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posted on 09 June 2016

Families As Soft Targets


-- this post authored by Scott Stewart

Mahmuda Khanam left her apartment in Chittagong, Bangladesh, on June 5 to walk her 6-year-old son to a school bus stop. On the way, they were approached by three men who stabbed her repeatedly, then shot her point-blank in the head, leaving her dead on the pavement with the shocked child. The assailants sped away on a motorcycle.

This was not an act of random violence. It was an attack carefully targeted to punish Mahmuda Khanam's husband, Babul Akter, a senior Bangladeshi police official. As leader of the Detective Bureau in Chittagong, Akter had been instrumental in several investigations involving militants over the past two years, including one that led to the arrest of the military chief of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh in October 2015. In fact, Akter had been so effective in combating militancy in the Chittagong area that he had been promoted to a senior police post in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital. According to news reports, he had moved to Dhaka to assume his new duties just days before his wife's murder, leaving her and their two children behind.

The method of attack in this case was similar to those that have been used by jihadists in Bangladesh against bloggers, university professors, foreigners and religious minorities. When the method of attack is combined with Akter's past investigations of jihadist militants, it is not hard to conclude that this was intended as revenge. But instead of targeting the armed and trained Akter personally, the attackers chose a much softer target.

Soft Targets in the Crosshairs

Bangladesh is currently an arena of competition between al Qaeda- and Islamic State-oriented jihadists. As such, it can be seen as a microcosm of the larger ideological struggle for the heart of the global jihadist movement. Over the past year, in a kind of macabre competition, militants associated with both groups have attacked targets they regard as posing a challenge to their brand of Islam.

Jihadist attackers in Bangladesh have so far employed simple tactics mostly involving knives and machetes, and only occasionally including firearms or simple bombs. The rudimentary nature of these attacks reflects a low level of terrorist tradecraft, indicating that the attackers are not capable of assaulting targets protected by high levels of security. Instead, they have focused on more vulnerable soft targets - unarmed bloggers, shop owners, professors, gay-rights activists, Christian and Hindu clerics, international relief and development workers, and non-Sunni Muslims.

Because of this lack of competence, and perhaps even a shortage of reliable firearms, it is not surprising that the group that murdered Mahmuda Khanam likely considered her husband too dangerous a target, given that he could have fought back. An unarmed woman provided a much easier target, but even then, there are indications that they struggled to pull off her murder.

A Bangladeshi police investigator noted that one spent 7.65 mm cartridge case and two intact 7.65 mm cartridges were recovered at the scene. Though it is possible that the attackers merely dropped the live cartridges, another explanation is that one of their pistols malfunctioned or perhaps the ammunition was bad - a situation not unusual in the developing world, especially with older ammunition. We have seen jihadists in Indonesia and elsewhere struggle with unreliable firearms.

Warning Signs

One of the core tenets of Stratfor's terrorism analysis is that attacks never materialize in a vacuum. They are always the result of a planning process, and there are points during that process where those who plan attacks are vulnerable to detection.

Indeed, it appears there were some warnings prior to the attack on Khanam. According to Bangladeshi news reports, Khanam had expressed concerns over her family's security to a neighbor and had even discussed moving because of the threat. Another Bangladeshi news source reported that a police constable normally arrived at Khanam's apartment building to drive her son to school but that the constable did not arrive the morning of the attack, forcing her to walk her child to the bus stop.

If these reports are correct, then some intelligence regarding a threat to Akter and his family must have been gathered, or perhaps even a direct threat was made. Closed-circuit television footage from the area showed the culprits waiting opposite the bus stop for some time before the attack. If the report that a constable normally drove Akters' son to school is correct, then it would appear that the attackers somehow knew that he was not going to do so that morning - it is risky for armed attackers to lurk in an area in hopes that one morning there would be a change of plans. This indicates that they had an inside police source (perhaps the constable himself) or had perhaps somehow prevented the constable from arriving as planned.

If the report about the constable is false, then it suggests that the mother regularly walked her child to the school bus stop and the attackers were able to discern her routine via surveillance to plan their attack accordingly. The morning trip from home to work or to school is traditionally the most predictable move people make, and it is no coincidence that so many assassinations and kidnappings occur at this time.

But even if the Akter family had been receiving police protection, it is unlikely that any of those assets were dedicated to watching for surveillance outside the family's residence. Allowing even poorly trained attackers the freedom to conduct pre-operational surveillance at will is an invitation for disaster.

But looking for surveillance is not something that only professionals can do. Even relatively soft targets can make themselves harder targets. Ordinary citizens are quite capable of practicing good situational awareness, and with a little training, they can become proficient at spotting hostile surveillance - especially when conducted by unsophisticated actors such as the jihadists in Bangladesh. Though caring for a 6-year-old on the street can sometimes prove distracting, I've trained a number of mothers and nannies over the years who have proved to be good students. Providing this type of training to family members and household staff when there is a threat can provide a powerful alternative, or supplement, to a protective detail. At the very least, it makes them more difficult to surveil.

Growing Sophistication?

If the group behind Khanam's murder had an inside source who told it the police constable would not be there that day, or was savvy enough to somehow keep him from reporting to work that morning, it would be an indication that the jihadists in Bangladesh are growing in sophistication, even though they continue to use simple attack methods.

The Islamic State's leader in Bangladesh, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, was recently identified by Bangladesh's The Daily Star newspaper as a Canadian citizen named Tamim Chowdhury. He does not appear to have brought an advanced level of terrorist tradecraft to his organization. But with al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and the Islamic State focused on Bangladesh, and with militants associated with these groups operating inside the country, it is only a matter of time before more advanced terrorist tradecraft is imported to Bangladesh. Bangladeshi jihadists attending terrorist training camps and those fighting in places such as Syria and Iraq will bring more professionalism to Bangladeshi militants.

Once that happens, jihadists will be able to attack harder targets such as high-ranking police and government officials or foreign diplomatic missions. In the meantime, Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists will continue their campaign against soft targets in Bangladesh to include the family members of targets out of their reach.

"Families as Soft Targets" is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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