Five months after Ashiqur Rahman left his home, he lay dying in the hills above Ayn Isa, near Damascus, his body ripped apart by fire from a ZU-23-2 “Sergei” anti-aircraft cannon, which he had charged towards. He’d left a letter for those who followed him. “I was drowning in the same obstacles that you might be going through now”, it reads. “It is only the promise… of that Garden in which rivers flow, that kept me going.”
The young engineering student, whose disappearance was first reported in this newspaper last year, is a prism through which the rise of Bangladesh’s new generation of jihadists can be understood. Though the world is transfixed by the debate over whether the Islamic State has arrived in Bangladesh, the name is largely irrelevant to the story.
Fired by the call of the Islamic State’s caliphate, and forged from the remnants of the once-feared jihadist groups like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), this new generation of jihadists is fighting a war for the nation’s very soul.
Little is known of just what led Rahman to the Islamic State, but like the men who attacked the Holey Artisan Bakery on Friday night — the last Friday of the holy month of Ramzan — he belonged to the country’s elite, the kind who belonged inside the café. The son of a military officer who gave his life fighting Bangladesh Rifles mutineers in 2009, Rahman had gone on to study at the Military Institute of Science and Technology, one of the country’s premier institutions.
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Then, on February 21 last year, he left on a flight for Istanbul, travelling on a visa obtained with a forged invitation to a conference. His maternal uncle, an officer with the military’s Directorate-General of Field Intelligence, desperately called friends in Turkish intelligence to get him back, but it was too late.
Estimates by Bangladeshi intelligence services suggest dozens — perhaps over a hundred — have made the same journey. There are others who have tried, and failed. Asif ‘Shuvo’ Adnan, an Economics graduate and son of well-respected retired judge Abdul Salam Mamun, is facing trial for attempting to leave for Islamic State, along with his friend Mohammad Fazle Ellahi, the son of senior bureaucrat Umme Fatima Sufia Khanam.
Perhaps more important, there has been a steady flow of élite Bangladeshis to these networks at home. Nibras Islam, one of the three attackers so far identified, studied at North-South University, an élite private-sector university. Meer Shameeh Mubasher and Rohan Imtiaz were students of the top-notch Scholastica school.
Earlier this year, the IS announced its arrival in Bangladesh, with its house magazine Dabiq publishing an interview with organisation’s chief, who uses the pseudonym Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif. In it, he described how the Islamic State was drawing followers who had seen its core kernel targetting “the crusaders, the Rafidah (Shia), the Qadiyaniyyah (Ahmadiyya), the Hindus, the missionaries, and others, all within a short period of time”.
“This brought hope to the Muslims in Bengal after a lengthy pause in jihad,” al-Hanif concluded.
Who, however, was this core kernel? In its November 18, 2015, issue, Dabiq had given some important clues.
The formation of the JMB, it said, had been a “new light of hope born amidst the Muslims of Bengal, a land that for hundreds of years has been drowned in shirk (idol worship) and bidah (religious innovation) due to the effects of both European colonisation and Hindu cultural invasion”.
However, it went on, the “mujahideen of Bengal realised that there was no room for blind partisanship towards any organisation once the Khilafah (caliphate) had been declared and that there was no longer legitimacy for any independent jihad organisation”.
The praise for the JMB was of obvious significance. Last year, the Bangladesh security services arrested the organisation’s regional commander, Shakhawatul Kabir. Kabir, who graduated with a degree in English from Dhaka’s Titumir College, had been recruited by the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen in 2006. Three years later, police said, he fled to Pakistan. There, he joined jihad commander Ejaz Khalid, the son-in-law of imprisoned JMB chief Maulana Sayeedur Rahman.
Late last year, police said, Kabir set up an Islamic State recruitment cell inside Bangladesh, along with his old friends, Nazrul Islam, Rabiul Islam and Anwar Hossain. Police said the men planned to carry out a series of bombings, and then use the publicity to draw recruits online.
Formed in 1998, from a hard-core of jihadists linked to the anti-Soviet Union jihad in Afghanistan, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen was set up to wage an armed struggle for turning Bangladesh into an Islamic State. In August, 2005, it famously conducted 459 almost-simultaneous bombings in 63 districts of the country, following that up with a welter of suicide bombings, killings of judges, and political assassinations.
Through the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition government, the jihadist group enjoyed a high degree of impunity, with incarcerated leaders often being released, or mysteriously escaping from jail.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, though, executed six top commanders of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen in 2007, including its supreme leader Maulana Abdur Rahman. The executions were followed by a nationwide crackdown that decimated the organisation.
Leaflets the JMB left behind at the site of August, 2005, bombings — printed in Bangla and, interestingly, Arabic — cast interesting light on the organisation’s self-image as part of the vanguard of the international jihadist movement.
“We are soldiers of Allah”, it read, “We have taken up arms for the implementation of the Allah’s law, in the way the Prophet, the Sahabas (his companions) and the heroic Mujahideen have done for centuries”.
Finally, the leaflets concluded, it was “time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh. There is no future with man-made law”.
The Islamic State’s experience in Iraq — of recovery from utter annihilation at the hands of the US — brought hope back to the shattered remnants of the JMB leadership.
It also brought in a new influx of élite recruits, their imaginations fired by the Internet. Investigations into the case of Samiun Rahman, a Bangladesh-origin British national held in 2014, suggest the country’s diaspora in the West may be playing a key role in this process.
Having trained in jihadist camps in Syria from September-December 2013, police said, Rahman returned home to Bangladesh. He hoped to sell his ancestral home in Sylhet to fund recruitment operations funnelling Bangladeshis to IS.
Rahman, Bangladesh police allege, met with Asif Adnan and Mohammad Fazle Ellahi, on a fan page for Mumbai-based preacher Zakir Naik who has been barred from travelling to the UK and US for his inflammatory speeches. The group succeeded in recruiting seven men before their arrest.
There’s evidence JMB has had some support from Pakistan’s intelligence services. Last year, Pakistani diplomat Farina Arshad was asked to leave Bangladesh on charges of funelling money to the terrorist group — the second to face similar charges.
In addition, West Asia-based charities are thought to have pumped money to the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen’s coffers.
The new cells staged their first attack on September 28, 2015, with “Soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh” shooting dead Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella in Dhaka.
Then, on October, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for killing Japanese national Hoshi Kunio.
IS cells followed this up by targetting the Shia mosque of Hussaini Dalan in Dhaka, another Shia mosque in Bogra, and the Chokpara Ahmadiyya Jamaat Mosque in Bagmara. There were strikes on Hindus, Muslim converts to Christianity, an English-language professor believed to be a secularist — and, finally, the strike on Friday night.
Instead of attempting to wage a large-scale insurgency that will bring down the state, as the JMB did in 2005 — with catastrophic consequences for itself — its leadership, now flying the flag of the Islamic State, now has a new strategy.
Through spectacular actions directed at Bangladesh’s aid-dependent economy; through actions that play on the country’s religious and sectarian faultlines; through carefully targetted assassinations: the group seeks to provoke the state into reprisals that will fuel backlash, and in turn generate entropy.
Put simply, the strategy is chaos.
6 months, 14 attacks
The Dhaka attack marks an escalation in violence in Bangladesh this year:
February 21, 2016: Two men armed with guns and cleavers hack a Hindu priest to death. Attack is claimed by IS.
April 6, 2016: Student activist Nazimuddin Samad shot to death near Dhaka University. Ansar-al-Islam claims responsibility.
April 23, 2016: Prof A F M Rezaul Karim Siddique is hacked to death in Rajshahi. IS claims kill.
April 25, 2016: Assailants stab to death USAID employee Xulhaz Mannan, who was an editor of a gay rights magazine. IS claims kill.
April 30, 2016: Hindu tailor Nikhil Joarder is hacked to death in Tangail. IS claims responsibility.
May 7, 2016: Sufi Muslim Mohammad Shahidullah killed. No group claimed responsibility.
May 14, 2016: Maung Shue U Chak, a Buddhist monk, killed in Bandarban. Police suspect Islamist militants.
May 20, 2016: Assailants hack doctor Mir Sanaur Rahman to death in Kushtia. IS claims kill.
May 25, 2016: Hindu shoe shop owner Debesh Chandra Pramanik killed in Gaibandha. IS claims kill.
June 5, 2016: Three militants murder Mahmuda Khanam, wife of a senior anti-terror police official in Chittagong.
June 7, 2016: Anando Gopal Ganguly, a Hindu priest, is shot dead by militants in Jhenaidah.
June 10, 2016: Nitya Ranjan Pandey, a Hindu priest, is hacked to death by militants in Pabna.
June 15, 2016: Ripon Chakravarty, a Hindu college teacher, is attacked by youths at his home. He survives the attack despite deep wounds.
July 1, 2016: A Hindu temple worker is hacked to death while he plucked flowers for his morning prayers. ap