DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Bangladesh is expanding its anti-terror operations with a new police unit that will focus on locating and tracking suspected extremists, even as it says it has contained a radical Islamist threat through a series of raids and crackdowns.
The decision to create the new unit, including special tactical field teams and intelligence experts, follows several years of deadly attacks targeting writers, atheists, foreigners and other perceived enemies of Islam.
"We are still working on it," Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said this week. He did not say when the new unit would be ready.
A government document detailing the planned unit says it will include 581 newly recruited officers who will focus on the "whereabouts of the suspects, tracking their movement and means of communication, and keeping an eye on financing procedures."
Bangladesh has faced growing international concern over its ability to provide security for its citizens and foreign visitors following a string of grisly attacks that left dozens of people dead — often hacked to death with machetes or knives.
The deadliest incident occurred in July 2016, when five young men from well-off Bangladeshi families held dozens of people hostage overnight in a restaurant in Dhaka's diplomatic quarter until security forces stormed the eatery and found 20 hostages dead, including 17 foreigners.
Since then no major attacks have been reported.
Officials credit a series of raids in which about 60 suspected militants were killed, including some alleged commanders of the Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh. The government has blamed the JMB for the Dhaka hostage taking, dismissing claims of responsibility by the Middle Eastern Islamic State group.
Police also carried out a nationwide security crackdown, arresting more than 14,000 people over several months. But critics said most of the detained people had no connection with extremist groups and were only suspected of petty thievery and other minor crimes. Authorities have never released details of how many of the suspects were ultimately charged under anti-terrorism laws.
Experts on Thursday said the specialized anti-terror force would help the country maintain control over security. Up to now, Bangladesh has deployed members of its elite paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion force as well as a police detective branch.
"We need a specialized unit, as terrorism is different from other crimes," said Abdur Rashid, a retired major general and security analyst, noting that terror groups were constantly changing their tactics.
The new unit, approved last week by the Home Ministry, will also identify extremist sympathizers, investigate cases and coordinate efforts with law enforcement in other countries.
"From investigation to trial it requires careful efforts," Rashid said.