Al-Qaeda’s general leadership issued a statement this week describing attacks against Rohingya in Myanmar as part of an ongoing global campaign against Muslims conducted “under the guise of fighting terrorism,” and vowed to come to their defense.
The statement makes clear that al-Qaeda believes it has a religious and legal obligation under Sharia to come to the defense of the Rohingya, who have been humiliated and victimized by savage treatment.
“Helping the Muslims of Arakan is a Sharia obligation and a legal necessity,” al-Qaeda wrote. The statement criticizes the hypocrisy of the West, which has not come to the defense of the Rohingya and sat by as the slaughter of Muslim innocents continues.
In particular, the statement calls on Muslims in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines to “set out for Burma, to help their Muslim brothers, and to make the necessary preparations – training and the like – to resist oppression against their Muslim brothers, and to secure their rights, which will only be returned to them by the use of force.” Al-Qaeda calls on Myanmar to be punished for its crimes.
The statement, made public on Tuesday, says that owing to the Rohingyas’ qualitative and quantitative inferiority, the religious obligation to fight is no longer an abstract one that the Muslim community must respond to, but a personal action: “The obligation turns from a general obligation, to an individual obligation.”
The statement’s timing is important. Al-Qaeda has long been opportunistic and identified the suffering of Muslims and the inaction of the West. But this was a particularly fast response, and far quicker than their reaction to the civil war in Syria.
Al-Qaeda has been patiently waiting in the wings, watching its rival, the Islamic State (IS), get pummeled by a coalition of forces. In some places, such as Indonesia, it has successfully branded itself as a moderate alternative to IS. Across Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah’s social networks remain largely intact, if not more robust.
With IS having lost 80 percent to 90 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria and its caliphate collapsed, it has to turn to smaller conflicts, relying on its still robust cyber network and media operations. IS will try to network smaller localized conflicts, such as in Rakhine (Arakan) and in the southern Philippines, where it recently released a video about the pro-IS militants who seized Marawi city.
Yet, networking “defensive jihads” would be a new strategy for IS whose leaders grew their central organization, declared a caliphate, and then tried to expand by declaring “provinces” – wilayat – of the Caliphate.
In contrast, al-Qaeda has long espoused a network approach, and its long-term strategy has always been to network defensive jihads. Indeed, Osama bin Laden used the name the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders in his original 1996 fatwa. In many ways al-Qaeda leaders think they are in a better position to do this than their IS rivals.
IS has taken to social media as well, issuing a number of “posters” on Telegram and other communication apps both to raise awareness of the plight of the Rohingya and to demand revenge against the Myanmar government. But to date there has been no major statement with theological justification, similar to al-Qaeda’s.
As important, al-Qaeda has long-standing institutional links to some other Rohingya militant organizations, such as the Rohingya Solidarity Organization. Harakah al-Yaqin/Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) both have roots tied to Bangladeshi militant organizations, such as Jamaat-e-Islami dating back over two decades. There are alleged ties between the antecedents to ARSA, with Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the pro-IS affiliate that staged the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery attack that killed 20 civilians.
Through its pogroms, Myanmar has made itself a target of both al-Qaeda and IS. Both organizations seek to legitimize themselves as the vanguard organization in the defense of Muslim rights around the world.
And with such competition, there is always concern for outbidding. But as the two organizations vie for primacy, they have every incentive to take up the mantle of the Rohingya and strike first in their defense.
There are no longer just calls for solidarity. The Rohingya crisis is attracting the attention of militants.
While there is a concern that Southeast Asian militants will make their way to join the Rohingya, the far greater concern is that South Asian IS and al-Qaeda cells will do so. Institutionally and geographically, they are closer and in a much better position to direct their activities there.
The al-Qaeda statement is not good for the average Rohingya. It will only reinforce the suspicion among Myanmar security forces that ARSA is a terrorist organization tied to the global Islamist jihadist community, determined to establish an Islamic State.
To date, there is no evidence that ARSA wants anything more than the restoration of legal protections and citizenship rights of its people and has not publicly called for secession or jihad. Its stated ends are limited and reasonable.
But the concern is threefold. First, what if a terrorist attack against Myanmar interests is carried out in the name of the Rohingya, or as revenge for attacks on the Rohingya? There have already been two separate attempts by pro-IS cells in Indonesia to blow up the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, most recently by JAD in November 2016.
Last week, demonstrators hurled a Molotov cocktail at the embassy. There is no evidence that ARSA had anything to do with any of these, but any such attack would have an immediate impact on them and be further justification by the Myanmar security forces to carry on with their brutal clearing campaign and scorched-earth tactics.
Second, can such a resource poor and nascent insurgency afford to turn away men and resources? ARSA’s Sept. 10 declaration of a one-month ceasefire was tactically and strategically clever.
It will use this time to recruit from amongst the swelling ranks of nearly 800,000 refugees. Vulnerable, needy, and with nothing to lose, they 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 weak.
Third, will ARSA, as a result of its own strategic calculations or the changing external security environment, embrace a more radical ideology and asymmetric tactics? There is no insurgency that I can think of where either al-Qaeda or IS injected itself that did not become more violent and radical.
In many ways, ARSA has every incentive to eschew such support.
Strategically, it has garnered international sympathy by portraying itself as an ethno-nationalist struggle against a brutal regime. Tactically, it is dependent on the Bangladeshi security forces not cracking down on their operations.
Self-defense is one thing, but common cause with militants who have engaged in terrorism in Bangladesh, is likely to cross a line. But it’s clear that transnational jihadists are starting to weigh in and that will not be good for the already suffering Rohingya.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.