You must be kidding, bro,” a friend of mine from Windsor, Ontario, tells me when I ask him about Tamim Chowdhury, the purported leader of ISIS in Bangladesh. “He was a quiet guy. Definitely religious. But a leader? I don't think so.” He was not the first to express surprise when I asked around about Tamim. He did not seem to have made an impression on the people he met. Or so I thought.
The name Tamim Chowdhury first came on my radar in early 2015 when I was doing interviews with friends of another Windsor jihadi who had gone off to fight in Syria: Ahmad Waseem, known as Abu Turab, who was killed in March 2015 in Tal Hamis. Tamim's name was floating around as someone who may have also left for Syria. I jotted down his name, but then became busy with other things.
Some months later, I spoke to another friend of Waseem's and remembered to also ask about Tamim. He seemed a little surprised, and remarked that Tamim, facing harassment from law enforcement in Canada, had decided to simply move back to his home country of Bangladesh. Nothing to worry about, he said. I was skeptical.
The next time I saw his name appear, it became clear that Tamim was indeed important. A colleague of mine, who asked to be anonymous, pointed me to the ISIS Study Group website (which as of this writing has gone offline) where Tamim was mentioned as one of the leaders of ISIS in Bangladesh. A few months later, Zayadul Ahsan published an article in The Daily Star further cementing this theory. I started asking questions again, trying to find more people who may have known him in Windsor, and asking several jihadi fighters that I was in contact with in Syria. One of these fighters would provide a clue.
Connecting the Dots
One of the most famous blogs amongst journalists and analysts of Canadian foreign fighters is called “Beneath Which Rivers Flow.” It was an important blog, because it contained biographical details of two jihadis who had left from Calgary, Alberta, to fight, and eventually die, in Syria: Damian Clairmont and Salman Ashrafi. The most recent post was a letter to the mother of Damian, Christianne Boudreau, arguing that she should be proud of his sacrifice and proud to be the mother of a martyr. All the posts about Damian are signed by an individual calling himself “Abu Dujana al-Muhajir”. According to some individuals I interviewed, this blog was “owned” by Ahmad Waseem, but he allowed friends of his to post on it from time to time.
In a casual conversation about who this “Abu Dujana” might be with a Canadian fighter in Syria, he remarked: “I don't know his real name, but he is of Bangladesh background and was from the 519 [area code for Windsor] area.” It seemed pretty clear that he was talking about Tamim Chowdhury. I realised that I was perhaps looking for Chowdhury in all the wrong places. He was certainly from Windsor and was friends with Ahmed Waseem. But Waseem had spent at least two years in Calgary, and returned home to Windsor, before leaving for Syria.
I had seen no evidence at the time that Tamim ever went to Calgary. But, if Tamim was Abu Dujana, the individual who wrote glowing eulogies of Calgary jihadi fighters, then he had to have spent time there. If this was true, our notion of the “Calgary cluster” of fighters just got more interesting.
As I wrote in Jihadology [an online blog] last year, one of the first clusters that the Canadian public became aware of was in Calgary. The Calgary cluster consisted of Damian Clairmont, Salman Ashrafi, Gregory and Collin Gordon, Farah Shirdon, and a few others. While they were friends, their biographical details are quite varied. Ashrafi was born Muslim, educated at the University of Lethbridge, held a prestigious job at Talisman Energy, and was married with a child at the time of his departure in November or December 2012. In November 2013, he engaged in a suicide attack in Iraq that would kill him and 40 others.
Clairmont, on the other hand, was a white convert, suffered from bipolar disorder, was a high school dropout, and was homeless for a time in Calgary. Clairmont and Ashrafi were close friends and part of a study circle, at the 8th and 8th musallah, a storefront Islamic centre in downtown Calgary, with the Gordon brothers and several others. The Gordon brothers are featured prominently in Dabiq 15.
In interviews with their friends in Calgary, it initially seemed evident that Clairmont was the dominant personality, and influenced many of the other young men. Clairmont would leave Calgary in late 2012 as well. He fought with the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra, and was captured and killed by the Free Syrian Army in January 2014.
However, this image of the Calgary cluster is starting to change.
What We Know So Far
As I searched for more information on Tamim, on the night of July 1, 2016, five militants stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery, took hostages, and eventually hacked 24 people to death. If Tamim was the head of ISIS in Bangladesh, he was clearly behind this attack. Indeed, Bangladeshi police admitted in late July that Tamim was the mastermind. The fact that a Canadian was orchestrating attacks in Bangladesh has likely also led to some intelligence sharing between the two countries.
Once the trail led to Calgary, I started reaching out to friends there for more information about Tamim. The Bangladeshi media had produced two photos of Tamim, which I promptly sent to them. They confirmed that it was the same Tamim they remembered seeing in Calgary. Then things got interesting, and several details started falling into place.
This is what we know about Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury so far, even though several of these details still need to be made more precise:
He was born on July 25, 1986.
It is not clear yet if he was born in Canada or Bangladesh (probably the latter), but he is indeed a Canadian citizen.
He likely attended J.L. Forster Secondary School in Windsor. He competed for the school in a variety of track and field activities in 2004.
He graduated from the University of Windsor in Spring 2011, with an Honors in Chemistry, but probably majored/minored in other fields as well.
Some time after graduating from Windsor, he traveled to Calgary. It is unclear whether he moved to Calgary, or simply traveled back and forth several times. The latter seems more likely since those I spoke with in Calgary only remember him intermittently. He seems to have stayed low-key perhaps, and did not mix too closely with the Muslim community there.
One source says he remembers Tamim hanging out with Damian Clairmont at the 8th and 8th musallah, where Damian, Salman Ashrafi, Collin and Gregory Gordon, another individual named Waseem (last name unknown, but not Ahmad Waseem), and a few others held a private study circle. According to friends of theirs, Damian was likely the one who took a leadership role over the group, but it could be that Tamim was equally influential.
The same source says that Tamim almost certainly went to Syria, either directly from Calgary or from Windsor, “probably” in late 2012. Another source claims he saw Tamim hanging around the University of Calgary in 2013. This is further complicated by the fact that religious leaders in Windsor say they asked Tamim not to engage with youth at the mosques, clearly worried that he was potentially radicalising them. This was possibly some time in 2013 as well. As such, details on when exactly he traveled to Syria are still murky.
From Syria, Tamim likely found his way to Bangladesh, perhaps even on direct orders from ISIS leadership [The Daily Star would like to add here that the government has denied the existence of ISIS in Bangladesh]. However, it is not clear when he landed in Bangladesh. One could venture an educated guess that the speed at which he took over ISIS in Bangladesh necessitated that he had some kind of “evidence” from ISIS central to “show” potential recruits.
Dabiq 14 features an interview with the “Amir of the Khilafah's Soldiers in Bengal,” named as Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif. Nowhere in the interview is there mention of Canada, Calgary, Windsor, or Tamim, but, again, one could venture an educated guess that it is the same person.
As of this writing, there are mixed reports about whether Tamim may have crossed into India, or whether he is in hiding in Dhaka. On August 2, the Bangladeshi government put a 20 lakh ($25,000USD) bounty on his head.
The writer is a Fellow at The George Washington University's Programme on Extremism, and co-directs a study of western foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.