Myanmar’s dangerous descent into an ISIS stronghold

Photo: Comune Parma/CC-BY-SA-2.0
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There is evidence of ISIS cells expanding across Bangladesh. It is only a matter of time before it spills over into Rakhine State.

By Oliver Ward

The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar rejected ISIS involvement in Rakhine State, but it may be out of their control. In September, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) wrote on Twitter, “we do not welcome the involvement of these groups in the Arakan (Rakhine) conflict.”

However, ISIS is diverting its attention to Southeast Asia. After losing the caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it is looking to establish a new stronghold. The instability of the Rakhine state makes the region an attractive prospect for ISIS-affiliated groups.

ISIS will use Bangladesh as a base from which to launch attacks in Myanmar

ISIS’s online publication, Dabiq, outlined plans to establish a base in neighbouring Bangladesh. The publication published the article under the headline “The Revival of Jihad in Bengal” and “blessed attacks” in the region.

There is also evidence of a growing ISIS presence in the country. There were two brutal attacks in July of 2016 in Dhaka and Sholakia. ISIS claimed them both.

The two attacks indicated a significant shift in the organisation and execution of Bangladeshi terror attacks. Most of the attacks prior to 2016 involved knives and machetes. The attack in Dhaka used grenades and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), both used by ISIS.

The new attackers used encrypted messaging services rather than simple text messages. They also used suicide tactics and were willing to die at the scene of the attack.

Based on the Emergence and Growth of ISIS in Bangladesh Research in 2016, there were at least 223 terrorists in Bangladesh with strong connections to international ISIS networks. The patterns of the connections indicate the existence of three clear cells, in Dhaka, Sholakia and Kalyanpur.

Source: US State Department

In 2016 ISIS claimed responsibility for 18 attacks in Bangladesh, a significant increase from levels in 2015 and 2014.

Myanmar has the conditions to allow ISIS to spread quickly

Poverty, corruption, and unaccountable governance are the perfect conditions for ISIS in Bangladesh. Myanmar suffers from the same problems.

Researchers in Transparency International gave Myanmar a corruption index score of 28 out of 100, indicating corruption is rife across all sectors. Rakhine state has a poverty rate of 78%.

The Rohinyas took up arms in 1948 in northern Rakhine, aiming to create a self-governing Rakhine state.

More Rohingya are living in limbo in Bangladesh

Sources: UNHCR, Al Jazeera (I) (II), The Diplomat, ISCG

To the Rohingya population living in Bangladesh, ISIS offers hope. ISIS can offer them a salary. In 2008, Ajmal Amir Kasab received US$1,250 for his involvement in the terror attacks in Mumbai.

Aung San Suu Kyi has offered repatriation to Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. She could be inviting back thousands of Rohingya influenced by the Bangladeshi ISIS cells.

The situation in Syria began as a secular uprising for the promotion of human rights. President Assad was complicit in human rights abuses, like Aung San Suu Kyi. ISIS hijacked the national uprising and turned Syria into a refuge for ISIS ideology.

Aung San Suu Kyi would do well to learn from the decent of Syria into a jihadist ISIS stronghold. Instead, she is creating the ideal pre-conditions to aid the spread of ISIS from its growing base in Bangladesh. She must address the human rights issue among the Rohingya, if not for them, then for the future survival of her country.