Recent militant violence targeted at Myanmar’s border guard police in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh on Myanmar’s coast, has seen the emergence of what appears to be a new Islamist group with cross-border links.
The fighting has once again focused international attention on the situation of the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim community denied citizenship by both Myanmar and Bangladesh, and the decades-old conflict between them and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
That attention is not limited to Western governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), however. Instead, it is increasingly providing political fodder for jihadist groups elsewhere, whose proclamations of solidarity risk sparking a renewed Muslim insurgency in the beleaguered Southeast Asian nation.
Fighting in Rakhine state flared up on October 9, 2016 when suspected Islamist militants attacked three border police outposts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung localities. The subsequent violence continued for days.
Media sources reported nine border policemen were killed and as many attackers died in the ensuing gun battles, with the militants stealing large numbers of arms and ammunition from the border police headquarters in Maungdaw town (Myanmar Times, October 10, 2016). Similar attacks in the same area left four more police dead on October 11 (Irrawaddy, October 11, 2016). Violence erupted again on November 12-13 when armed militants launched a surprise attack on a military convoy during a clearance operation in Ma Yinn Taung village in Maungdaw town. Two security personnel, including a senior army officer, were killed in the ambush. Several suspected militants were also killed (Frontier Myanmar, November 13, 2016).
Subsequently, the government backed counter-insurgency operations in the area, sparking an escalation of armed clashes that claimed the lives of nearly 70 suspected Rohingya militants and 17 security force personnel (Channel News Asia, November 15, 2016).
Though, initially, no organized Islamist group claimed responsibility for the October attacks on the border posts, the Myanmar government investigation blamed the violence around Maungdaw on a previously unknown group, Aqa-Mul Mujahidin (AMM) (Myanmar Times, October 17, 2016).
Government investigations, based on statements from arrested militants and confiscated jihadist videos, suggest an operational link between AMM and Pakistan and Bangladesh based Rohingya Islamists with past ties with the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Arakan (HuJI-A), the two largest militant formations advocating for the Rohingya’s political situation. It is presently unclear if AMM is simply another name for or a new incarnation of the Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY-Arakan Faith Movement). Media reports suggest these two could be same group, or that HaY could be a front of AMM (Indian Express, January 8; Dhaka Tribune, January 10)).
Graphic details of the October violence and subsequent flare ups are making the rounds on popular video and message-sharing websites. One such video featured AMM or HaY’s leader Hafiz Tohar (a.k.a. Ataullah, Havistoohar or the Arabic nom de guerre, Abu Ammar Junooni) declaring jihad on Myanmar and urging Rohingya Muslims to join the struggle.  Tohar, who speaks in an Arabic-laced local Bengali dialect, has made several similar statements and propaganda videos since October 2016, highlighting the plight of Rohingya Bengalis and the military excesses of the Myanmar government on the local community. 
Although his statements mention jihad and Islam and are ostensibly aimed at enticing fellow radicalized Rohingyas to fight against the Myanmar government, they do not boast of transnational jihadist links or talk about support from abroad. Instead, Tohar is at pains to paint the violence as part of an indigenous rebellion. However, a recently-conducted study corroborated some of the government’s claims about AMM’s and HaY’s international links, showing how the newly emerged group, under Tohar’s leadership, has the backing of a section of a radicalized Rohingya diaspora based in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Bangladesh (ICG Report No. 283, December 15, 2016).
As indicated in the study, the group was established after the June–October 2012 riots and sectarian violence. Further highlighted is HaY’s connection with a committee of Rohingya migrants based in the Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina and the training Tohar and his band of fighters received under the supervision of Rohingya jihadist veterans trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
By mid-January 2017, media investigations and interviews with members of HaY showed the group was responsible for the series of attacks on the border police outposts in October. In one of the interviews, the leaders of HaY denied being a terrorist group as portrayed by the Myanmar government, claiming instead they were a “revolutionary group waging a movement against the oppression of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar government” (Dhaka Tribune, January 10).
Assistance and Training
Subsequent interrogations of captured HaY members have brought to light the inner workings of the group, including details of its core members. Tohar reportedly attended a six-month Taliban training course in Pakistan and frequently visited Myanmar from a village near Teknaf in Bangladesh in order to organize an armed insurgency. Another main member of the group, named Kalis, is a Pakistani who attended militant training in Pakistan before moving to Bangladesh and then to Nakhuya village in Myanmar. Three other members — named in intelligence reports as Ibrahim, Aza and Ayatullah — spent time in Kutabaloun refugee camp in Bangladesh (Press Release, President Office, Myanmar, October 13, 2016).
As far as training and indoctrination of AMM or HaY leaders is concerned, reports suggest well entrenched links to Pakistan and Bangladesh, with AMM having its origins in the HUJI-A and the patronage of Abdus Qadoos Burmi, the Pakistan-based HUJI-A leader. Burmi works closely with the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD) and other militant formations sympathetic to the Rohnigya’s cause (Mizzima, October 19, 2016).
JuD’s involvement, in the guise of providing humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees, is well documented. Media reports claim the post-2012 riots in western Myanmar provided ample opportunity for JuD and its Falah-e-Insaaniyat foundation to organize fund raising and capacity-building campaigns under the banner of the Difa-e-Arakan conference in Pakistan (Hindustan Times, Jan 31, 2013, Geo TV, Pakistan, July 2012).
Neighboring Bangladesh, though cautious about the militant spillover through its porous borders, was unable to prevent military and religious training with local armed groups in the remote hill tracts of Chittagong or Cox Bazar area, or restrict cross-border activity that took place largely under the guise of refugee movement (Dhaka Tribune, April 15, 2015).
The Rohingya’s plight has gained increasing international attention, but it has also proved a focus for Islamist sympathizers, generating immense support from jihadist groups and individuals around the world. Abdul Razak Ali Artan, the Ohio State University attacker, cited Rohingya issues in a Facebook post attempting to justify his actions. The Afghan Taliban, meanwhile, have also issued statements concerning the “genocide” against the Muslims of Myanmar (al-Emarah, November 30, 2016).
The regional wings of global jihadist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda have also proclaimed support for Rohingya Muslims and attempted to exploit the situation in their favor.
IS’ propaganda magazine Dabiq (Issue 14), fomenting anti-Buddhist sentiment, has documented how it planned to target Myanmar “once it reached the capability to do so,” and after “bringing an end to […] the apostate Bengali regime” in neighboring Bangladesh.  After putting Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and Myanmar state counselor, on its hit list, IS has already influenced a bombing plot on the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta in late November 2016.
The plot, masterminded by the IS-affiliated Jemaah Ansar Daulah, was intended to avenge Rohingya atrocities, foiled by local police (New Straits Times, November 27, 2016).
Like IS, al-Qaeda has a longstanding interest in the Rohingya issue and actively supports this community. Anti-Islamic activities in Myanmar are regularly mentioned in most of its propaganda materials, and groups like al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) have threatened to avenge the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Other Islamist groups also actively distribute content about Myanmar and the atrocities against Rohingya Muslims on social media. In 2015, al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, issued statements urging Muslims to come to the aid of Rohingya refugees allegedly persecuted by the Buddhist regime (Harar24 Online (Mogadishu) May 21, 2015).
A cursory look at the materials circulated by HaY suggests the group is seeking an Islamic legitimacy for their organized violence through fatwas from senior clerics in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. This could help what is essentially a fringe group to unite scattered Rohingya militants under one platform.
Myanmar security forces’ violent reprisals to the October and November attacks prompted the UN and various independent human rights groups to take notice of Myanmar’s military excess in the Rakhine state, but the events have even broader repercussions. The current tense situation in Rakhine state threatens to inflame jihadist undercurrents in Myanmar and elsewhere, while pushing otherwise peaceful Rohingyas to the brink of organized jihad.
 ‘Islamic Terrorist asked Rohingya to join them for Jihad to Myanmar Burma Rakhine Arakan,’ YouTube (October 12, 2016). Watch it here.
 See, for example, ‘Faith Movement Message’ (November 20, 2016). Watch it here.
 Interview with the Amir of the Khilafa’s Soldiers In Bengal: Shaykh Abu Ibrahim Al-Hanif, Dabiq, Issue 14, p.62