Hijrah to Arakan? The Stunted Start of Rohingya Jihadism in Myanmar

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 20

Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar

The precarious and complex situation of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is optimal for jihadist organizations to exploit for propaganda and to recruit disillusioned Rohingya, as well as to incite Muslims to fight in Myanmar and open a new jihadist front (Terrorism Monitor, November 10, 2017; EER, May 28). Before and after the emergence of a new pro-Islamic State (IS) jihadist group in the country in 2020, al-Qaeda, its affiliates and its allies often published statements or videos in reference to the Rohingya, such as those in 2017 by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), al-Shabaab, and the Taliban (Terrorism Monitor, November 10, 2017; Al-Kataib, September 7, 2017; Al-Emarah, September 4, 2017). More recently, in 2021, an al-Qaeda Central As-Sahab media agency video and AQIS magazines also referenced the Rohingya (As-Sahab, March 12; AQIS, October 2; AQIS , October 4). [1] [2] These videos, statements, and magazines have exploited the complex situation of Burmese Muslims for propaganda, but there have still not been any detected al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS) operations conducted in the country in recent years.

The Emergence of Katibah al-Mahdi propaganda

In November 2020, a new jihadist group called Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan (Brigade of the Mahdi in the Land of Arakan, KMBA) emerged, which through its spokesman, Abu Lut al-Muhajir [3], swore allegiance to IS caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. The oath was published on the media channels of the new Arrukn Media Center and in the first issue of the group’s new English-language magazine Arkan. [4] To date, the oath has not yet been accepted by IS (or at least no public communication has been officially released by the official IS media) and Rohingya areas have not been elevated to the status of an IS wilayah (province). KMBA’s use of the term Katibah (military unit or brigade) suggests that its operations involved the use of violence and armed struggle, and its explicitly stated goal in its propaganda was to “unite Muslims under the Wilayah of Arakan” [5]. 

The first issue of KMBA’s magazine, Arkan, in December 2020 was titled “A Call to Hijrah (MEMRI/JTTM, December 28, 2020).” In the magazine’s 38 pages, the group promoted jihad and asked Muslims to make hijrah (migration) to Myanmar. The group argued that it is obligatory for Muslims to fight in the place where they reside or undertake hijrah to transform the “Land of Kufr” into “Dar al-Islam (Land of Islam),” including to Arakan [Rakhine] [6]. The leader and amir of KMBA, Abu Dawud al-Arkani, in a long message further called on all Muslims to migrate to Arakan. 

The magazine also featured several short articles and editorials exclusively religious and ideological in nature, and editorials in which the group identified two enemies to be fought in Myanmar: 

  • Buddhists and Myanmar’s central government, who were accused of repressing and oppressing Muslims; and 
  • Islamist groups and organizations, who were accused of being oriented towards nationalism.

The second issue of Arkan magazine, entitled Ahsan al-Qasas, (“The best of Stories”) was published in May 2021 (MEMRI/JTTM, November 5). At 61 pages, it was longer than the first issue and focused more on ideological and religious aspects, including a long editorial written for all those in prison. The editorial addressed issues of arrest, interrogation and torture, provided guidance, techniques, and tips for “winning against interrogation,” and offered advice on how to rejoin one’s “brothers” once released from prison. The group also again listed enemies to fight, but this time it did not refer locally, but rather showed images of the leaders of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Finally, the group provided a Monero account with a QR code for cryptocurrency donations. All the links of different platforms to follow the Arrukn Media Center and announce other forthcoming releases were also provided. [5] 

Forecasting Rohingya Militancy

Attempts to create a new war front in Myanmar by al-Qaeda, AQIS and IS have so far been unsuccessful. Even in the past, AQ and IS have failed to induce Rohingya Muslims to affiliate with jihadist networks and wage armed struggle. The recent precarious situation in Myanmar and the ongoing governmental and ethno-religious violence does, however, create conditions for more Rohingya to join KMBA. The group has not yet carried out any military operations or attacks and propaganda stopped in May 2021. The motivation might have been strategic. As stated by the KMBA leader and amir in the first issue of the magazine Arkan, the group is still “weak and incapable in many aspects.” 

Furthermore, it was argued in both magazines that “jihad cannot be conducted without first building a strong foundation.” In the medium to longer term, KMBA could exploit the vulnerability of Arakan, accessible through Myanmar’s porous borders, as well as collaborate with jihadist groups in nearby parts of South or Southeast Asia. The potential outbreak of a jihadist insurgency in northern Arakan could also lead to the development of a new and larger front following the experience of the 2017 occupation in Marawi, Philippines. 


[1] Titled “The Wound of the Rohingya is the Wound of the Islamic Nation” in which al-Qaeda threatens Myanmar and the “criminal Buddhist government”. 

[2] AQIS addresses the issue of Myanmar and Rohingya in the May/July 2021 issue of Nawai Ghazwat al-Hind on pages 53 and 54 and in the August/September 2021 special issue of Nawai Ghazwat al-Hind on page 125.

[3] The message and name of KMBA spokesperson is given on page 25 of the first issue of the magazine Arkan.

[4] Media channels viewed by the author on the Telegram and TechHaven platforms (the latter on a website and the Rocket Chat platform). 

[5] Arakan is the historical name of the northwestern region of Burma. In the 1990s, the military junta changed the name of Arakan province to Rakhine State (the name of the Rakhine community living in the area). The Rohingya Muslims, who live mainly in the northern part of northwestern Rakhine State, claim to be descended from ancestors who settled in pre-colonial and colonial Arakan.

[6] The message published from page 25 to page 28 of the first issue of the magazine Arkan is entitled: “A message for the Muslims”. 

[7] In February 2021, between the first and the second issue of Arkan magazine, an in-depth study was published in a pdf file entitled “2Khalifatullah al-Mahdi.” It is therefore likely that the possible third issue of Arkan magazine will not be published before the second in-depth study.