- Inmates in jails are exposed to militancy, further brainwashing
- Radicals active in maintaining communications with jailed leaders
- Ctg militant arrest reveals how jail gates remain beyond monitoring
- In confessional statement, Jihadist claims Chattogram as one of militant strongholds
- Security expert for strengthening monitoring of radicals in and outside jails
Abu Abdullah was just in his 20s when he got arrested for the first time in connection with militancy. After three years in prison, the Chattogram youth walked free – not to a regular life but rather towards the darker path to radicalism as a key figure of banned militant outfit Ansar al-Islam.
For Abdullah, jail time meant a process of uninterrupted and solid training by top militants already inside — a brazen contrast with the "RakhiboNirapad, Dekhabo Alor Path [prisoners will be kept safe, and shown the way of light]" slogan of the Department of Prisons.
Abdullah is just one example. Many youths like him are being baptised in militancy and getting trained inside the prisons, said officials of Bangladesh Police's specialised branch, Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC).
Referring to the confessional statement of the youth when he was arrested for the second time in May this year, CTTC officials claimed to have discovered a unique network linking militants in and outside jails, their communication strategies and the operational structure of the outfit.
Along with Abdullah, Dhaka CTTC officials also arrested Anwar, 48, – a tea shop owner adjacent to Chattogram jail gate – who allegedly had been supplying communication devices to the jailed militants, and passing on their instructions to radicals outside.
"We have gleaned sensitive information from Abdullah and Anwar. Now the CTTC is verifying it," CTTC Deputy Commissioner Abdul Mannan told The Business Standard.
Mohammad Arif, an additional deputy police commissioner at the counter terrorism specialised department of the police, said, "With the training Abdullah received inside the prison, he became the key figure of Ansar al-Islam Chattogram chapter as he walked free in 2018."
According to the CTTC, after he was released, Abdullah focused on strengthening the organisational capacity of the outfit. He recruited tea stall owner Anwar to boost communication among the Ansar al-Islam men.
From madrasa student to a top militant
Born in a farmer family in Chattogram's Sitakunda, Abdullah started his academic career at a local madrasa. Later he shifted to a Chattogram city madrasa, where he came in touch with Hefazat-e-Islam big wig Harun Izhar.
Rehan Uddin, the local union parishad chairman of Abdullah's ancestral home, said people knew the youth as Salauddin Sifat. "I heard he got involved in militancy in Chattogram town. He hardly visited the family here."
A CTTC official on condition of anonymity said Abdullah went for computer and IT training as soon as he was released. Within two kilometres of Chattogram jail, he opened a mobile banking outlet. Under the cover of the business, the youth used to collect funds for Ansar al-Islam men who were in prison, operational costs of the organisation, publicity and recruitments.
"The shop was basically a hub and operation centre for the militants since most of them live in remote areas. According to Abdullah, the organisationis in a stronger position in the port city," said the official.
Too close, yet unaware
Anwar had been running his shop within 100 yards of the Chattogram jail gate for around 20 years. The militants got him on the hook in 2018 to exploit his familiarity with the place.
"We all know how our prisons are riddled with irregularities, mismanagement and corruption," said a CTTC official, preferring not to be named.
"The radical outfits use people outside to bring in their things. They somehow convinced Anwar," said the official, quoting the confessional statement of Abdullah.
However, other shopkeepers of the area said they did not find anything suspicious about Anwar. "We have been in business together for around 22 years. I never smelled anything wrong," said Golap, a fellow trader of Anwar.
Golap said Anwar's shop was razed due to a road expansion before Ramadan this year. But he used to hang out in the area even after losing the business. Police also arrested Anwar from the spot.
"My brother is just a regular guy who used to make ends meet by running the shop. I do not understand why the police arrested him," Anwar's brother Monwar told TBS.
When contacted, Shafiqul Islam Khan, senior jail super of Chattogram prison, said the police are unaware of any arrest in the prison area. "No intelligence agency informed us about the incident."
Shafiqul said militants are kept in separate cells, away from other prisoners, so that general inmates do not get brainwashed by them. According to the prison authorities, 150 militants are in the jail now.
Major (Retd) Emdadul Islam, a security analyst, said, "We must learn a lesson from the incident, and ramp up the monitoring of radicals both in and outside the prisons."
Already fertile ground for militancy?
Has the port city already turned into fertile ground for militancy to rise again in Bangladesh from a weaker organisational capacity followed by a series of police raids after the Gulshan café attack in 2016?
The recentarrest of a returnee from Syria in Chattogram — who had been serving Ansar al-Islam as an IT expert — has raised questions for the law enforcers.
Police said the arrestee, Sakhawat Ali Lalu, completed his higher studies in computer science in London. Then he returned home and took an odd job in Chattogram at a surprisingly meagre salary.
"The job was just his cover," said Chattogram CTTC Sub-Inspector Rasib Khan. Lalu's employer said he used to remain "unusually quiet" at work, and left the job suddenly without notifying anyone.
Quitting work, police said Lalu went to Syria, where he was imparted combat training by a Syrian armed group. He also fought for the Jihadists in Idlib.
After visiting some other countries, Lalu returned home on 22 March.
"Lalu is not just another ordinary militant you arrest often," said police sources, adding that he is as big as Zia, the sacked army major who is believed to be the mastermind of a number of militant attacks and blogger killings in Bangladesh.
A photo popped up on social media last year showing some youths against a background of the flag of the so-called "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" in a jungle. Subsequently, the law enforcers launched their raids.
An official privy to the matter said the topography of the forest where the picture was taken suggests it was somewhere in Chattogram.