soniasarkar26

The Outsider as Enemy Within

Posted on: September 1, 2016

The man who brought the ISIS footprint to Dhaka remains at large and could still be in Bangladesh. Sonia Sarkar has exclusive details from an ongoing probe

He is 30, has an egg-shaped face and a neat French beard. In a photograph that the Bangladesh police have circulated, he is seen wearing retro, rectangular glasses. But he could well be the unkempt rickshaw-puller you see, or perhaps the daily-wager waiting for a job. Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury – who is believed to have masterminded the terror assault in a Dhaka café last month – could well be moving around in disguise.

This Tuesday, the Bangladesh police said they had arrested four women and identified seven others connected with the July 1 attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, in which 20 people were killed. But the one who still evades arrest is Chowdhury, a Canadian-citizen of Bangladeshi origin, with a US$ 25,000 (over Rs 16 lakh) bounty on his head.

“We are trying but we have not been able to arrest him yet,” says Mufti Mahmud Khan, director (media) of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh’s anti-terrorism unit.

Researchers studying Chowdhury’s movements believe that he may be hiding in a densely populated city such as Dhaka. “It is easier to hide in a busy suburb, where you can move freely without people getting suspicious of you,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, a Canadian scholar currently a fellow in the extremism programme at the George Washington University in the US capital.

As Chowdhury’s story is pieced together by researchers and security experts, little-known facts are being unearthed about the man who is on Bangladesh’s most wanted list. His grandfather, Abdul Majid, belonged to Sadimapur in Sylhet and was a member of the infamous East Pakistan Central Peace Committee, formed by the Pakistan Army to crush rebels of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.

But Chowdhury’s life unfolded thousands of miles from Sylhet. He grew up in Canada, where his father, Shafiq Ahmed, who worked for a shipping company, had migrated in the early Seventies. Young Tamim is remembered as a shy and skinny boy when he was studying at the J.L. Forster Secondary School in Ontario.

He was seemingly fond of track and field activities – but always lagged behind other participants. He represented his school in an inter-school meet in 2004. He was last among 45 entrants in the 100 metre dash, last of 30 in javelin throw, and last among 28 in shot put throw, says Devin Gray, communications co-ordinator, Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations.

After finishing school, Chowdhury joined the University of Windsor to major in chemistry. University authorities refused to speak about their ex- student, but his acquaintances told Amarasingam that he was a “regular guy” in college.

That he had changed became apparent after 2011, when he finished college. That was when he moved to Calgary, the ski resort town in Canada’s Alberta Province, where, local newspaper reports say, there has been a rise in the number of Islamic groups in recent times.

Chowdhury is believed to have joined a small prayer group in Calgary and come in contact with two locals – a white Canadian called Damian Clairmont who converted to Islam and a Pakistani-Canadian called Salman Ashrafi. Clairmont joined the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and was killed by the Free Syrian Army in 2014; Ashrafi joined the ISIS and was killed in a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2013.

People around him started noticing the changes in the boy from Ontario. Amarasingam was told that he had become “domineering” and “arrogant”. Some who met him in 2012 said he was “full of himself” and “unbearable” because of his extreme views.

“This is part and parcel of the radicalisation process. He believed that he had discovered the truth whereas everyone else was living a falsehood,” says Amarasingam, who also co-directs a study of western foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Initial investigations by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reveal that Chowdhury believed in the teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, a pro-al-Qaida propagandist killed in 2011. He followed his online speeches and videos, which urged Muslims in the West to either go abroad or conduct terrorist attacks at home. Investigators say Chowdhury had started uploading posts as Abu Dujana al-Muhajir in a blog called Beneath which Rivers Flow. The blog had been started by a man called Ahmad Waseem, who is believed to have joined the ISIS and was killed by Kurdish forces in 2015.

In his blog posts, he wrote that he and others had taken up arms against a “global system of oppression” in which “innocent men, women and children are pleading for our help”. He described the Canadian government as “evil” and “despotic”. Jihad, he wrote, was going to be as Canadian as maple syrup.

Chowdhury’s radicalisation worried the community. In 2013, religious leaders in Windsor urged him not to talk to local Muslim youths. “There was a sense that he was radicalising fellow youth and goading them into something,” Amarasingam says. A year later, in his blog posts, he denounced the local imams as “deviant” and said they had been outnumbered by militants.

Details about his life in Canada are still sketchy. It is believed that he is married and has three children. What is not clear is when he left Canada. Some believe it was when the police started questioning him after Waseem joined the ISIS in 2013. But some reports state that he may have gone to Syria in 2012.

“People I interviewed had told me that he had almost certainly gone to Syria, either directly from Calgary or from Windsor, probably in late 2012. But another source claims he saw him hanging around the University of Calgary in 2013,” Amarasingam says.

There are conflicting reports about when Chowdhury entered Bangladesh but as per immigration records, he landed in Dhaka in October 2013.After arriving, he worked in populated areas such as Mirpur, Gazipur and Savar, police officials believe. They also claim that he started recruiting members to the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir, the students’ outfit of the Bangladesh radical group, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh.

Chowdhury, Amarasingam says, worked as a “project manager”, drawing young men into the ISIS fold, organising attacks and establishing links with the central leadership of the ISIS. “If you have the stamp of having visited Syria, then you can have many followers,” he adds.

According to intelligence officials in India, who have also been following the Dhaka attack, Chowdhury stayed in touch with the ISIS leadership regarding the café attack. They also claim that the ISIS in Syria established initial links with five attackers – all in the age group of 18-24 years – through fake Facebook accounts. Once they came into the ISIS fold, the interactions took place through encrypted messaging applications such as Pidgin and Threema.

Chowdhury was kept in the loop but he did not meet the boys to begin with, the officials add. Some of his team members in Bangladesh established links with them to see how committed they were to their cause. It is likely that a meeting with Chowdhury took place in one of his Dhaka hideouts after the boys had left home.

Intelligence officials in Dhaka have revealed that on the day of the attack, Chowdhury, along with the five assailants, came out of an apartment in the Bashundhara residential area. They were spotted near the café at around 8.45pm. Later, the five men stormed in with their weapons, but Chowdhury was not with them. They also believe that nine militants, who were killed by the Dhaka police three weeks ago, had had a meeting with Chowdhury earlier.

In some circles, Chowdhury is also known as Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, the “amir (chief) of the Khilafah’s (ISIS) soldiers in Bengal”, the Bangladesh intelligence officials claim. In an eight-page interview to the ISIS mouthpieceDabiq in April this year, Chowdhury, alias al-Hanif, warned Bangladesh of terror attacks.

“Soldiers are presently sharpening their knives to slaughter the atheists, the mockers of the prophet and every other apostate in the region,” he was quoted as saying. In the interview, he also vowed to “slaughter” non-believers throughout Bangladesh. Police officials claim that Chowdhury’s team killed a Hindu priest in June this year.

In the same interview, he said a group based in Bangladesh would facilitate “guerilla” attacks in India.

On Tuesday, the police said that Chowdhury had been tracked down in Dhaka. Unconfirmed reports earlier said he might have crossed over to Meghalaya in India while running for cover.

The man is still running; and for once, he has taken the lead in a race.

Tracking Terror Next Door

• Bangladesh government denies the presence of the ISIS in the country. But investigations have revealed that Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, also known as Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, is the so-called ‘amir (chief) of
the Khilafah’s (ISIS) soldiers in Bengal’.

• A video clip was released in July by the ISIS which featured three Bangla-speaking youths. They were believed to be Bangladeshi ISIS fighters in Raqqah, Syria. They said there would be more attacks in Bangladesh.

• Over 261 men, mostly in the age group of 18-24 years, have gone missing in Bangladesh this year. Dhaka police officials believe that some of them have joined terrorist organisations.

• Besides Tamim, Dhaka Metropolitan Police is looking for Nurul Hasan Marzan, who too is believed to have been involved in recent terror attacks.

• The terrorist group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, is believed to be affiliated with the ISIS.

• Other terrorist organisations active in Bangladesh are the al-Qaida in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) and Ansarulla Bangla Team


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