his alleged advisor Maulana Zafar Amin. Little information has surfaced since on how they ran the group or the nature of their ties to AQIS leaders overseas.
The targeted killings by pro al-Qa`ida militants continued in 2016. For example, on April 6, Nazimuddin Samad, a blogger and activist of Ganajagaran Mancha, was killed in the Sutrapur area in Dhaka. As usual, Ansar al-Islam, the purported Bangladesh division of AQIS, claimed credit for the murder. On April 25 Xulhaz Mannan, the senior editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine Roopbaan, and Samir Mahbub Tonoy, a fellow gay rights activist, were killed by militants. Again Ansar al-Islam took responsibility in a detailed statement, saying they were killed as “they had been working relentlessly to spread & popularize the perversion of homosexuality in Bangladesh … [and both] were soldiers working for America.”
Claims of responsibility have taken a variety of forms. Starting in August 2015 many were in the form of releases by Ansar al-Islam in Bangladesh.[s] Claims have also been made by small units of hitmen at different social media handles; for example, Twitter handle “Ansar Bangla-7” claimed Roy’s killing, while “Ansar Bangla 8” claimed the killing of Das and “Ansar al Islam 4” claimed responsibility for publisher Dipan’s murder.
Following Nazimuddin Samad’s death, Ansar al Islam spokesperson Mufti Abdullah Ashraf, a mysterious figure who is still at large, indicated that the organization would continue to target people who commit eight specific kinds of offenses against what they regard as true Islam. The current leader of the group has not been publicly revealed.
Enter the Islamic State
Amid these increasingly violent activities by AQIS and Ansar al Islam, the competing Islamic State sensed an opportunity to establish a footprint in Bangladesh as part of an expansion campaign in the Indian Subcontinent. Coinciding with the announcement of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq, a group of unidentified Bangladeshi nationals pledged allegiance (bay`a) to the Islamic State in August 2014 and vowed to organize Bengali Muslims under the leadership of Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[t]
Within a relatively short span of time, the Islamic State’s violent ideals have found traction in Bangladesh due to the Islamic State’s robust propaganda tools and through an already radicalized Bengali diaspora. This vulnerability became apparent when a large number of Bengali-origin British nationals traveled to join the Islamic State on the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields.[u] For example, in September 2014 a British citizen of Bangladeshi origin, Samiun Rahman, was arrested in Dhaka for recruiting for the Islamic State.[v] A series of arrests of suspected Islamic State recruiters and militants followed, mostly affiliated with the banned JMB, thereby sending a strong and clear signal the Islamic State had arrived.[w]
The Islamic State has found support within the rank-and-file of JMB and has returned the favor by eulogizing JMB’s slain leaders in its magazine Dabiq in a bid for additional support.[x] In contrast, it should be noted that the Islamic State has been sharply critical of Bangladesh’s political Islamist movement, JeI, because of its alleged moderation and embrace of democracy.
While Ansar al Islam’s targeted violence against progressive secular culture and alleged “anti-Islam” activities in the country continued unabated, the Islamic State’s wave of violence started in 2015 and has seen attacks on Shi`a, foreigners, and places of worship claimed by self-professed Islamic State fighters in Bangladesh. The attacks have been in line with the Islamic State’s core ideals that espouse sectarianism, including anti-Shi`a or anti-Ahmadi sentiments, and have often involved gun or bomb attacks in contrast to al-Qa`ida’s use of machetes and knives.
A lack of government transparency and its apparent reluctance to acknowledge the growing Islamic State influence in Bangladesh has made it difficult to ascertain who exactly carried out the attacks on Shi`a, foreigners, and places of worship, but it is possible some of the attacks were the work of Jund al-Tawheed wal Khilafah (JTK). Although not much is known about the group, it is believed to have recruited a number of Bangladeshi nationals to fight in Syria. In late May 2015 Bangladeshi police arrested JTK operatives Aminul Islam Beg, a former JMB member who had allegedly selected 20 JMB members to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State.
In October 2014 suspected JTK members pledged support to al-Baghdadi in a video message, urging Bangladeshi Muslims to participate in armed jihad and to contribute financially toward the cause. It could be possible that the JTK is the same “Khilafah’s soldiers in Bengal” (also translated as the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh), mentioned in the Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine as being behind attacks on behalf of the Islamic State in the country.
On September 28, 2015 the Islamic State claimed its first attack in Bangladesh, saying two gunmen belonging to the “Soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh” shot dead the Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella in Dhaka. On October 3 it also claimed the same group had shot dead Japanese national Hoshi Kunio in Rangpur district.
Between October and December 2015 a series of attacks on sectarian and religious targets rocked Bangladesh. Pro-Islamic State militants targeted the famous Shi`a mosque Hussaini Dalan in Dhaka, a Shi`a mosque in Bogra, and the Chokpara Ahmadiyya Jamaat Mosque in Bagmara via a suicide strike.[y] The Islamic State took responsibility for the attacks on the Shi`a and Ahmadiyya mosques, in some cases providing granular detail and naming the perpetrators.
Further Islamic State-inspired violent incidents in this three-month period included an attempt by Islamic State inspired militants on the life of Pastor Luke Sarker at the Faith Bible Church on October 12, 2015; the November 19, 2015, attempt by gunmen to kill Piero Parolari, an Italian doctor and pastor; and a December 6, 2015, attack on a Hindu temple (Kantaji Mandir) in Dinajpur. Bangladesh authorities blamed JMB for these targeted attacks against Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, and denied transnational jihadi groups had any role in these attacks. As mentioned above, it is highly likely remnants of JMB have taken up the Islamic State cause in Bangladesh.[z]
In November 2015 the Islamic State announced it had nominated a leader to take control of operations in Bangladesh, intensifying efforts to portray itself as present on the ground in the country.[aa]
The Islamic State claimed attacks have increased this year, including the targeted killings of Rezaul Karim Siddiquee, an English language professor; Nikhil Joardar, a Hindu tailor; Hossain Ali, a freedom fighter and converted Christian; Abdul Razzaq, Chhamir Uddin Mandal, and Sanwar Hossain, homoeopathic medicine practitioners; and Jogeswar Das Adhikari, a Hindu priest.
Even though it is not clear if the Islamic State has any direct command and control of operations inside Bangladesh, and the degree of communication between Raqqa and Dhaka is unclear, it is certainly relying on the local militants to carry out attacks, and working aggressively to brand them as Islamic State operations.
Islamic State media units have waged an all-out propaganda campaign directed at Bangladesh, for example issuing a call in Dabiq magazine for “Muslims in Bengal to support the Khilafah and close their ranks, unite under the soldiers of the Khilafah in Bengal, and aid them in every possible way.” Islamic State media units are also churning out jihadist nasheeds that exhort jihad and the caliphate in the Bengali language.
Recent issues of Dabiq magazine[ab] make claims about both a significant Bangladeshi presence within the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and a growing Islamic State presence in Bangladesh, in the form of the group calling itself the Caliphate’s Soldiers in Bangladesh. The most recent issue of Dabiq, posted in mid-April, included a eulogy to slain Bangladeshi fighter Abu Jundal al-Banghali (aka Ashequr Rahman),[ac] who died in a battle at Raqqa, Syria, that aimed to entice more volunteers from Bangladesh.
Purported members of Bangladeshi group Soldiers of the Khilafah (DABIQ)
The same issue of Dabiq revealed the identity of the emir of the Islamic State Bangladesh chapter. The interview with the man in question, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, who was not pictured, provides interesting details on the group’s own view of its expansion in Bangladesh, though some of its claims are obviously self-serving. Al-Hanif claims the group has recruited a growing number of Bangladeshis, including followers of the JeI political movement.[ad] He also calls Bengal (Bangladesh and parts of modern India) an important region for the caliphate and a launching pad for jihad in neighboring India and Myanmar. Additionally, al-Hanif reveals an impending alliance between the Caliphate’s Soldiers in Bangladesh and the Islamic State Wilayat Khurasan, led by former Taliban leader Hafiz Saeed Khan and located in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This suggests the Islamic State is attempting to create its own south Asian venture to compete with AQIS.
In a strategy similar to its targeting of Shi`a in the Middle East to create advantageous sectarian tensions, al-Hanif also indicated that the Islamic State’s wing in Bangladesh would target the country’s minority Hindu population, which it accuses of controlling key levers of power. “Shariah in Bengal won’t be achieved until the local Hindus are targeted in mass numbers and until a state of polarization is created in the region, dividing between the believers and the disbelievers,” he stated.[ae]
The arrest of eight men of Bangladeshi origin in Singapore in early May underscored the security challenges facing Bangladesh. Police investigations revealed they had formed a group called the Islamic State in Bangladesh (ISB) and had been planning to stage terror attacks in Bangladesh. In January Singapore deported 26 expatriate Bangladeshis who followed the teachings of al-Awlaki and were suspected of supporting the ideology of both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State.
The fact that those deported from Singapore in January appear to have supported both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State suggests there are fewer hard boundaries between supporters of the two competing global jihadist groups than in some other regions of the world. Anecdotal evidence suggests many Bangladeshi Islamist extremists are supportive of both groups. A case in point appears to be Abdullah al Galib, a self-professed, one-time member of ABT who was arrested in May 2015 as he allegedly plotted attacks in Bangladesh on behalf of JTK and the Islamic State. Literature on both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State was found in his residence.
Islamist terrorism is on the rise in Bangladesh, fueled by militant groups taking advantage of the country’s version of the “culture wars.” With tens of thousands of Islamists angered by what they see as a secular war on Islam and with al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State maneuvering to exploit the ferment, the threat picture is darkening, especially because Bangladesh’s government has not acknowledged the presence of transnational groups.
Although al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State have existing ideological rivalries and are competing for dominance in the jihadist landscape elsewhere, this paradigm does not hold as strongly in Bangladesh. Islamist extremists and other militants are not greatly differentiating between AQIS or the Islamic State as of now.
According to anecdotal evidence, there are al-Qa`ida loyalists, comprised of Afghan war returnees and supporters of Usama bin Ladin, who are seemingly convinced about the AQIS agenda and who have also been praising al-Baghdadi for his courage and charisma, as well as his establishment of the caliphate. Alarmingly, this means that efforts by al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State to make Bangladesh the newest front of global jihad are creating a resonant jihadist wave that is energizing local groups to act.
Animesh Roul is the executive director of the New Delhi-based policy research group Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict. He specializes in counterterrorism, radical Islam, terror financing, and armed conflict in South Asia, and he has written extensively on these subject areas in the media, including edited books, journals, and policy magazines. He co-authored a book on India’s indigenous terror group entitled Indian Mujahideen. He also edits South Asia Conflict Monitor, an online newsletter on armed conflicts and violence in South Asia.
[a] Bangladesh was the focus of a January 2014 video message released by Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Bangladesh: Massacre Behind a Wall of Silence,” and was also featured in al-Qa`ida and Taliban English language magazines, Azan (issue 5, winter 2014) and Resurgence (fall 2014). The Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine featured articles on Bangladesh in issues 12 and 14.
[b] In early February 2013 protesters gathered in Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square to make clear their opposition to what they saw as lenient verdicts issued in war crimes trials relating to atrocities carried out by Islamists opposing separation from Pakistan in the 1971 liberation war as well as rising Islamic extremism in the country. This protest rally, which snowballed into a massive series of gatherings in the square that went on for almost a year, was led by online social media activists and free-speech bloggers under the banner of the Ganajagaran Mancha, a “mass-awakening forum,” demanding capital punishment for war crimes. For a detailed account, see Anika Hossain, “A Call To Rise,” Star, February 22, 2013.
[c] Other bomb attacks and assassination plots carried out by HuJI-B include the March 1999 bomb attack at the cultural program of Udichi Shilpi Goshthi in Jessore, an assassination attempt on then Prime Minister and Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina in July 2000 at Kotalipara in Gopalganj, and a bomb attack on a political rally at Paltan Maidan in January 2001. See “Huji boss captured: Sheikh Farid accused of Ramna Batamul carnage, other deadly attack,” Daily Star, April 28, 2011; “Mufti Hannan indicted for grenade attack on CPB rally,” BDNews24.com, September 4, 2014.
[d] The most infamous slogan of HuJI-B, “Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan” (we all become Taliban, and Bangladesh will turn to Afghanistan), was used by JMB. Alex Perry, “Deadly Cargo – Bangladesh has become a safe haven for al-Qa`ida,” Time, October 21, 2002.
[e] JMB was behind synchronised bombings across around 50 towns and cities in Bangladesh in August 2005. In October and November 2005, the law courts and judges were targeted in another series of bomb blasts in Chandpur, Chittagong, Sylhet, and Lakshmipur. Two High court judges were killed and three others were injured in the suicide bomb attack in Jhalakathi on November 14, 2005. Earlier in February 2004, JMB militants attacked professor Humayun Azad near Ekushey Book Fair, leaving him seriously injured. For background on JMB, see Animesh Roul, “Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh: Weakened, But Not Destroyed,” CTC Sentinel 4:11-12 (2011): pp. 16-18. For more on JMB’s attacks, see “Bombs Explode Across Bangladesh,” BBC, August 17, 2005; “Nine Die in Bangladesh Bombings,” BBC, November 25, 2005.
[f] HuJI-B had created several offshoots including Islami Dawat-e-Kafela (IDeK) and Islami Gan Andolon-Bangladesh (IGA-B) to avoid scrutiny.Following the government proscription in October 2005 for its anti-state activities, it again morphed into Islami Gan Andolon (dropping Bangladesh from its earlier incarnation IGA-B) and Sachetan Islami Janata (Conscious Islamic People).
[g] The reboot attempt was carried under the guise of a “Quran Learning Course.” To whip up support, HuJI-B cadres circulated a book, Takbiatul Iman, which alleged Muslims in Bangladesh were being tortured, assaulted, and killed under the Sheikh Hasina government. See Animesh Roul, “Al-Qaeda Leader al-Zawahiri Urges Jihad Against the “Anti-Islamic” Government of Bangladesh,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, Volume 12 Issue 2, January 2014.
[h] According to a tally by SITE Intelligence Group, as of late April 2016 AQIS-aligned groups have taken responsibility for 13 attacks since 2013, killing 11 and wounding five, and the Islamic State has claimed 15 attacks since it took responsibility for shooting dead Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella in September 2015. See “Special Report: Terror Rising in Bangladesh,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 26, 2016.
[i] The attacks, modus operandi, and investigating reports indicate these groups are all vehicles for the same set of killers. The names of the groups were posted in claims of responsibility for the attacks on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
[j] One sign that Ansar al-Islam has found favor with al-Qa`ida is ABT’s online presence on the al-Qa`ida-affiliated Ansar al-Mujahideen English language forum and other similar al-Qa`ida-linked jihadist forums like Qital Tube and Bab-ul-Islam. For instance, ABT used these forums for posting propaganda material in regional or local language like Urdu and Bengali.
[k] Rahmani and his followers spread their online propaganda in three different languages, Bengali, Urdu, and Arabic, via web forums like Mujahedeen Media, QitalTube, and Ansar1.info. See “Ansarullah BT deeply rooted in Al-Qaeda ideology,” Daily Observer, November 7, 2014; “Ansarulla Bangla Team: Preaching militancy, building network,” Daily Star, August 14, 2013.
[l] Fazlul Rahman of the Jihad Movement of Bangladesh was one of the original signatories of the fatwa issued by Usama bin Ladin in February 1998 urging action against the United States. Also Harkat ul Jihad Islami-Bangladesh leaders have endorsed bin Ladin’s ideals. Also there were unconfirmed reports of al-Qa`ida militants arriving in Chittagong port (the infamous M.V. Mecca saga) in 2002. For more on al-Qa`ida’s early footprints, see Bertil Lintner, “Bangladesh: A Cocoon of Terror,” Far Eastern Economic Review, April 4, 2002; Perry.
[m] Asif Mohiuddin, Raihan, and Das survived the attacks but were later arrested and jailed for insulting Islam and Prophet Mohammad in their respective writings in social media pages and blogs. See “Blogger Asif Mohiuddin held,” Daily Star, April 3, 2013. For more on Raihan and Das’ arrest for their blog content, see “Two bloggers sent to jail,” Dhaka Tribune, March 31, 2014.
[n] On social media Ansar al Islam Bangladesh-2 declared, “Our Mujahideens [fighters] executed a ‘Murtad’ [apostate] today in Rajshahi who had prohibited female students in his department to wear ‘Burka’ [veil].” The website also quoted a 2010 article from a newspaper affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami, which stated that “Professor Shafiul Islam, while being the chair of the sociology department, recruited teachers on condition of being clean-shaved and not wearing kurta-pajamas. He barred female students from wearing burka in classes. This led to many students abandoning burka against their will.” See “Islamist group claim responsibility of RU teacher murder,” BDNews24.com, November 16, 2014.
[o] One article in Resurgence stated, “No matter how harsh it sounds, a rebellion against this oppressive system is what the land of Haji Shariatullah needs these days. And as we do so, let us also revive the spirit of the Faraizi movement and return to our true roots. A revival of Islam in our individual and collective lives should be our answer to those who seek to stamp out Islam from Muslim Bangladesh.” Sulaiman Ahmed, “Bangladesh at the Cross Roads,” Resurgence (As Sahab Media, Subcontinent), summer 2014, pp. 79-81.
[p] Suleiman was mentioned by AQIS leader Maulana Aasim Umar in the video release “From France to Bangladesh: The Dust Will Never Settle Down,” As-Sahab Media, archived on Jihadology.net on May 2, 2015.
[q] Dipan’s Jagriti Prakasan publishing house in Dhaka was subsequently mentioned in the al-Qa`ida and ABT Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) Bengali wing video entitled “From Charlie Hebdo to Jagriti,” (February 9, 2016). This video profiled 12 individuals attacked in Bangladesh so far. See “GIMF Bangla Team Video Celebrates Past Attacks on ‘Islam-Hating’ Writers,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 9, 2016.
[r] He also called for more such attacks in Pakistan. See Maulana Aasim Umar, “From France to Bangladesh: The Dust Will Never Settle Down,” As Sahab Media, May 2015, archived on Jihadology.net on May 2, 2015.
[s] On an earlier occasion, AQIS’s leader Aasim Umar also claimed responsibility for the deaths of Bangladeshi bloggers and a professor in a video released on May 2, 2015. “Watch video of Al-Qaeda claiming responsibility for Bangladeshi killings,” Dhaka Tribune, May 3, 2015. Either to confuse investigators or due to larger organizational restructuring, ABT in mid-August 2015 issued a statement in al-Qa`ida-linked jihadist media effort the Global Islamic Media Front (merged to form GIMF Bangla Team in December 2015) that ABT was a media platform and not engaged in militant operations, while congratulating Ansar al-Islam, Bangladesh, and AQIS for killing atheist bloggers, including Niloy Neel in August 2015. See “The Global Islamic Media Front presents a new statement from Ansar Allah Bangla Team: Refuting News About the Role of Ansar Allah Bangla Team in the Assassination of the Blasphemer Blogger Niloy Chowdhury Neel in Bangladesh,” Jihadology.net, August 19, 2015.
[t] The first-ever video pledge, titled “Muslims in Bangladesh Give Bayah to the Caliph,” was published on August 2, 2014, and was available on YouTube for some time. See “ISIS in Bangladesh?” Dhaka Tribune, August 7, 2014.
[u] For instance, there was the October 2013 incident involving five Portsmouth, U.K.-based youths of Bangladeshi origin (“Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys”) who traveled to join the Islamic State in Syria and subsequently were killed in battle. “Fourth ‘British Bangladeshi’ jihadist killed,” Daily Star/Independent, October 26, 2014.
[v] It is not clear how many Bangladeshis have joined the Islamic State in Syria, but there were only three Bangladesh residents among the 4,600 unique Islamic State personnel records recovered from Syria dating from early 2013 to late 2014. See Brian Dodwell, Daniel Milton, and Don Rassler, “The Caliphate’s Global Workforce: An Inside Look at the Islamic State’s Foreign Fighter Paper Trail,” Combating Terrorism Center, April 2016.
[w] Over 15 suspected Islamic State recruiters and sympathizers were arrested between September 2014 and October 2015, including Hifzur Rahman, a JMB militant and the Islamic State’s Dhaka unit leader, and Abdullah Al Galib, organizer of the Islamic State-linked Jund At-Tawheed Wal Khilafah. “15 IS suspects held in 1 year,” Daily Star, October 8, 2015.
[x] Dabiq magazine has eulogized JMB and its slain leaders for attempting “to awaken the Muslim masses of Bengal to the importance of ruling by Shariah and the fundamentals of Al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal).” See Abu Abdur Rahamn al Banghali, “The Revival of Jihad In Bengal” With the Spread of the light of the Khilafa,” Dabiq, issue 12, pp. 38-41.
[y] Bangladesh experienced its first sectarian violence on October 24, 2015, when Islamist militants targeted a famous Shi`a Imambarha, Hussaini Dalan, located in the old city of Dhaka, killing a minor. The serial blasts at the Dalan left over 80 Shi`a worshippers injured. Almost a month later, the Bogra Shi`a Mosque was attacked by gunmen on November 27 who killed the mosque’s Muezzin (a prominent religious official of a mosque who calls for prayer and other rituals). On December 25 a suicide bomber attacked the Chokpara Ahmadiyya Jamaat Mosque in Bagmara (Rajshahi), injuring a couple of people present at the site. See “Triple explosions at Shia gathering in Old Dhaka leave one killed, nearly 80 wounded,” BDNews24.com, October 24, 2015; “IS claims credit for Bogra Shia mosque attack: SITE,” Daily Star, November 27, 2015; and “IS claims first ‘suicide bomb’ attack in Bangladesh,” Dhaka Tribune, December 25, 2015.
[z] Other victims of Islamic State-inspired strikes have been people of Sufi orientation (pirs) targeted for their allegedly “deviant” religious practices. At least four Sufi pirs were killed between September 2015 and May 2016—Salahuddin Khan, Khijir Khan, Rahmatullah, and Shahidullah. It should be noted that attacks on Sufi pirs are not new in Bangladesh. In December 2013 suspected JMB militants decapitated six people, including a Sufi pir and his followers in Dhaka’s Gopibagh locality for their alleged anti-Islamic activities. “JMB leader Mithu ‘confesses’ to 2013 murders of six in Gopibagh,” BDNews 24.com, November 28, 2015.
[aa] An article in the 12th issue of Dabiq stated that “the soldiers of the Khilafah in Bengal pledged their allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim, united their ranks, nominated a regional leader, gathered behind him, dissolved their former factions, performed the necessary military preparations, and hastened to answer the order from the Islamic State leadership, by targeting the crusaders and their allies wherever they may be found.” Dabiq, issue 12, p. 41.
[ab] Issue 14 of Dabiq also listed the military strikes of the Islamic State inside Bangladesh along with substantial coverage of its activities. See “Among the Believers of Men, Abu Jundal al Banghali,” Dabiq, issue 14, pp. 50-51, and “With the Amir of the Khilafah’s Soldiers In Bengal: Shaykh Abu Ibraham Al-Hanif,” Dabiq, issue 14, pp. 58-66.
[ac] Ashequr Rahman was a student at Dhaka’s Military Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) who left Dhaka on February 21 of last year to attend a conference in Turkey.
[ad] While al-Hanif blamed the Buddhists in Myanmar for the minority Muslims’ plight, he heavily criticized the “cow-worshipping” Hindus for creating “anti-Islamic propaganda” in both mainstream and social media. See “Interview with the Amir of the Khilafah’s Soldiers In Bengal: Shaykh Abu Ibrahim Al-Hanif,” Dabiq, issue 14, pp. 58-66.
[ae] Islamic State-linked fighters have also threatened Christian priests. One such threat came in the form of a letter addressed to Reverend Barnabas Hemrom, priest of Rangpur Baptist Church Sangha, dated November 25, that contained a list of 10 priests of other Baptist churches in the district. The letter stated, “You will be killed any day or any moment. Eat whatever you want.” Written in Bengali language, the three letters purportedly from an Islamic State-linked group was received by a Baptist Reverend on March 24, 2016, in Rangpur, Bangladesh. An unverified Instagram translation reads, “The director of ISIS needs five heads of Christian missionaries from Rangpur. The beheaded heads will send to Syria as a gift … these heads will be collected after festival of 25th December.” See “10 priests in Rangpur of Bangladesh get death threat,” Daily Star, November 27, 2015, and Instagram handle of Allison Joyce, a photojournalist based in Mumbai and Dhaka, @allisonsarahjoyce.
 Dean Nelson and David Bergman, “Bangladesh hangs ‘Butcher of Mirpur’ for ‘war crimes,’” Daily Telegraph, December 12, 2013.
 “Ramna blast: Fresh charges framed against Hannan, 13 HuJI men,” Daily Star, September 14, 2014; Partha Pratim Bhattacharjee, “Back from death only to suffer,” Daily Star, August 21, 2014.
 “Six JMB militants hanged,” Daily Star, March 31, 2007.
 Julfikar Ali Manik, “New group out to reorganise HuJI,” Daily Star, August 16, 2013.
 For more on TeT, see Animesh Roul, “Al-Qaeda Leader al-Zawahiri Urges Jihad Against the “Anti-Islamic” Government of Bangladesh,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, Volume 12 Issue 2, January 2014.
 “BEM modelled on JMB,” BDNews24.com, August 23, 2013.
 “JMB man was to rebuild HuJI: 8 Jhalakathi suspects disclose during interrogation in Dhaka,” Daily Star, August 20, 2013.
 “Six of new militant group arrested,” Daily Sun, December 4, 2015.
 Personal interviews, Bangladeshi police officials, July 2015 to January 2016.
 For more on the rise of ABT, see Markajul Ulum, “Rally point for militants,” Dhaka Tribune, August 16, 2013.
 See the statement of Ansar al Islam/AQIS, “Statement Regarding Assassination of Xulhaz Mannan & Samir Mahbub Tonoy.”
 For example, see Ali Riaz quoted in Ellen Barry, “Bangladesh Pushes Back as Warnings of ISIS Expansion Gather Steam,” New York Times, October 30, 2015.
 “Ansarullah BT deeply rooted in Al-Qaeda ideology,” Daily Observer, November 7, 2014; “3 ministers among 12 in Ansarullah group hit list,” Dhaka Tribune, August 15, 2013.
 “Progressive force its prime target,” Daily Star, August 14, 2013.
 “Two sentenced to death for killing blogger in Bangladesh,” Press Trust of India, December 31, 2015.
 “Blogger knifed in Dhaka,” BD News24.com, January 14, 2013.
 “Another blogger stabbed at Pallabi,” BDNews24.com, March 7, 2013.
 “Stabbed blogger ‘out of danger,’” Daily Star, August 11, 2013.
 “Two sentenced to death for killing blogger in Bangladesh,” Press Trust of India, December 31, 2015.
 Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Bangladesh: A Massacre Behind a Wall of Silence,” As-Sahab Media, posted on YouTube, January 14, 2014.
 “Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh” Lists Categories of Potential Targets for Killing,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 7, 2015.
 This is according to the author’s examination of the group’s statements.
 For example, see Resurgence issue 1, October 2014, and issue 2, summer 2015, p. 85.
 Personal interviews, Bangladeshi police officials, July 2015 to January 2016.
 “Ansarullah Bangla Team reorganised as Ansar al-Islam,” Prothom Alo, April 10, 2016.
 “Al Qaeda commander killed in Karachi,” Express Tribune, January 10, 2015.
 Julfikar ali Manik and Nida Najar, “Avijit Roy, Bangladeshi-American Writer Is Killed by Machete-Wielding Assailants,” New York Times, February 27, 2015.
 “Knife attack kills Bangladesh blogger Oyasiqur Rahman,” Daily Star, April 9, 2015.
 “Secular blogger Ananta Bijoy Das hacked to death,” BDNews 24.com, May 12, 2015.
 “Yet another blogger killed,” Daily Star, August 7, 2015.
 “Murder of another journalist: We must rely on police to be helpful,” New Nation, December 27, 2015.
 Kamrul Hasan, “Al-Qaeda Bangladesh chief arrested,” Dhaka Tribune, July 2, 2015.
 “SITE: AQIS claims murder of Nazim,” Dhaka Tribune, April 9, 2016.
 “Statement Regarding Assassination of Xulhaz Mannan & Samir Mahbub Tonoy,” Ansar al Islam AQIS Bangladesh, May 4, 2016.
 See, for example, “Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh Lists Categories of Potential Targets for Killing,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 7, 2015. “Same militant outfit kills Bangladesh bloggers,” Daily Star, August 11, 2015.
 “Ansar Bangla-7 claims Avijit killing responsibility,” Prothom Alo, February 27, 2015.
 “Ansar Bangla-8 claims Ananta Bijoy killing responsibility,” Risingbd.com, May 12, 2015.
 “Ansar al-Islam’s next targets,” Dhaka Tribune, November 3, 2015.
 For the list of categories, see “Al-Qa`ida to kill 8 types of people,” Dhaka Tribune, April 29, 2016.
 “UK citizen remanded in Dhaka for link with Syrian militants,” Daily Star, September 29, 2014.
 “‘JMB trying to contact Islamic State’: DB detains acting ameer, 6 others of the militant outfit,” Daily Star, September 19, 2014; “JMB man reveals plan for Islamic Bangladesh by 2020,” Dhaka Tribune, March 24, 2015.
 See Dabiq, issue 12.
 For JTK’s emergence, see “Junud-at-Tawheed-wal-khilafah,” At Tahreed Media, October 19, 2014, At-Tahreed Media, and “‘IS operative’ held in Dhaka,” Daily Star, June 4, 2015.
 “‘IS operative’ held in Dhaka;” see also “IT chief at Bangladesh Coca-Cola unit arrested as Islamic State suspect,” Reuters, May 25, 2015.
 “With the Amir of the Khilafah’s Soldiers In Bengal: Shaykh Abu Ibraham Al-Hanif,” Dabiq, issue 14, pp. 58-66.
 “IS Claims Killing of Italian National in Bangladesh,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 28, 2016.
 “IS Claims Killing Japanese National in Bangladesh, Threatens Additional Attacks, SITE Intelligence Group, October 3, 2015.
 “‘IS claims responsibility’ for attacking Shias in Bogra, says SITE,” BDNews24.com, November 27, 2015.
 Dabiq, issue 13, p. 15. See also Jihadology.net, January 19, 2016; “Islamic state claims responsibility for Hussaini Dalan bombings, claims SITE monitor,” Reuters, October 24, 2015.
 “Police detain three, including Myanmar nationals, over Buddhist monk’s murder in Bandarban,” BD News24.com, May 14, 2016; “Panchagarh Temple Attack: Priest killed, devotee shot” Daily Star, February 22, 2016; “Bangladesh arrests Islamists for slashing pastor’s throat,” AFP/News 24, October 12, 2015.
 “Islamic State Claims it Killed Bangladeshi Academic,” Agence France-Presse, April 23, 2016.
 “Isil claim responsibility after Hindu man is hacked to death in Bangladesh,” Daily Telegraph, April 30, 2016.
 “Christian Convert from Islam Slain in Bangladesh,” Morning Star News, March 23, 2016.
 “Islamic State militants kill homeopathic medicine practitioner in Bangladesh’s Jhenaidah,” IHS Jane’s Terrorism Watch Report, March 18, 2016.
 “IS claims responsibility for Jhenaidah murder,” Dhaka Tribune, January 9, 2016.
 “IS claims it killed Kushtia homoeopath,” Dhaka Tribune, May 22, 2016.
 “Suspected Militants Behead Hindu Priest in Bangladesh,” Asia Times, February 21, 2016.
 “With the Amir of the Khilafah’s Soldiers In Bengal: Shaykh Abu Ibraham Al-Hanif,” Dabiq, issue 14, pp. 58-66.
 “Nasheed: Return of al-Khilafa,” Al Hayat Media Center, October 27, 2015.
 “A Selection Of Military Operations By the Islamic State,” Dabiq, issue 12, p. 15; “The Revival of Jihad in Bengal,” Dabiq, issue 12, pp. 37-41.
 “Among the Believers of Men, Abu Jundal al Banghali,” Dabiq, issue 14.
 “Interview with the Amir.”
 “Bangladeshi group met in parks, plotted attacks, says Singapore,” Reuters, May 4, 2016.
 “S’pore deported 26 ‘radicalised’ Bangladeshis,” Daily Star, January 21, 2016.
 “Bangladeshi group met in parks, plotted attacks, says Singapore,” Reuters, May 4, 2016.
 “S’pore deported 26 ‘radicalised’ Bangladeshis.”
 “IS operative held in Dhaka,” Daily Star, June 1, 2015.