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Bangladesh: The New Nexus for Transnational Terrorism
Robert C. Hodges
The increasing Islamic terrorism seen in Bangladesh is rarely covered via international news and has only recently been recognized by international security analysts. Bangladesh is a small country in South Asia about the same size as Iowa. It is almost completely bordered by India. It also shares a small border with Myanmar on the southeast and the Bay of Bengal on the south. “Bangladesh” literally translates to “Country of the Bengal”. The long name is the “People’s Republic of Bangladesh” (Central Intelligence Agency, 2011). It will be referred to as Bangladesh through the extent of the analysis. Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971 because of the issue of Bengali nationalism promoting tolerance and coexistence among religions and ethnicities (Khan 2016). Bangladesh has the fourth-largest Muslim population in the world (NJOHSP 2016). This ideal of tolerance has not been welcomed by all, Islamic extremist terrorist organizations have fought against it. The long standing FTOs in Bangladesh include the JMB and the HUJI-B. These terrorist organizations are now getting stronger as they receive support from transnational terrorist organizations like IS and AQIS. In the past, both the JMB and the HUJI-B were believed to have ties with Al Qaeda (AQ). Currently the JMB is aligning with the Daesh (NJOHSP 2016). There are some reports that the HUJI-B is still linked to AQ through their latest organization, the AQIS (Vaughn 2016). The Bangladeshi counter-terrorism operations have shown recent success. Continued national and international counter terrorism operations will be required to resist the spread of the AQ and the Daesh in Bangladesh.
This expanding terrorist footprint in Bangladesh may result in the small nation becoming an Islamic militant sanctuary and a launching pad for future transnational terrorist attacks (Gohel 2014). Counter terrorism activities led by the Bangladesh government, with international support from the global community is essential in stopping the Daesh and AQ from spreading Islamic extremism and terrorism. Bangladesh must not fall victim to an attempted caliphate by the Daesh or to be used by the AQ as a base of operations in the Indian Subcontinent.
A general inductive approach for qualitative content analysis was used in the formation of this paper. The development of this article utilized numerous methods of collection, document analysis, news sources, and expert opinions. Research was accomplished using on-line library resources, searching for articles and databases related to international security and counterterrorism with a focus on Bangladesh, Islamic terrorism and extremism, and recognized FTOs in the Indian Subcontinent. This provided a solid platform, then additional peer papers, news reports from national and international media sources, and information from the U.S. Department of State was also used. This approach provided condense data that clearly established links between the objectives and the summary, and develop a theory based on the data collected and analyzed. In addition to presenting information on the four main terrorist organizations operating in Bangladesh, this paper also looks at the efforts and actions of the government of Bangladesh, as related to their approach to transnational terrorism in their homeland. This research and analysis focuses mainly on the last decade, evaluating predictions by security and counter-terrorism professionals on the increasing terrorist activities in Bangladesh.
Research Questions and Thesis
The focus of this research presents information related to the terrorist organizations in Bangladesh, looking at their history, ideology, organization, method of attacks, and what they may be striving to achieve in the future. The forced religious, political, and diplomatic agendas of these Islamic extremists will impact the nation and may hinder the future goals of Bangladesh. This paper looks at the key organizations of AQIS, HUJI-B, JMB, and the Daesh (a.k.a. IS, ISIS, ISIL) presenting statistics and information on recent terrorist attacks. This includes data collection and analysis of terror events in or launched from Bangladesh. The Daesh, with the support of the JMB, may continue to grow in Bangladesh. At the same time the HUJI-B can be expected to keep their deep ties with AQ through linkages with AQIS. There are a large number of possible Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVE) and future terrorists in the high population numbers of the youth in Bangladesh (NJOHSP 2016). All of these terrorist organizations will be wrangling to be the dominant jihadists organization in the nation. It may take international support and military actions by the global community, backed by the UN, to stop the spread of Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh. The Government of Bangladesh must recognize the growing terrorism in their nation and develop stronger counterterrorism (CT) operations to be successful in preventing Bangladesh from becoming a stronger base of operations for AQ or ground zero for another attempted caliphate by the Daesh.
Significance of Expanding Terrorism in Bangladesh
The transnational threat of Islamic extremism and related acts of terrorism are factors that extend far beyond the borders of the small country of Bangladesh. The location of this modest nation between India and Myanmar is a vital link along the Indian Subcontinent. Bangladesh must adopt a strong countering violent extremists (CVE) regime to stop the expanding HVEs within their borders. Using the police and military in counterterrorism efforts will better support the current government and ensure an alternative government, possibly Sharia, does not take hold. If Al Qaeda, or IS inspired militant groups are allowed to increase in numbers, it is possible that Bangladesh will become another integrated front for Islamic jihad (Khan 2017) against the west.
Bangladesh is a small nation in South Asia with land borders shared by India and Myanmar. It has struggled with terrorism and violent extremism by domestic and transnational terrorist organizations for decades. Only recently has Bangladesh’s terrorism challenges been recognized by the international community. Articles by Shahab Enam Khan and Sajjan Gohel have been very beneficial in the development of research questions and possible answers. Kahn (2017, 192) pointed out that recognition by the international community is due partly to the increased “conflict between Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) for their ideological expansion in Bangladesh.” This information, combined with comments by Gohel (2014) about the continued deterioration of Bangladesh’s political stability and how it could create a space for Islamic terrorists to operate, support the focus of this paper. This information will be reinforced by current threat analysis by the U.S. Department of State, the Counter Extremist Project, Congressional Reports, and informational papers authored by recognized counterterrorism experts. In this look at Islamic extremism, David Rapoport’s studies and publication on “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism” must be included. Dr. Rapoport describes the current wave of terrorism currently active around the globe is a “religious wave” gathering force as elements of religion and ethnic identities overlap (Rapoport 2004). Islamic groups, having “conducted the most significant, deadly, and profoundly international attacks” (Rapoport 2004, 61) are at the heart of this religious wave of terrorism. Mathieu Guidere (2012) looks at Islamic fundamentalism in his work from the Blue Ridge Summit. He explains how the HUJI-B is funded through arms smuggling and has training camps in the Chittagong region of Bangladesh. Experts speculate that membership includes Bangladeshi as well as Myanmar refugees. Reports on both the HuJI-B and the JMB show they are supported by larger Islamic extremist organizations. The HuJI-B is believed to be linked to the AQIS while the JMB has ties with the Daesh (Vaughn 2016).
Findings and Analysis
The HuJI-B is the most active suborganization of the larger terrorist organization known as the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI). A translation of this name is the Islamic Jihad Movement or Movement of Islamic Holy War. The United States (U.S.) Department of State (DOS) identifies the HuJI organization in Bangladesh as the HuJI-B. The HuJI-B is a Sunni extremist organization that was formed in 1992 (Stanford University 2016). The HuJI-B was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. Department of State in February of 2008 (U.S. DOS 2017). The HuJI-B is a well-known VEO inspired by Osama Bin Laden and the International Islamic Force (IIF), the predecessor to Al Qaeda (Global Security.org 2017). The HuJI-B is a transnational Sunni Islamic revolutionary VEO that has long been tied to AQ and it can be expected that this organization will remain linked to AQIS as this new AQ wing grows. The HuJI-B’s goals and objectives are to instill Sharia law in Bangladesh and across the South Asian region. This would include the establishment of an Islamic state modelled after the Taliban in Afghanistan (Jane’s 2017). In the past, the group used a slogan, Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan. This translates to, “We will all become Taliban and we will turn Bangladesh into Afghanistan” (South Asian Terrorist Portal (a) 2016).
Relaxed cultural influences from India, the West, and the U.S. are opposed by the HuJI-B and they want them banned in Bangladesh. This includes practicing the Hindu and Christian religions. Progressive intellectuals, feminists, writers, and journalists are all seen as criminals against Islam. Several of the HuJI-B’s assassination targets have included people recognized in these fields (Ramachandran 2004). It has been stated that the strength of the HuJI-B could be as high as 15,000 with recruits trained in the Kormi and Kasia regions. This cadre would include Bangladeshi and foreign fighters from Myanmar. Many of these are the Rohingyas, who are religious refugees from Myanmar (South Asian Terrorist Portal (a) 2016).
The HuJI-B has continued to use simple and effective means of violence, including small-arms such as AK-series assault rifles and explosives. They have also used rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), light machine guns, and mines (Janes 2017). In December 2016, five HuJI-B militants were arrested in the Chittagong District of Bangladesh with 12 Improvised Explosive Devices, two pistols, and over 160 rounds of ammunition (South Asian Terrorist Portal (b) 2016). The HuJI-B is an influential part of this violent Islamic movement and this movement “presents a major threat to the stability of Bangladesh” (Jane’s 2017) with the support from the wider Islamic movement in South Asia. The HuJI-B is known to have drawn inspiration from Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and it is understood they may still have links to the Al Qaeda network (SATP (b) 2016), this includes direct support from AQIS.
AQIS is headquartered in Pakistan and became a recognized VEO after Ayman al-Zawarihi announced the formation of AQIS on September 3, 2014 (Counter Extremism Project(a) 2017). The U.S. designated AQIS as a FTO on June 30, 2016 (Bredemeier 2016). The formation of AQIS resulted after a failed attempt by a rising militant organization known as Ansarullah to form a wing of AQ in Bangladesh named Al Qaeda in Bangladesh (AQIB). AQIS has gained a foothold in Bangladesh and this VEO has recruited from several Islamic extremist organizations within Bangladesh. This includes not only the HuJI-B, but also the JMB, Ahle Hadith, and others (The Straits Times 2016). The AQIS was formed as a consolidation of jihadists on the Indian Subcontinent.
AQIS follows the same Salafi ideology as AQ central. The organization wants to remove the infidels from power and impose sharia or Islamic law. The Salafis stand on the belief that all Muslims should emulate the first generation of Muslim leaders. AQ and AQIS also share in the belief of the defensive jihad, that they are defending the Muslim lands from the new crusaders led by America (Counter Extremism Project(a) 2017).
AQIS in Bangladesh has ties with the HuJI-B, but there is also a branch of AQIS in Bangladesh officially known as Ansar Al Islam (AAI). The AAI has claimed responsibility for several attacks in the country. Little is known about AQIS’s training and recruiting tactics, but the AQIS has been employing similar combat skills and tactics of its parent organization, AQ. Recruits are given physical training, weapons training, training in armed assault, and are trained in proficient bomb making skills. The AAI targets bloggers, secularist writers, and gay rights activists labelled as anti-Islam. In the last 18 months, AAI has claimed to have killed eight people who were seen as one of these types of targets (The Straits Times 2016). Along with the AAI, the JMB are included in the list of evolving Islamic terrorist organizations in Bangladesh.
The JMB has gained strength and exposure in Bangladesh since 2005. This recognized FTO opposes democracy and wants to establish the rule of Islam in Bangladesh. The JMB wants the U.S. and the United Kingdom out of the Muslim lands and are willing to achieve this through armed struggle. It is also reported that the JMB has ties with the Daesh (Vaughn 2016). The exact origin of the JMB is a bit of a mystery. Some reports are that it was formed in 1998, but its existence was recognized on May 20, 2002 when eight of its members were arrested with 25 petrol bombs and plans for an attack. The JMB was recognized internationally on August 17, 2005. “The group detonated approximately 460 bombs at 300 locations in 63 of the 64 districts in Bangladesh” (Gohel 2014, 86). An objective of this VEO is to free Muslims of the “influence of ‘anti-Islam forces’ and practices that brought women out of their houses” (South Asian Terrorist Portal 2017).
The relaxed and careless attitude of the Government of Bangladesh has allowed JMB to grow. In some cases when JMB members were caught and arrested they were released on bail and eventually the charges were dropped. This was after the documents on these JMB members were destroyed in a “mysterious” fire (SATP 2017). For years the JMB were linked to the leading political party and promoted the building of masques and seminaries. Many of these later became well-equipped centers for radicalization and training stations. Political corruption is a realistic concern in Bangladesh. The JMB membership is estimated at around 10,000 fulltime members and 100,000 part-time cadre (SATP 2017).
The JMB is reportedly receiving funds from several donors in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and others. These terrorists are linked to large investments in shrimp farms and storage businesses in south-western Bangladesh. The JMB is also alleged to engage in money laundering. Analysis of the materials seized from JMB members shows their access to improvised explosive devises, detonators, and RDX explosives. The militant JMB members are known to provide training in home-made explosives. It is reported the JMB also procures explosives and fire-arms through land and sea routes from Pakistan, Myanmar, India, and China (SATP 2017). In May 2016, the chief of the Cabinet committee on law and order maintenance in Bangladesh, Amir Hossain Amu, identified the JMB as being “directly involved in 25 recent killings” (The Straits Times, 2016).
Security analysts and counter terrorism experts have shown evidence that “the JMB is in league with the so-called Islamic State” (Hashmi 2017). The Islamic State has been given and taken several names including: IS, ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh as well as many others (Counter Extremism Project (b) 2017). This VEO, and recognized FTO, originated as Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 and then proclaimed themselves ISIS in 2013. The founder was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and as the group formed into ISIS or the Daesh it was led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It has extremist operations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, many countries in Africa and the Indian Subcontinent including Bangladesh (Counter Extremism Project (b) 2017). The Daesh is a Sunni extremist group whose primary goal is uniting the world under one Muslim caliphate. As a Salafi-Takfiri group, the Daesh believe all enemies of Islam are deserving of death. This includes Muslims that they see as enemies of Islam. The Daesh may use operations in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh to establish another base of operations as their caliphate in Iraq and Syria is defeated and fighters are killed or driven out. In the April edition of the ISIS magazine Dabiq, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, head of operations in Bangladesh, stated ISIS’s future operations expanding into Myanmar and eastern India (NJOHSP 2016). As a reflection of the escalation in attacks by militants in Bangladesh, in July of 2016, the Daesh killed 20 people in a café in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Marszal and Graham 2016). The victims included nine Italians and one U.S. citizen that were in the group of 20 that were hacked to death. Members of the Daesh claimed the attack and said they targeted citizens of “Crusader countries” (Marszal and Graham 2016).
The Bangladesh government has been very slow to recognize the growing transnational terrorist threats and HVE operations in the country. Once a terrorist organization is recognized by the Bangladeshi government, there are additional challenges in the country countering terrorism due to the governments institutional, resource, and political constraints (U.S. DOS 2006). An example of the governments unwillingness to recognize the growth of transnational terrorism in Bangladesh are the comments by Amir Hossain Amu, chief of the Cabinet committee on law and order maintenance. He stated in a press conference that the JMB had been involved in 25 recent killings and that the AAI had committed eight killings. Amu claimed that these actions had no connection to ISIS (The Straits Times 2016) or transnational terrorists. The Bangladesh Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit chief, Monirul Islam has recognized that as militant organizations in “Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan have become fragile…They are now more interested in the sub-continent” (The Straits Times 2016).
Over the last two years, Bangladesh has become a target for the expansion of Islamic militancy and is now witnessing an increase in terrorism as both AQIS and the Daesh push their ideological expansion into the country (Khan 2017). This rise in terrorism can be linked to what is known as the fourth wave of terrorism impacting the globe. This fourth wave, identified as the religious wave, started in 1979 as the Iranian Revolution occurred, the new Islamic century began, and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan (Rapoport 2004). The mainly Sunni terrorism spreading around the globe has focused on Western Europe and identified the United States as the great evil against their religion and Muslim people. AQ was the FTO leading the current religious terrorism wave and the new wings of AQ, such as AQIS have targeted the West. We must not overlook the IS founded by some of the key leaders of AQ in Iraq (AQI). As part of this current religious wave of terrorism, the radicalization and extremism in Bangladesh continues to escalate just as it has for the last decade or longer.
The youth have been the largest group of victims in this radicalization process. The Bangladeshi youth have very limited access to acceptable education, health, employment, and civic or political participation (Kahn 2017). The terrorist organizations exploit the anxieties over the limitations to the youth, perceived threats to their way of life, and the disparities in the very rich and powerful and the lower middle class with no way to improve themselves. These economic disparities, misguided governance, and poor international relations have arguably created a perfect setting for the extremists in Bangladesh to grow stronger (Kahn 2017).
In what appears to be a change in direction for the Bangladesh government, in September of 2017, a new anti-terror police unit was created. After several incidents and attacks that seemed to have international terrorism ties, Bangladesh is concerned for the security of it citizens and foreign visitors. This new unit will specialize in terrorism as it is separated from different crimes. The counterterrorism unit will focus on locating and tracking extremists and the radical Islamist threat using special tactical teams and intelligence experts (AP News 2017).
The recent terrorist attacks in Bangladesh are a sign of increased terrorism taken to a new level as transnational groups like AQ and the Daesh have looked at the Indian Subcontinent as a new area of operations. The newer forms of violent extremism have forced the government to take improved measures and capabilities of the agencies in law enforcement. Additionally, Bangladesh has realized it will take a combined effort that includes many other governmental agencies. A collective government effort with agencies including the police, the newly formed specialized counter terrorism unit, a Rapid Action Battalion, and intelligence support from the Directorate of General Forces and National Security Intelligence are proving to be vital to the CVE operations (Kahn 2017).
The Government of Bangladesh is using multiple strategies addressing threats of terrorism and extremism. In 2009, they formed the National Committee on Militancy Resistance and Prevention and the National Committee for Intelligence Coordination. These committees are charged with “improving the campaign against extremism through exchanges between law enforcement and intelligence agencies (Kahn 2017, 210). The government also passed strong legislation designed to combat terrorism. The newest updates to their Anti-Terrorism Act and their Money Laundering Prevention Act are stronger, more robust, and bring Bangladesh in line with international standards (Kahn 2017).
The Bangladesh government has also reached out globally to counter the increased transnational terrorism and HVE attacks. They are a signatory to 14 UN Anti-Terrorism Conventions and Protocols, the “UN Convention against Transnational Crime, and the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy signed in 2006” (Kahn 2017). The U.S. and Bangladesh signed initiatives in October of 2013 to formally enable U.S. experts to assist Bangladesh in complying with international terrorism standards. The U.S. also provides counterterrorism support to Bangladesh through the U.S. State Department. This training is in the form of U.S. led counter terrorism programs and judicial and law enforcement systems.
Recent arrests in Bangladesh reflect the improved counter terrorism efforts by the police and intelligence forces. In March of 2017, the Bangladeshi police arrested Shaikh Mohammad Abul Kashem, the founder of a JMB offshoot group, in Dhaka and accused him of inspiring followers to kill foreigners. This successful operation was based on information from a secret source linking Kashem to a planned money transfer (Reuters 2017). Other recent effective counter terrorism actions have had similar success. The Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police arrested four members of the AAI in Dhaka in May of 2017 (New Age Bangladesh 2017). The effective counter terrorism and CVE operations demonstrate an acceptance by the Bangladesh Government that transnational terrorism is a threat in their country and they can successfully battle this spread of violent Islamic Extremism in their nation.
Although the world and the Bangladesh Government have not given much attention to the increasing Islamic terrorism seen in Bangladesh, local groups like the HuJI-B and the JMB are very active. The fourth, or religious, wave of terrorism negatively effecting the globe (Rapoport 2004) has also struck in this small country bordered by India, Myanmar, and the Bay of Bengal in South Asia. Bangladesh is seen by larger terrorist organizations like Daesh and AQIS as a new territory to expand or base future operations. The links between the smaller VEOs, the JMB and the HuJI-B, to their larger more internationally recognized terrorist groups like IS and AQ go very deep. The HuJI-B has long been tied with AQ. This includes training, financing, and operational support. This bond is being reinforced with the creation of the newest wing known as AQIS (Vaughn 2016). The Bangladeshi counter terrorism operations have shown recent success. Continued national and international counterterrorism operations will be required to resist the spread of the AQ and the Daesh in Bangladesh. Counterterrorism experts agree that the JMB are linked to the Daesh. The leader of the Daesh (a.k.a. IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has stated a goal of making Bangladesh a new base of operations for the IS as it is defeated and driven out of Syria and Iraq. The government of Bangladesh has recently openly admitted to the growing transnational-terrorism threat within their borders. They have stood up new Counter Terrorism police units and intelligence units. They have also reached out to the UN and U.S. for counterterrorism support and training. These efforts are having realistic and motivational successes in bolstering the security of the population of and visitors to Bangladesh. The small and strong nation of Bangladesh has endured a wave of increased HVEs and international terrorism in the last decade. The culture and the government have realized this harsh state of increased violent radicalization. Continued counter terrorism legislation, policing, and intelligence work within Bangladesh and support by the international community may ensure that CVE programs stay on track. There is a valid concern that the AQ or the Daesh will attempt to make Bangladesh a new base of operations or the capital of another attempted caliphate. The UN, U.S., and Bangladesh must continue to improve counterterrorism activities in Bangladesh to ensure this never happens.
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