Security forces have intensified anti-terror operations after last year's attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan – the worst terrorist incident in Bangladesh's history. But one thing that has since become a common feature of anti-militancy operations is the recovery of explosives, usually in huge quantities, from militant hideouts.
The latest raid on a militant hideout in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, found explosives, bombs and suicide vests. Such recurrent recoveries have raised some serious questions: How and from where do the militants get explosives while evading law enforcement agencies?
Counter-terrorism officials claimed that most of the explosives – bombs, grenades, detonators and explosive gel – are brought from India. A New JMB group, led by Mizanur alias Boro Mizan, was in charge of smuggling the munitions through Chapainawabganj's Shibganj border.
Mizan was arrested from Banani recently. Four of his associates were arrested on November 3 with grenades, 787 detonators and a firearm.
Counter-terrorism unit's Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) Sanwar Hossain said they had sealed off several routes along the border as well as sources used by militants to obtain explosives. He said they were currently trying to locate such sources inside the country.
Several Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit officials said New JMB's Sohel Mahfuz alias Hatkata Mahfuz was currently leading the group tasked with collecting explosives.
The old JMB member has extensive knowledge about Indian explosive smuggling routes, the CTTC officials said. He used to smuggle explosives into Bangladesh from India through Mizan.
Mahfuz is currently in hiding and has created a new smuggling route in Jessore after the one in Chapainawabganj was sealed off.
Militants also use a number of tactics to gather explosives from inside the country, CTTC officials said. They sometimes purchase explosives under the pretence of using them in laboratories.
Furthermore, unscrupulous businessmen and laboratory staff sometimes supply explosives for money. Four people, including three chemical shop owners and a lab assistant of Dhaka University's Department of Soil, Water and Environment, were arrested on June 15, 2015 for the offence.
CTTC ADC Sanwar said they had held several rounds of talks with the Department of Explosives and licensed chemicals traders to prevent militants from getting their hands on such deadly payloads.
“A new system is being introduced where retail sellers will collect and store detailed information about buyers and scrutinise them. This will make it easier for monitoring and help prevent purchase of chemicals under false identities,” he said.
Sanwar also said that CTTC had information that some people were importing chemicals without permission. Militants collect explosive material by using the names of factories where such chemicals are regularly used.
“Militants at Savar's Genda obtained materials for making explosives by using the name of a cosmetics factory. Militant leader Mufti Hannan, too, used to collect such material in the name of a soap factory,” the CTTC officer added.
An unpleasant upgrade
Between October 2015 and March this year, members of New JMB had used the same materials for making explosives. But things appear to have changed after March 7. Some recently recovered explosives included materials for enhancing the destructive force of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
A member of police's bomb disposal unit said they recovered several suicide vests, each equipped with six handmade grenades, during their December 24 raid on a militant hideout at Ashkona. One of the militants had blown herself up.
But new types of vests were recovered from Chittagong's Sitakunda, Sylhet's Atia Mahal, Moulvibazar's Nasirnagar and Borohat, as well as at Jhenaidah and Chapainawabganj in March, the official said. “These vests had materials with higher destructive capacity.”
Who makes the explosives?
Not all active members of New JMB can make bombs and grenades, according to CTTC officials. Only some top level leaders – including Hatkata Mahfuz and Hadisur Rahman Sagar – are believed to possess the necessary expertise.
During the recent anti-militancy raid at Moulvibazar, there were rumours of a youthful bomb making expert who had returned from Afghanistan. But there was no concrete information to support the claim.
A CTTC officer said they recovered a number of masks from militant hideouts. “Some senior leaders, who were trained bomb makers, never showed their faces to the young members and wore these masks during meetings,” the officer added.