Updated: April 16, 2015 6:49:09 am
He was just the kind of son that parents across the sub-continent are known to pray for. Soft-spoken and hard-working, Ashiqur Rahman had chalked up a stellar record as an engineering student at the elite Military Institute of Science and Technology in Dhaka — even his spare time was spent in studying Arabic.
Early this year, Rahman was selected for a conference in Istanbul. Then, one day in February, he disappeared.
Rahman’s shattered parents came to know later from the Directorate-General of Field Intelligence, Bangladesh’s military intelligence service, that there had been no conference: their son was somewhere inside the stretch of land in Iraq and Syria controlled by Islamic State.
“The government won a war against terrorists radicalised by the jihad in Afghanistan. Now, we are facing a second-generation terrorist, smarter and better educated than the first,” said Monirul Islam, Joint Commissioner with the Dhaka Metropolitan Police.
Islam was referring to the ruthless — and successful — battle waged by Sheikh Hasina’s government less than a decade ago against jihadist networks such as the Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).
But for months now, Bangladesh’s security services have been watching with growing concern a new storm gather strength. For, Rahman isn’t the only Bangladeshi to have made the pilgrimage to the Caliphate, lured by online propaganda and on-ground recruiters.
In February, Dhaka doctor Arafat al-Azad called his wife, Naila, to tell her he’d had to leave for Turkey on unexpected business, and didn’t know when he’d be back. Naila Azad, who declined to be interviewed, told police there has been no contact with her husband since.
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.
The big break
Early this year, Bangladesh security services succeeded in penetrating one of several Islamic State recruitment rings, arresting the organisation’s regional commander, Shakhawatul Kabir.
Kabir, who graduated with a degree in English from Dhaka’s Titumir College, set up a computer business when he was recruited by the JMB 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.
The rise of the Islamic State, however, led many to switch sides — among them, Kabir.
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 who had earlier served time in prison for his role in a 2005 JMB bomb attack. Police said the men planned to carry out a series of bombings, and then use the publicity to draw recruits online.
Shadow from the West
Investigations into the case of Samiun Rahman, a Bangladesh-origin British national held in September 2014, suggest the country’s diaspora in the West may be playing a key role in recruitment.
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 the Islamic State.
Rahman, police alleged, 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, one of whom was linked to past jihadist operations inside Bangladesh.
The flood of recruits from the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom is a particular source of concern, police said. Four men from Portsmouth alone have so far died in combat — Mehdi Hassan, 19, Mananur Roshid, 23, Ifthekar Jaman, 21, and Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, 24.
In February, British-Bangladeshi Rehana Islam disappeared, with her eight-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. Last month, police learned that she had flown to Syria with the children, searching for a new life governed by the shari’a, or Islamic code of law.
Her husband, cab driver Azizul Islam, told the British tabloid The Daily Mail: “When I married her, she wasn’t religious, she was like a normal girl, she didn’t even cover herself. But a couple of years ago, she started covering herself and praying five times a day.”
“The British-Bangladeshis now fighting in the Islamic State are going to find it very hard to return there,” said Dhaka Police’s Islam. “A lot of them are going to try coming here, instead of risking arrest at home. From our point of view, that’s going to be bad news.”
Fighting a foreign war
From history, it’s clear his fears are well founded. For two generations now, Bangladeshis have given their lives in foreign battlefields. In the midst of the Palestinian Martyr Cemetery at Shatila, in southern Beirut, there is the grave of Kamal Mustafa Ali — a Bangladeshi killed in combat against Israeli troops on July 22, 1982, in the Battle of the High Rock, in the province of Nabatiyeh.
He was one of many Bangladeshis who fought for Palestine: 8,000, a United States Congressional report claimed in 1988; 1,000-1,500, the Palestine Liberation Organisation told al-Akhbar newspaper last year.
Naeem Mohaiemen, a writer, has placed the Bangladesh volunteers’ presence in Lebanon in the context of the country’s desperate post-independence outreach to the Organisation of Islamic States, and military ruler General Ziaur Rehman’s Islamisation programme.
The scholar Ali Riaz recorded: “Beginning in 1984, a ‘volunteer corps’ was organised to join the jihad. Some 3,000 people under the leadership of Abdur Rahman Faruki were motivated to travel in several batches to Afghanistan and fight alongside other volunteer mujahideen.”
In an online eulogy, Faruki’s commander, Maulana Pir Mohammad Rehmani, recalls how the jihadist insisted on marching towards his death in a high-risk mission, saying he had come to Afghanistan “in search of martyrdom”.
Following the Taliban’s triumph in 1992, the veterans returned home, determined to use their experience as a template to create an Islamic State in Bangladesh. If history is repeating itself, Bangladesh could find itself at war with the rising Caliphate.
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