In Bangladesh, a climate of fear has engulfed the secular activists of the country with the advent of a radical Islamist group. Known under the name of “Ansarullah Bangla Team,” its members are believed to be highly engaged in social media and also tech-savvy. Over the past few years, this youth-oriented radical Islamist group stole global media attention after successfully carrying out some fatal attacks on prominent secular activists, bloggers, writers, and publishers. Contrary to ISIS, so far ABT has been meticulous in choosing their targets. ABT has even condemned the atrocities committed by ISIS, standing from its self-defined higher moral ground.
In literal English translation, Ansarullah means “helpers of Allah.” Funded by different NGOs, Ansarullah started its operation in 2007. Back then it was called ‘Jama’atul Muslemin’. As the funds went dry, Jama’atul Muslemin soon ceased to exist. A few years later it resurrected again, this time as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). ABT is profoundly influenced by the doctrines preached by a radical Islamist ideologue Anwar Al-Awlaki. Back in 2011, Awlaki was killed in a US drone strike. In July 2012; ABT published a Bengali translation one of Awlaki’s lectures. Titled as ‘The dust will never settle down’, the document vividly describes the gruesome assassinations of apostates and critics who flouted or criticized either the prophet or Islam. In truth, Awlaki’s speech was in a way an excerpt of the writings of Ibn Taymiyya, a fourteen-century theologian from the most conservative of the four legal traditions of Islam-the Hanbali School. Awlaki delivered the lecture in 2007, after being released from a Yemeni jail. Awlaki’s lecture provides scriptural legitimacy for such killings and encourages his followers to carry on such attacks in the present days as well.
An imam at a local mosque in the capital city Dhaka and founder of several Madrasas, Mufti Jasimuddin Rahmani, is ABTs ideological leader in Bangladesh. Rahmani had been making incendiary speeches in Friday prayer sermons and inciting the youth to join the jihad against apostates and blasphemers. Inspired by his riveting speeches, five of his followers went on to kill blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider on February 15, 2013. All of them were university students. Upon their arrest, they described Rahmani as the instigator in their confessional statements. In August 2013, Rahmani was arrested from his hometown Barguna along with 30 members of his entourage. From Rahmani’s Dhaka office, police recovered a list of 12 people describing it as a possible hit list. The list included slain blogger Rajib Haider’s name along with some high-profile men including few ministers of the government.
Even after his arrest, Rahmani continues to be an influential figurehead for the ABT members. According to intelligence reports, Rahmani met Saidur Rahman in a clandestine meeting in Qasimpur high-security prison. Saidur Rahman is the chief of the banned Islamist terrorist organization Jamatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB). Saidur Rahman at the time was also in incarceration at the same prison facility. The two leaders discussed the scope of setting aside the differences in opinions to attain the goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate state in Bangladesh.
With Rahmani remaining behind bars, ABTs attacks only intensified. Since February 2013, five bloggers, one publisher, one university professor and two LGBT activists lost their lives from brutal attacks carried out by ABTs different assailant groups. All the victims were hacked to death by men armed with machetes. ABT claimed responsibilities behind all these killings through Twitter and other social media platforms. The terror group was also implicated in a bank robbery incident on the outskirts of capital city Dhaka. This bank heist episode turned out to be a violent affair, leaving eight people dead and some 20 more injured. Among the dead were two robbers who died after suffering merciless beatings from a resistant mob.
Trained in special operations, an army officer from the engineering corps at Mirpur Cantonment Syed Mohammad Ziaul Haque has been implicated as the chief military instructor of ABT. Ziaul Haque was involved in a failed coup attempt in 2011. He has been absconding since then.
ABT has a fluid organizational structure. Its members work under a clandestine cell structure method where they are distributed to different cells. Each cell comprises of 4-7 people. These cells operate independently and don’t possess any information about other cells. Such cell structure gives ABT the leverage of keeping its chain of command secretive. It is the reason behind why the exact numbers of ABT members and its sympathizers are yet to be identified. So far, the ABT members apprehended by the law enforcing agencies come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. It is a bewildering scenario where it is hard to pinpoint who exactly belongs to ABT and who doesn’t.
ABT has some publications which are available for purchase. Rahmani wrote a book titled ‘Unmukta tarbari'(Unfolded Sword). Muhammed Ishaq Khan‘s book has the same English title of Awlaki’s “The dust will never settle down” on its cover page. It includes the same ABT translated lecture of Awlaki’s.
The country’s Ministry of Home Affairs banned ABT in May 2015. In July, police claimed that they thwarted JMBs plan to snatch the two militant kingpins Jasimuddin Rahmani and Saidur Rahman from police custody. Later in December, two ABT members were sentenced to death in Ahmed Rajib Haider murder case. One of the two, Rezwanul Azad Rana is still at large. For his role as an instigator, Rahmani will serve a lenient sentence of 5-years in confinement. All the other murder cases where ABT is suspected are yet to receive verdicts.
Infinite zeal powers ABT neophytes. In propagating their jihadist views, they use the cyberspace extensively. ABT has translated a handful number of jihadist training materials from Arabic and English to Bengali. These training materials range from methods of silent killing to building explosives using household materials. ABT members also possess an intricate knowledge on how to stay anonymous on the web. For communicating with their members, ABT uses some encryption software.
Like many other denominations of radical Islamists, Al-Qaeda inspired ABT also considers itself as the bulwark of Islam. The group advocates for a regional jihad in Bangladesh. They are vociferous opponents of democracy, and ABTs militant literature is abundant in virulent attacks on liberalism. They identified Bangladesh’s parliamentary democracy as their foremost enemy and citing different Quranic verses they seek to legitimize their ideological standpoint. ABT characterizes the democratic society as a failed one that is succumbing to decadence and vice, and ABT reviles the country’s political parties for it. To them, democracy is in a direct confrontation with Islamic principles. ABT exhorts people to join their cause of eradicating democracy altogether, thus freeing the society from all sorts of social evils. They also equate the right of freedom of expression with their self-proclaimed right of silencing its advocates, in this case, the secular activists.
ABT has launched a pitiless war of attrition against the liberal section of the Bangladeshi society. Awlaki’s lecture serves the purpose of a rhetorical bludgeon in ABTs war against liberalism. The Bangladesh government is still lukewarm when it comes to taking firm action for stamping out religious extremism. The ordeal of ABTs victims is a ghastly spectacle that has shocked the world. The Bangladesh government is yet to be swayed under mounting domestic and international pressure. On the contrary, while addressing the issue, the government officials seem to be prevaricating. Some of them even went on to blaming the victims, which has sadly become a norm in the highly polarized Bangladeshi society. Such expediency is an affront to democracy. The vicious circle of this culture of impunity must come to an end before more blood of the innocents is spilled. Bangladesh’s secular heritage has been sullied with the paroxysm of extremist ideas. It is high time for Bangladesh to reinvigorate its secular ethos and restore public confidence in the judiciary system for thwarting ABTs dream of transforming the country into a feudal relic.
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