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A New Terrorist Group Emerges in Bangladesh
A new terrorist group has emerged in Bangladesh. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested at least 20 militants belonging to the Jama'atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya (JAFHS) in October. This includes recruits, trainers, supervisors, and a financier. JAFHS is allegedly affiliated with Al Qaeda. Bangladesh has had over two decades of experience with terrorism — multiple prominent groups are still active. So far, it seems JAFHS’s profile is typical of the outfits in Bangladesh’s terror landscape, which is unsurprising considering it was formed by members or supporters of established terror groups.
The group apparently started developing in 2017, although the name was introduced in 2019. They were unknown to authorities until the October 2022 arrests. Members of established terror groups drove JAFHS’ formation, apparently while in jail. The country’s most prominent groups are Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Ansar al-Islam, and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (Huji-B). JAFHS could have nearly 100 members among its ranks according to estimates; however, their numbers remain unconfirmed.
Operations and Activity
JAFHS seems to recruit through madrasas and mosques, where it could try to possibly target disenfranchised youth. One of the arrestees was a madrasa teacher, who was tasked with recruitment by the group. He himself was apparently radicalized while studying at a madrasa. Recruits were shown narratives or propaganda of Islam and Muslims being persecuted to strengthen the group’s (or Al Qaeda’s) narrative. Recruits were also being trained in bomb-making, combat tactics, using AK-47-style rifles and pistols, and conducting attacks. The group also attempts to leverage family ties; a recruit who escaped the group said that he was convinced by his cousin to join the outfit. These methods are typical in Bangladesh, as they are elsewhere in the world.
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Connections with Other Organizations
JAFHS is suspected to be formed by or with members of JMB, Ansar al-Islam, and Huji-B. At this point, the strength of JAFHS’ connections to active iterations of these groups cannot be independently verified.
JMB is one of Bangladesh’s most prominent terror groups, formed in the 1990s. One of its most notorious operations was the August 17, 2005 bombings: around 450 small bombs went off in 63 out of 64 of Bangladesh’s districts in a span of 30 minutes. At least 2 people died and over 115 people were injured. Twenty-eight bombs went off in Dhaka, including near the prime minister’s office, the international airport, and other sensitive locations. While attacks have declined over the years, especially as it has lost several ranking leaders, JMB is trying to play the long game. It remains in the background of Bangladesh’s terror landscape.
Huji-B (ties with Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan Taliban) has been operational for decades. Members of Huji-B unsuccessfully tried to assassinate then (and current) Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2000; security forces found the 76kg explosive. It was also active in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and surrounding areas. The group has been trying to regain its capabilities.
Ansar al-Islam (claimed to be Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) came out of the Ansarullah Bangla Team, which gained notoriety for killing prominent secular or atheist bloggers in the mid-2010s. There has been a history of terror groups targeting these activists in the country. Ansar al-Islam has been actively recruiting and trying to reorganize. Earlier this year two suspects were arrested in Dhaka for an alleged plot to attack Parliament.
According to officials, recruits of JAFHS were trained in the small islands of Bhola and Patuakhali district in Barisal division. The latter is especially an important entry point for the drug trade in the country. Interestingly, JAFHS has also apparently conducted training in Bandarban in the CHT, an area that has had a history of conflict and insurgency due to tribal and communal tensions. It has hosted several armed groups, including the Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF). The KNF is a tribal armed group (also a new group), which let more than 50 JAFHS members take shelter and create a training camp in Bandarban. It is unknown how much JAFHS paid the KNF (JAFHS’s main source of funds is likely donations, and possibly some criminal activity), but this is an interesting dynamic that will retain the attention and concern of Bangladeshi security forces. It is not common for tribal armed groups from the CHT to offer space to or operate alongside Islamist militants.
Terrorism in Bangladesh
Authorities have taken a force-based approach to counterterrorism. Different governments have had checkered relationships with hardline Islamist groups in the past, and politics have inhibited the fight against terrorism in Bangladesh (in some cases, politics has arguably facilitated terrorism). Regardless, RAB and other agencies have gained significant experience in counterterrorism, especially after the Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka in 2016.
On July 1, 2016, five terrorists took locals and foreigners hostage and occupied the Holey Artisan Bakery, in Dhaka’s high-end Gulshan neighborhood. Twenty-four people were killed, including two policemen; the five terrorists were also killed. A JMB splinter that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, the neo-JMB, was behind the attack. In response, security forces intensified their crackdown which had been expanding over the years, and large-scale terror attacks since then have been rare. However, terrorist activities continue at concerning levels.
The Future of JAFHS
The emergence of JAFHS is not unsurprising given the history of terrorism in Bangladesh. It could have been formed by possibly disenchanted members of established terror groups. Or they could have emerged under this banner to escape crackdowns — authorities have extra powers to target JMB, Huji-B, and Ansar al-Islam since they are banned. JAFHS seems to recruit primarily from madrasas and from leveraging family and community networks, judging by the limited information available. It’s too early to gauge the extent of the group’s proliferation, capabilities, and networks since it really came to be in 2017 but only came to light in 2022 and still apparently is not yet capable of mounting operations.
Bangladesh will hold its general elections at the end of 2023, and political tensions may manifest in violence. Religious and sectarian tensions have been rising across the country, and widespread communal violence broke out in October 2021. This creates an environment where extremist ideologies proliferate with ease. Security forces have already started conducting raids in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area. Authorities will be concerned over a renewed wave of terrorism in Bangladesh and will try to pre-empt incidents. Terror networks can often be dispersed, so raids will likely take place across the country; various terror outfits will be targeted in them. There will be a crackdown on JAFHS and increased focus on insurgent groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Although counterterror raids in the CHT could backfire on the government. There are suspicions already that the relationship between terror groups and insurgents in the hills is deeper than it seems. Authorities will also increase the tracing of missing youth — new recruits for terror groups often come from this demographic. Ensuring proper security for the elections will likely pressure authorities to crack down on extremists extensively. Over 500 terrorists have been arrested in recent months. However, Bangladesh is a challenging environment to ensure security.
The South Asian terror landscape can be very fluid. The borders in the region are porous, despite efforts to tighten them. Nearly all major Bangladesh-based terror groups have or have had activities (including attacks) in India. Pakistan has been accused of supporting some insurgent outfits in the past. Huji-B is suspected of conducting the 2008 Marriott Hotel attack in Islamabad, Pakistan, which killed over 50 people and injured over 270. Some members had close links to Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. How Bangladesh manages a possibly increasing threat of terrorism could have repercussions for other countries in the region.