May 26, 2016 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1251

The Murders In Bangladesh - The Role Of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, And Local Jihadis

May 26, 2016 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1251


Since early 2013, Bangladesh has attracted international media attention for the systematic killing of freethinkers and non-Muslims by Islamist forces in the country. In analyzing these killings, an important date to begin with is March 31, 2013 - the day a group of Islamist leaders submitted a list of 84 individuals to the Bangladeshi government and urged it to take action against secular bloggers and Facebook commentators for their remarks against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.[1] Since then, a number of secular activists and writers have been killed, including those whose names were not on the aforementioned list.

At the center of the Islamist movement in Bangladesh are not only the jihadis associated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), but also Hefajat-e-Islam ("Defense of Islam"), a coalition of Islamist organizations supported by 25,000 madrassas (Islamic seminaries), which orchestrated a campaign against the secularist Shahbag Movement.[2] Hefajat-e-Islam enjoys the support of the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for political reasons. The Shahbag Movement was focused on demands to prosecute Islamists, especially the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, for committing war crimes during the 1971 War of Liberation from Pakistan. Before the emergence of Hefajat-e-Islam, the main Islamist force in the country had been the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, whose cadres went on to form Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a jihadi terror group, with support from Pakistan-based jihadis after the 1980s Afghan jihad.

In the context of this analysis, the term "bloggers" is a biased term used by outsiders, as it reduces the significance of those Bangladeshi writers and freethinkers who were killed by the armed Islamists. In a wider meaning, this term includes writers, activists, atheists, professors, students, publishers, and authors. In the context of these attacks, the focus has turned on the role of local jihadis, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and ISIS. As the killings continued this year, it appears that ISIS and Al-Qaeda are two main organizations to which the local jihadis have affiliated themselves.[3] This analysis seeks to put in perspective some of the major killings of Bangladeshi bloggers and non-Muslims, as well as attacks on the religious places of Shi'ite and Ahmadi Muslims in Bangladesh from 2013 to the present day, though Islamist attacks on secular activists and writers have also taken place prior to that. 

The Nature Of Jihadi Killings From 2013

In 2013, at least three major attacks took place that fit the characteristics of a systematic pattern. A few months before the Islamist leaders submitted the list of 84 bloggers to the government, the attacks on the secular bloggers had already begun. On the night of January 13, 2013, Asif Mohiuddin, an atheist blogger, was attacked in Dhaka, resulting in a month-long hospitalization.[4] This was perhaps the first in a pattern of ambush-style attacks, but Asif Mohiuddin survived.

Approximately one month later, on February 15, 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider, a 30-year-old architect and a key leader of the Shahbag Movement, was stabbed to death in Dhaka.[5] On the night of March 7, 2013, Sunnyur Rahaman, a 26-year-old IT engineer and atheist blogger, was wounded in an attack in the Mirpur area of the capital.[6] These were the three major attacks in 2013 in which young men with some background in Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, an Islamist organization whose leaders have been recently executed for war crimes committed during the 1971 War of Liberation, played a role.

Asif Mohiuddin, the first blogger targeted (

Five young men arrested for the attack on Ahmed Rajib Haider revealed that they were part of a newly-formed group called Ansar Bangla Team (ABT), which was linked to Al-Qaeda.[7] Senior police officer Nazrul Islam told a reporter that while the five were involved in the attack on Ahmed Rajib Haider, there were several groups working as part of ABT in the country that were also responsible for the attacks on Asif Mohiuddin and Sunnyur Rahman.[8] The fact that the men were members of the ABT does not mean that they were not part of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh at some point in time. Naim Sikder Irad, one of the men arrested, belonged to the Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, and had played a role in motivating others.[9] Other than the ABT, another name that came up was Ansar Al-Mujahideen English Forum, a group owing allegiance to slain Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Anwar Al-Awlaki which congratulated the militants behind the killing of Ahmed Rajib Haider.[10]

In 2014, there were no major attacks that involved the jihadi motive, but there were some ambush killings such as that of Shafiul Islam, a liberal sociology professor at the Rajshahi University, which took place on November 15.[11] Although a group calling itself "Ansarul Islam Bangladesh-2" claimed responsibility for the killing of Shafiul Islam on Facebook, one year later, in December 2015, the police declared that after an investigation, no militants were found to have been involved in the attack.[12] This, despite the fact that six months earlier, on May 2, 2015, AQIS retroactively claimed responsibility for the killing.[13]

2015 saw a spike in attacks. On the night of February 26, Avijit Roy and his wife were attacked as they were returning from a book fair in Dhaka.[14] Roy, a writer known for his liberal views, died in the attack, but his wife Rafida Ahmed Bonya survived. The case of Avijit Roy drew international attention, as he held an American citizenship. One month later, it was reported that the police suspected that either Hizbut Tahrir or Ansar Bangla Team (ABT) could have been behind the attack on Roy.[15] On March 30, 2015, Washiqur Rahman Babu, a secular blogger, was hacked to death by radical Islamists for his atheist views.[16] Witnesses to the attack captured two of the three attackers: Zikrullah, a student of Hefajat-e-Islam's Hathazari Madrassa in Chittagong, and Ariful, a student of Mirpur Darul Uloom Madrassa. A third attacker escaped.[17]  

May 2015 - Al-Qaeda's Involvement Begins

AQIS statement claiming responsibility for the killing of Xulhaz Mannan 

In the third fatal attack of this kind within three months, secular blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was killed by masked men in the town of Sylhet on May 12, 2015.[18] This seems to be the first attack on a blogger in Bangladesh that was immediately claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in a statement posted on - a link to which was shared on the same day by Ansar Al-Islam Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi branch of AQIS.[19] While in the case of previous attacks on bloggers, it does not appear that AQIS or other foreign jihadi group were in the loop beforehand, in this case AQIS claim responsibility within hours of the attack. This means that local jihadis had by this point established a definitive connection with the leadership of Al-Qaeda.

The argument that local jihadis had coordinated the premeditated killing of Ananta Bijoy Das with the AQIS leadership was also established by the fact that ten days earlier, on May 2, AQIS leader Maulana Asim Umar appeared in a video[20] and claimed responsibility for the previous killings of bloggers Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman Babu, Rajeeb Haider and Rajshahi University professor Shafiul Islam.[21] In the video, Asim Umar had also noted that the assassinations were part of an order by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

However, this does not mean that Al-Zawahiri ordered the killings of these specific Bangladeshi individuals. Most probably, Al-Zawahiri approved a general policy to target atheist and secular writers in South Asian countries. Therefore, AQIS's claim of responsibility for these previous killings appears to be an ex post facto stamp of approval from Al-Qaeda leadership via a retroactive claim of responsibility for killings carried out by local jihadis, as opposed to the execution of premeditated attacks. It is worth noting in this regard that AQIS also claimed responsibility for the killing of Professor Shafiul Islam in 2014, despite the police attributing other motives to this attack.

On August 7, 2015, secular blogger Niladri Chatterjee aka Niloy Neel was killed in Dhaka. Ansar Al-Islam Bangladesh claimed responsibility for the killing the same evening in an email message sent to the Bangladeshi media groups from [email protected][22] On October 31, 2015, two separate attacks took place. In the first attack, Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, a publisher of Avijit Roy, was attacked in his office along with bloggers Ranadipam Basu and Tareque Rahim; all three survived. In the second attack, progressive publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan was hacked to death. As per a media report, the perpetrators in both attacks locked the victims inside their offices before escaping the scene.[23] Police have found it hard to identify the attackers.

The names of groups that appeared in connection with the killings of Bangladeshis bloggers included: Ansar Al-Islam Bangladesh, Ansar Bangla Team and Ansarul Islam Bangladesh-2, three local groups aligned with possible ties to AQIS as well as JMB. It is important that AQIS, which is supposed to cover all of South Asia, seems to have coopted these three organizations instead of ordering these attacks under its own name.

Clockwise from right: The five slain bloggers - Niloy Neel, Ahmed Rajib Haider, Ananta Bijoy Das, Avijit Roy and Wasiqur Rahman Babu (image: 

September 2015 - ISIS's Involvement Begins

Near the end of September 2015, it emerged that ISIS and local jihadis had established a definitive connection. On September 28, 2015, Cesare Tavella, an Italian aid worker for the Netherlands-based development organization ICCO, was shot to death in Dhaka. Within hours of the attack, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement released on Twitter.[24] This pointed to a new trend, since the attack did not involve the killing of Bangladeshi secularists and rationalist bloggers. Instead, it fit a jihadi pattern of ideological attacks perpetrated by ISIS in Syria and Iraq targeting non-Muslims.

There are three points to note about this attack:

1. It was the first attack in Bangladesh claimed by the Islamic State.

2. The method of the attack remained the same, as in the case of the attacks claimed by Al-Qaeda or previous attacks by local jihadis.

3. The claim of responsibility by ISIS on social media came within hours and was in Arabic, which meant that the local jihadis who planned the attack had established prior communication with ISIS's Arab social media team.

Within a week - on October 3, 2015 - Japanese national Hoshi Kunio was shot to death in the northern town of Rangpur.[25] Like in the case of Cesare Tavella, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the killing of within hours of the attack, stating that he was a "Japanese infidel" and that the attack was a continuation of ISIS's targeting of members of the U.S.-led international coalition.[26] Two months later, Bangladeshi police arrested Masud Rana, who was described as a member of JMB, for the attack.[27] It should be noted that Hoshi Kunio had converted to Islam, a point that was perhaps unknown to the killers.

Two days after Kunio's murder, on October 5, 2015, three men attempted to kill Luke Sarker, a pastor, by slitting his throat at his home in the town of Pabna.[28] Police officials arrested six suspected members of JMB for the attack.[29] As part of this pattern, ten Christian priests received death threats on November 26, in a letter sent to one of them - but not by ISIS.[30] The attack on Sarker and threat to the ten priests were not claimed by the Islamic State, but they fit a typical pattern of targeting non-Muslims adopted by jihadis in all countries. However, JMB's regional commander Rakibul Islam was arrested for the attempted attack on Luke Sarker along with one other person.[31]

On the night of October 23-24, a series of bomb attacks in Dhaka killed one person and wounded over 60, as Shi'ite mourners had gathered for the Ashura procession to mark the annual day of mourning for Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.[32] This was believed to be the first attack on Shi'ite Muslims in Bangladesh. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying that "the soldiers of the Caliphate in Bangladesh" had detonated explosives during "polytheistic rituals."[33] The second attack on Shi'ite Muslims in Bangladesh within a month targeted a Shi'ite mosque in Bogra, 200 km northwest of Dhaka, killing the muezzin and wounding three others on November 26.[34] ISIS claimed responsibility for this attack as well.[35]

ISIS statement claiming responsibility for killing Cesare Tavella 

On November 4, a police checkpoint was attacked in the Baroipara area near Dhaka. A media report stated that ISIS had claimed responsibility for the attack, saying: "In a security operation, Allah enabled the soldiers of the [Islamic] State in Bangladesh to attack a police checkpoint."[36] Earlier, on October 22, a policeman was stabbed to death at Gabtoli checkpost in Dhaka.[37] A few days later, on November 10, a soldier was attacked near a military camp in Dhaka.[38] These isolated attacks were not claimed by the Islamic State and AQIS, which could be due to the failure of the local jihadis to link up.

On December 25, a suicide bomber blew himself up at an Ahmadi mosque in Bagmara, 250 km from Dhaka. ISIS issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack and calling Ahmadis "polytheistic."[39] Although the attack was claimed by ISIS, it appears that it may have been carried out by the JMB as Bagmara is the stronghold of JMB militant leader Siddiqul Islam Bangla Bhai, who was executed in 2007.[40] It is also possible that ISIS used a suicide bomber from JMB to carry out the attack. There are past examples from Pakistan in which multiple like-minded organizations carried out a single attack together, with some providing suicide bombers and others offering logistics, arms and ammunition. The attacks on foreign nationals, Christian priests, Shi'ite Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims bear the ISIS stamp, but ideologically speaking, Al-Qaeda and other local jihadis also consider them all legitimate targets.

Three terror attacks have attracted attention in 2016: On April 6, Nazimuddin Samad, a 27-year-old law student activist who was vocal against religious extremism, was hacked to death in Dhaka.[41] On April 23, Rezaul Karim, a professor at the Rajshahi University, was hacked to death near his home in the town of Rajshahi.[42] Shafiul Islam was a professor at the same university. Police initially ruled out the possibility of radical Islamists being involved in both attacks,[43] however, JMB has been known for killings at the Rajshahi University; for example, eight JMB men were indicted in early 2009 for killing university professor Muhammad Yunus.[44] Later, on May 18, 2016, four JMB men were arrested for the killing of Rezaul Karim.[45]

And just when the security officials' attention was turning from AQIS towards ISIS, the former made a comeback in April of this year. On April 25, 2016, gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan (who was also editor of Bangladesh's only LGBT magazine Roopbaan) and his friend Tanay Majumder were killed at Mannan's apartment - the attack was claimed by AQIS, which stated: "Alhamdulillah [Praise be to Allah]. By the grace of Allah the Almighty, the heroic knights of Ansar Al-Islam (AQIS, Bangladesh Branch) were able to assassinate Xulhaz Mannan and his associate Samir Mahbub Tonoy. They were the ones responsible for spearheading the campaign to publicly spread the filth of homosexuality in Bangladesh.[46]

Conclusions - Attacks Organized Locally, Inspired By Jihad

These events lead to some key conclusions:

1. The attackers have targeted both Muslim and non-Muslim bloggers and freethinkers, with the attacks initially focusing on those who were part of the Shahbag Movement, which demanded the death penalty for Jamaat-e-Islami leaders who were convicted of committing war crimes in the 1971 War of Liberation.

2. Except for the three attacks on Shi'ite and Ahmadi religious sites, almost all the cases involve ambush attacks on unsuspecting individuals. The ambush mode of attacks is typically local.

3. Some of the attacks were claimed by AQIS and others by ISIS.

4. There are a number of attacks that were not claimed by either ISIS or AQIS, perhaps due to the failure of local jihadis to communicate with the social media teams of the two groups. In most such cases, the role of JMB emerges.

5. In all the cases, the attackers appear to be local jihadis, some of whom have linked up with the leadership of ISIS and AQIS in order to garner social media attention at the international level, and therefore it could be said that Bangladesh is experiencing radicalization of Muslim young people on a mass scale, aided by the Hasina government's coddling of fundamentalist groups such as Hefajat-e-Islam to win elections.

6. Since most of the attacks have involved local jihadis, the Bangladeshi government has refused to admit that ISIS has established presence in Bangladesh. On October 4, 2015, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is currently serving her second term, rejected ISIS's claims of responsibility, saying that the attacks on foreigners were planned by Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and the BNP, and noting that these parties "definitely abetted these murders in an attempt to overshadow Bangladesh's achievements."[47] During her previous term in office, which began in January 2009, Hasina had launched severe crackdown against jihadis, especially against the JMB, whose cadres splintered and began disappearing from the police's radar. On February 12, 2016, Bangladesh's State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam, on a visit of Washington DC, made a similar claim, saying: "On the ground, in the investigations that we have carried out, we did not get any evidence of ISIS links as yet."[48]

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has coddled fundamentalist group Hefajat-e-Islam 

In a paper published by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) on March 20, 2016, this writer observed the following: "Jihadism in Bangladesh has roots in the 1980s Afghan jihad. Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist organization founded by Abul A'ala Maududi in 1941, has been the main feeder organization for jihadi groups across South Asia. Following the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and of Bangladesh in 1971, Jamaat-e-Islami split, for all practical purposes, into four branches that are ideologically similar but organizationally not connected: a) in India; b) in India's Jammu & Kashmir; c) in Pakistan; and d) in Bangladesh. In the last three, jihadi groups have been sheltered by mosques, madrassas and organizations affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami.

"In Bangladesh, young men emerging from Jamaat-e-Islami formed the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). It is from the JMB - many of whose members fled to India following the crackdown by the Sheikh Hasina government - that the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) emerged. Two Bangladeshi nationals were found among a group of five ISIS terror suspects arrested by Indian officials in Delhi in mid-January. There is a continuing overlap between the JMB and ABT. In the cases of the terror attacks claimed by ISIS, it does not appear that the ISIS's top leadership is planning and executing the operations in Bangladesh."[49]

Also, in all the cases of attacks claimed by AQIS (notably with groups calling themselves Ansar Bangla Team, Ansar Al-Islam Bangladesh, and Ansar Al-Islam Bangladesh-2) and ISIS, it is the former members of JMB that have organized into groups, seeking to establish connections with foreign jihadi organizations. The worrying point for the Bangladeshi government has to be this: It is not dealing with a single organization, but rather with several active local jihadi units, three of which could be part of AQIS and at least one could be connected to ISIS. Their connections with AQIS and ISIS appear, as of now, to be at the level of social media relationships, and in this regard it is notable that the literature published by both AQIS and ISIS does not reveal a relationship at the operational level. As argued by this writer, it does not appear that there is top-down link with the local jihadi groups. It is more like bottom-up links being established by local militants with ISIS and AQIS.[50]

* Tufail Ahmad is Director of the MEMRI South Asia Studies Project. He is the author of "Jihadist Threat To India - The Case For Islamic Reformation By An Indian Muslim."



[1] (Bangladesh), March 31, 2013.

[2] See the author's article explaining the rise of Hefajat-e-Islam in Bangladesh: "Liberty in Peril in Bangladesh" (, July 30, 2013.

[4] (Bangladesh), April 3, 2013.

[5] (Bangladesh), February 16, 2013.

[6] (Bangladesh), accessed May 17, 2016.

[7] (Bangladesh), March 15, 2013.

[8] (Bangladesh), March 15, 2013.

[9] (Bangladesh), March 15, 2013.

[10] (Bangladesh), March 15, 2013.

[11] (Bangladesh), March 8, 2014.

[12] (Bangladesh), December 18, 2015.

[13] (Bangladesh), May 12, 2015.

[14] (Bangladesh), February 26, 2015.

[15] (Bangladesh), March 30, 2015.

[16] (Bangladesh), March 30, 2015.

[17] (Bangladesh), March 30, 2015.

[18] (Bangladesh), May 12, 2015.

[19] (Bangladesh), May 12, 2015.

[20] See MEMRI JTTM report Al-Qaeda In The Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) Claims Responsibility For Assassinating Bangladeshi-American Blogger, Calls Muslims To 'Take Revenge [On] The Blasphemers Of America And France', May 2, 2015. It seems Asim Umar mentioned only two names: Avijit Roy and Rajib Haider, along with some writers killed in Pakistan. However, Bangladesh media reports noted that Asim Umar named four persons: Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman Babu, Rajeeb Haider and Shafiul Islam.

[21] (Bangladesh), May 12, 2015.

[22] (Bangladesh), August 7, 2015.

[23] (Bangladesh), October 31, 2015.

[25] (Bangladesh), October 3, 2015.

[27] (Bangladesh), December 9, 2015.

[28] (Bangladesh), October 6, 2015.

[29] (Bangladesh), November 19, 2015.

[30] (Bangladesh), November 27, 2015.

[31] (Bangladesh), November 4, 2015

[32] (Bangladesh), October 24, 2015.

[33] (India), October 25, 2015 & (Bangladesh), October 24, 2015.

[34] (Bangladesh), November 27, 2015.

[35] (Bangladesh), November 27, 2015.

[36] (U.S.), November 5, 2015.

[37] (Bangladesh), October 22, 2015.

[38] (Bangladesh), November 10, 2015.

[39] (Bangladesh), December 26, 2015.

[40] (India), December 27, 2015.

[41] (Bangladesh), April 7, 2016.

[42] (Bangladesh), April 23, 2016.

[43] (Bangladesh), April 23, 2016.

[44] (Bangladesh), February 20, 2009.

[45] (Bangladesh), May 18, 2016.

[47] (India), October 4, 2015.

[48] (India), February 13, 2016.

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