As Bangladesh gears up for its next general election which is expected to be held by January 9, 2024, concerns over the resurgence of Islamist-jihadist conglomerates, spearheaded by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have intensified. With the backing of certain Western nations, these elements are determined to unseat the current secularist Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The potential outcome of their success is alarming – a Bangladesh that could become a safe haven for Islamist militancy forces, including notorious terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda. Recent arrests of key Al Qaeda figures in Bangladesh have shed light on the extent of their infiltration into the country, signaling a critical security challenge for both Bangladesh and neighboring India.
The arrest of Al Qaeda handler Abu Talha in Bangladesh
One of the significant apprehensions in Bangladesh’s fight against terrorism came to light in May 2023 when authorities arrested Ikramul Haque, alias Abu Talha, a prominent figure in Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Abu Talha, a Bangladeshi citizen, had entered India on a tourist visa and then enrolled in the Deoband Seminary, where he began recruiting and training members for AQIS both in India and Bangladesh.
Reports indicate that Abu Talha’s wife, Faria Afrin, is also involved in the female wing of the terror group, emphasizing the depth of the organization’s network in the region.
Abu Talha’s arrest in Bangladesh triggered a series of arrests in India as well.
Indian law enforcement agencies apprehended more than 50 AQIS operatives, including some Bangladeshi nationals, in various states such as Assam, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. The information gleaned from these arrests revealed that Abu Talha had successfully established 11 sleeper cells in India, located in Cooch Behar, Bhopal, Assam, Delhi, and Tamil Nadu.
These cells, comprising between five to eight members each, were reportedly involved in planning attacks, including the creation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and preparations for suicide attacks.
Abu Talha’s revelations to the Dhaka Metropolitan Police also exposed connections between AQIS and Myanmar-based Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Moreover, the extremist group has reportedly managed to establish sleeper cells in Indian states of Kerala, Assam, and West Bengal, indicating a worrisome regional reach.
Furthermore, the confessions pointed to underground connections with several leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), a hardline pro-Caliphate Islamist group in Bangladesh, suggesting an unsettling plot to carry out terrorist attacks within the country.
AQIS’s effective use of encrypted apps and the dark web for communication highlights the sophisticated nature of its operations. Abu Talha’s contact with other prominent Al Qaeda leaders, including Wasim Omar, raises concerns about the organization’s transnational network and potential cross-border collaboration.
The presence and activities of AQIS and other extremist groups in Bangladesh pose significant security challenges for both Bangladesh and India. If Islamist-jihadist forces manage to seize power in Bangladesh, it could become a safe haven for terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS, jeopardizing the stability and security of the entire region.
Bangladesh must prioritize counterterrorism efforts, strengthen intelligence capabilities, and enhance cross-border cooperation with India and other neighboring countries to prevent the spread of extremism and militancy. The forthcoming general election in Bangladesh serves as a crucial juncture for the nation’s leaders to recommit themselves to safeguarding the country’s secular principles and upholding the safety of its citizens.
The growing influence and resurgence of Islamist-jihadist conglomerates, particularly within the ultra-Islamist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have raised grave concerns for both Bangladesh and India. The recent arrest of AQIS leader Abu Talha has shed light on the extent of Al Qaeda’s presence and activities in the region. Bangladesh and India must collaborate closely, sharing intelligence and resources to combat the rising threat of extremist ideologies and terrorist organizations.
Only through united efforts can both nations effectively tackle the challenge posed by Al Qaeda and ISIS and safeguard the peace and stability of the South Asian region.