New axis of terror
Islamic State-inspired terror groups may catch the Asian region off-guard by using Rohingyas, the persecuted minorities of Myanmar.
A recent report of Indonesia-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) has raised the alarm as it found a new Rohingya insurgency along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border to be the latest surprise element in regional terrorism.
It says the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), previously called Harekat al-Yakin or the Faith Movement, has turned to other South Asian radical groups for help with training.
The new brand of Bangladeshi militants, whose recent notorieties include last year's Gulshan cafe massacre earned kudos from IS, are seen by the IPAC as vital links between the ARSA and Southeast Asian terrorist groups.
"The existence of an armed group on the border mounting attacks on Myanmar security forces could inspire pro-ISIS groups in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia to do more systematic recruiting among their respective Rohingya communities to find individuals willing to carry out attacks on their own," warns the report, released on May 8.
Bangladesh, which plays a perennial host to Rohingya refugees for decades, has been witnessing a rise in elements of militancy along the borders it shares with Myanmar.
Some 32,000 registered Rohingyas are sheltered in two refugee camps of Bangladesh, and about 65,000 others entered last year alone. If undocumented Rohingyas are taken into account, the figure would be 300,000 to 500,000.
"The new Rohingya [insurgent] group is very active with an increasing number of youths joining the platform. It gets fund from Malaysia and Saudi Arabia through mobile money transfer," a police officer based in Cox's Bazar told The Daily Star on the basis of their intelligence.
"The government is aware of the development but we find it very difficult to track its international link," he said, on condition of anonymity.
The IPAC report says links between Bangladeshi and Southeast Asian extremists appear to be growing amid increasing population movements across the region.
Southeast Asian groups, like Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, find it easier to connect with Bangladeshi network through stints with IS fighters in Syria and Iraq and solidarity initiatives for Rohingyas in Myanmar and also through a few overseas workers and students who develop sympathies for global terror groups.
The 13-page report also stated that developments since 2013 in Bangladesh and Syria, and later in Myanmar, put the relationship of South and Southeast Asian extremists on a much more dangerous footing.
The militants in Indonesia and Philippines were encouraged by series of terror attacks in Bangladesh from early 2013 to last year's July 1 Gulshan cafe attack and they wanted to follow the model of the attacks in their home countries, it said.
The report explores the historical links between extremists of the two regions going back to the Darul Islam and Jemaah Islamiyah training camp on the Pakistan-Afghan border in the late 1980s.
"Arrests in Malaysia in January and February 2017 of Bangladeshi fugitives hoping to get to Mindanao [in the Philippines] and Malaysians and Filipinos helping them in Sabah [in Malaysia] suggests a deeper web of interaction," reads the report speculating that Bangladeshis wishing to return home from Syrian warzone might try to find a temporary safe haven in Southeast Asia through contacts with Indonesian and Malaysian friends.
A Bangladeshi researcher based in Singapore believes ARSA will gain strength gradually as Rohingyas have now good bases in Malaysia and some Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
"From Malaysia, ARSA members are maintaining contacts with militants in Philippines and Indonesia," he told this correspondent, unwilling to be named.
The IPAC report mentioned, "The new militancy among the Rohingya could be a serious headache for Malaysian authorities, given the huge size of Rohingya population."
It referred to the interaction between Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami, Bangladesh (Huji-B) and Rohingya groups in 1990s and also the arrest of one Rohingya militant along with 40 other extremists.
Formed in 2013 under the leadership of Sidney Jones, IPAC presses for strengthening cooperation on counterterrorism between Bangladesh and Southeast Asian countries in order to address the concern over cross-regional violent extremism.
Jones previously worked for International Crisis Group, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
"The urgent task now is for governments, journalists and NGOs to better understand cross-regional interaction among violent extremism organisations and look for interventions that could strengthen local resistance," said the Indonesia-based organisation that works on six kinds of conflict: communal, land and resource, electoral, vigilante, extremist and insurgent.