ucanews.com reporters, Dhaka
Updated: May 01, 2017 08:36 AM GMT
Bangladesh police officials stand alert at the scene of an operation to storm an Islamic militant hideout in Dhaka on Dec. 24. In recent years, Bangladesh has reeled from terrorist attacks that have targeted religious minorities, secular writers, bloggers and foreigners. (Photo by Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)
A burqa-clad woman, allegedly the wife of a top extremist leader, blew herself up on Dec. 24 after a 16-hour police standoff at her hideout in Dhaka where three suspected female Islamic militants and four children were holed up.
Three months later, on March 25, an adult man clad in jeans and a shirt emerged near a police checkpoint at the entrance of Dhaka airport and detonated explosives either in his pockets or tied around his waist.
The airport attack came a week after another suicide bombing near the under-construction headquarters of the Rapid Action Battalion, a paramilitary anti-terror force. Besides killing himself, the bomber seriously wounded two officers who tried to stop him.
On March 28, army commandos brought an end to a four-day standoff at a militant hideout in the northeastern city of Sylhet after they gunned down four terrorists. The military rescued 68 unhurt residents from the building the militants used at their hideout. As the police and army mounted pressure on the building, a group of motorcycle-riding militants lobbed grenades at them, killing six people including two policemen.
When the commandos entered the hideout, they found two terrorists including a female had suicide vests strapped to their bodies.
A day after the Sylhet standoff ended, law enforcers stormed two more militant dens in nearby Moulvibazar district only to find scattered body parts, all that remained of militants who blew themselves up to avoid capture.
The attacks were claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) but the government said the militants were from Neo-JMB, a regrouped faction of extremist outfit Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh that was banned in 2005.
Many believed the suicide attacks were inspired by a video of Abu Maryam al-Bengali, a Bangladeshi jihadi who joined IS and detonated himself on a suicide mission in Iraq in 2016.
The video was produced and published by IS-sponsored Furat Media, where the slain jihadi is seen calling on his Muslim countrymen "to immigrate for jihad or carry out lone-wolf attacks in Bangladesh," according to a report by the Search for International Terrorist Entities.
Suicide bombing, the use of women and children are common tactics used by militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Middle Eastern countries. It had been unseen in Bangladesh until now.
These attacks indicate rising radicalism in Bangladesh that is already reeling from a series of deadly militant attacks targeting atheist bloggers, writers and publishers, liberal academics, LGBT activists, religious minorities and foreigners.
The dangerous new phase of militancy in Bangladesh is an outcome of intense counter-terrorism pressure and anti-militancy sentiment among general public, said retired Major General Abdur Rashid, a Dhaka-based security analyst.
"IS' campaign for a caliphate is on the verge of collapse and its jihadists are weakened. But followers of IS ideology in various countries are trying to do something unique to make their presence felt," Rashid told ucanews.com.
The Neo-JMB has lost about 50 operatives including seven top leaders amid anti-terror operations by law enforcers since the July 2016 massacre in Dhaka's upmarket diplomatic zone, when five militants, armed with guns and swords and pledging allegiance to IS, massacred 20 hostages, most of them foreigners. This attack was the culmination of radicalism in Bangladesh.
A cycle rickshaw past a banner that reads "We stand with the bereaved" in a street near an upscale cafe-bakery in Dhaka which was the site of a bloody siege on July 16 that ended in the death of 17 foreigners and five Bangladeshis, including two policemen. (Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP)
Since then public sentiment against militancy has grown. More than 20 mid-ranking radicals have been arrested or killed and dozens of lower level members have been detained and their underground cells busted.
"Since the attack, militants have faced a tough time getting new recruits; even current members are uneasy and looking to defect. So now they are carrying out desperate attacks to help their outfit survive," Rashid said.
The other attacks did not result in many casualties as the militants were not "well-trained and well-organized. Suicide bombing is a dangerous trait in militancy but luckily they couldn't cause much damage because they lack training and resources, thanks to the ongoing security crackdown," he said.
Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi said the militants' use of women and children poses a great danger for society and the country.
"Women are soft-hearted and religious-minded, while children are simple. They can be easily brainwashed into radicalism in the name of religion," said Bishop Rozario, chairman of Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission.
Radicalized women and children joining militant groups can easily access certain areas, causing maximum damage if used for suicide attacks, he said.
While the anti-militancy drive continues, the government should constantly promote awareness against radicalism, the prelate added.
Monirul Islam, head of Dhaka Police Counterterrorism Unit, one of the masterminds behind the government's drive against radicals, said "The militants are now cornered, their back pressed against the wall and so they are using every possible tactic to survive, even using women and children."
"But if we are vigilant, we can block their plans. We have attained enough capacity to destroy militancy and we are determined to wipe out radicalism at any cost," Islam told ucanews.com.
"When they attack law enforcers, it means they are desperate and trying to use maximum force," he said.
Islam pointed out that public sentiment against radicalism is the biggest strength in their battle. "Nowadays, people are more aware of radicalism so they inform police immediately when they notice something suspicious. Together with the people, we believe we have the capacity to curb militancy in Bangladesh," he added.
Bishop Rozario said that while law enforcers continue to battle radicals, people in society have responsibilities as well.
"We can take up measures to combat militancy, remaining vigilant ourselves and making our neighbors aware of militancy. We can have a dialogue with Muslims and use social institutes like schools and colleges to promote harmony and defy radicalism. Most of all, we can pray to God so the minds of militants can change," the prelate said.