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HomeColumnFollowing fall in Syria, ISIS heading towards South Asia — Part I

Following fall in Syria, ISIS heading towards South Asia — Part I

Kashmiri Muslim protesters hold Isis and Pakistani flags as they shout anti-India slogans during clashes in downtown Srinagar on 8 April, 2016 ( TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images )

Islamic State (ISIS) has come to the limelight of the media in the world, particularly South Asia following the April-2019 Easter Sunday jihadist attacks in Sri Lanka. Although there already are alerts issued by the counter-terrorism and counter-militancy organisations in South Asia about the possible ISIS suicide attacks on the Buddhist and Hindu temples in India and Bangladesh, confession by recently arrested ISIS men in Malaysia proves, this jihadist outfit is plotting massive attacks on non-Muslim places of worship during the month of Ramadan.

ISIS plotting massive attacks during Ramadan:

While in Malaysia, four Islamist militants are arrested who belong to Daesh group and were in possession of explosives and planned to attack non-Muslim places of worship during the month of Ramadan; some of the Islamic State (ISIS) contacts in the region already are looking for ‘several’ jihadist suicide attacks during the month of Ramadan. Malaysia has been on high alert since the Islamic State’s series of attacks in Indonesia in 2017.

The arrested four suspects are two Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, an Indonesian and a Malaysian. Country’s national police chief Hamid Bador described them as an “Islamic State” sleeper cell and said they planned to assassinate high-profile individuals and attack Hindu, Christian and Buddhist places of worship.

One of the Rohingya admitted supporting the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militancy group blamed for attacks in Myanmar. The second Rohingya was a 25-year-old laborer who admitted to being militant with ties to Daesh. It may be mentioned here that, Rohingyas are an ethnic minority that have long faced persecution in their Buddhist homeland. There are currently 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Malaysian police are hunting for three more members of the suspected terror cell who planned to attack entertainment outlets in the country.

ISIS may use local controversies:

As part of getting public support, Islamic State (ISIS) may be using local controversies as platforms for its extremist ideology, and this should be the most worrying news for those counter-militancy organizations in the world. As an ISIS attack in South Asia has now become a reality, we need to remain vigilant about ISIS using any of the local issues with the ulterior motive of getting support or sympathy from the majority of the population. In Malaysia we have seen, ISIS has engaged Rohingyas into jihadist activities, which clearly proves, ISIS can exploit foreigners as well to advance their notorious goals.

In Malaysia, ISIS will find an advantageous situation in expanding its activities and network because of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is known as the world for his anti-Semitic mindset. Any of the Muslim nations promoting or nourishing anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing would now be amongst the most suitable battlefield of Islamic State. In Malaysia, ISIS soon will exploit the government’s official policy of anti-Semitism in particular in promoting the concept of Caliphate. The same thing would happen in Indonesia and for sure, Indonesia’s Aceh Province remains most vulnerable to ISIS foothold.

Being a researcher on counter-militancy, I think, there already are dozens of similar ISIS sleeper cells in Malaysia. In this case, the government should proactively resolve racial and religious issues and Craft narratives of unity, harmony, and coexistence. Organize more interfaith dialogue as well allocate more financial resources for programs to tackle extremism and terrorism.

Myanmar’s Rohingyas joining ISIS:

Never wanting to miss an opportunity, al Qaeda has used the occasion of renewed violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to release an unofficial call to arms: “The savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers in Arakan by the government of Myanmar under the guise of ‘fighting rebels’,” the statement went, “shall not pass without punishment, and the government of Myanmar shall be made to taste what our Muslim brothers have tasted in Arakan, with the permission of Allah.” The question is who is going to answer that call. Of particular interest to the international community will be the foreign fighters who used to belong to the Islamic State (ISIS) and could now be headed to fight on a new front.

The plight of the Rohingya, an Islamic minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, has evoked strong emotions across the Muslim world. Many countries have protested against the persecution of the community, following a violent crackdown by the Myanmar army that left hundreds dead and sparked an exodus of more than 700,000 people from Rakhine to Bangladesh. But as rights groups urge world leaders to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s military, which is accused of “ethnic cleansing”, a darker danger lies ahead. We need to remember, Rohingya crisis has attracted the attention of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as Muslim militants and hardliners in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. This may result in another longstanding conflict in South and South-east Asia, following the recent siege in the southern Philippine city of Marawi by Islamist militants.

Islamic State (ISIS) has routinely, through its online publication Dabiq, claimed that it plans to establish a base in Bangladesh to launch revenge attacks on the Myanmar government over its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya.

Malaysian counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said that ISIS is exploiting the Rohingya crisis to recruit more fighters, particularly from South-east Asia.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) had called for “jihadists” to travel to Rakhine to fight on behalf of the Rohingya. The FPI has shown that it has the ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, as seen in the many rallies it led against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese-Christian politician, for insulting Islam in 2017.

Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) spokesman Slamet Maarif was quoted by The Australian newspaper in 2017 as saying that the group is prepared to wage “jihad”, or holy war, in Myanmar if the need arises. And now, after Myanmar’s failure or unwillingness in resolving the Rohingya crisis and letting the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees return from Bangladesh, most definitely ISIS and other jihadist forces will now opt for resolving the crisis through jihad, which not only pose massive threat to Bangladesh in particular but also to the region and the world.

We need to note, ISIS, after losing much of its territory in the Middle East is now trying to expand its hold in South Asia and South-east Asia. Myanmar’s proximity to Malaysia would encourage ISIS to tap the conflict in Rakhine. Myanmar is closer to Malaysia than Syria and the southern Philippines… and now Rakhine has become their latest destination for ‘jihad’.

On the other hand, the resurgent Al-Qaeda, which was behind Sept 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, has also started to make its move, issuing a statement on September 12, 2017, calling for attacks against the Myanmar government over the Rohingya.

Counter-terrorism organisations in South Asia in particular need to remember, while most of the attention by security agencies have been on ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and its affiliate in the Indian subcontinent known by the acronym AQIS, for example, is equally dangerous. There are possibilities of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Sipah Sahaba, etc. or Bangladesh-based Jamaatul Mujahedin Bangladesh, Hizbut Tahrir,  Ansar Al Islam, etc. also joining the conglomerate of jihadists in their battle in Myanmar.

(The author of the article is the editor of Blitz.)

(The latter part of the column will continue on Monday.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of AFTERNOON VOICE and AFTERNOON VOICE does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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