Islamic militant groups have been “more active” in spreading their violent ideology online during the coronavirus pandemic, Bangladesh officials said, adding that authorities had arrested scores of suspected extremists since March.
The Ansar Al Islam group in particular, an affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), is using COVID-19 to its advantage through activities over the internet, according to police and analysts, who said other extremists groups were active as well during the public health crisis.
“Suppressing militancy is one of our focused areas – this is true that militants have been more active online to propagate their extremist ideology during the pandemic. Ansar Al Islam is one of the militant outfits very active online,” Lt. Col. Md Sarwar Bin Kashem, a director and spokesman for the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite police unit, told BenarNews.
Authorities had blamed Ansar – also known as Ansarrullah Bangla Team or ABT – for a string of machete-killings that targeted secular bloggers and others in Bangladesh in 2015 and 2016.
“We regularly monitor the online activities of the militants. Between March 1 and June 10, we arrested 66 militants including some from Ansar Al Islam,” he said but did not release details on the charges filed against the suspects.
Another police official and analysts said extremists were creating fake online accounts to spread their ideology while exploiting the pandemic.
“Ansar Al Islam, Neo-JMB, Hizbut Tahrir and JMB are active online,” Saiful Islam, a deputy commissioner of the Bangladeshi police’s counter-terrorism and transnational crimes unit, told BenarNews.
Neo-JMB is a pro-Islamic State breakaway faction of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a local militant group.
In July 2016, Neo-JMB members carried out an overnight siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery, an upscale café in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter, where 20 hostages were killed by militants who wielded machetes. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, but government officials have since insisted that IS has no presence in Bangladesh.
COVID-19: ‘A curse from Allah’
The extremists were using religion to recruit potential militants, Kashem and a security expert said.
“Disguising themselves as common pious people, they have been spreading that Allah has sent the coronavirus,” Kashem said.
A security analyst, retired Maj. Gen. Abdur Rashid, said Bangladeshis who were forced to remain in their homes during the pandemic have been spending more time online.
“The militants have targeted people to mold them in their favor,” Rashid told BenarNews.
“The coronavirus has brought back poverty and there is no medicine or vaccine so people have been more fearful of Allah,” he said. “The militants have been exploiting the pandemic, terming the coronavirus a curse from Allah.”
According to another security analyst, Sakhawat Hossain, “currently, Ansar Al Islam has been in the organizing stage.”
“ABT could be the potential security threat as the law enforcers have been engaged in fighting COVID-19,” Hossain, a retired brigadier general, told BenarNews.
Ansar Al Islam had been more successful than other groups – Neo-JMB in particular – because of its previous militant actions, he said.
“The Neo-JBM follows the policy of expansion through creating panic among people while Ansar Al Islam organizes in a very premeditated way without creating panic,” Hossain said.
The analyst noted that ABT was responsible for an April 2017 double-murder that took the life of LGBTQ activist Xulhaz Mannan and another man, as well as a series of gruesome killings of secular bloggers and publishers during the previous two years. These included the February 2015 slaying of Avijit Roy, a dual U.S.-Bangladeshi citizen, as he and his wife were leaving a book fair in Dhaka.
“Frankly speaking, many of the common Muslim people had little sympathy for LGBT activists. We have not seen any sharp public reaction about the murders,” Hossain told BenarNews about Ansar Al Islam.
“Several ministers publicly told the government they would not tolerate any defamation of Islam by anyone. Even some ministers said homosexuality is a punishable offense in Bangladesh,” he said.
In contrast, in the wake of the massacre at the Holey Artisan Bakery, police and RAB officers carried out raids that resulted in the deaths of nearly 100 suspected militants, including some who blew themselves up to avoid arrest, officials said.
“This massacre created panic among people no doubt, and people wanted the security forces to destroy them. Nobody in Bangladesh had any sympathy for Neo-JMB or IS,” Hossain said. “So, the police and other forces crushed them with an iron hand and the network and leaderships of Neo-JMB and old JMB were destroyed.”
The militant efforts online are occurring as the nation and its law enforcers are combating the coronavirus.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh broke the 100,000 mark on Thursday.
Police have not been spared, according to spokesman Sohel Rana, who said more than 8,200 officers were infected and 27 had died.
M. Maniruzzaman, an additional deputy inspector general at the police’s anti-terrorism unit, said police could battle the pandemic and militant activities at the same time.
“Of course, the police have been involved in fighting COVID-19. But we are not sitting idle,” he told BenarNews.
“Bangladesh police are a very professional and organized force now and have been working to foil any attempts by the militants. Even, during the pandemic, we arrested many militants,” he said.
“We do not claim that the ideology of the militants has been destroyed – actually the ideologies never vanish. But what I can say that no militant outfits, be it JMB, Neo-JMB or Ansar Al Islam, have the capacity to create an insecure situation in Bangladesh,” Maniruzzaman said.