Since its inception in 2006, Bomb Disposal Unit -- a specialised force of police trained to disarm bombs and other explosives devices -- has been responding to calls for services that include possible improvised explosive devices, bomb threats, detecting and defusing explosives, busting explosive-stashed militants' dens, and recovering deteriorated explosives. In an interview with The Daily Star, the unit's chief, Additional Deputy Commissioner Rahmat Ullah Chowdhury, talks about the force's accomplishments, challenges and future plans.
The Daily Star (DS): How did the unit start its journey? How long have you been involved with it?
Rahmat Ullah: The unit started its journey in 2006. At the time, whenever explosives, crude bombs and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) were recovered from different areas of Dhaka, we had to call the military unit. They would often take a long time to arrive.
So, with an aim to deal with these explosive devices swiftly and to ensure public security, this unit started its journey with the support of the US government.
I joined in 2013. At that time, the unit was looking for an assistant superintendent of police with a science background. My field of study was chemistry, so I showed interest to join and work as an explosives expert.
DS: Can you elaborate on your role? How many bomb calls have the unit responded to under your command?
Rahmat Ullah: There was once a tradition to lead operations from the back-end. There were limitations. Officials would fear getting too close to explosives.
We then took a decision to instead lead by example. We would respond to calls first, as leaders, and so subordinate officials felt secure and confident. Now the situation has changed and everyone working in the unit actively participates in an operation. Whenever any critical situation arises, I lead the team from the front.
In the last seven years, the unit has responded to over 2,000 bomb calls with an average of 250-300 calls every year. Most of the calls were for locally made crude bombs and around 25 percent were for real IEDs. There were also some fake calls.
A majority of these bombs were found to be prepared by homegrown terrorists. Before, the materials were smuggled from the neighbouring countries; now they're available locally.
DS: How does the unit work? Once you receive a call, what are the steps you take? Is there any system in place?
Rahmat Ullah: We have prepared a standard operating procedure (SOP) and we respond to every call accordingly. Whenever we receive a call, we first discuss it within ourselves. We analyse the call pattern, the type of bombs and time of the bomb being found. If a blast has already taken place, we study the blast pattern. After that, we respond to the call. It takes maximum 30 minutes to respond to any call inside Dhaka and for outside the city, depending on the distance, an hour.
We are the only effective team in Bangladesh police to respond to bomb disposal calls. The Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU) is preparing a bomb disposal unit but the work is not completed yet and Chattogram Metropolitan Police has a small team with limited capacity.
We respond to calls all across the country.
DS: How many high-risk operations have you conducted? Can you elaborate on that?
Rahmat Ullah: We have conducted over 45 high-risk operations in last seven years.
For example, in the Ashokona den raid in Dhaka, there were grenades and suicidal belts. The bomb team officials had to conduct a negotiation process with militants, taking high risk as those belts were powerful enough to kill anyone within a 100-meter radius.
In 2016, during an operation at a militant hideout in Bogura, a top Neo-JMB bomb-maker Fardin was killed in a blast. We found around 85 grenades of different sizes. It was a risky operation as we had no robot to conduct the operation at the time. We had to diffuse all grenades manually.
So far, we have experiences in diffusing all types of bombs in the country, except vehicle bombs.
When we approach a bomb, we have to be extremely cautious as it might be the last one of our lives. For us, it's always a situation of life and death. Here, first mistake could be the last mistake.
DS: At present, how many force members do you have? This is a high-risk job, which requires discipline and extensive training. Can you tell us about the training process? Also, how do you recruit members?
Rahmat Ullah: At present, we have 31 officials in the unit including myself and we are covering over 95 percent bomb calls across the country.
For recruitment, we first try to look for volunteers and interested officials in the force. We have also informed all police units in this regard. Once selected, we send them for training. We have an ATA (Anti-Terrorism Assistant) programme of the US embassy under which training is conducted in the US and Jordan.
Besides, we also take part in training programmes by the UK government and India. Our officials receive training from at least five to seven countries. But that's not enough. We also need psychological and motivational training for them.
At times, many officials were reluctant to join us due to the high risk, but once we approached them and spoke about dedication, determination and how they are keeping the country safe, they agreed to join.
So far, seven officials got hurt while conducting operations. An officer lost his both hands. We have approached the government different times for allowances for them. The Police Headquarters also wrote to the home ministry for allowance, which is now pending for approval.
DS: Are you involved in any post-blast investigation? Do you collaborate with any other agencies in that process?
Rahmat Ullah: Yes we are involved. For instance, we are the unit that discovered a new militant outfit called Neo-JMB while conducting a post-blast investigation.
For the investigation, we first visit the crime scene and check for explosives. We then make the spot secure by removing all the explosive materials and separate the bomb-related evidence. Then we brief the crime scene unit and inform them about our findings.
DS: You also conduct anti-militancy operations. How many militants have you arrested so far? Did any of the team members get injured while diffusing bombs or conducting raids? Do they get any government support afterwards?
Rahmat Ullah: We have so far arrested around 200 militants of different outfits.
Besides disposing bombs, our officials were hurt while conducting anti-militant operations and around six members had to take treatment. We have received aid and support from the government.
DS: The nature of militancy continues to change along with technological advancements. How are you preparing yourselves to tackle that?
Rahmat Ullah: Two things are related to militancy -- money and bomb. The militant outfit members are always trying to change the nature and pattern of bombs to stay ahead.
To stay on top of that, we have made a bomb data centre where we analyse various types of explosives regularly. We also discuss and study the ones international militant outfits are making.
DS: What are some of the challenges you face during an operation? Can you share an experience?
Rahmat Ullah: As disposing bombs is a risky job, we have to face some challenges -- lack of modern equipment, proper training and absence of IED carrying vehicles.
For example, we have no robot assistance to diffuse highly powerful IEDs. Besides, there is a gap in hostage negotiation training, for which we often face problems in negotiating with militants during raids.
In 2017, at a militant hideout in Jashore, we found the wife of a militant leader in a house with a suicidal belt on. There were also two children with her. It was a huge challenge for us to save those children. I managed to convince the woman to remove the belt, but it was really difficult.
DS: In your opinion, what would be some of your accomplishments?
Rahmat Ullah: We are a very small team but we have responded to over 2,000 bomb calls, which is a record in the country. Besides, the team has arrested over 200 militants and conducted over 45 high-risk operations. Our unit also works in combating narcotics smuggling. We have recovered over 20 lakh yaba pills, which is also a big achievement for us.
It's a risky job, but it needs to be done to ensure safety and security of citizens. And we do it with discipline and dedication.
DS: What are your future plans?
Rahmat Ullah: I have a plan to set up a modern and full-fledged CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Operations Specialists) team in the unit and a training range. We would also like to get all the available modern equipment.