By Angshuman Choudhury*
On 9 October 2016, around 300 assailants, armed with swords, spears, and homemade weapons, launched a coordinated attack on several police outposts in Myanmar’s Rakhine State close to the Bangladesh border, killing nine police officers and wounding four others.
The Government of Myanmar has blamed elements from the locally-dominant Rohingya Muslim community for the attacks, naming a dormant Rohingya outfit – the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO). As an immediate follow-up to the attacks, additional troops from the Tatmadaw were deployed in the affected region to conduct extensive area sweeps and house-to-house searches. According to the home ministry, 30 ‘attackers’ have been killed by Security Forces (SF) in subsequent counterinsurgency raids.
If the Rohingya linkage is credible, then this would be the first serious occurrence of insurgent violence from within the long-persecuted, stateless Muslim minority community in Rakhine State. However, since the community has not exhibited outright radical proclivities or signs of organised extremism in the past, a closer scrutiny of the functional context to understand whether the attacks really emanated from within the mainstream Rohingya population or from exogenous sources is imperative.
Contours of Rohingya Extremism: The Old and the New
According to claims made by the government, the attacks were linked to a hitherto unknown Islamist terror outfit called Aqa Mul Mujahidin (AMM), which in turn is allegedly connected to the RSO. The only signs of the RSO’s resurgence have thus far been a single announcement on Facebook on a fringe account. The government has named a certain ‘Mr Havistoohar’ from a small village in the Maungdaw area as the ‘leader’ of AMM, claiming that he was trained by the Taliban in Pakistan.
According to Myanmarese intelligence, ‘Havistoohar’ returned to Rakhine to recruit and arm around 400 Rohingya men for attacks around Maungdaw. He is also said to have frequently crossed over into Bangladesh to receive funding from “Middle Eastern organisations,” and was assisted by a certain Pakistani national called ‘Kali’ who travelled to Maungdaw to train the recruits.
This preliminary assessment falls in line with the more categorical evaluation made by Indian intelligence officials who have identified ‘Mr Havistoohar’ as Hafiz Tohar, a 45-year old Rohingya man from Kyauk Pyin Seik village in Maungdaw. They categorise AMM as an offshoot of the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami-Arakaan (HUJI-A), an Islamist terror group led by a Pakistani national of Rohingya origin called Abdul Qadoos Burmi (perhaps aliased as ‘Kalis’).
HUJI-A’s links to Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) are well known. Qadoos has been seen on stage with LeT chief Hafiz Sayeed in Karachi, at a conference organised to show solidarity with Rohingya Muslims. He fled to Pakistan in the early 1980s, and subsequently formed HUJI-A in 1988.Qadoos is understood to have trained Rohingya recruits in Pakistan and thereafter sent them to Bangladesh for further localised training in the hilly border with Myanmar.
Notably, LeT operatives from Pakistan were directly involved in training Rohingya recruits in this area. Indian and western intelligence, over the past one year, have posited that LeT commands a strong presence in Rohingya camps in Rakhine state through two key overground organisations, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD) and Fala-I-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF). Through these, LeT has picked up recruits for further training in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Curiously, one analysis points to the involvement of another new organisation – ‘Harakah al-Yaqin’ (HAY) – constituted of “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” who crossed over to northern Rakhine in the areas where the attacks happened. These militants, armed with AK-47 rifles, have posted videos on YouTube after the recent attacks, calling for solidarity to the Rohingya cause and jihad against Myanmar SFs.
A Preliminary Assessment
In light of the above, responsibility for the attacks cannot be pinned down with any certainty. However, the growing involvement of a transnational jihadist ecosystem is evident in the region. Of these, the LeT/HUJI-A supra-network is the most important with AMM and HAY being new operators. Given LeT/HUJI-A’s infrastructural build-up in south eastern Bangladesh, the possibility of an increasingly violent and sustained campaign has always remained feasible. The question then is, why has this longstanding infrastructure not been operationalised across the border in Rakhine?
One explanation could be the severe degradation of the LeT/HUJI-A ecosystem owing to the Bangladesh government’s crackdown on extremist groups. Furthermore, the weapons used in the attacks were crude and not military-grade, indicating localised mobilisation and training, as opposed to well-funded and armed jihadist networks of mobilisation, like the LeT/HUJI-A duo.
Worryingly, 51 firearms and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition were looted from the police during the attack, pointing to the gathering of materials for a larger assault. This therefore seems to be a localised group facilitated by the LeT/HUJI-A complex acting to ease the resource crunch it is facing. It remains to be seen if this resupply of arms will be used in the future on Myanmar or Bangladeshi soil.
* Angshuman Choudhury
Researcher, Southeast Asia Research Programme (SEARP), IPCS