Just-banned militant outfit Ansar al Islam, said to be the Bangladesh chapter of al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), has decided to change its recruitment strategy fearing that the online exposure of recruiters would help law enforcers track down its leaders and activists.
The decision was circulated among its recruiters on December 15 through a secure messaging app called Telegram that destroys all texts moments after the communication ends.
In the statement, intercepted by the counterterrorism unit of DMP, the top brass of the outfit directed its followers and supporters in Bangladesh not to try to meet or contact the leaders.
It also asked them to get ready for jihad and said the soon-to-be militants would be contacted when Ansar al Islam deems it safe.
“We no longer partner anyone online. If you continue your efforts, you will be able to join the Mujahideen [those engaged in jihad],” read the statement, circulated by al-Qaeda media wing Global Islamic Media Front.
Responsible for the killing of free-thinking bloggers and writers, the ultra radical group will, however, continue to share terror knowledge through different social media platforms.
The group has set guidelines for its members about duties and responsibilities -- like gaining knowledge from websites on making arms and bombs and disseminating the know-how to others online, and collecting information about targets and sharing it with other jihadists.
Monirul Islam, chief of Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of DMP, said, “Ansar al Islam leaders and activists have taken refuge in safe shelters and become more defensive to avert arrest.”
However, the group is still active on different online platforms, he added.
Previously known as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), Ansar al Islam began gaining strength in 2013-14 and started selecting targets by monitoring social media and hacking them to death.
It took the government a couple of years to ban the Islamist radical group though it has so far claimed responsibility for 13 attacks in which 11 individuals including writers and bloggers, one publisher and two LGBT activists were killed. The ABT was banned in May of 2015.
“It took some time to ban [Ansar al Islam] as our detectives were busy tackling militancy,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told The Daily Star recently when asked why it took years to ban the group.
Earlier, the government had banned six militant organisations following their increasing involvement in terror attacks, but covert operations of the groups never stopped.
Ansar al Islam did not carry out any killing since they claimed to have murdered LGBT rights activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tanay in the capital on April 25 last year.
Law enforcers have so far managed to arrest around a dozen people for their suspected links with the militant group but most of its leaders and operatives remained untouched.
The group has around 200 leaders, activists and supporters, according to the CTTC chief.
“We had earlier carried out a number of raids on Ansar al Islam dens in the capital and on its outskirts, but in recent months we are finding it difficult to trace them,” said a counterterrorism official, wishing anonymity.
Major (dismissed) Syed M Ziaul Haq, the group's military commander and mastermind of the targeted killings of individuals, is still at large with a bounty of Tk 20 lakh on his head.
Another top counterterrorism official said they could trace Zia last time was around two months back, but he managed to escape before they could reach the place.
The official also said law enforcers in September last conducted a raid on a den in Savar but failed to arrest Zia as he had left just hours before the operation.
The home boss on more than one occasion had said Zia was under the surveillance of law enforcers.
As a rising militant outfit, ABT wanted to launch al-Qaeda in Bangladesh (AQIB) like al-Qaeda in Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS). But the AQIS headquarters in Pakistan did not approve the idea and suggested ABT be renamed Ansar Al Islam and work as the Bangladesh branch of AQIS, investigators said.
Gen John W Nicholson, former commander of NATO Allied Land Command, recently said he was concerned about AQIS' “interference” in Bangladesh. The home minister trashed this, terming it propaganda, as the government never admits existence of AQIS in Bangladesh.
Counterterrorism officials said Ansar al Islam might have changed its strategy due to frequent police raids based on information divulged by some of its arrested members and anti-militancy sentiments created among people following the Gulshan café attack.
In the statement circulated by the Global Islamic Media Front, followers have been asked to collect information about home and office addresses and daily routines of targets and share it with the Mujahideen.
It also focused on some school textbook contents which it termed shirk (sin of participating in idolatry), kufr (disbelief) and hatred against Islam. It asked followers to draw public attention to such write-ups.
Hefajat-e-Islam and Awami Olama League have been demanding exclusion of some of the poems written by “Hindus and atheists”. Finally, those items were dropped from the curriculum, sparking severe criticism.
Ansar al Islam also suggested forming study circles, each comprising three to four persons, for preaching jihad and preparing for it.
The statement also asked followers to send their children to madrasas, particularly in Qawmi madrasas which are not regulated by the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board.