KUALA LUMPUR: As the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State continues, regional and international terror groups are coalescing around the plight of the Rohingya, calling for a jihad to defend them, warn analysts familiar with the situation.
The military crackdown against the Rohingyas in Rakhine State, triggered by an Aug 25 attack on 30 police posts and one military base by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA), is inflaming passions across the Muslim world.
With more than 500,000 Rohingya refugees now already across the border in Bangladesh, Al-Qaeda has issued a statement calling for Muslims to take up arms to defend them.
“The Rohingyas are seen as a much higher cause for jihad than the Syrian conflict,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of Malaysia’s Special Branch counter-terrorism division, told Channel NewsAsia.
“Their plight is considered a persecution against Muslims akin to that of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.”
A homegrown insurgent group, ARSA has taken pains to disavow links with international terrorist organisations.
“ARSA feels it is necessary to make it clear that it has no links with Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS), Laskar-e-Taiba or any transnational terrorist group,” the group said in statement posted on its official Twitter page on Sep 14. “We do not welcome the involvement of these groups in the Arakan conflict.”
Militant chatrooms and social media are starting to be filled with chatter on Myanmar. Last month, a Malaysian man was arrested for planning to go to Myanmar to wage jihad.
In Indonesia, the hardline Islamic Defender Front (FPI) claimed that 10,000 people had signed up to defend the Rohingya cause in Myanmar, according to Detik.com.
Regional security officials and analysts warn it is only a matter of time before ARSA converges with international militants.
“The Rohingya crisis has already been appropriated by the jihadist propaganda.” said London-based Ludovico Carlino, IHS Markit's senior analyst for Middle East and North Africa.
“Al-Qaeda has been trying to capitalise on the issue and called on its supporters to open a new front to help the Muslims in Myanmar in whatever way they can.”
ECHOES OF SYRIA IN MYANMAR'S VIOLENCE: ANALYSTS
The emerging, coalescence of foreign jihadists against Myanmar has echoes of Syria, warn analysts, where the moderate, secular anti-government Free Syrian Army (FSA) seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule in 2011 was hijacked and overtaken by international jihadists.
The anti-Assad uprising morphed into a free-for-all war drawing in international terror networks and about 30,000 foreign fighters from around the world.
The bloody conflict continues to rage up to today and has killed more than 470,000 people, according to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research.
From the myriad terror groups, IS emerged as the pre-eminent force.
“What we are seeing in Myanmar is almost identical to what we saw in Syria,” said Faran Jeffery, an analyst from Command Eleven, a Pakistani consultancy specialising in counter terrorism and counter insurgencies.
“When the Assad regime cracked down hard on FSA rebels and slaughtered them, the jihadist groups found their way in.
“First, the jihadists killed those in the FSA who opposed jihadist meddling. Then they went after everyone else. We are seeing the beginning stages of that in Myanmar.”
He added: “There's a very real possibility of ARSA turning into a radical group in the near future.”
Even though ARSA has sought to distant itself from international terror groups, Jeffery believes the Rohingya insurgents’ control over the situation is diminishing.
“The original ARSA members are very wary of associating with global jihadist groups but the attitude of the Myanmar government may have pushed a lot of young recruits over the edge,” said Jeffery.
“Although the elder militants, those who've been fighting for years now, still don't want anything to do with Al-Qaeda or IS, but the thing is, they don't get to decide anymore.”
He added: “If Al-Qaeda wants in on the conflict, it will find a way. And it may already have.”
The Rohingya crisis is also unfolding at a time when IS is losing its territories in the Middle East, pummelled by a Western-led coalition which has intensified air strikes against the terror group.
According to IHS Markit's Carlino, IS has lost around 40 per cent of its territory since the start of 2017. Overall, IS has lost 60 per cent of its territories since 2015 when the group controlled 90,800 sq km in Iraq and Syria.
Analysts believe IS will now look to Myanmar as part of its efforts to open up a new war front.
“IS has not released yet any official propaganda production on this topic, but discussions and reference to Myanmar and the Rohingyas abound on social media channels affiliated with the group,” said Carlino.
“I would not be surprised to see in the next few weeks a video or a publication penned by the Islamic State focused on this issue.”
On Sunday, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told ABC News the persecution of Rohingyas could be used by IS and other terror groups as part of the narrative to take up arms to fight against the West.
"That's why this Myanmar situation must be resolved,” she said.
MYANMAR-BANGLADESH BORDER: A FUTURE FLASHPOINT FOR SUICIDE BOMBINGS
Myanmar’s Rakhine state where the majority of the country’s 1.1 million Rohingyas previously inhabited and which borders Bangladesh, is expected to turn into a flashpoint for terror groups.
“In the long run (two to four years), I think what we may see is a guerrilla style insurgency with a lot of suicide bombings. The border with Bangladesh is a major threat for Myanmar,” said Jeffery.
“I'm afraid we'll be seeing Bengali jihadists who can't fight in Bangladesh moving to the jungles of Myanmar in the near future.”
A regional security source told Channel NewsAsia terror groups will find it difficult to infiltrate into Myanmar except for Rakhine state.
"Militants will find it difficult to launch attacks inside Myanmar except for Rakhine state as the borders are porous. The militants also have a safe haven at the refugee camps along the border area," said the source.
Sources close to Myanmar’s military told Channel NewsAsia the security apparatus would be able to handle the terror threat inside Myanmar as it remains a powerful force.
“Myanmar’s military remains a powerful force,” said the source. “Its intelligence infrastructure and network are still intact and will be able to detect and counter terror threats, except maybe for Rakhine.”
The military, which ruled the country with an iron fist from 1962 until 2011, still controls the security forces, the police and key cabinet positions in the government.
Under the country’s constitution, the role of the commander-in-chief, who is the ultimate military authority, often overrides that of the president.
MYANMAR’S CORRUPTION FACILITATES TERROR ACTIVITIES, THREATEN SECURITY
Despite its hold over the running of the country, analysts warn that corruption in Myanmar poses a serious threat to security as it helps facilitate jihadists’ movements into and around the country.
“The level of corruption in Myanmar is still gigantic,” said Command Eleven’s Jeffery. “And jihadists can get around with quite a lot of things (done) if some in the security forces or government officials are willing to bargain for money.
“From what I heard, quite a few people went to Myanmar to "help" Rohingya illegally, mostly by paying Myanmar officials.”
He added: “Basically you can do a lot of things if money is the only standard (you need) to get around.”
Asked whether that included helping jihadists smuggle weapons and fighters into Myanmar, he said: “Yes, I think that's a real possibility. But it can go beyond that, depending on how much they are able to exploit from the corruption.
“The jihadists can get informants, they can get civilians to do jobs that would not be possible for a jihadi from the Middle East to do.”
He believes Myanmar’s military will be able to contain and limit the terror threat to the border area with Bangladesh.
“But that doesn't mean that the mainstream society will be safe from occasional attacks,” said Jeffery. “The genie of jihad, once it gets out, is very hard to put back in.”