They had experienced war in Kashmir and in Afghanistan. They had motivation and training on militancy. Pakistan was their base station for studies and shelter on the way to the Afghan war fronts. Some of them had worked hand in hand with Rohingya rebels along the Myanmar borders.
Back at home, they waged war on the people of their own country, and applied all their skills and effort to carry out grisly attacks to annihilate what they believed were ‘enemies of Islam.’
Be it Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), or Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (Huji-B), or Al-Markazul Islami Bangladesh-- they all had the same motivation and goal, carrying out one attack after another on rallies and cultural events. At the initial stage in the early 1990’s, they were groomed in the country, often unnoticed or overlooked by intelligence agencies. Sometimes they enjoyed the blessings of the government in power.
Huji-B grew in strength between 1992 and 1998. Mufti Abdul Hannan, one of the country's most dreaded militants, was involved in plotting and carrying out all the terror attacks by Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh.
The Huji chief was responsible for the killing of more than a hundred people in 13 militant attacks between 1999 and 2005, with the August 21 grenade attack on the Awami League rally in 2004 being the deadliest.
His name appeared in two charge sheets in 2007, and again in a supplementary charge sheet in 2011 submitted by the CID. Hannan’s name was dropped from the August 21 grenade attack case after he was executed in the Sylhet shrine blast case in 2017.
Delivering verdicts in the August 21 grenade attack case in October last year, 14 years after the attack, the judge of the Speedy Trial Tribunal-1 said, “The deadly Arges grenades that are used in war were exploded at the Awami League central office on Bangabandhu Avenue in broad daylight with the help of the then state machinery.”
The verdict said that "The prosecution has been able to prove that the accused held meetings to conspire in different places before the incident, and blasted grenades in a planned manner.”
It quoted the testimony of prosecution witness to state that the accused went to Hawa Bhaban, known to be the alternative centre of power, in Banani in mid-August 2004 and met Tarique Rahman and others there.
In his confessional statement, Hannan also said that they met Tarique Rahman, Haris Chowdhury, Lutfozzaman Babar, Rezzakul and others there, and got an assurance of all kinds of administrative support.
Born to be a militant
Hannan, who was charged in at least 26 cases, including the grenade attack case, was born in 1963 in a Gopalganj village. In a court statement, Hannan said that after primary education at a local school, he went to a madrasa and became a Hafiz e Quran in 1979. He then left for India to study in Deoband madrasa. He obtained a Master's degree in Islamic Studies at Aligarh University in 1987.
He enrolled in Jamiya Yusuf Bin Nuriya Madrasa in Karachi, Pakistan in 1988 and went to Khost in Afghanistan to join the war after 15-days training. Hannan was injured in the fighting and treated at a Peshawar hospital in Pakistan. His co-fighters in the Afghan war included Moulana Obaidullah from Comilla, Hassan and Saluddin from Chittagong, and Abu Musa from Kushtia.
After completing studies in the Karachi madrasa, he returned home in 1993 and started leading a group of Afghan war returnees.
Earlier in 1989, Moulana Abdur Rahman Faruki from Jessore organized Bangladeshi Mujahids to form Huji in Bangladesh, the local chapter of the Pakistani platform of Afghan co-fighters-- Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (Huji).
Bangladeshi Mujahids announced the launch of Huji at a press conference in Dhaka on April 30, 1992, after the end of the Afghan war. Moulana Abdus Salam, who was its chief in the initial phase, was also charged in the August 21 grenade attack case.
100 killed in 13 Huji attacks
Mufti Abdul Hannan, one of the country's most dreaded militants, was involved in plotting and carrying out all the terror attacks by Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh.
In a span of five years from 1999, Huji militants led by Hannan carried out the grisly attacks with a mission to introduce Sharia law and annihilate what they called “the enemy of Islam.”
The attack on Udichi’s cultural programme in Jessore on March 6, 1999 was the first of its kind, leaving 10 people dead.
Two years later, Huji militants exploded bombs at a Pahela Baishakh programme at Ramna Batmul on April 14 in 2001, killing 10 people and injuring 50. Hannan was eventually given the death sentence in this case.
He, along with two cohorts, was also convicted in the grenade attack case on the then British high commissioner Anwar Choudhury at the Hazrat Shahjalal Shrine in Sylhet on May 21, 2004.
High Commissioner Anwar was wounded, and three people were killed in the attack.
Again, it was Hannan who was found guilty of carrying out the grenade attack on an Awami League rally in Dhaka on August 21, 2004. Party chief Sheikh Hasina, who was the prime target of the attack, narrowly escaped, but 24 of her party leaders and workers were killed.
A Sylhet court sentenced Hannan and his two accomplices to death on December 23, 2008, They were hanged in April 2017.
A decade earlier, six top militants, including JMB chief Abdur Rahman and his deputy Bangla Bhai, were executed on March 29, 2007 for killing two judges in Jhalakathi in November 2005.
Even before the 2004 grenade attack, Hannan and his cohorts had attempted to assassinate Sheikh Hasina on July 20, 2000 when she was prime minister. They planted a 76-kg bomb near Hasina's rally venue in Gopalganj, but the explosives were removed before her scheduled visit.
Mercenary job with assurance of impunity
Case charge sheets in the August 21 grenade attack case revealed that Hannan and his men acted as mercenaries to execute the plot to assassinate Hasina and other top AL leaders with full protection from legal procedures.
The Huji men were backed by influential leaders of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, and some officials of the home ministry, police, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, National Security Intelligence and the Prime Minister's Office.
Those who had engaged Hannan and other militants for the killing mission were true to their promises. Following the attack, they started delivering on their assurance of shielding Hannan and other militants from legal action.
Police intelligence officials cooked up a story involving Joj Mia, a petty criminal, in the case to shield Hannan and his associates from legal action as promised by the masterminds.
Hannan enjoyed the government's blessings for around four years after the BNP-Jamaat government came to power in 2001.
Hannan got assurances from some BNP leaders that he wouldn't be charged over the terror attacks.
Some of the cases against him, including the Ramna Batamul blast case, were stalled while the BNP-Jamaat government was in power.
But after the banned Islamist group JMB carried out countrywide serial bomb blasts on August 17, 2005, the government cracked down on militants, and Hannan was arrested in October 2005.
In a court statement, Hannan claimed that some ministers had assured him that he would be exempted from the August 21 grenade attack case.
Hannan was not the only one enjoying political blessings during the 2001-2006 BNP-Jamaat government. Shaikh Abdur Rahman of Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and Siddiqul Islam Bangla Bhai of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), along with four others, were charged with carrying out a bombing campaign across the country on August 17 in 2005. JMB claimed responsibility for the attacks. Bangla Bhai and his men killed 22 people and tortured scores of others as he unleashed a reign of terror in the Rajshahi region with direct patronage from the local administration, police and some ruling alliance lawmakers and ministers. The then government even denied his existence, although newspapers published reports on his militant activities.
Skills from Afghan, Kashmir wars
The verdict in the August 21 grenade attack case highlighted the expertise and motives of the attackers. At least four of them had fighting experience in the battlefields of the Afghanistan and the Kashmir frontiers.
Apart from Mufti Abdul Hannan, two others – Sheikh Abdul Salam and Abu Sayed – also fought against Soviet troops in the 1990s. Another convict fought for Kashmir's independence.
They themselves narrated their skills while giving confessional statements at court.
Salam had fought in the Afghan war in 1985 and was trained on using the AK-47 assault rifle. After the Afghan War ended in 1992, Bangladeshi Mujahids from Afghanistan announced the launch of Huji, with Salam as its chief.
The special court sentenced Salam to death in both the cases over the August 21 grenade attack.
Hannan told the court that he went to Afghanistan from Pakistan to join the war and received a 15-day training there. He was injured in the fighting there. He returned home in 1993 and started leading a group of Afghan war returnees.
In his confessional statement, militant leader Sayed said he left a Karachi madrasa in 1988 to join the Afghan Mujahidin in the war against Soviet soldiers.
Sayed joined Hannan in the August 21 grenade attack.
Abdul Majed Butt alias Md Yusuf joined the Hijbul Mujahidin for independence in India-controlled Kashmir in 1990. He had a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Islamabad Government Degree College in Kashmir. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) trained him to operate weapons like the AK-47.
He was connected with Lasker-e-Taiba, Tehrik-e-JehadIslami and Harkat-ul-Jihad (Al-Khalami) and other terror organizations, according to his statement in court.
On his return home, Majed was received at the airport by Tajuddin, another convict in the grenade attack case and also a member of Tehrik-e-Jehad Islami.
Political blessings, war experience and motivation from Afghan and Kashmiri fighters prompted them to execute the well-orchestrated plan, mainly targeting the then leader of the opposition Sheikh Hasina, now the prime minister.
She narrowly survived as some of her party leaders formed a human shield to protect her from repeated blasts and bullets on August 21, 2004.