TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda and the Rohingya
September 13, 2017

Bottom Line Up Front

• On September 12, Al-Qaeda released a statement calling for attacks to punish the government of Burma for the persecution of the Muslim-minority Rohingya population.

• In the statement, al-Qaeda said it was the duty of all Muslims to defend the Rohingya against attacks.

• An estimated 400,000 Rohingya have fled what a U.N. official described as an apparent “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

• While the latest crisis started in late August, it is part of a long-simmering conflict over Burma’s denial of nearly all rights to the ethnic and religious minority group.

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What is happening in Burma is both an ongoing humanitarian crime against a vulnerable people and a propaganda win for al-Qaeda. The Burmese government calls its latest campaign against the Muslim-minority Rohingya a security action in response to several attacks by Rohingya militants on military and police units in late August.  The United Nations and many outside groups have labeled the government’s actions a systematic campaign of collective persecution and worse.  An estimated 400,000 Rohingya—a term the Burmese government doesn’t recognize—have fled the country in the last six weeks.

The Rohingya are a group with linguistic and ethnic roots in Bangladesh, and the tensions are centered in Rahkine state on the west coast of Burma.  To the Burmese government, Rohingya are refugees with little in the way of rights, and there have been periodic clashes between the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority in Rahkine for years.  The conflict has accelerated in recent weeks, with reports and accusations of ethnic cleansing, supported by satellite imagery of villages being burned.  There have been attacks by Rohingya militants, which must be countered; yet the collective punishment being meted out by the government—or local Buddhist civilians with tacit government approval—is making matters far worse.

The spiral into instability is both familiar and tragic: a persecuted minority, simmering tensions with the majority population, attacks from the minority, much larger reprisal attacks, security crackdowns against ‘terrorism’, international condemnation and then geographic displacement. 

An example of how the situation can easily get worse and morph into a larger issue came in a September 12 statement by al-Qaeda  The terrorist group called for all Muslims to come to the defense of the Rohingya; a call to jihad similar to that of the Afghan War with the then-Soviet Union that set al-Qaeda’s foundation. Now three decades later, al-Qaeda is calling for more of the same in Burma. The statement derides the ‘fight against terrorism’ and calls for ‘all mujahid brothers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma…to secure their [the Rohingya] rights, which will only be returned to them by force.’

With its statement, Al-Qaeda is attempting to step into the diplomatic void and ongoing humanitarian crisis to present itself as the one true defender of persecuted Muslims. While it’s unclear how many will answer al-Qaeda’s call for a military response, by also demanding humanitarian help for the Rohingya, the terrorist group is positioning itself in the middle of a crisis it says is being perpetrated with ‘vindictive international blessing’. Mixing a very real humanitarian disaster and possible crimes against a minority population with the ideology of bin Ladenism—and its focus on a violent ‘us versus them’ worldview—is a dangerous combination. The continued forced displacement of a vulnerable population, with very little recourse or options in the region, needs to be addressed by the United Nations in a manner more effective and clear-minded than that set out by al-Qaeda. The issue isn’t one of narrative or branding but of reality, and moving to stop the collective punishment of the Rohingya in Burma.

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