As Bangladesh’s security forces unleashed a fresh anti-terror operation, operation “Tepid Punch,” targeting militant safe havens in the country in early July, new signs of Islamic State’s (IS) shadowy presence in the country emerged. On July 5, an Islamic State (IS) supporter identifying himself as Abu Shofiq al Bengali pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and named himself as the Emir of Bengal Wilayah (province) of the Caliphate.
In his message, Abu Shofiq al Bengali asserted that IS’ activity would spread in Bangladesh and neighboring Kolkata, in India’s West Bengal, and Arakan, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. While threatening jihadist strikes in Bangladesh, al Bengali’s message on his Telegram channel urged Bangladeshis to work together to strengthen the Caliphate. He said: “Today is the day we will establish Khilafah in Bengal. We are declaring Bengal as the land of Khalifah. The taghut (idolater or non-believer) of Bengal watched our Ingimasi and Istishhadi attacks. We are coming with more force InSha Allah” (SITE, July 5). The message also cited slain IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani’s October 2015 call to the soldiers of Islamic State titled “Say to Those Who Disbelieve, ‘You Will Be Overcome’” (Jihadology, October 13, 2015).
Abu Shofiq’s declaration came as Bangladesh was marking the first anniversary of the Holey Artisan Bakery attack, which took place in Dhaka on July 1, 2016. Islamic State sympathizers linked to the defunct local militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) perpetrated that attack (BDNews24.com, July 3, 2016). The incident, one of the most violent terrorist strikes in Bangladesh’s history, resulted in the deaths of 22 hostages, 18 of whom were foreign nationals. Ever since, both the government and its security apparatus have denied any physical presence of IS in Bangladesh, often blaming the local “newly organized” (Neo) JMB for the resurgence of militant activity in the country. Despite their persistent denial of IS’ existence on Bangladeshi soil, authorities have failed to explain the ideological and operational influence of IS over the indigenous Islamist militant networks, their established channel of communications and violent activities, including targeted attacks on foreign nationals, suicide blasts and the use of powerful explosives like Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) (Daily Star, July 9).
The claims of Abu Shofiq al Bengali have subsequently been questioned in some pro-IS media channels. On July 6, a pro-IS group issued a statement rejecting Abu Shofiq’s self-appointment as the new Emir. The message denies the validity of Abu Shofiq’s statement, citing pro-IS Bengali media outlet “At-Tamkin” in Syria as its source. It went on to warn IS supporters not to be confused with this false propaganda by suspected spies of the Bangladesh government (IS Statement [Nashir Media], July 10).
The continuous social media propaganda for a Bangladesh caliphate notwithstanding, Bangladesh’s security apparatus has taken resolute actions against the Islamist resurgence that has plagued the country since early 2013. In the meantime, the newly formed Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) have unearthed many hideouts and identified the leadership of this IS-inspired Neo JMB group (BDNews24.com, May 16; BDNews24.com, July 01). In March of this year, a countrywide crackdown was initiated following a couple of suicide attacks targeting RAB camps — IS claimed these attacks through their al-Bayan radio bulletin and Amaq new agency — and many of the identified leaders have been on the run since (Hindustan Times, March 19; Dhaka Tribune, March 24).
While Bangladeshi police have eliminated only a few senior Neo JMB militants — such as Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury and Aminur Islam — they have managed to unearth many of their hideouts and arms caches. Additionally, security agencies saw some success in early July, arresting several top-level militants, including three female Neo-JMB members who are wives of Neo-JMB Emir Ayub Bachchu and his lieutenant Abzar (a.k.a. Rashed), at a hideout in Bheramara, Kushtia District (Daily Star, July 3). Nevertheless, the search continues for top figures like the IS militant Muhammad Saifullah Ozaki, a Japanese national of Bangladeshi origin who is a suspected mastermind of last year’s Holey Artisan Bakery attack (Dhaka Tribune, July 25; Dhaka Tribune, July 30).
The Bangladesh police department’s claim to have substantially neutralized this pro-IS, Neo-JMB group seems premature. The militants in the group’s top echelons are still at large, and their capacity to procure weapons and explosives remains a major concern. Besides, this pro-IS group’s capability to carry out sporadic strikes targeting security forces is intact and shows their undiminished resilience. The latest pledge of Abu Shofiq al Bengali and his clarion calls for a “strong trained brigade of thousand brothers” ready for a Bangladesh Caliphate should serve as a wake-up call for Bangladesh’s security agencies who are struggling to accept the shifting realities of the Islamist threat to country.