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The Islamic State's Leader in Bangladesh Is Probably Canadian

In an interview with the official Islamic State magazine, the alleged commander of IS' Bangladeshi province vows to expand to India, Myanmar, and elsewhere.

by Tamara Khandaker
Jun 8 2016, 9:05pm

All for one, and one for all — Islamic State fighters in Bangladesh, pictured in Dabiq magazine.

The leader of Bangladesh's brutal offshoot of the Islamic State who was recently profiled in IS' official magazine may be Tamim Chowdhury, a former Canadian resident.

Dabiq, the slick English-language magazine from IS, calls Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif the "Amir of the Khilafah's Soldiers in Bengal." If the reports are right, Al-Hanif is actually Chowdhury, a quiet former resident of Southern Ontario who, according to those who remember him, was hardly the fearless commander that he's made out to be in the magazine.

"Not many people knew him. The few people who knew him said he just kind of hung around the mosque in Windsor, was a skinny guy, was a shy kid."

The connection was first made by Daily Star, an English-language newspaper, reported that al-Hanif is simply the nom du guerre of the Bangladeshi-Canadian.

In the Dabiq interview, al-Hanif declared with pride that the emergence of ISIS militants in Bangladesh has "terrified the kuffar [unbelievers] in the region in general and in particular the atheists and secularists who mock Islam and our beloved Prophet.

"But it is not the methodology of the Khilafah's soldiers to send mere threats to the enemies of Allah," he said. "Rather, we let our actions do the talking. And our soldiers are presently sharpening their knives to slaughter the atheists, the mockers of the Prophet, and every other apostate in the region."

Not much is known about Chowdhury's life in Canada, but it is certainly likely that he is, in fact, al-Hanif. Amarnath Amarasingam, who researches foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo, told VICE News he'd heard of Chowdhury from a community activist in Windsor, who mentioned he may be travelling to Syria several years ago.

While Amarasingam hasn't been able to confirm whether or not Chowdhury did, in fact, end up in Syria, his name later popped up in an ISIS study group website as someone who was active in Bangladesh.

"Not many people knew him. The few people who knew him said he just kind of hung around the mosque in Windsor, was a skinny guy, was a shy kid," said Amarasingam. His age and immigration history aren't known.

Related: Islamic State Claims Another Hacking Death in Bangladesh — This Time a Hindu Tailor

The researcher suspects Chowdhury came onto law enforcement's radar because he knew Ahmed Waseem and Mohammed Al Shaer — two men who allegedly left Windsor to join ISIS in Syria in 2013 — and that he left Canada "shortly after harassment from the police," who were questioning Waseem's known associates at the time.

In the Dabiq interview, al-Hanif calls on Bangladeshi police, army, and intelligence officers working under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to "develop some sense of shame and manhood and free themselves from being slaves to a kafir woman," adding that they should quit their jobs before they "get a hold of them and slaughter them one by one."

Al-Hanif goes on to say that "many Muslims are responding to our call and joining the ranks of the soldiers of the Khilafah." Estimates, however, number the IS forces in that country at roughly 100.

He also rants about Bangladesh's right-wing, Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, blasting them for their failure to implement the "law of Allah" during their time in power and congratulating "masses of cow-worshipping, pagan Hindus" on religious occasions, among many other perceived wrongs.

The Islamic State have been trying to turn Bangladesh into a foothold for their expansion, as extremist attacks have ramped up against religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country.

Al-Hanif said in the interview that a "jihad base in Bengal will facilitate performing guerilla attacks inside India," and goes on to say it will help advance attacks against Myanmar, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Related: The Islamic State Is Now Trying to Convince India's Muslims to Come Join the Caliphate

Despite this, the government of Bangladesh has denied that IS is operating within the country at all.

The hacking to death of 70-year-old Hindu priest Ananda Gopal Ganguly, an attack that the IS province claims was committed by "soldiers of the caliphate," is the third such attack in just two days. It follows the murders of the wife of an anti-terror police officer in Chittagong and a Christian grocer in Natore.

Ganguly was riding his bike to temple when he was approached from behind by three men, according to police. His body was found in a field in the Jhenaidah district, with his head nearly severed from his neck.

"He left home this morning saying that he was going to a Hindu house to offer prayers," deputy police chief Gopinath Kanjilal told AFP news agency. "Later, farmers found his near-decapitated body in a rice field."

According to the Daily Star, militants have killed 47 people in the last 18 months, and ISIS has claimed responsibility for 28 of those killings, targeting religious minorities, scholars, and foreigners, among others.

Despite all this, however, Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu claimed yesterday that all was well.

"At least in one respect, the government is successful as they [the assailants] could not attack big government establishments and highways. Their strength has waned," he told BBC Bangla, according to the Star, adding they are attacking "soft targets" only to make their existence known.

In a country with a rich history of freedom of expression and where secularism is a basic tenet of the constitution, the violence has forced many writers, who can't seek protection from police because they risk being arrested for insulting Islam in their work, to flee for their lives or censor themselves.

Related: Trapped Between Murder and Repression: Life as an Atheist Blogger in Bangladesh

"We've been calling on the government to categorically condemn the killings, which it has continually failed to do," Aura Freeman, a campaigner with Amnesty International, with a focus on Bangladesh, told VICE News. "In fact, it has essentially put the blame on the victims in many ways, and from our perspective, investigations into the killings have also been inadequate."

Amnesty International, along with organizations like Pen Canada, has been relocating bloggers to other countries for their safety.

Bangladesh's Information Communication Technology Act limits freedom of expression when it comes to insulting the religion of the people, and the government has been criticized for a lack of urgency in pursuing the perpetrators and for repeatedly citing the Act in response to the deaths of writers, pointing out that they were breaking the law.

"This type of mixed messaging coming from the government has essentially condoned the killing," said Freeman. "It's only encouraged more killings because there hasn't been a strong stance against the perpetrators. It's almost permissible to kill someone because they criticize Islam."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk