Terrorist mastermind: Dead or alive?
The killing of Tamim Chowdhury, the alleged 'mastermind' of the terrorist attack on July 1 at Holy Artisan Café in Dhaka and the failed bomb attack at Sholakia on July 7, is a breakthrough in the ongoing counter-terrorism efforts in Bangladesh. Chowdhury was identified as the key planner of these attacks and according to the ISIS propaganda magazine; he was 'the Emir' of the Bangladesh chapter of the Islamic State.
The death of Tamim Chowdhury is expected to deliver a serious blow to the organisation of which he was a member. The Bangladesh government, which denies the presence of any international terrorist organisation in the country, described him as the leader of the 'neo-JMB (Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh)', a local militant organisation. However, the Inspector General of Police, in an impromptu press briefing at the scene of the operation, acknowledged that Chowdhury was trained in Syria. Information about the pathways of Chowdhury traced by media and security sources in Bangladesh inform that he was a Bangladesh-born Canadian citizen who travelled to and was trained in Syria and arrived in Bangladesh to lead the IS operations. Besides, we are aware that a number of alleged terrorists who are on the wanted list along with Tamim Chowdhury are of Bangladeshi-origin and are operating from outside the country; and that the Bangladeshi militant groups have had connections with regional militant groups since their inception in the 1990s. International media and security analysts insist on the presence of the IS, highlighting these external connections.
Notwithstanding the debate on the international connection, the description of the security operation available from Bangladeshi media seems to show that the operation was quite well executed as there was no collateral damage. It is expected that more information will be forthcoming with regard to the tactics to make a definitive statement on this. In the meantime, two important points can be made with respect to the death of Chowdhury: first, the Bangladeshi authorities can claim a success – indeed, the security forces have successfully traced, tracked, pinned down and killed Tamim Chowdhury. Second, this killing will have some ramifications.
Operations like this prompt debates in society and the media, particularly in the social media. The central point of the debate, in the recent past, has been whether the militant could have been apprehended and interrogated to gather information of accomplices and plans. In the hours after it became known that Chowdhury and his two accomplices had been killed, the debate re-ignited. One of the reasons for such debate is of a palpable trend: killing of alleged terrorists. In the past months, the main thrust of the counter terrorism strategy seems to be 'killing' of alleged militants after being arrested. Information provided by the law- enforcing agencies to the press show that between June 6 and August 5, at least 19 alleged militants were killed in so-called 'crossfire' or 'gunfight' while in police custody. Although extrajudicial killings are not new, killings of alleged militants, especially those who were reportedly connected to specific attacks, began in November 2015. Human rights activists and ordinary citizens have expressed deep concerns in this regard; many have expressed apprehension whether these killings hide the kingpins.
But when it comes to a security operation, where police and security forces are under fire after cornering a suspect, few options may remain without using deadly force. For example, five days after the attacks in Paris in November 2015, the alleged mastermind of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was killed in a shootout. But, there are situations where decisions are made well ahead to 'neutralise' the terrorist instead of 'capturing' them. The decision with regard to Osama bin Laden was said to be find him 'Dead or Alive' - a clear indication that the 'killing' of bin Laden was not off the table at any point. The details available on the nature of the operation in Abbottabad provide a clear impression that the objective was to 'neutralise' him, whether or not the US government acknowledged it. The killing of Al Qaeda leader in Arab Peninsula, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a drone attack in 2011, is indicative of a decision well ahead of tracking him in Yemen. The legality of his killing was questioned by human rights activists; the question was whether the US had a legal basis to target one of its own citizens with deadly force. Often a decision to 'kill' is made when the likelihood of capturing is slim, at best, and none, at worst.
There are ample examples, suffice it to recollect the killing of the AQ leader Abu Musab al Jarqawi in Iraq in 2006; the TTP leader of Pakistan Baitullah Meshud in 2009; his successor and brother, Hekimullah Mashud, in 2013; and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor in 2016. This is not to suggest that they were legal or justified, but to demonstrate that such actions are not uncommon. What is worth noting is that in most of these instances, terrorists were killed in the 'safe zones' of the terrorists and via drone attacks.
The experience of Bangladesh in dealing with militants in the past provides another kind of example too. In 2005, the JMB emerged as a serious threat to the security of the country. Initially, the BNP-led government denied their existence and insisted for quite some time that they were 'figments of imagination of journalists'; but eventually, the government had to accept the reality on the ground, especially after the series of bomb blasts in August 2005. Under international pressure and public outcry, not only was the JMB proscribed but the leaders were also captured by early 2006. Six of the high ranking leaders were put through speedy trials and sentenced to death. They were executed in the following year under the caretaker government. According to official records, in the past decade, 179 JMB members have been sentenced to death; more than 500 have received various jail terms.
Broadly speaking, we can divide terrorists, particularly high-profile terrorists killed in security operations, into two categories: those who inspire and those who are operational commanders. Bin-Laden and Awlaki fall into the first category, while the remainder fall into the second category. Therefore, results of their absence impacts differently. By the time bin-Laden was killed, he was removed from operational decision-making, yet he remained the global symbol of terrorism; Awalaki was reportedly involved in training but his primary role was as a recruiter/motivator through the internet. Both their deaths weakened global terrorism but their role as inspirer-in-chief has not been dented. In Bangladesh, the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), the precursor of the Ansar-al-Islam connected to the AQIS, continues to use Awlaki's recorded sermons as inspiration and guidance. This is what leads security analysts to conclude that Awalaki's influence is 'enduring'. Killings of these kind of terrorist leaders usually do not dent their respective organisations. On the contrary, their appeal grows. The second kind of terrorists, the operational commanders, seems to be quickly replaced. The succession of Taliban leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan bears this out.
The question then is where does Tamim Chowdhury fit? Evidently, he was not a charismatic inspiration for the militants in Bangladesh; instead, he was an operational commander of the newly built organisation. We can glean from the reports published in the ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq that the Bangladesh chapter of the ISIS was built through bringing together various groups of the JMB, but we also witnessed that it has attracted new recruits. It has far better external connections than the old JMB. Execution of JMB leaders in 2007 and counter-terrorism strategy until 2012 kept JMB on the run. The shift of focus of the government and the global environment allowed the IS to build its edifice.
If the experiences of other countries are any indication, there will be a new operational commander. The death of Tamim Chowdhury will have significant impacts. The other impacts could be a change in the strategy of the militants, akin to the 2008-2012 strategy: to lay low and regroup. Alternatively, there could be a reaction with more audacious attacks, to demonstrate that the organisation has the wherewithal to continue. It is too early to be euphoric or complacent.
Additionally, two issues must be kept in mind; that there are other militants with external connections who are at large; and that the organisational strength of the Bangladesh chapter of the Islamic State is unknown, neither do we know the strength of the AQIS in the country.
The foregoing discussion leaves us with larger questions: Will the death of Tamim deter others from joining the organisation? Will the factors which allow the proliferation of militant groups be changed? Will this have any impacts on the enabling environment which encourages people to join militant organisations? These questions need to be discussed to build on the success of the security operations.
The writer is Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, USA. His recent publication is titled Bangladesh: A Political History Since Independence (London: I B Tauris).