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Japanese-Bangladeshi Hindu convert masterminded Dhaka terror attack: Report

Sajit Debnath aka Muhammad Saifullah Ozaki, a former associate professor of Ritsumeikan University, is also the elusive ‘ameer’ of ISIS in Bangladesh.

world Updated: Jul 26, 2017 14:03 IST
Vinod Janardhanan
Vinod Janardhanan
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Dhaka terror attack,Islamic State in Bangladesh,ISIS
A girl attends a candlelight vigil to mark the first anniversary of the Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1.(REUTERS)

A Japanese-Bangladeshi Hindu convert is most likely to be the mastermind behind the terror attack claimed by Islamic State on a Dhaka bakery last July that left 24 people dead, including an Indian student, a report has said.

An investigative report by the Dhaka Tribune newspaper also identified Sajit Debnath aka Muhammad Saifullah Ozaki, a former associate professor of Ritsumeikan University, as the elusive ‘ameer’ of ISIS in Bangladesh.

Ozaki, who the report said had appeared in an interview in Dabiq magazine of ISIS in April 2016 under the nom de guerre Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, is responsible for a series of jihadi attacks in Bangladesh including the massacre at the Holey Artisan Bakery.

Ozaki, who has a PhD, is considered an expert on Islamic finance and economic theory, and is well-versed in Islamic theology.

He took his current name around May 2015, most likely because his old identity was revealed to Bangladeshi security agencies by captured ISIS members Gazi Sohan and Aminul Islam Baig, the report said.

He was appointed the group’s ameer in Bangladesh in June 2015 after his return to Japan from a short trip to Turkey.

The influential ISIS members who facilitated Ozaki’s appointment process include his mentor Hassan Ko Nakata, former Japanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia who goes by the name Shaykh Hassan al-Yabani, according to the report.

The Bangladeshi affiliate of ISIS, Dawlatul Islam Bengal, came into existence in July 2015 with patronage and guidance of Ozaki, after a merger between a renegade faction of Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Jund at-Tawhid wal-Khilafah, it said.

Canadian-Bangladeshi jihadi Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury or Abu Dujanah al-Bengali was appointed the head of military and covert operations of the group while Sarwar Jahan was chosen as Ozaki’s conduit or representative on the ground. After the Dhaka attack, there was speculation that Chowdhury was the mastermind and ameer of IS in Bangladesh, which the group had rejected.

In September 2015, ISIS carried out its first attack in Bangladesh, the murder of Italian citizen Cesare Tavella in Dhaka and a month later, it killed Japanese citizen Kunio Hoshi in Rangpur.

Before these attacks, the group’s activities were mostly focused on recruiting Bangladeshi jihadis for the Syrian war. Ozaki was the kingpin of a transnational group that funded and facilitated ISIS recruitment operations in Bangladesh since mid-2014, the report said.

Most, if not all, of the Bangladeshi ISIS fighters were directly or indirectly connected to Ozaki: they were either recruited by Ozaki himself or by recruiters who reported to him.

Both Ozaki and Saudi national Nasir Muhammad Awad worked as lead recruiters in 2014 and were elevated to the position of ameer in 2015.

The current whereabouts of Ozaki remain unknown. There are reports that he took his family to Syria after entering Turkey via Bulgaria in late 2015.

But some reports place him in Indonesia and Malaysia. Ozaki’s mentor Hassan Ko Nakata has long-known ties with Indonesia-based jihadi group Jemaah Islamiyah.

There is also speculation that the Dabiq interview was actually taken by Nakata, when Ozaki met him somewhere in Indonesia in late 2015 or early 2016, the report said.

The first part of Ozaki’s nom de guerre –Abu Ibrahim or father of Ibrahim—is most likely based on the name of his youngest son, who is a minor, the report said.

Ozaki and his Japanese wife have three sons, who are named after Islamic prophets.

First Published: Jul 26, 2017 14:03 IST