Members of an Islamic party protest against the US in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka in this file photo. Photo: Reuters/Rafiqur Rahman
Members of an Islamic party protest against the US in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka in this file photo. Photo: Reuters/Rafiqur Rahman

Bangladesh has been hit by a spate of suicide bombings, heralding a dangerous new phase of Islamist radicalism in one of the world’s most populous Muslim nations. The attacks signal extremist groups, under intense counterterrorism pressure, have resorted to terror tactics common in Pakistan and Middle Eastern countries but hitherto unseen in Bangladesh. 

In late March, one suicide bomber blew himself up near a police check post at the entrance of the Dhaka airport. The next day, another blew himself up near a base of the capital’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), injuring two security personnel.

The following day another suicide bomber blew himself up after failing to storm a RAB check post. Meanwhile, army para-commandos who raided and killed four Islamist radicals in a hideout in the northeastern town of Sylhet confirmed all four had suicide vests strapped to their bodies.

Military spokesman Brigadier-General Fakhrul Ahsan said all four were shot and killed before they could activate their suicide vests. As the army mounted the assault on the hide-out building, leaving the police and para-military to guard the outer ring, a group of motorcycle-riding radicals lobbed grenades at their positions.

Bomb scare: Security officials in Bangladesh are on heightened alert for possible suicide bomb attacks by extremist groups. Photo: Reuters /Rafiqur Rahman

Six people — two of them policemen and one the chief of the RAB’s intelligence wing — were killed in the assault. More than 40 others were injured. On March 30, police reported militants had blown themselves up with women and children in a hideout in neighboring Moulavibazar, bordering India’s volatile northeast region. 

Counterterrorism chief Monirul Islam said at least eight died in the incident. “When our SWAT personnel entered the hideout, we were taken aback. Hands, limbs and heads were strewn all over. Even the gender of the children killed could not be easily identified, the bodies were so badly shredded,” Islam said.

Three more militants, including one woman, were found dead after police stormed into another hideout in Moulavibazar town on Saturday. Monirul Islam said they had also blown themselves up to avoid capture.

The use of suicide explosions in Bangladesh’s intensifying struggle between government forces and Islamic extremists started on December 24, when a woman, reportedly the wife of a top Islamist radical, blew herself up in a Dhaka hideout.

Policemen stand guard along a road after a terror attack on a restaurant popular with foreigners in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 3, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi 

“The suicide explosions have not caused much casualties so far because the bombers are not properly trained. But they could surely cause more harm in future,” said Lieutenant General John Mukherjee, former chief of staff of India’s Eastern Army.

A veteran who has fought insurgents in India’s troubled Kashmir and “Seven Sisters” northeast region, Mukherjee said these bombers apparently were prepared to die for their insurgent cause. “That is the worry. Sooner or later, they will cause more damage,” he told Asia Times.

One upshot so far is that the country’s counterterrorism forces – comprised of police, the RAB and army – have launched proactive, integrated operations to face down the growing radical challenge.

After the attempted suicide bombings in Dhaka in March, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appealed to “misguided militants” to shun violence while speaking on the country’s March 26 Independence Day. At the same time, she called on the army to “eliminate” Islamist militants holed up in a high-rise building on the outskirts of Sylhet.

Tough talk: Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the 71st United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

Soldiers of the country’s First Para-Commando Battalion engaged the four militants for four days before finally killing them all by sniper fire, even as they extricated 78 civilians to safety. The militants failed to take any hostages, kill a single para-commando or cause any collateral damage by exploding their suicide vests.

“It was a very successful operation by any standard,” Mukherjee opined.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said the specialized police units, both from SWAT and the Counterterrorism Center, will handle much of the future operations against Islamist radicals. “But if and when needed we will call out the army again,” Kamal told Asia Times.

A July 1 terror attack last year that targeted mostly foreigners in a high-end restaurant in Dhaka’s affluent Gulshan neighborhood was viewed by many as a game-changer. In that assault, six Islamist radicals took scores of hostages and killed more than 20 of them, mostly foreigners and in brutal fashion, before they were slain by soldiers of the same para-commando battalion that recently killed the extremists in Sylhet.

The use of suicide explosions in Bangladesh’s intensifying struggle between government forces and Islamic extremists started on December 24, when a woman, reportedly the wife of a top Islamist radical, blew herself up in a Dhaka hideout.

The Gulshan cafe attack marked a peak of Islamist radical violence after a steady stream of dozens of assassinations over the last two years. Scores of secular writers, bloggers, artists, publishers and politicians have been killed in machete attacks or shootings by Islamist radicals, belonging to groups like the Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and Harkatul Jihad al Islami (HUJI).

They all appear determined to eliminate Bangladesh’s proud secular nationalist heritage that arose from the country’s violent birth as an independent nation in 1971.

“When the Gulshan attack took place, Bangladesh seemed to be losing the battle against terror,” said Bangladesh watcher Sukhoranjan Dasgupta. “But that did not happen – the police and security forces fought back with determination.”

On guard: Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) members monitor a rally in this file photo. The unit is on the front lines of Bangladesh’s terror fight. Photo: Reuters/Andrew Biraj

Four months after the Gulshan attack, Bangladesh’s police killed at least seven top leaders of radical groups, including JMB chief Tamim Choudhury (a Bangladesh expatriate from Canada), his military wing chief former major Zahid ul Islam and his deputy Tanvir Quaderi.

More than 20 mid-ranking radicals who allegedly managed underground groups were also either arrested or killed. Dozens of lower level radicals were rounded up and their underground cells dismantled across the country, from the port city of Chittagong to Chapai Nawabganj in the north and Sylhet in the northeast.

Many weapons and explosives, including suicide vests, were reportedly recovered in the raids.

A United States counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media, told Asia Times that Bangladesh’s counterterrorism operations to date have been “relentless and unwavering” and “more successful than ours.”

But just when police and security forces appeared to have crippled the radical groups’ underground infrastructure, they have had to shift tactics to deal with the sudden spate of suicide bombing attempts. Officials say the limited damage caused so far can be attributed to solid police and intelligence work.

“They follow the traditional police method of hard interrogation of suspects and infiltrate the terror groups by planting moles. And they follow up every lead vigorously,” the US official said. “That is working.”

Hard tactics: Plain clothes police officers arrest an activist after a violent street confrontation in this file photo. Photo: Reuters/Andrew Biraj 

Retired Indian Major General K K Ganguly, a commentator on regional security affairs who fought against Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka and separatists in India’s Kashmir and northeastern region, concurs with that assessment.

“There is no let-up in Bangladesh’s counterterrorism offensive. They are very pro-active and never pushed on the defensive,” Ganguly told local media. “The political will to fight terror is never found wanting.”

Dhaka police counterterrorism chief Monirul Islam, one of the chief architects of the government’s pursuit of radicals, told Asia Times that there is “no room for complacency in our war against terror. We cannot let the militants seize the initiative at any cost.”

But with intelligence suggesting there could be dozens more radicals trained in suicide bombing attacks, he says Bangladesh’s “war on terror” is not expected to end any time soon.

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC East India correspondent who now works for a Bangladesh news portal

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