How Isis and Al-Qaeda could hijack the Rohingya Muslim crisis in Myanmar

David Otto
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The current crisis in Myanmar – which is forcing hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the Rohingya ethnic minority to flee the majority Buddhist state and find shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh – is playing perfectly well in the hands of the Al-Qaeda core.

The terrorist group recently called on fellow Muslims around the world to back the ethnic community in Myanmar with weapons and "military support" in order to halt "the savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers".

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The crisis, which has political and religious implications for Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists, would be easily perceived as the victimisation of Muslims and therefore an attack on the religion of Islam, two phrases that have proven difficult to separate from one another.

From an Islamist conservative position, any attack on the Muslim population, whether justified or not, is a direct attack on the religion of Islam.

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At a time when global jihadist groups such as Isis and Al-Qaeda are losing global influence, fighters and territory in Syria and Iraq, the Myanmar crisis creates another great opportunity for an alternative source of inspiration, a ground for recruitment of jihadist fighters and a perfect reinforcement of the global Salifist Wahhabism ideology that calls for the creation of an Islamic Caliphate.

Al-Qaeda – and perhaps Isis – will be looking to fill the interventionist gap, by promising vulnerable Rohingya Muslims and their global sympathisers that they stand for the protection of Muslims around the world against persecution at the hands of the 'Kafir', the disbelievers.

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Protecting the Rohingya Muslims and the religion of Islam in Myanmar from the 'kafir' may imply that Jihadist groups may not hesitate to lend support to their fellow Muslim brothers by way of arms, ammunition, training and even direct jihadist fighters from neighbouring states like Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines.

The deteriorating situation in Myanmar may get even worse if these threats by jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda against the government are followed through.

There is a vulnerability that the government must address before it is fully hijacked by hungry jihadist groups.

There must be co-existing strategies implemented between the minority Rohingya Muslims and the majority Buddhist population. This is not the time for leaders like Aung Saa Suu Kyi to fold their arms while the likes of Al-Qaeda and ISIL seek an opportunity to pounce.

Rohingya crisis explained

The Rohingya have been dubbed as one of the world's most persecuted ethnic minorities. They live in segregated conditions in the Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma, where they are regarded as stateless people and unwelcome migrants from Bangladesh.

They routinely flee the country to escape alleged persecution from the state. The latest exodus, started in late August, has seen more than 370,000 ethnic Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape a military operation which the UN said may amount to ethnic cleansing.

The latest round of violence was sparked following attacks by Rohingya insurgents that killed at least 12 people in Rakhine state. The military retaliated in what was described as "clearance operations" to identify and root out any fighters found in villages across Rakhine.

While the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned attacks by Rohingya insurgents, he also said the UN receives "constant reports of violence by Myanmar's security forces, including indiscriminate attacks", something the government had dismissed.

Following al-Qaeda's threat, Suu Kyi government warned of possible bomb attacks in Myanmar, something that might have prompted the country's de facto leader to skip next week's UN General Assembly debate.

Suu Kyi has been accused of turning a blind eye to the widespread abuses and failing to allow humanitarian access in her country, prompting some to call for the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 as a champion of democracy to be revoked. She denied the allegations, and blamed "terrorists" for "a huge iceberg of misinformation" on the violence in the country.

Myanmar Rohingya Bangladesh

David Otto is the Director of TGS Intelligence Consultants Ltd and the Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Programme – Step In Step Out (SISO) - based in the United Kingdom. He is also Senior Counter Terrorism Advisor for Global Risk International. Follow Otto on Twitter.

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