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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Al Qaeda recruits Rohingyas as jihadist members

Al Qaeda, through its franchise in Bangladesh has started recruiting Rohingyas for jihadist agenda. It was disclosed on January 27, 2023 when authorities claimed to have arrested a top leader of the banned jihadist outfit Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI-B), who was recruiting Rohingyas in exchange for donations.

According to information, Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of Bangladesh Police arrested an individual named Fakhrul Islam (58), who had visited Afghanistan and met Al Qaeda kingpin Osama Bin Laden and several Taliban leaders including Mullah Omar while receiving advanced armed training.

CTTC sources said, Fakhrul Islam and his son Saiful Islam (24) regularly visited Rohingya camps in Bangladesh and lured them towards jihadist activities. They also were contacting several insurgency and terrorist groups in Chittagong Hill Tract areas with the agenda of getting armed and commando training to HuJI members in Bangladesh’s Bandarban district.

Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), meaning Islamic Jihad Movement or Movement of Islamic Holy War, is a Pakistan-based Deobandi militant group with the current stated goal of secession of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) from Bharat and the region’s eventual incorporation into Pakistan. HuJI also propagates the idea of Islamic rule over all parts of Bharat .

Originally named Jamiat Ansarul Afghaneen (JAA), the Party of the Friends of the Afghan People, HuJI was founded by Qari Saifullah Akhtar and his associates from Karachi to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan. In 1984, JAA renamed itself Harkat-ul-Jihadi al-Islami, and in 1989, at the end of the Afghan-Soviet war, the organization reoriented its focus to the cause of Muslims in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir.

In the early 1990s, HuJI member Fazlur Rehman Khalil broke away to form another militant organization, Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM). However, in 1993, under pressure from Pakistani spy agency ISI and Deobandi clerics, HuJI combined forces with HuM and formed Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA) to begin operations in Jammu and Kashmir. Following the US designation of HuA as a terrorist organization in 1997, the group split and reverted to operating independently in order to evade authorities.

HuJI’s most active unit is known as HuJI Bangladesh, or HuJI-B. Founded in 1992, HuJI-B was associated with Osama bin Laden’s World Islamic Front for Jihad and operated through the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh led by Fazlur Rahman throughout its early years.

Beginning in the 1990s, HuJI received financial and logistical support from the Pakistani government and its intelligence agency, Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), to promote instability in Jammu & Kashmir. HuJI operations in J&K began in earnest in 1991, led by Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) are believed to have ties to HuJI’s Pakistani founder, Qari Saifullah Akhtar.

HuJI frequently operates alongside Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). It has been known to provide manpower for JeM operations and there is documentary evidence that JeM compensated the families of HuJI members killed on JeM missions.

Qari Saifullah Akhtar’s close relationship with Taliban leader Mullah Omar allowed the group to flourish after the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan. At least 25 HuJI members served at the ministerial level in the Taliban government and Mullah Omar authorized six HuJI camps for joint training of HuJI, Taliban police, and Taliban army recruits.

From a base in Kandahar, Qari Saifullah Akhtar served as a link between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, including bringing Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden together for meetings. Osama Bin Laden used HuJI as part of his support network inside Pakistan, specifically to convey messages, instructions, and funds. Some evidence indicates HuJI operatives were involved in hiding or transporting Osama Bin Laden inside Pakistan.

At the start of US military operations in 2001, HuJI was forced to flee its activity base in Southern Afghanistan. Many of its leaders including Qari Saifullah Akhtar took refuge in Pakistan’s South Waziristan. Some members relocated to Central Asia as well as Chechnya to evade US forces.

Although HuJI activity in Jammu & Kashmir has noticeably declined since 2001, the Bangladesh-based unit, HuJI-B, has steadily increased attacks in urban centers throughout India. HuJI remains highly active in Bangladesh, with most of the group’s attacks are planned from the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, under directives of Pakistani ISI. One report claims the group has up to 15,000 members, almost entirely recruited from madrassas in Bangladesh, Bharat and Pakistan.

Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami maintains several sleeper cells across Bharat in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. The group’s efforts in Bharat have been supported by the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in the form of recruits, lodging, and logistical assistance. HuJI also maintains links with militant groups operating in India’s northeast, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the People’s United Liberation Front (PULF). Before 2009, HuJI was running some of ULFA’s camps inside Bangladesh.

HuJI presence has been reported in as many as 24 nations outside of South Asia including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Malaysia, UK, US, the Philippines and parts of Africa, although the extent of coordination among these units is unknown. HuJI maintains revenue collection offices across Pakistan and has a main office in Islamabad.

Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami is associated with Deobandi school of thought within Sunni Islam, a movement that originated in Uttar Pradesh, India, where HuJI has extensive operations. The group describes itself as the “second line of defense for every Muslim”, and aims to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh, Bharat and Pakistan by waging attacks and promoting the Islamization of the societies.

Bangladesh chapter of Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, aims to establish Islamic rule in the country by waging war and killing progressive intellectuals. It draws inspiration from Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. At one point of time, it had issued a slogan, Amra Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan (We will become Taliban and will turn Bangladesh into Afghanistan).

Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami in Bangladesh

The Bangladesh branch of the HuJI came into existence in 1992 after the Afghan Mujahideen captured power in Kabul in April 1992, after overthrowing the then Afghan President Najibullah. It was set up by a group of Bangladeshi nationals, who had fought against the forces of the Najibullah government after having undergone jihadist training in Pakistan.

The formation of the HuJI (B) was announced at a press conference in April 1992 by a group of Afghan war veterans. It was projected as a successor to a first Bangladeshi Mujahideen group that had been formed in 1984 by self-styled Commander Abdur Rahman, for fighting against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. He later reportedly died in the Afghan War in 1989. A large number of Bangladeshi nationals who went to Palestine to fight against Israel had also joined HuJI and other jihadist groups on their return to Bangladesh.

HuJI leader Habibur Rahman in an interview to a jihadist journal named ‘Islami Biplob’ (Islamic Revolution) on August 20,1998 said: “An invitation from Harkat-ul Jihad- al-Islami made it possible for me to make the fortunate trip to Afghanistan… Those of us who visited the Afghan war-fields during that trip were Shaikhul Hadith, Ataur Rahman Khan, Sultan Jaok, Abdul Mannan, Habibullah and me. In Pakistan, leaders of the local chapter of the HuJI greeted us and took us to the HuJI Karachi office.

HuJI Pakistan chief Saifullah Akhtar and a Bangladeshi Mujahideen Abdur Rahman Shahid drove us to an Afghan Mohajir (refugee) camp on the Pakistan-Afghan border. We stayed at the camp and visited some injured Mujahideens and an Islamic cadet college, where the cadets received us with a guard of honor. Abdur Rahman then drove us to the residence of top Mujahideen leader Rasul Siaaf. The house was defended like a fort with anti-aircraft cannons and armed guards.

While still in Pakistan and on our way to Afghanistan, we visited a special Mujahideen training camp and met about a dozen Bangladeshi young Mujahideens led by one Abdul Quddus. We watched youths from different countries taking military training on a mountainous terrain. The arms they were being trained to operate included rocket launchers. That night, I shared a meal of dry cold bread with a handsome young Arab. When I inquired after his identity, I was told he was Osama bin Laden, a son of one of the richest Saudi families.

The next day, we entered Afghanistan and arrived at a Mujahideen cantonment on a mountain top. We visited an armory inside a tunnel. We were informed that some Russian forces were in position nearby and that everyone must prepare to fight. All of us were given Kalashnikov (AK-47) rifles. We stayed the night at the camp, while a Mujahideen team advanced towards the enemy position and engaged in a skirmish. The following day we started our return journey”.

It may be mentioned here that Habibur Rahman was also the convener of Sahaba Sainik Parishad (Sahaba Soldier’s Front) and the founding principal of the Jameya Madania Islamia, a madrasa at Kazir Bazar, in Sylhet district in Bangladesh.

HuJI has its main operational base in the coastal area stretching from the port city of Chittagong south through Cox’s Bazar to the Myanmar border. In addition to acts of terrorism, it has been involved in piracy, drugs and weapon smuggling. It reportedly maintains six training camps in the hilly areas of Chittagong and six more near Cox’s Bazar.

Rohingya Muslims from the Arakan province of Myanmar and Pattani Muslims from Southern Thailand also are members of HuJI. According to some reports, the Rohingya Muslims constitute the largest single group in the organization.

According to Bangladesh Police sources, a key suspect in the plot to assassinate the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in July 2000, Mufti Abdul Hannan, was trained in a HUJI camp in Peshawar in Pakistan. A diary recovered by the Police from Hannan’s brother Matiur Rehman, who was also involved in the assassination plot, indicated he was in touch with the Pakistani High Commission in Dhaka. These sources say that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence uses the HuJI-B for running training camps for the insurgent groups in India’s North-East, for Indian Muslims and for selected members of the Bangladeshi illegal migrants to Bharat .

It was suspected that the attack on the security guards outside the US Consulate at Kolkata in January 2002, was orchestrated by HuJI (B), in collaboration with the JeM and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, under the name the Asif Reza Commando Force (ARCF). Aftab Ansari alias Aftab Ahmed alias Farhan Malik, the prime accused in the attack, was in touch not only with the office-bearers of these organizations in Pakistan, but also with Omar Sheikh, who had masterminded the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl. Omar Sheikh claimed during his interrogation by the Karachi Police in 2002 that it was he who had asked Aftab Ansari to carry out the attack.

The HuJI-B receives financial assistance from Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan through Muslim non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of Bangladesh such as the Adarsa Kutir (Ideal Hut), Al Faruk Islamic Foundation and Hata-e-din as well as from the ISI through its station chief in the Pakistani High Commission in Dhaka.

In February, 2005, under pressure from the European Union, Khaleda Zia, the then Bangladesh Prime Minister and chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who till then was denying the presence of any jihadist terrorist organization in Bangladesh territory, admitted for the first time the presence of the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJ-B) and banned those groups.

But her government continued to deny the existence of HuJI-B, while it was alleged that Khaleda Zia’s coalition government formed with Jamaat-e-Islami was providing fund and patronization to JMB and JMJ-B. But on August 17, 2005, when JMB and HuJi jointly carried out 450 simultaneous explosions throughout Bangladesh and threatened to begin suicide jihadism, a panicked Khaleda Zia ordered a round-up of the leaders and activists of these jihadist outfits and imposed ban on HuJI-B in October 5, 2005.

But she did not arrest any of those attempted jihadists who tried to assassinate then Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina, except for Mufti Abdul Hannan. Jihadists, many of whom were trained in Pakistan, remained untouched and no action has been taken against its training infrastructure in Bangladesh territory.

According to counterterrorism experts, “The phase Bangladesh is passing through can be taken in two parts. An aspect of it belongs to the early 1990s when the ‘Islamist’ outfits in Pakistan did not offend the conservative Muslim League but were seen as a threat by a liberal PPP (Pakistan People’s Party).

These days the ruling BNP in Bangladesh is most reluctant to take action against the Islamists as they continue to attack Awami League, secularists and communists; but when phase two opens up, the BNP will be equally threatened. The “purifying” dynamic of the Islamists will demand that the BNP bend to the kind of shariah the warriors favor in light of their training in Afghanistan and their ‘Salafi’ contact with Al Qaeda. A day will come soon enough when Bangladesh will come under threat from the Islamic warriors it is now empowering through denial”.

Jihadist groups in Bangladesh are particularly playing antisemitism cards with the ulterior agenda of gaining quick popularity. Unfortunately, such notorious trends are not countered or confronted by the law enforcement agencies, as many of them too consider Jews in particular as “enemies of Allah”.

According to credible sources, the Iranian embassy (including Iran’s infamous cultural center) and Palestinian envoy in Bangladesh are extending patronization and support towards anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel agendas of the local jihadist outfits. It is also alleged that the staffs inside Palestinian embassy and Palestinian students in Bangladesh are helping local jihadists in establishing connections with mega-terror outfit Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

The HuJI of Pakistan is a member of Bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF) for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People formed in 1998 and through its branch in Bangladesh, it has been trying to Arabize, Wahabize and radicalize the Muslims of Bangladesh, who are in their overwhelming majority descendants of converts from Hinduism, and use them for carrying out its pan-Islamic agenda in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, southern Thailand and beyond.

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Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research-scholar, counterterrorism specialist and editor of Weekly Blitz. Follow him on Twitter @Salah_Shoaib

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