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Bangladesh Islamists: Terror Heists

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By Sanchita Bhattacharya
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

On June 7, 2015, a team of Detective Branch (DB) of Police arrested nine militants of the Bangladesh Jihadi Group (BJG) from capital city Dhaka's Banashree and Sutrapur areas, while they were preparing to execute bank robberies. A huge quantity of bombs, explosives and books on jihad (holy war) were seized from their possession. While six of the arrestees - identified as Kazi Iftekhar Khaled aka Khaled aka Ifti, Fahad bin Nurullah Kashemi aka Fahad aka Kayes, Mohammad Rahat, Din Islam, Ariful Karim Chowdhury aka Adnan and Nurul Islam - were picked from the garage of a Banashree apartment, another three - identified as Mawlana Nurullah Kashemi, Delwar Hossain, and Yasin Arafat - were arrested from Sutrapur. Sanwar Hossain, Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC, South Dhaka) stated that Rahat, Fahad and Khaled were experts in making bombs.

BJG is a platform comprising four militant organisations, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT). Members of BJG follow the strategies of the international terrorist organisation, Islamic State (IS), as clearly declared from their official website:, which also flaunts the infamous IS black flag, along with Jihadi literature and videos in Bengali. Although little information regarding the date and formation of BJG is available, the first post on its official Twitter account appeared on March 14, 2014. On Twitter, BJG is followed by 152 people; and the militants have, so far, tweeted 605 times. According to investigators, the arrested nine were planning to kill noted persons in Bangladesh after amassing money by robbing banks.

On April 21, 2015, suspected ABT cadres carried out a gruesome bank heist at the Kathgora Branch [in the Dhaka sub-urban area] of the Bangladesh Commerce Bank Limited, in which nine people were killed and 23 were injured. The dead included the bank manager and one of the robbers. DB arrested the alleged mastermind behind the bank heist, Mahfuzul Islam Shamim alias Suman, on May 31, 2015, and claimed that Shamim was one of the leaders of ABT and the robbery was conducted to raise funds for the organisation. ABT was banned in Bangladesh on May 25, 2015, but had first hit headlines with the assassination of anti-Islamist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, an architect and an activist of the Shahbag Movement which began on February 5, 2013, in Dhaka city. ABT is distinguished from better known Islamist extremist groups in Bangladesh by its propaganda and indoctrination capabilities. ABT projects its doctrine of jihad through 117 web pages, including Facebook and Twitter handles, and various blogs.

Although, data specifically related to Bank robbery is unavailable, the official website of Bangladesh Police provides Crime statistics, including robbery and burglary, since 2010. The data indicates that between 2010 and 2014, a total of 5,268 cases of robbery and 14,733 cases of burglary were registered. There is no separate aggregation of such incidents connected with terrorist organisations.

Meanwhile, referring to the June 7 arrests, ADC Sanwar Hossain stated on June 8,

We have received some alarming information by analysing the laptop. We found a 48-page research book that contains information on how to take control or hack the e-banking system. They made a list of banks having e-banking system and were assessing those that have relatively weak security measures. These militants are experts on technology. They encrypted all the information on the laptop for which we are facing difficulties to recover the data. We need the help of the latest techniques and technology mainly used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to decode it. The militants were also collecting information on the activities of local and international law enforcement agencies.

According to a June 9, 2015, report referring to the same arrests, these terrorists had not only planned bank robberies but had also formed a 'research cell' to take control of the electronic banking (e-banking) system of several banks. Before being neutralised by law enforcers, the group was developing software to infiltrate the e-banking systems and change information about account holders, to have money transferred to their accounts or withdrawn using fake debit and credit cards. DB made these discoveries after interrogating the nine arrestees and analysing the laptop recovered from their possession. They also found software in the laptop that allowed users to withdraw up to BDT 25,000 against each credit card.

Indeed, according to DB sources, arrested terrorists asserted that they considered the money and valuables kept in banks to be "war spoils" and also believe that most of the banks in the country do not operate in accordance with the principles of Islamic Shariah and, consequently, looting them was not a religious offence. DB officials disclosed, further, that Kashemi met detained HuJI-B leader Mawlana Abdur Rauf in jail to chalk out the bank looting plans. During their meeting, Kashemi and others received direction from Rauf, who also asked them to carry on with other organisational activities. Abdur Rauf is a top HuJI-B leader and also a charge-sheeted accused in a case filed for the August 21, 2004, grenade attack on an Awami League rally.

A June 10 report further suggested that these terrorist outfits also planned to loot money from different Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), including the Grameen Bank. Sanwar Hossain argued, "Militants have decided this, since their traditional ways of collecting funds have shrunk thanks to monitoring of the Bangladesh Bank and law enforcement agencies." According to DB, militants used to collect funds from different sources, including through "well-wishers" who believed in similar ideology. Funds also came from outside the country.

Interestingly enough, in the month of February 2015 the central bank of the country, Bangladesh Bank, had put banks in Bangladesh on maximum alert so that they could protect against being exploited to finance terrorism, following Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed's directive. On February 11, the Deputy Governor of Bangladesh Bank and Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) Chief Abu Hena Mohammad Razee Hassan told chief executive officers of all banks of the heightened alert, stating,

You will take the maximum caution so that your banks are not used for any kind of terror financing or by any terrorist for transactions... BFIU or Bangladesh Bank will conduct thorough inspection to see whether the branch officials are aware of the order. Taking into consideration the legal obligations as to whether the anti-money laundering and anti-terror finance mechanism is being applied properly, chief executive of the bank need get the compliance system of his bank evaluated by the internal control and audit department or by forming a separate team, if necessary.

Earlier, on February 5, Prime Minister Wajed had directed all banks and financial institutions to identify those who finance militant and terror activities. She had also called for strict monitoring of financial transactions carried out through banks to stop terror funding.

It is interesting to note that, since 2002, when the Anti-Money Laundering Act was promulgated, Bangladesh has been trying to curb the menace of terror financing. Responding to growing international pressure after 9/11, the Bangladesh Government had also formed a central and regional taskforce on January 27, 2002, to deal with money laundering and terrorist finance. Subsequently, a Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) was established within the Bangladesh Bank on May 16, 2007. A document titled National Strategy for Preventing Money Laundering and Combating Financing of Terrorism 2011-2013, outlines the Government's present strategy to deal with the problem, and defines its mission, "To bring the anti-money laundering/combating of financing terror system and procedures of Bangladesh in full convergence with international best practice standards set by FATF and other multi-lateral forums".

In November 2014, Bangladesh furthered regulatory steps by venturing into the NGO finance regulation. On June 3, 2014, Cabinet Secretary M. Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan stated, "No NGO will be able to run its activities without taking registration from the NGO Affairs Bureau. No registration is required in case of individuals, but approval has to be taken from the Bureau... The proposed law has also a provision for punishment, cancellation of registration and imposition of fines for violating the law".

The involvement of terror groups in e-banking fraud and bank robbery appears to be an act of desperation to collect fund for terrorism, as 'traditional' sources dry up, and the organisations suffer an acute resource crunch. Significantly, the official regulations on money laundering and NGO funding will substantially diminish the scope for terrorist and extremist formations to finance their activities.

Nevertheless, the coming together of various terrorist outfits under a single umbrella is an alarming development, particularly within the context of the present violent and polarlized political scenario in Bangladesh. Indeed, the formation of the International Crime Tribunal-1 (ICT-1) on March 25, 2010, with the objective of bringing the perpetrators of War Crimes of 1971 to justice, has sparked major turmoil and violence in the country. According to partial data collated by Institute for Conflict Management, since that date, at least 467 people, including 261 civilians, 27 Security Force personnel and 179 extremists have been killed, principally in acts of terror targeting civilians, or in street violence. The present initiatives to tighten the e-banking system and to harden the security shield for the banking establishments can be expected to be strengthened further, as the Hasina Government intensifies its enormously successful efforts against Islamist extremism and terrorism in Bangladesh.

[Source: SATP]

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