As many as 50 Bangladeshis had travelled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State (ISIS) and some of them died in battles, according to officials.
Several names have emerged, but somehow Dhaka University student Asif Azad was off the radar until the March 2018 arrest of Akram Hossain Niloy, who investigators say is one of the top leaders of terrorist outfit neo-JMB, blamed for the 2016 Gulshan cafe attack.
On Aug 31, 2016, Asif, a Peace and Conflict Studies student, left Dhaka to attend a seminar at a university in Tehran.
He travelled to Turkey from there on Sept 9 and entered Syria’s Idlib on Sept 12.
Five days later, Asif was in Hama in west-central Syria where he was arrested and spent behind the bars until Oct 12, when he returned to Idlib.
Later that month, he managed to join Liwa al-Aqsa, a Salafist jihadist organisation active in the Syrian civil war, as a foreign fighter.
In February last year, he finally managed to join ISIS after fighting for the Free Syrian Army as a Liwa al-Aqsa recruit in Ard ar Ribat.
Officials of Dhaka metro police’s Counterterrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit said Asif was not on their list of suspected Bangladeshi youths who have gone to Syria to fight for the IS.
Forensic test of mobile phones in possession of terror suspect Niloy, who was arrested on Mar 22 from Bogura, revealed his communications with Asif.
“Niloy maintained communications with several Bangladeshi IS fighters in Syria, including Asif Azad. He had also communications with Bangladesh-based militants. Forensic test of his mobile phones revealed a trove of information,” Deputy Commissioner Mohibul Islam Khan of the CTTC told Bangla Tribune.
According to investigators, conversations on Niloy’s phone revealed that Asif had met brothers, Ibrahim Hasan Khan and Junayed Hasan Khan in Syria.
The siblings, who were residents of the Bashundhara in Dhaka, were named in the list of 18 missing youths released by police soon after the 2016 Holey Artisan terror attack.
The conversation with Asif suggested that Niloy, too, was planning to go to Syria.
In a conversation dated Mar 2, 2018, Niloy praised Asif for the hardship he had faced. “I don’t know whether I am illegible, but I will try to reach Darul Islam (IS stronghold in Syria) till I am alive.”
In one of the conversations with Niloy, Asif shared the experience of his first-ever battle in Idlib, which he described as the ‘Battle of Attamah’.
Asif said that they had formed new group consisted of 700 Mujahids (foreign fighters) like him and another 1,000 Ansars (volunteers).
“Our mission was to clear a key highway blocked by Murtads (apostates)... On Feb 14, there was a close combat and 40 of our men died, several more were injured, but we killed 300 Murtads and captured another 172, who were later executed and managed to take control of the road,” reads one the 34,000-page conversations revealed from Niloy’s phone.
In his communications with Niloy, Asif shared that ‘things were not anymore as it were’.
“The management is collapsing and Dawla (the state) is getting weaker... I think no families should move here now. Only fighters should come... the situation is tough now,” reads a Mar 5 communication from Asif.
CTTC officials said Niloy told during interrogation that he had plans to move to Syria with his parents and sister. He, however, later declined to provide a confessional statement before a judge.
However, police arrested Niloy’s parents and sister from Dhaka’s Gulshan in November 2017, some four months before the ‘neo-JMB bigwig’ was held from the northern district of Bogura.
The collapse of IS in Syria was clear in the communications by Asif to Niloy. “Dawla (the Islamic State) is at the end of their system and administrative function,” reads a conversation obtained from Niloy’s phone.
In another message, Asif shared that he was getting de-motivated.
“My intention was good before coming here... but now a day, I do not feel like to take part in battles. This happens to most of our brothers though. You never know how the devil will play with you! May Allah protect us from the whispers of devil.”
In his conversations, Asif constantly motivated Niloy to join him in Syria.
“I have seen a lot of things in these six months. But I am saying these so that you can be strong. Listen, I have entered Sham. No one has done that in one day. But when did I come to Dawla (the state)? Six months after a huge war and a lot of blood and hardship and trials.
“There are times when it feels like to leave, but one has to be patient as trials will come... I have seen many returning to their own countries... there were many bigwigs with us who left... be hopeful, come to Turkey and then Idlib. There will be a way.”
The motivational messages by Asif did not go in vain, which was clear from Niloy’s reply.
“Your experience has motivated me a lot... Hopefully I will get my passport by 15 days and get the visa soon after...Whatever I do, I will consult with you. I have done a lot of things in my life hastily, but not this time,” reads one of the conversations obtained from Niloy’s phone.
WHO IS ASIF AZAD?
Born and brought up in Dhaka, Asif Azad is the son of Social Welfare Department official Nazrul Islam and Rawshan Ara Begum.
The family hails from Mymensingh’s Gafargaon but has been living in Dhaka’s Dhanmondi for years.
Asif cleared his Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exams from the Government Laboratory School in 2012 and Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) exams from the Dhaka College in 2014 before enrolling at the Dhaka University’s Peace and Conflict Studies department.
“We had no idea that he would go to Syria. He had gone to attend a seminar at a university in Iran’s Tehran,” Asif’s father Nazrul Islam said.
According to him, Asif was set to enrol in the Istanbul Bilgi University to study Computer Science.
“I had even sent him money for tuition fees on Sept 7, 2016. A few days later, we lost all communications with him,” he told Bangla Tribune.
Islam said Asif had once told him that he will try to go to Europe from Turkey. “His uncles live in Italy. When we lost communications, we thought he was trying to enter Europe and at one point, we thought he died. So, we did not report to police,” he said.
Islam said it never occurred to them that Asif may have been radicalised.
“He used to practice religious rituals like praying five times a day, just like any ordinary Muslim family. He was never a radical Islamist. We have no idea how this happened.”