KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian and Indonesian counter-terrorism officials fear an Al Qaeda statement on Wednesday (Sep 13) warning of punishment for the treatment of Rohingya Muslims could galvanise global terror networks and revive the dormant Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).
JI is the group that unleashed a trail of terror attacks in the region, including the 2002 Bali bombings. It is the Southeast Asian off-shoot of Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda called on “mujahiddins” (holy warriors) to take up arms to defend the ethnic minority, according to the SITE monitoring group.
“The savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers in Arakan by the government of Myanmar under the guise of “fighting rebels” … shall not pass without punishment and the government of Myanmar shall be made to taste what our Muslim brothers have tasted in Arakan,” Al Qaeda said.
Myanmar launched a fierce crackdown following attacks by Rohingya militants on the police and military on Aug 25, causing 370,000 members of the ethnic minority to flee to Bangladesh. Another 400 were killed during violence in the country’s western Rakhine state, according to the military.
Malaysia’s Special Branch counter-terrorism chief, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, told Channel NewsAsia: “This (Al Qaeda statement) is extremely worrying. For sure the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda will use the Rohingya issue to recruit new members to wage jihad in Myanmar or launch attacks against Myanmar interests in Southeast Asia.”
On Sunday, police arrested a 38-year-old IS suspect who was planning to go to Myanmar to join a militant group in Rakhine state, the epicentre of the violence.
A former JI member has warned that jihadis numbering in “the hundreds” from Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines are already on stand-by to infiltrate Myanmar.
Ali Fauzi, whose two brothers were executed for their roles in the Bali attacks, told Channel NewsAsia in a phone interview from Indonesia: “Mujahiddin guerillas from Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia, numbering (in) the hundreds are waiting to go to Myanmar, according to information I have received.
“Violence against Rohingyas, coupled with Al Qaeda’s statement, has revived Jemaah Islamiyah. Cells (linked to Al Qaeda) which were dead have now come back to life.”
While Fauzi’s information could not be independently verified, he is known to retain links with the jihadi world. Add to that, his brothers’ deaths by execution resulted in them being exalted in that world as martyrs, earning the family a place of respect within the jihadi community.
Fauzi, who was not involved in the Bali bombings, has been in jail himself - three years for other terrorism-related offences in 2007. He was a bombmaker who had previously fought in Afghanistan and southern Philippines for the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) from 1994 to 1997 and in 2002 and 2006.
He has since stopped fighting and currently works to help de-radicalise militants via his Peace Circle foundation.
According to him, Al Qaeda cells are currently looking for a place which will provide easy access in and out of Myanmar, as well as shelter.
“If they (Al Qaeda) can find such a place, the number of guerrillas entering Myanmar will be big. The Myanmar military will be overwhelmed when faced with the fighting spirit of these guerrillas,” he said.
Bangladesh’s close proximity to Myanmar makes it the most ideal gateway into Myanmar for the militants, he added.
Indonesian counter-terrorism officials said they are concerned militants will launch attacks against Buddhist temples and Myanmar interests in the country to avenge Rohingya persecution.
“We are very concerned there will be attacks against Buddhist places of worship or Myanmar facilities,” a senior Indonesian counter-terrorism official told Channel NewsAsia.
In 2013, a Buddhist temple in Jakarta was attacked in the name of Rohingya solidarity. Last year, police foiled a plot to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta.
The persecution of Rohingyas has long stirred Muslim jihadis. But the recent violence is among the worst in recent history and has turned Myanmar into a target for both IS and Al Qaeda, according to Professor Zachary Abuza of National War College in Washington DC.
“Both organisations seek to legitimise themselves as the vanguard organisations in the defence of Muslim rights around the world. And with such competition, there is always concern for outbidding,” said Prof Abuza, who specialises in militancy and terrorism in Southeast Asia.
“With IS having lost 80-90 per cent of its territory in Iraq and Syria and its caliphate collapsed, it has to turn to smaller conflicts,” he said.
Al Qaeda has kept a low profile in recent years as IS gained pre-eminence. But with IS fortunes on the decline, Al Qaeda is stepping into the spotlight again.
“Al Qaeda has been patiently waiting in the wings, watching its rival being pummelled. In some places, such as Indonesia, it has successfully branded itself as a moderate alternative to IS.
“So it is no surprise to see that they (Al Qaeda) are emerging now as the IS caliphate project collapses, and IS moves to a virtual battlefield,” said Prof Abuza.
As Al Qaeda competes with IS over the Rohingya crisis, he believes Al Qaeda has the edge as it has decades-old ties with the Rohingyas.
“IS will try to network smaller, localised conflicts, such as in Arakan and the southern Philippines … this has long been Al Qaeda's strategy. I think they (Al Qaeda) are in a better position to do this … it has long espoused a network approach.
“Al Qaeda also has closer institutional links to … Rohingya militants dating back over two decades.”
He added that while there is concern over Southeast Asian militants making their way to join the Rohingyas, the greater worry is that South Asian IS and Al Qaeda cells are institutionally and geographically closer to Myanmar and so are in a much better position to direct their activities there.
In its statement, Al Qaeda specifically called out to Muslims in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines to “set out for Myanmar".
“We call upon mujahid brothers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines to set out for Burma (Myanmar) to help their Muslim brothers … to resist this oppression against their Muslim brothers and to secure their rights, which will only be returned to them by use of force.
"The Muslims of Arakan are in need of every form of support – money, medicine, food, clothing, weapons,” it added.
The Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army, which carried out the attacks in Myanmar, has called for a one-month ceasefire, which Prof Abuza believes is a tactical move to buy time to recruit new members.
“Vulnerable, needy, and with nothing to lose, they (Rohingya refugees) are easy recruits. But ARSA remains woefully under-armed. The influx of foreign aid, personnel, and expertise will improve their capabilities, but militarily, they will remain quite weak,” he added.