ISIS or al Qaeda Unlikely to Expand in Myanmar

Laith Alkhouri
Co-Founder and Director, Flashpoint

The struggle of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims is a regular topic of discussion on jihadist online message boards, frequently cited as the ultimate case of persecution against Muslims. For jihadists, it meets the standard of other constant grievances they frequently refer to, such as issues concerning jihadi prisoners, drone strikes, or so-called tyrannical rulers.

Myanmar, though, has never been a fertile ground for a jihadist insurrectionist movement the likes of ISIS, or a place for an al Qaeda branch with any propaganda advantage.

Pro-ISIS jihadists frequently call on each other to “pray for them,” “create memes in their support,” “learn their language,” and take other actions when discussing the Rohingya Muslims, but they never say “wage jihad in Myanmar.” Jihadists understand that they don’t have a jihadi organization’s [logistical] backbone for funding and recruitment in the small country where Muslims are systematically suppressed.

Recently, however, Muslim militants in Myanmar — a new group called Harakah al-Yaqin — launched a number of attacks targeting security forces, which has raised major concerns about the potential spread of ISIS-like jihadist terrorism there.

It appears, though, that the rise of ISIS types in Myanmar is far-fetched. To put things in perspective, after studying thousands of jihadi operations and their subsequent claims of responsibility, I found that there are effectively no mentions of the Rohingya. Conversely, Muslim prisoners, “raped” Muslim women, “martyred” jihadists in drone strikes, and others are regularly noted in these statements — as if there were a wall between the Rohingya grievance and jihadi militant actions. Jihadi organization have vowed to avenge the death of leaders, like Anwar Al-Awlaqi of AQAP, and imprisoned Pakistani doctor Afia Siddiqui, but little has ever been said in regards to the Rohingya.

This is partly because the Rohingya struggle is a detached topic from the jihadists’ daily support agenda; distant from notable events and rapid news updates they care about, such as the Syrian conflict. In other words, the constancy of an issue is a driving force for jihadists to stay involved, something ISIS has successfully exploited to stay in the spotlight. But even ISIS has not attempted to exploit the Rohingya struggle to either recruit from, or establish a fighting front in, Myanmar, while focusing on other regions like the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Jihadi groups have, perhaps unwittingly, neglected establishing a fighting front in Myanmar; they don’t have the recruitment and funding capability; they don’t know jihadi leaders in Rakhine State (Arakan); and they don’t speak Rohingya. Many of them essentially don’t understand the governmental structure, culture, or a range of nuanced social issues. Their understanding of the Rohingya is largely based on media reports. In the words of one jihadist, “225 years is the period the Rohingya are have been undergoing persecution and abuse; 225 years they’re crying and no one is listening.”

On the flip side, it seems that Rohingya leaders don’t intend to turn their struggle into global jihad — effectively placing no effort to create a fighting front that would attract ISIS and al-Qaeda. In addition, the Rohingya don’t speak Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, or Kurdish, and they don’t issue statements seeking the help of the global jihadist community, basically keeping their issues distant from terrorist jihadi doctrines. The Myanmar government has proactively kept the Rohingya severely leashed, cracking down with an iron first on their towns and villages, even reportedly burning down many of their homes. Jihadists constantly point to the “ethnic cleansing” and “eradication” of the Rohingya and regularly underscore the need to help them. But none of this echoes in the propaganda of jihadi groups or transpires into ISIS-style militant actions. Thus it falls on deaf ears, and jihadists move on to more engaging issues.

In August 2014, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) became the latest branch of the global terror group. Its goals were to create fighting fronts in Central, South, and Southeast Asia, including Myanmar. While AQIS succeeded in establishing affiliated networks in Bangladesh and Pakistan, it did not even attempt to establish any in Myanmar. Although it is not clear whether this was due to lack of trying, the likelihood is that al Qaeda didn’t see the potential value in Myanmar, expending resources that it might benefit from elsewhere. Whatever the case, AQIS completely ignored the Rohingya.

Widespread demonstrations and persecutive military actions against the Rohingya culminated in the establishment in October of Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY), a Muslim insurgency that has launched a few significant attacks against security forces in Myanmar — in one attack reportedly killing 50. Reportedly funded by Rohingya migrants in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, HaY’s attacks have raised serious concerns regarding the propagation of “Wahhabist” jihadi doctrines and  Harakah al-Yaqin’s possible embrace of terrorism — and how its growth might look like in the years to come.

The emergence of a Muslim insurgency that might further destabilize Myanmar is a major turn of events in the persistent struggle of the Rohingya. Harakah al-Yaqin has labeled itself a “jihadi movement” — but only in the context of defensiveness against military forces. It is yet to demonstrate any intention of upholding jihadi terrorist ideologies, whether in targeting noncombatants, labeling the West as “Crusaders” and “infidels,” or orchestrating transnational attacks. Its actions appear directed solely at security forces.

The group has specifically stated that it would not target civilians “even if they were Buddhists.” In a video statement, it claimed it would self-dissolve if the government provided Muslims equal rights and halted their persecution. It would effectively halt its jihad to live peacefully, which is utterly against the core principles of al Qaeda and ISIS, who believe that jihad is indefinite.

Nonetheless, the emergence of  Harakah al-Yaqin has given hope to some jihadists that a fighting front in Myanmar might welcome Muslims from around the world.

While jihadists have been lax in pushing for militant actions in Myanmar, their hopes have not subsided to “liberate it from the infidel Buddhists.” They hope to see  Harakah al-Yaqin evolve into a globalized jihadi group that they can join and fight for.

Comments in Arabic on a Harakah al-Yaqin YouTube video posted in January underscore this point: “Will someone guide me to the path of jihad in Arakan; I’m ready for jihad,” one commenter wrote. These words echo the line of thought of many jihadists who see jihad as a global movement, not confined to a “nationalistic, manmade border.” The advice is to “travel to a nearby country and cross the border into Burma,” mirroring recommendations offered to jihadists wishing to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The advice offered no further guidance except to be careful. Many jihadists hope that upon arrival in Arakan, they’d be welcomed at guesthouses and dispatched to launch suicide operations. This line of thought shows their ignorance regarding the Rohingya struggle.

Though Harakah al-Yaqin’s attacks in Myanmar might not feasibly stop in the near term — especially now that security forces retaliated with crackdowns on Muslim villages —it’s safe to say that the group does not embody today’s jihadist ideology or aim to launch terror attacks.

This is clear in Harakah al-Yaqin’s declarations that they stand against all types of religious persecution, calling upon human rights and international organizations to intervene — which goes against the teachings of al Qaeda and ISIS. For the latter groups, for now, the Rohingya’s jihad is not theirs to exploit.

The Author is Laith Alkhouri

Laith Alkhouri is a co-founder and Director at Flashpoint. Mr. Alkhouri, a native Arabic speaker, heads Flashpoint's counterterrorism desk and directs the jihadist threat intelligence service. His team works on identifying the latest trends in the Deep Web used by terror groups and their supporters. He's assisted law enforcement in terror investigations and delivered presentations with original research to DoD, DoJ and State Department audiences. Mr. Alkhouri is frequently cited by national... Read More

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