Myanmar’s inevitable Jihad

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Wikimedia Commons
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As the Rohingya crisis escalates, ISIS-affiliated groups prepare to launch a jihad against the government of Myanmar.

By Oliver Ward

Myanmar is in extreme danger according to Malaysia’s top counter-terrorism official. Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of the counterterrorism division of the Malaysian police force, described how the Southeast Asian network of IS supporters is heading to Myanmar to carry out attacks against the government in retaliation for their persecution of the Muslim Rohingya.

Malaysian authorities arrested an Indonesian suspect

Ayob Khan’s comments came after Malaysian authorities arrested an Indonesian man in late 2016. He was planning to carry out terrorist attacks in Myanmar in the name of the Islamic State. The man arrived in Malaysia in 2014 and was in contact with the Malaysian ISIS militant responsible for the grenade attack on a Malaysian bar in 2016.

Ayob Khan said, “he was planning to perform jihad in Myanmar, fighting against the Myanmar government for this Rohingya group in Rakhine State”.

With the crisis in Myanmar escalating, the Burmese government is at serious risk of further attacks from ISIS supporters across the region. After the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army coordinated attacks on the Burmese military in August, a ruthless government crackdown worsened the humanitarian situation. 35,000  Rohingya now flee Myanmar every day to refugee camps across the region.

The Rohingya crisis in Numbers

 Source: The Telegraph

The Rohingya crisis is a rallying point for ISIS sympathisers in Southeast Asia

The vast scale of the crisis has created a lightning rod for ISIS supporters in the region. The Islamic State released several videos calling on their supporters to join the jihad against the Burmese government.

In 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, declared Rakhine a key region for jihad. With such a prominent figure in the Islamic State legitimising violence against the Burmese government, it is only a matter of time before a serious terrorist attack occurs in the country.

On September 3rd, an ISIS-affiliated group uploaded a video entitled Children of Rohingya in Aceh Ready to Return to Myanmar for Jihad. The video showed a group of militants in Aceh training to wage jihad in Myanmar.

Another video entitled Indonesian Mujahid in Preparation to Save the Rohingya in Myanmar showed hundreds of men ready to make the journey to Myanmar. The hardline Islamist organisation in Indonesia, the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) have also begun recruiting for mujahedeen volunteers willing to travel to Myanmar to take part in the jihad. They want to register 1,200 volunteers.

Are these groups seeking to provide humanitarian assistance or launch violent attacks?

Many Islamic groups support a humanitarian jihad in Myanmar with the purpose of providing aid and assistance to the Rohingya in Myanmar. However, there are strong indications that not all of the groups involved have purely humanitarian objectives.

FPI recruiters made very revealing statements about the true nature of the jihad. Ustadz Aka, a spokesman for the group, said volunteers need to have “martial ability” and be “willing to die for Islam.”

Even if the jihad begins as a humanitarian jihad, there is the possibility violence will ensue. The Burmese government has reinstalled its blockade preventing the Rohingya receiving humanitarian aid. If the Islamist groups find themselves prevented from bringing humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya and carrying out their humanitarian jihad, the situation could quickly escalate into violence.

The Rohingya themselves are vulnerable to extremist ideology

The open prejudice imposed on the Rohingya themselves make them prime targets for radicalisation. Researchers at the Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University said, “the conditions in Rakhine are ripe for the influence of extremist stimuli, including the infiltration of Islamic State ideology which may worsen the situation in Myanmar.”

There is already a Rohingya insurgency movement targeting the Burmese government

Rohingya émigrés in Mecca control an armed group of Rohingya militants, named Faith Movement. Many of the group’s leaders already have experience in guerrilla warfare, and they have a senior Islamic Mufti with authority to issue Islamic fatwas.

The group is particularly dangerous because it has its legitimacy rooted in Islamic ideology. They already have the support of Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. Their clerics endorse religious fatwas issued against the government of Myanmar.

Hundreds of Rohingya recruits have joined the group since its creation. Recruits undergo extensive training in warfare and explosives and then return to Myanmar to coordinate attacks against the Burmese Army.

The group was responsible for raids on police bases in October 2016. It also killed a senior army officer last November.

Aung San Suu Kyi invited the return of a radicalised population

In September, Suu Kyi declared that Myanmar was ready to welcome back its fleeing Rohingya. But unless the Burmese Army improve their treatment of the Rohingya, the wave of radicalisation and growing insurgency movements will continue. Suu Kyi may be inviting a new insurgency movement back into the country.

With scores of foreign ISIS sympathisers focusing their attention on Myanmar, along with a well-organised and supported insurgency movement among the Rohingya themselves, it seems inevitable that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government will become an open target for Islamic extremists.

The more violent the Burmese army crackdown on the Rohingya, the more the Rohingya population become displaced, and the better the conditions are for their radicalisation. There is intense bloodshed on the Burmese horizon, and it will not just be that of the Rohingya.