As Bangladesh is heading towards another general election, which is scheduled to take place in January 2024, Islamists and jihadist forces have started showing fangs with the slogan of “liberating Bangladesh” from the “godless” (secularist) government while a new jihadist outfit namely ‘Jama’atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya (JAFHS), which houses members of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Ansar al-Islam (AAI), and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B) in it has intensified activities throughout the country.
Fresher activities of Jama’atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya (JAFHS) came under the radar of counterterrorism experts when on October 6, 2022, the elite force of Bangladesh Police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), arrested seven members of this newly emerged militancy outfit. According to some sources, JAFHS has been active since 2017 under a different name, while it adopted the new name back in 2019.
One of the affiliates of JAFHS is Ansar Al Islam, which was earlier known as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). In 2013, ABT came into the limelight after it murdered a blogger named Rajib Haider. Later it was known that ABT had become a local franchise of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and rebranded it as Ansar Al Islam. It was also learnt that earlier kingpins of ABT expressed their willingness to rebrand this organization as Al Qaeda in Bangladesh (AQIB). But this proposal was rejected by the Al Qaeda high command.
Another affiliate of JAFHS is Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which later became the Bangladesh franchise of the Islamic State (ISIS). Although Bangladeshi law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies were referring to the ISIS franchise as “Neo JMB”, those who closely monitor the activities of jihadist outfits knew there was no existence of any militancy outfit named “Neo JMB”, instead it was ISIS-B.
Before going into further details on JAFHS and other militancy groups in Bangladesh, which are gaining strength eyeing general elections which are scheduled to be held in January 2024, let us first understand how seeds of militancy were planted in this secularist country where the majority of the people are followers of Sufi Islam.
Palestinian statehood, the door to militancy in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, militancy groups began showing up in the 1980s, especially when Bangladeshi nationals travelled to Afghanistan and Palestine to join the war against Soviet forces and Israel. According to track records, the Palestinian statehood and its conflict with the Jewish State had motivated the first generation of militants in Bangladesh, who formed an organization named ‘Repatriated Soldiers from Palestine’, later rebranded as ‘Muslim Millat Bahini’ or Muslim Solidarity Regiment in 1986. At that time, military dictator Hussain Muhammed Ershad favoured Bangladeshi youths travelling to join Palestinian jihad against Israel. Almost regularly, Bangladeshis entered Palestine through Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. It may be mentioned here that military dictators General Ziaur Rahman (1976-1981) and General Hussain Muhammed Ershad (1982-1990) had a friendship with Yasser Arafat and were not only sending Bangladeshi youths to join the Palestinian armed conflict with Israel but they also were giving military training to Palestinians. On returning to Bangladesh from Afghanistan and Palestine, these youths formed Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B). At the same time, at a later stage, there was the emergence of Jagrata Muslim Janata (JMJ) and later Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). It may be mentioned here that Jagrata Muslim Janata (JMJ) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) had received direct support, funding and patronization from Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its coalition partner in the government, Jamaat-e-Islami. Before this, another militancy group tried to emerge in 1986 under Major Matiur Rahman, aka Pir Matiur Rahman, a former military officer. But then military dictator Hussain Muhammed Ershad launched a crackdown on this outfit as he worried that such groups might directly threaten his rule.
Most importantly, none of the governments in Bangladesh had shut down this militancy floodgate by banning citizens from joining Palestinian jihadist activities against Israel. Although Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was behind the formation of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), it later ceased relations with this group under international pressure. It went on a crackdown against JMB, thus capturing the prominent kingpins of this outfit. Some analysts said BNP had distanced itself from JMB and later launched a crackdown to gain support from the Western countries, especially when BNP’s political future turned uncertain. It was well anticipated that the party would lose the general election in 2006 and its political arch-rival Awami League would come to power through a landslide victory. But BNP failed to fool the Western nations even by launching a massive crackdown on Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), as by then, this party was already known for its radical Islamic and pro-militancy ideologies.
Although BNP lost the 2008 general elections, which were held under an interim government, it once again attempted to return to power through Islamist revolt by aligning with another notorious pro-caliphate group named Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI).
In 2013, weeks before the general elections, BNP signalled to Hefazat-e-Islam to organize a massive rally in Dhaka city, attended by hundreds and thousands of madrassa teachers and students. During this rally, HeI men chanted slogans – ‘Khelafot Kayem Koro, Bangladesh Mukto Koro” (Establish Caliphate – Liberate Bangladesh). The leader of HeI, Allama Shah Shafi, requested the Awami League government by pressing 13-point demand, which included handing power to the “Emir” of HeI, Allama Shah Shafi. Meaning they tried to replicate an Iran-patterned Islamist revolt.
The massive rally of Hefazat-e-Islam gave tremendous confidence in Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) top brasses to return to power through Islamist revolt, which resulted in the party’s decision to boycott the 2013 general elections. But, Awami League president Sheikh Hasina and then Prime Minister were totally against letting Bangladesh kidnapped by Islamists and jihadists. She sincerely requested the BNP to join the election and even called Khaleda Zia, chairperson of the BNP, to join the 2013 elections. But a confident Khaleda Zia of returning to power through Islamist revolt refused to join the polls. At this stage, BNP’s key ally Jamaat-e-Islami exerted real influence on Khaleda Zia to boycott the elections. But Sheikh Hasina, with the support of the people of Bangladesh, succeeded in holding the election and once again formed a government with a landslide victory. Seeing their ambition of returning to power through Islamist revolt flopped, Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its political ally Jamaat-e-Islami went into countrywide anarchism, vandalism and arson attacks. Dozens of people were cruelly murdered by the BNP-Jamaat men, while the country was under extreme anarchy for months until the law and order situation was brought under control by Sheikh Hasina’s government, where the country’s patriotic Armed Forces, para-military forces, police and other law enforcement forces had to play an incredibly courageous role.
But again, in July 2016, BNP backed ISIS-B in staging a massive jihadist attack in Dhaka city on the Holey Artisan Café – the first hostage killing in the country, where twenty-nine people, including 17 foreign nationals, were brutally murdered. Most importantly, this gruesome jihadist massacre took place near the diplomatic enclave. Following and after this jihadist massacre, there were a few more attacks on foreign nationals, secular individuals and bloggers throughout the country.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina responded robustly to these jihadist attacks, where security forces carried out a series of successful operations, which culminated in the elimination of nearly 100 militants. It had significantly weakened jihadist outfits such as JMB, JMJ, ISIS-B and Ansar Al Islam. But unfortunately, such offensives failed to change the militant’s jihadist mindset while also failing to create a leadership crisis.
In the face of massive offensives in Bangladesh, dozens of jihadists from JMB, JMJ, ISIS-B and Ansar Al Islam fled the country. They took shelter in West Bengal in India, where several key figures of the ruling Trinamool Congress had extended silent patronization.
Bangladesh is under fresh threats from militants and Islamists
For months, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been maintaining deeper contacts with several militancy and pro-Caliphate outfits such as Hefazat-e-Islam, Ansar Al Islam and ISIS-B and has even offered them critical ministries in the next government if these jihadist-Islamist conglomerate can help BNP is returning to power by sabotaging the upcoming January 2024 general elections. This time, BNP has decided to create countrywide anarchy and boycott the election.
Meanwhile, the Islamist-jihadist conglomerate has taken a pledge from the BNP to actively support their so-called ‘Gazhwatul Hind’ ideology, which aims to bring India under Islamic rule through Islamist conquest. It may be mentioned here that, ‘Gazhwatul Hind’ is a trademark ambition of Al Qaeda.
While January 2024 general elections are getting nearer, BNP and its Islamist-jihadist affiliates are intensifying cyber-war against Awami League. We need to remember what Al Qaeda kingpin Osama bin Laden said in 2002: “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ratio may reach 90 per cent of the total preparation for the battles”, his deputy Ayman Al Zawahiri said that “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our ummah”.
Zawahiri said, “We must get our message across to the masses of the nation and break the media siege imposed on the jihad movement,” He said, “This is an independent battle that we must launch side by side with the military battle”.
While BNP and its Islamist-jihadist partners are advancing their goal of turning Bangladesh into a Caliphate or Sharia state, this nexus emphasizes media and cyberwar reciprocating Al Qaeda’s launching of Al Balagh in Bangla language, expanding their reach among Bangladeshi – particularly youths and madrassa students. Al Qaeda also has launched a Bangla segment on its YouTube channel named Ummah Network.
Similarly, Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami have intensified their anti-Awami League propaganda through dozens of YouTube channels run by its cadres. In contrast, BNP leader Mahmudur Rahman recently launched a Bangla daily named Amar Desh (My Country) from Britain. This newspaper is getting funding from Turkey and Pakistan. While anti-Awami League propaganda intensifies on YouTube and social media platforms, most television channels established during 2009-2022 are gradually becoming reluctant to combat this cyberterrorism through counter-offensives. Most importantly, even though during the last 14 years of Awami League rule, there has been almost mushroom growth of pro-government Bangla newspapers, there isn’t a single English publication capable of publishing truth against cruel anti-Awami League propaganda run by the existing English-language publications in the country. This lack is giving a grand opportunity to the pro-BNP/Jamaat English press to continue propaganda and mislead the international community about the successes, achievements and contributions of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.