For ten days early this year, the seven men took turns to stalk their prey, watching him eat, talk, laugh and walk the streets of Dhaka.
On February 26, they were ready. Grainy CCTV footage shows three of them following their victim to the spot they had picked to kill him. And then, on the street outside Dhaka University, they killed Bangladeshi-American writer Avijit Roy, leaving his wife Rafida Bonya with serious injuries.
Five minutes before the attack began, police sources in Dhaka said, the leader of the death squad received a coded text message on a disposable cellphone, signalling that the killers were in place. He received another a minute after the attack to let him know Roy had been hacked down.
That man, police allege, was Redwanul Rana, a student at Dhaka’s prestigious North-South University and now among Bangladesh’s most wanted criminals, said to command the death squad of a shadowy al-Qaeda affiliated organisation called the Ansarullah Bengali Team.
In 2013, Ansarullah had put out a list of 84 anti-Islamist voices it wanted silenced. Eight, so far, are dead: Roy, Rajeeb Haider, Jafar Munshi, Mamun Hossain, Jagatjyoti Talukder, Arif Hossain Dwip, Ziauddin Zakaria Babu and Wasikur Rahman.
The killings are part of a bitter struggle to control Bangladesh’s destiny, pitting the secular nationalists who won independence in 1971, against the Islamists who usurped power four years later. For the past decade, the nationalists had the upper hand — but now, the wheel could be turning again.
Early this month, evidence of a significant new jihadist mobilisation emerged when Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) recovered assault rifles and pistols from cadre of a new organisation — the Shaheed Hamja Brigade. RAB investigators had recovered over 150 kg and bomb-making equipment in earlier raids on the Brigade.
RAB chief Benazir Ahmad said that “an entire army battalion could have been equipped with the explosives”. “I can say without bragging that we have been on top of the problem,” said Ahmad. “There working very hard to surprising us with what they can do, though, and I’m working harder than ever, because I hate surprises.”
The story goes back to 2013, when unprecedented protests demanding the death sentence for Jama’at-e-Islami leaders implicated in 1971 war crimes swept the country.
From his base in Pakistan, al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a call for war. He urged jihadists everywhere to help Muslims in Bangladesh, “where Islam is being clearly fought”. He claimed the country’s “atheist government protects those who publicly ridicule the Prophet”.
Fighters from Bangladesh, intelligence officials believe, have responded to the call, though no one is certain how many. In one video, ‘A Glimpse of a Base of Al-Qaeda in Khurasan’, a Bengali-speaking fighter identifying himself as ‘Suleiman’ said: “Here, I feel there is the kind of environment that helps one learn how to deal with his family and what one’s role should be as a son, a Mujahid and a Muslim.”
Late last year, an Ansarullah Bengali-language video, ‘Eradicate Democracy’, asked Bangaldesh’s “patriotic armed forces” to rise against the government and set up a Caliphate in Bangladesh.
His master’s voice
Police say the North-South University student radicals who formed Ansarullah joined hands because of their common attraction to the work of Indian-educated Bangladeshi cleric, Jashimuddin Rahmani.
Rahmani’s speeches had long fired the imagination of Bangladesh-origin jihadists worldwide. Among them were Rajib Karim, convicted for plotting to bomb a British Airways flight, and North-South alumnus Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, serving time for trying to seeking to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.
Fluent in the art of disseminating his message online, Rehmani described himself as the Bangladeshi voice of Anwar al-Awlaki – the slain US-born jihadist ideologue who led al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Rehmani publicly eulogised Osama bin Laden, and called for the killings of Bangladesh’s atheists.
Now charged with inciting the murder of Rajeeb Haidar, among the architects of the 2013 anti-Islamist Shahbag protests, Rahmani admitted to an anti-terrorism court last month that his words had led his followers to kill.
The first arrests
The Dhaka police made their first arrests of Ansarullah operatives in March, 2013, when they arrested five Dhaka North-South University students in connection with Haidar’s murder. The Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum hailed the arrested men as “lions of ummah (Islamic nation)”.
In years since then, there have more than twenty other arrests of alleged Ansarullah cadre. Many, including Rana, began their careers in the Islami Chhatra Shibir, or Islamic Students’ Movement — the student wing of the powerful Jama’at-e-Islami party.
In this, the trajectory of these generation-next jihadists has been identical to that of the first generation of Bangladesh fighters. Drawn from one-time Chattra Shibir members who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the formation of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami Bangladesh was announced at a public meeting in 1992. In 1996, leaders of the group merged with the neo-fundamentalist Ahl-e-Hadith Andolon, to create the Jami’at-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).
The rise of JMB
The JMB soon began staging lethal attacks on cultural events, like jatra performances, seeking to wipe out the country’s syncretic culture. It killed opponents, including judges and police officials.
Famously, the group set off 500 bombs at 300 locations in 50 cities and towns on August 17, 2005. The attacks, it said, were meant to push the government for the “implementation of Allah’s law the way the Prophet, Sahabs and heroic Mujahideen have implemented for centuries”.
Bangladesh’s government, then led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, dithered. Dependent for support on the Jama’at-e-Islami, and deriving its own legitimacy from religion, it chose not to act against the top terrorist leadership.
The Jama’at’s political power, the scholar Sajjan Gohel has argued, facilitated “an atmosphere of extra-Parliamentary militancy”.
But the military government that took power in 2006, cracked down and hanged four of the plotters, including its chief. Hundreds of JMB cadre have since be arrested by Sheikh Hasina’s government. The few leaders who have survived are believed to be hiding out on the Indian side of the border.
For the Jama’at-e-Islami, and its jihadist allies, this is a moment of existential threat. The Hasina government has cracked down hard on the organisation. Top leaders of the Jama’at, like Delwar Hossain Sayeedi and Abdul Qader Mollah, await execution for their role in the 1971 war. Last year, former Jama’at Minister Motiur Nizami was sentenced to hang after being convicted of smuggling weapons into Chittagong for insurgents in India’s north-east.
Leaders of Ansarullah, the inheritors of their legacy, will decide if the struggle to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic state has a future – and many fear their odds are more than good. The Jama’at-e-Islami has built up a network of charities, hospitals, educational institutions, micro-credit centres and even banks, estimated by scholar Abul Barkat to bring in over US$200mn a year.
“There are real incentives for young people to join the Islamist ranks,” said analyst Maj-Gen Mohammad Abdur Rashid. “The Jama’at is the swamp in which the jihadists are bred.”