On 9 October 2016, an unusual wave of extremist violence swept through the restive Rakhine (Arakan) State of northwestern Myanmar; close to 300 obscure assailants, armed with swords, spears, and homemade weapons, attacked several border police outposts in and around the Maungdaw and Rathedaung Townships located in close proximity to the volatile Bangladesh border. The attack left nine police officers dead, and four others wounded.
The situation escalated quickly as the government deployed additional troops from the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Defence Services) to the affected area, which is dominated by the stateless and heavily persecuted Rohingya Muslim community. A massive counterinsurgency operation marked by pervasive area sweeps and house-to-house searches followed. Subsequently, the region was placed under complete lockdown, to the point of blocking routine humanitarian aid. Amidst multiple allegations of arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings, the government announced that 30 ‘attackers’ had been neutralised by security forces in the follow-up raids.
Perhaps in an attempt to clear the air of suspicion in the days following the shocking attacks, on 14 October, the office of the president released a statement that linked the attacks to a hitherto unknown organisation called Aqa Mul Mujhadin (AMM). This outfit, as claimed by the government, is led by an individual identified as ‘Mr Havistoohar’, a local Rohingya Muslim. Going by supposed accounts provided by two detainees, ‘Havistoohar’ was involved in locally recruiting close to 400 Rohingya youth for an attack around the Maungdaw area. Intriguingly enough, the government also linked the AMM to a long-dormant extremist outfit known as the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO). Not much is known about the latter.
If the above claims made by the government are to be deemed credible, then the recent attacks usher in as the first significant manifestation of a previously absent phenomenon that is ‘Rohingya extremism’. The glaring question, however, remains: is this newly-emergent face of organised violence in Rakhine State merely a localised occurrence, or is it linked to a much wider transnational terror network? The preliminary set of details in conjunction with an ambiguous history of Islamist terror penetration in this region points to the latter assumption.
Is this newly-emergent face of organised violence in Rakhine State merely a localised occurrence, or is it linked to a much wider transnational terror network?
According to Myanmarese intelligence, ‘Havistoohar’ was trained by the Taliban in Pakistan, and returned to Rakhine to mobilise a violent insurgency in Myanmar. He is also said to have frequently crossed over to Bangladesh for the purpose of receiving funds from certain ‘Middle Eastern organisations’. Most critically, his local recruits were purportedly trained by a largely nondescript man called ‘Kalis’, a Pakistani national of Rohingya origin. What really is the AMM then, and who are these slackly identified individuals?
This confusing picture becomes slightly clearer if we look at some incisive statements made by Indian intelligence officials a week after the attacks, quoted by two local Bangladeshi and Myanmarese newspapers. According to these reports, Indian intelligence has identified ‘Mr Havistoohar’ as ‘Hafiz Tohar’, a 45-year old Rohingya man from Kyauk Pyin Seik village in Maungdaw. They have further categorised the AMM as an offshoot of a fairly well-known but mostly passive transnational terror outfit called Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami-Arakaan (HuJI-A). Going by a long-held understanding, HuJI-A was formed in 1988 by a Pakistani national of Rohingya origin by the name of Abdul Qadoos Burmi. One could rationally assume that he is the same individual aliased as ‘Kalis’.
According to Indian intelligence officials AMM is an offshoot of a fairly well-known but mostly passive transnational terror outfit called Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami-Arakaan (HuJI-A)
However, the international connection hardly ends here. Qadoos, who fled to Pakistan in the early 1980s, is known to be very close to Hafiz Sayeed, the notorious chief of Pakistani terror outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT). In a photograph published by Mizzima News in 2015, he was seen sharing the stage with Sayeed during a conference organised by LeT to express solidarity with the Rohingyas. He is alleged to have trained Rohingya recruits in Pakistan, subsequently sending them over to the remote hills of south eastern Bangladesh for further localised training.
The Pakistan connection to the Rohingya community in Rakhine State can be placed in context of a fairly long and indistinct history of transnational Jihadist involvement in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border region. According to past claims made by Indian and Western intelligence, the LeT maintains a well-grounded terror ecosystem in this region, wherein two overground charity organisations – Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Fala-I-Insaniyat (FIF) – have regularly picked up local Rohingya youth from the squalid camps of Rakhine for recruitment and training in Bangladesh and Pakistan. However, we do not yet know if these recruits were primarily meant for export to other territorial domains or for deployment in Myanmar itself.
Despite this murky history, it is difficult to pin down the responsibility for the recent attacks on any one outfit (or group of outfits). One separate analysis, made by researchers at the School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), attributes responsibility to an entirely disparate and previously unheard of extremist outfit called ‘Harakah al-Yaqin’ (HAY). The assessment, which is based on close analysis of some post-attack YouTube videos and social media chatter, claims that HAY, which is mostly constituted of heavily-armed ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh, might have carried out the attacks. It also states that some Islamic State-affiliated terror outfits deeper inside southeast Asia have engaged with these videos on social media. Notably, the government raids after the attacks have led the authorities to some similar videos of masked militants with military-grade weapons calling for Jihad against the government forces of Myanmar. The exact nature of this digital evidence, however, remains unclear.
Nonetheless, what stands out quite remarkably is the style and tactic employed in the attacks. Although the assailants relied on rudimentary weapons for the assault, they managed to seize 51 medium-to-heavy firearms and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition from the police. This points to a specific tactic of using a low-level offensive to gather resources for a much larger attack. Most importantly, it reflects the low-grade nature of the offensive entity in marked contrast to well-resourced outfits like HuJI (or HuJI-A). This points to the involvement of a highly localised group, albeit with possible facilitation, funding, and motivation from larger trans-border entities.
Despite the revelations by the government of Myanmar after the attacks, the precise contours of ‘Rohingya extremism’ remain largely inconspicuous.
Thus, despite the revelations by the government of Myanmar after the attacks, the precise contours of ‘Rohingya extremism’ remain largely inconspicuous. The LeT/HuJI-A link comes under serious scrutiny if one recalls the massive crackdown launched by the Awami League government on domestic extremist groups in Bangladesh, which resulted in the severe degradation of the broader HuJI infrastructure in the region. How, then, was the outfit successful in sustaining its mobilisation efforts, if it did? Did HuJI-A continue to function independently under LeT’s tutelage? Were the attacks the sole handiwork of AMM – possibly a derivative of the subcutaneously functional RSO? It is hard to say so at the moment.
In light of the above, one could rationally suppose that the Rohingya cause has certainly spilled beyond borders to reach the doorsteps of transnational Jihad. However, one must not forget that an oppressed and disenfranchised community – wherever they might be situated – is often the most fitting resource pool for vested parties willing to hijack an existential cause for political ends. Thus, amidst the deafening clamour of hasty allegations and conclusions being drawn after the heinous attacks, one must try and not forget the perpetual state of fear and subjugation that the Rohingya community continues to live under a country that refuses to recognise them as legitimate citizens.
[This piece was published on 25 October 2016 in WION.]