ISIS once called for action to defend the Rohingyas. Will they do so again?
By John Pennington
The Burmese government blamed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for the violence in Rakhine State. The country’s rulers labelled the group as extremist terrorists. ARSA’s leaders countered that they are not terrorists because they do not target civilians. In total, they number no more than 1,000 and are disorganised.
To blame the crisis on terrorists is to oversimplify the complicated situation and misrepresent the truth. The current crisis has deep-rooted causes, and the government must shoulder some of the blame. However, it is convenient for Myanmar to pin the blame on ARSA because the majority of the public share their anti-Muslim sentiment.
Myanmar’s neighbours warned about the risk of ISIS-linked terrorists
Malaysia recently criticised Myanmar for its handling of the crisis. Malaysian counter-terrorism officials warned that terrorists with links to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were planning to use the crisis to wage “jihad” against the Myanmar government.
Malaysian police arrested one Indonesian suspect with links to ISIS whom they claim was on his way to the Myanmar to carry out attacks. “There is a high possibility that Muslims, be it from ISIS or other groups, will find the ways and means to go to Myanmar to help their Rohingya Muslim brothers,” said Ayob Khan, head of Malaysian police’s counter-terrorism division.
In theory, the conditions in Myanmar are ripe for ISIS to exploit. The militant group claimed it would set up a base in Bangladesh to fight the Burmese government on behalf of the Rohingya people. “The recent siege of Marawi…shows that ISIS penetration in the Rakhine state conflict cannot be ruled out,” said Iftekharul Bashar, associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
However, being drawn towards the conflict does not mean they are actively involved. Al Qaeda and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have called for action in Myanmar. ISIS, by contrast, has not. That is despite ISIS’s earlier repeated calls for jihad in Southeast Asia.
ISIS previously had Myanmar on its radar
As far back as 2014, ISIS called the Rakhine state a critical region for jihad. However, that was at a time when it was much more active and held more territory in Iraq and Syria than it do today. Now it has lost its self-proclaimed capital; its priorities may change.
Despite ISIS’s public plans to open a second front in Southeast Asia, it has made no visible move in Myanmar. In fact, it may not do so at all. ISIS factions are not recruiting for any Rakhine missions. According to analysts, ISIS is not asking its followers to head to the region.
Instead, ISIS told its associates to wait, and advised, “One should not go, because there are actually no major armed groups there and, as a white person, you will immediately stick out.”
Furthermore, ARSA explicitly said it does not want assistance from international terrorist groups. The group urged, “states in the region to intercept and prevent terrorists from entering Arakan and making a bad situation worse.”
It seems clear that ISIS is not pushing to get involved in the region, and ARSA does not want them to. There are around 60 groups in Southeast Asia that have pledged allegiance to ISIS. Individuals with links to ISIS remain a threat, but their actions do not necessarily represent part of an overall ISIS strategy.
Links between ARSA and ISIS are tenuous
Precisely who is funding and training ARSA is unclear. Myanmar claims the group has ties to the Pakistan Taleban. The Faith Movement – which later became ARSA – was launched in 2012 by exiled Rohingyas in Saudi Arabia. Now, ARSA denies links with Saudi Arabia, and there is no evidence suggesting ARSA and ISIS have joined forces.
While ARSA’s mission remains precise and narrow, the group arguably does not need to engage with ISIS or other terrorist groups. The government claims ARSA has links with other groups. However, the longer the conflict continues and the more resources ARSA needs, the more likely it is that they call for help from other more established groups with more resources.
Currently, there is no appetite for ISIS involvement from either side. However, it may be only a matter of time before ISIS shifts its focus towards Myanmar. Fighting in Marawi is coming to an end. ISIS is losing ground in Iraq and Syria. The group could use the Rakhine crisis to rally its support base and wage war on a new front.