Myanmar’s Rohingya plight faces jihadist hijacking
On 9 October 2016, 200 armed attackers from the Aqa Mul Mujahidin — an organisation with links to the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) — carried out a surprise attack on Myanmar’s police at the Maungdaw border, killing 9 police officers. The attackers were from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine (Arakan) State. They seized weapons, ammunition, bayonets and magazines. According to the Myanmar government, the attackers received funding and support from foreign terrorist organisations.
Since the attacks in October, heavy-handed counter-insurgency campaigns have begun and reports have emerged of serious human rights abuses. Myanmar soldiers have been accused of killing Rohingyas and burning their villages, but the government has denied these allegations. The state media has put the death toll at almost 100 people, although advocacy groups claim that more have been killed. More than 20,000 Rohingyas have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in the past two months.
The Rohingyas are denied citizenship and viewed by the Myanmar government as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Tens of thousands of internally displaced Rohingyas, following ethnic violence in 2012, live in decrepit camps where travel is restricted. Following regional and international protests, an emergency ASEAN meeting was held in early December to discuss the crisis.
The plight of the Rohingya minority has attracted the attention of regional and international extremist and terrorist groups.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) has expressed its intention to target Myanmar via Bangladesh. In the fourteenth issue of its propaganda magazine Dabiq, a Bangladeshi jihadist called on others to join him to help the oppressed Rohingyas. Aung San Suu Kyi was also singled out by IS as a possible target in a ‘kill list’ sent to Malaysian police in August. In November 2016, Indonesian police thwarted an attempt by a local pro-IS extremist group to carry out a bombing attack on the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta.
If IS were to firmly establish a foothold in Bangladesh, it would not be difficult for the group to expand its operations into Myanmar. The porous border between Bangladesh and Myanmar provides suitable terrain for insurgent operations. Should IS declare a new wilayat in South Asia, it is likely to include Myanmar’s Rakhine State. IS may capitalise on its contacts with the Bangladeshi militant group known as Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which already has a pro-IS faction.
Al Qaeda has also shown interest in the Rohingya issue. Al Qaeda’s South Asia chapter, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), listed Myanmar as one of its key targets in 2014. Abu Zar al-Burmi, a key Pakistani Taliban leader of Burmese origin, condemned Myanmar’s new government for failing to protect Rohingyas and called for armed jihad. A new AQIS magazine released in September 2016, Al Balagh, also urged Muslims to join their fight against oppression. Through its Bangladeshi affiliate, the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), Al Qaeda has provided training and support for the Rohingya militants and maintained ties with RSO. More recently, on 10 December 2016 al-Qaeda’s Bengali media platform (known as Titumir Media) has released a video in Bengali calling for taking revenge of the persecution of the Arakan Muslims through an armed struggle.
In cyberspace, regional online extremists have sought to capitalise on the issue, pledging their support through profile pictures with the IS flag and the hashtag ‘Pray for P_A_R_I_S’ which refers to the conflict areas of Palestine, Africa, Rohingya areas, Iraq and Syria. Online extremists in Indonesia have expressed a desire to mount ‘jihad’ on behalf of the Rohingyas and made reference to their hopes of bringing the ‘mujahidin’ (jihadi fighters) into Myanmar. These online jihadist flare-ups suggest that the Rohingya issue is being hijacked by global jihadism.
A group that has recently emerged is Harakah al-Yaqin, or the Movement of Certainty, which is said to consist of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who crossed the border into northern Rakhine State. Videos of the group first surfaced on the internet in October 2016. The men spoke in a mixture of Bengali, Arakanese and Arabic and were armed with AK-47s. They called on foreign Rohingyas and jihadists to join them in northern Rakhine State to resist Myanmar’s forces. The existence of Harakah al-Yaqin may lead to an escalation of conflict in the region between the Rohingyas and Myanmar’s armed forces.
The RSO, who have been blamed by the Myanmar government for recent violent attacks, is a little-known militant group with an active regional and international presence. Based in Karachi, its members also operate in countries in the Middle East, Bangladesh and India. A significant faction of RSO has close operational ties with fundamentalist extremist and terrorist groups, namely Laskar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, Indian Mujahideen in India and JMB in Bangladesh. Some of the RSO’s leaders received combat training in Pakistan and are active along the Bangladesh–Myanmar border.
Active networks of IS, as well as AQIS, currently pose a threat to Myanmar’s security. A festering Rohingya crisis will create opportunities for exploitation by regional and international terror groups. Myanmar must develop a robust counter-terrorism strategy and beef up its counter-terrorism intelligence to enable authorities to prevent future attacks.
It will also have to bring the Rohingya community on board as strategic partners to alert authorities of terrorist or insurgent activities and to facilitate conflict resolution. Myanmar must begin to manage relations between the Buddhists and Muslims in the country. The government must urgently address the plight of this impoverished minority as they struggle to fulfil their basic needs.
Iftekharul Bashar is Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Nanyang Technological University.
An earlier version of this article appeared here in Counter Terrorism Trends and Analysis, a Journal of International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.