Now bloggers of Bangladeshi origin living abroad targeted

The Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) appears to be spreading its wings beyond Bangladesh’s borders. It is reported to be behind a new ‘hit list’ that was posted online recently. The list includes names of secular and atheist activists and bloggers of Bangladeshi origin living in North America and Europe.

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Of the 21 names in the list, nine are of bloggers of Bangladeshi origin living in the United Kingdom, eight in Germany, two in the United States, and one each in Canada and Sweden.

A statement issued along with the ‘hit list’ threatens death. If the Bangladeshi citizenship of these “enemies of Islam and [Muslim religious] education, atheists, apostates, unbelievers, anti-Islamic … bloggers, agents of India …” is not revoked, they “will be killed wherever they can be found in the Almighty’s world,” it warns.

Some of those who figure on the list do not hold Bangladeshi citizenship; so the ABT’s diktat to revoke this citizenship does not make sense. Still, its order is being taken seriously. It has triggered a wave of fear among those who figure in the list. After all, the ABT has in the past issued similar ‘hit lists’ of secular/ atheist activists who it eliminated rather brutally subsequently.

Hitherto, its attacks were carried out on Bangladeshi soil. Is the ABT now readying to strike abroad?

A religious extremist group with suspected links to the al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the ABT was banned by the Bangladeshi government in May this year under the country’s anti-terrorism laws. It burst to prominence in February 2013 with the hacking to death of Ahmed Rajib Haider, a secular activist whose writings galvanized the Shabagh demonstrations. The demand for the death penalty to Islamists convicted for war crimes in the 1971 liberation war that was raised during the Shabagh protests had raised the hackles of Bangladesh’s religious radicals.

The clash between secular liberals and religious radicals in Bangladesh goes back several decades. Indeed, Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent country in 1971 after it broke away from Pakistan marked the triumph of secular nationalism in the country.

Religious fundamentalists asserted themselves in subsequent years and since then it has been a see-saw battle between the forces of secularism and religious radicalism. Several religious outfits, some of them with links to global jihadi organizations like the al-Qaeda, have sought to impose an Islamic way of life and the Sharia in Bangladesh. They have been criticized by secular/atheist liberals.

Haider’s name had figured in a “hit list” including the names of 12 secular-liberals that was subsequently recovered from ABT leader Mufti Jashimuddin Rahmani.

Since February this year, four secular/ atheist bloggers including Avijit Roy (an American citizen of Bangladeshi origin), Washiqur Rahman, Anant Bijoy Das and Niloy Neel have been killed in Bangladesh. The victims were hacked to death with axes and meat cleavers evoking enormous anger in Bangladesh and abroad and prompting the government to ban the ABT.

While activists of the ABT have been arrested since 2013 – Rahmani was arrested in August that year along with 30 of his followers for making provocative speeches – the government’s anti-ABT operations intensified after the ban.

Early this month, ABT’s acting chief Muhammad Abul Bashar and his close associates were arrested for their role in Roy’s murder. Other ABT operatives have been charged for their role in Rahman’s murder.

Weeks after the ban, the ABT issued death threats to several people, including Bangladesh’s junior minister for home affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal. It appeared to be part of a strategy aimed not only at impressing the world that its capacity was intact despite the ban but also at raising the sagging morale of its activists.

Is the latest ‘hit list’ an extension of that bravado? Or does it signal the start of a new phase in ABT’s battle against secular Bangladeshis and their supporters?

Bangladesh’s long struggle against religious extremist outfits reveals that they are not easy to eliminate. Like the ABT, several were banned. Under pressure from the police, they went underground but only to morph and resurface with new names or taking new forms.

Of course, there were some outfits that splintered under pressure. Their backbones broken, they eventually disappeared. That could be the ABT’s fate if it decides to attack abroad.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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