Sajit Debnath aka Muhammad Saifullah Ozaki, the Japanese-Bangladeshi jihadi and former associate professor of Ritsumeikan University, is most likely the elusive ameer of ISIS in Bangladesh, responsible for a series of jihadi attacks in the country including the July 2016 massacre at the Holey Artisan Bakery.
Information gathered during months of investigation suggest that Ozaki is the individual whose interview was featured in the 14th issue of ISIS’ flagship Dabiq magazine in April 2016. In that interview, Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif (Ozaki’s kunya or Islamic nom de guerre) was identified as the “amir of the Khilafah’s soldiers in Bengal.”
Given the extremely sensitive nature of this story, and to protect my co-researchers in Bangladesh, I can neither disclose nor discuss exact sources and methods used during this investigation. However, I can say that the investigation was primarily based on extensive review of ISIS communiques and information gathered through open source intelligence.
The first part of Ozaki’s kunya (Abu Ibrahim – “father of Ibrahim”) is most likely based on the name of his youngest son, who is a minor. Ozaki and his Japanese wife have three sons, who are named after Islamic prophets. He used the name of his eldest son – also a minor – as part of another kunya he once took.
Two independent Islamic theologians in Bangladesh and Sweden, whom I consulted for this story, agreed that the second part of the kunya – al-Hanif – is especially significant. As a Hindu (of Debnath caste) convert to Islam, by alluding to the concept of hanifiyyah in his kunya, Ozaki may have intended to signal that he “turned away from” or “rejected” idolatry and polytheism.
This was in exception to the norm according to which ISIS members use their nationality, ethnicity or geographic origin in their kunyas – al-Bengali for Bangladeshi members and al-Yabani for Japanese members.
Ozaki, who has a PhD and is considered an expert on Islamic finance and economic theory, is well-versed in Islamic theology.
Ozaki took his current (new) kunya around May 2015, most likely because his identity including his old kunya was revealed to Bangladeshi security agencies by captured ISIS members Gazi Sohan and Aminul Islam Baig.
Based on information provided by Sohan and Baig, police in Dhaka registered a case against Ozaki with Uttara West police station on May 24, 2015 (case No 23, filed under the Anti-Terrorism Act).
A few days later, in June 2015, as Ozaki returned to Japan from a short trip to Turkey, the central ISIS leadership in Syria-Iraq appointed him as the group’s ameer in Bangladesh.
Internal ISIS documents I have seen indicate that ISIS shura council member Abu Ubaydah Abd al-Hakim al-Iraqi, who was the senior administrator in charge of external wilayahs and affiliates, approved this appointment on behalf of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In keeping with jihadi communication practice, Ozaki was referred to by his kunya in these documents.
Excerpts from at least two of these documents were published by vernacular daily Prothom Alo in 2016.
Apart from Abu Ubaydah Abd al-Hakim al-Iraqi, three other influential ISIS members facilitated Ozaki’s appointment process: Shaykh Hassan al-Yabani (real name: Hassan Ko Nakata – former Japanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Ozaki’s mentor), Abu Khalid al-Bengali (real name: Siful Haque Sujan – architect of ISIS’ cyber warfare operations), and Abu Saad (real name: ATM Tajuddin – Asia Division head of ISIS’ secret service Emni/Amniya).
With patronage and guidance of Ozaki, Sujan (killed in a US airstrike in December 2015) and Tajuddin, the Bangladeshi affiliate of ISIS, Dawlatul Islam Bengal, came into operational existence in July 2015, after a merger between a renegade faction of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Jund at-Tawhid wal-Khilafah.
In this new organisation, Canadian-Bangladeshi jihadi Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury (kunya: Abu Dujanah al-Bengali) was appointed as the “head of military and covert operations” while Sarwar Jahan (aka Asim Ajwad) was chosen as Ozaki’s conduit or representative on the ground.
According to one of the internal ISIS documents I have seen, Tamim and Sarwar officially informed the group’s central leadership (through Abu Ubaydah Abd al-Hakim al-Iraqi) of their loyalty to the regional leader (Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif) on July 21, 2015.
This very chain of events was actually noted in an article in the 12th issue of Dabiq, published in November 2015: “the soldiers of the Khilafah in Bengal pledged their allegiance to [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi], unified their ranks, nominated a regional leader, gathered behind him, dissolved their former factions, performed the necessary military preparations, and hastened to answer the order from the Islamic State leadership.”
In September 2015, ISIS carried out its first attack in Bangladesh by murdering Italian citizen Cesare Tavella in Dhaka – in October 2015, the group carried out its second attack by murdering Japanese citizen Kunio Hoshi in Rangpur.
Before these attacks the group’s activities in the country were mostly focused on recruiting Bangladeshi jihadi fighters for the Syrian war.
According to a social network analysis of known Bangladeshi ISIS recruits, Ozaki was the kingpin (“master or core node”) of a transnational group that funded and facilitated ISIS recruitment operations in Bangladesh since mid-2014. 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.
The trajectory of Ozaki’s jihadi career in ISIS is quite similar to another notorious figure: Abu Bilal al-Harbi (real name: Nasir Muhammad Awad), a Saudi national who was the chief ISIS recruiter in Yemen before he was appointed as the ameer or wali (guardian) of ISIS’ Yemen wilayah. Both Awad and Ozaki worked as lead recruiters in 2014 and were elevated to the position of ameer in 2015. Both appointments were coordinated by Abu Ubaydah Abd al-Hakim al-Iraqi.
The current whereabouts of Sajit Debnath aka Muhammad Saifullah Ozaki remain unknown. There are reports that he took his family to Syria after entering Turkey via Bulgaria in late 2015.
However, there are conflicting reports that 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 the Japanese ISIS ideologue Hassan Ko Nakata, when Ozaki met him somewhere in Indonesia in late 2015 or early 2016 – I could not however get any independent confirmation supporting this.
Despite repeated attempts, I could not reach Hassan Ko Nakata, who is now in Japan, to get his comments.
Two senior officers of the CTTC, the police counter-terrorism unit in Dhaka, refused to comment on the record for this story.
The administrator of a jihadi Facebook group with close ties to ISIS’ at-Tamkin Media refused to talk to me about Ozaki, as he was not authorised to talk about organisational matters.
ISIS has a record of directly and indirectly refuting erroneous reports or claims concerning its ameer in Bangladesh.
Most recently, on July 6, pro-ISIS Baqiyah Media Strike group issued a statement denying a rumor concerning the appointment of a new ameer named Abu Shofiq al-Bengali. The statement cited “brothers of at-Tamkin” in Syria.
In June 2016, a Bangladeshi newspaper first speculated that Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury is Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif. However, in October 2016, this claim was also refuted as ISIS’ Rumiyah magazine confirmed Tamim’s actual kunya and position: Abu Dujanah al-Bengali, “former head of military and covert operations of the soldiers of the Khilafah in Bengal.”
- Tasneem Khalil (An independent Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist)