The Friday night attack on a cafe in Dhaka is now believed to have been carried out by a local terror group known in intelligence circles as the Ansarullah Bangla Team. It has been confirmed that all the militants were Bangladeshis.
Twenty people, including an Indian student, were killed in the attack on the Holey Artisan bakery—located in an affluent, leafy neighbourhood called Gulshan, considered to be Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave, much like New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri. The café was popular among the expatriate community, and the attack was clearly aimed at foreign nationals.
Intelligence officials in Bangladesh working with their Indian counterparts have been tracking the growth of the Ansarullah Bangla Team for years. They believe the terror group is inspired by the Al Qaeda and is currently associated with the jihadist group’s avatar in the Indian subcontinent.
While the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack and released photographs of the attackers on its official channel, security analysts in Dhaka and New Delhi are dismissing an Islamic State link for now. According to them, the Islamic State wants to claim responsibility to show a global footprint, while home-grown militants want to show their international clout. Intelligence analysts agree that the threat is much closer home and has little to do with that terrorist group, at least for now.
The Ansarullah Bangla Team is believed to be headed by a radicalised Bangladeshi Army officer, Major Syed Ziaul Haque, a graduate of the Bangladesh Military Academy, who went into hiding after being accused of planning a coup against Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina in January 2012.
Hasina had been warned of the possibility of a coup by Indian intelligence officials the previous month. In December 2011, Indian security officials had also stationed a military unit in Tripura with the intention of transporting it via military helicopters to rescue Hasina in case the coup succeeded. However, the attempt to overthrow Hasina failed as Bangladesh’s directorate general of forces intelligence picked up several coup planners in early January 2012, with help from their intelligence counterparts in India.
The coup attempt ensured New Delhi’s unstinted support to Hasina’s Awami League government, which ensured that she would continue as premier and continue her campaign against fundamentalists in Bangladesh.
It is believed that the Ansarullah Bangla Team’s religious inspiration is Mohammed Jasimuddin Rahmani, who was inspired by the Al Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awaki—an American imam of Yemeni origin, who was killed in a drone strike two weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York in September, 2001.
The Ansarullah Bangla Team first surfaced on the radar when it claimed responsibility for the attacks on several Bangladeshi bloggers including Avijit Roy, Ananta Joy Biswas and Asif Mohiuddin. The terror group is part of a growing fundamentalist network in Bangladesh that has its roots in the Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party close to Pakistan, which has been actively campaigning against Hasina. It is believed to be closely associated with the Jamaat’s student wing, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir.
But the Ansarullah Bangla Team is only part of a growing terror network with linkages across the Indian subcontinent and beyond. West Bengal, which shares a border and historical ties with Bangladesh, has often proved to be a refuge for Bangladeshi militants who slip across the porous border and set up base in the state’s Malda and Murshidabad districts and look for money and fresh recruits.
What sets the Ansarullah Bangla Team apart is its cadre of young, educated and highly-motivated recruits with foreign linkages, considered by security analysts to be the new generation of fundamentalists. The group is active on social media, with a prominent page on Facebook.
Towhidur Rahman, a member of the group, who was arrested in August last year after the murder of blogger Avijit Roy is perhaps representative of its cadres. Towhidur went to the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, where he gained British citizenship. Working in the IT sector, Towhidur developed linkages with other fundamentalists, eventually returning to Bangladesh to strengthen the Ansarullah Bangla Team’s network. Unlike other terrorist outfits in Bangladesh, this group hopes to gain territorial control of parts of Bangladesh besides targeting foreign nationals, atheist or reformist bloggers and political opponents.
Sanctuary in India
In October 2014, a blast in the Khagragarh area of Burdwan district in West Bengal revealed the growing presence of Bangladeshi militants in India. The two men killed in the blast were identified as Shovan Mandal and Shakil Ahmed—members of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, which has carried out several terror attacks over the years. Like the Ansarullah Bangla Team, this group too is believed to have close links to the Jamaat-e-Islami and is also opposed to Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League.
The post-blast investigations in Burdwan revealed material to make bombs, as well as literature praising Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri. The pamphlets found were addressed to future mujahids of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and the group’s so-called struggles in areas as far as Chechnya.
Unfortunately, in the past decade, while Bangladesh actively helped Indian security and intelligence agencies nab several key militant leaders operating in the North East, New Delhi was sluggish in responding to Dhaka’s requests for similar cooperation. But that is believed to have changed after the Burdwan blast.
According to several reports citing eyewitnesses and families of the victims, the militants behind Friday’s attack separated Bangladesh nationals from foreigners, and promised the hostages that Bengalis would not be harmed. One of the seven militants was captured alive by the Bangladeshi commandos who stormed the café, and is expected to reveal further details about the attack.
At least three of the attackers have been identified as Rohan Imitiaz, Nibras Alam and Mir Sabih Mubashir. All three attended well-known schools like Scholastica, and North South University in Dhaka. Analysts feel they fit into the pattern of “radicalised and impressionable” educated youth who have been targeted by the Ansarullah Bangla Team and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh as recruits.
Indian security analysts feel that the Gulshan attack was calculated to undermine the faith of the public and the international community in the Hasina government’s ability to keep growing fundamentalism in check.
Hasina’s sustained campaign against fundamentalists in the country, and the prosecution of 1971 war criminals, has created a major uproar in Bangladesh, leading to a consolidation of fundamentalist elements and sympathetic political parties. The campaign grew as New Delhi threw its weight behind Hasina in the last general elections held in 2014, which the Khaleda Zia-led Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted, leading to allegations that the polls were rigged. However, New Delhi’s unstinted support to Hasina ensured that the international community also supported her.
Clearly, the region is in turmoil and is likely to see further attacks as fundamentalists seek to erode the ruling Awami League government’s authority.
At the heart of the struggle lies Bangladesh’s attempts to strengthen itself as a modern, democratic nation.
The turmoil has its roots in Bangladesh’s tumultuous past. In 1947, when India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, Muslim-majority East Bengal—which shares cultural roots with India’s West Bengal—became part of Pakistan, but was separated by the expanse that is central India. However, an armed uprising in East Pakistan led to civil war, which gave birth to the country of Bangladesh in 1971. Since then the country has seen a prolonged period of military rule before settling for an electoral democracy.
However, Bangladesh continues to be haunted by the past. The current regime’s bid to violently uproot those who were believed to be sympathetic to Pakistan in 1971 has led to growing fundamentalism, and conflict that is likely to find sympathetic echoes in the rest of the Indian subcontinent.