Myanmar: Southeast Asia’s Next Frontline of Jihadism?

Myanmar: Southeast Asia’s Next Frontline of Jihadism?

In November 2020, Myanmar’s first explicitly Salafi-Jihadist militant group, Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan, declared jihad against Naypyidaw to avenge the persecution of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military junta. Now, Southeast Asia’s poorest nation grapples with a multidimensional humanitarian catastrophe in the aftermath of the 1 February coup d’état. Myanmar’s spiralling violence and the presence of over a million Rohingya refugees in squalid conditions in neighbouring Bangladesh has created a fertile ground for radicalisation, raising the prospect of a new jihadist front at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia.

Myanmar is not often a country associated with global jihadism. Despite the longstanding persecution of the Southeast Asian nation’s Muslim minorities in far western Rakhine State, culminating in the 2017 Rohingya genocide, resistance has historically taken on a secular rather than religious dimension. This has frustrated attempts by transnational jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State to open a new front in Southeast Asia. However, this changed following the emergence of Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan, a new pro-Rohingya insurgent group espousing an explicitly jihadist ideology and pledging allegiance to Islamic State in November 2020. As Myanmar struggles to cope with the fallout from the 1 February coup d’état, confronting a spiralling humanitarian catastrophe driven by the convergence of longstanding ethnic grievances, mass displacement, economic freefall, brutal military repression and surging COVID-19 infections which has pushed the country to the brink of civil war, a new jihadist group represents a deeply concerning development, threatening to transform the failing state into Southeast Asia’s latest front of jihad.

Myanmar’s Jihadist History

For several decades, Myanmar’s central government has conducted a protracted campaign against the Muslim Rohingya as part of a broader struggle between the Bamar Buddhist majority of the Irrawaddy plains and the restive ethnic minorities of the mountainous borderlands. Upon independence from British rule in 1948, Rohingya mujahideen waged a low-level insurgency in pursuit of an independent Rakhine State or accession to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Since then, the struggle between Rohingya separatists and Myanmar’s military junta, also known as the Tatmadaw, has fluctuated between long periods of simmering tensions punctuated by outbursts of extraordinary violence, prompting brutal military area clearance operations in 1978 and 1991/2.

However, Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya has been dramatically amplified over recent years, as the military junta has deliberately sought to foment intercommunal tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State, conducting a protracted psychological warfare campaign harnessing social media disinformation to exacerbate mistrust between rival demographics. In 2017, mounting tensions culminated in Tatmadaw forces conducting a series of brutal military operations which the United Nations described as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ against Rohingya Muslims, prompting a mass influx of refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh.


Since the Rohingya genocide, the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim minority has represented a lightning rod for jihadist propagandists. Both Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri have called for jihad against Myanmar to avenge the atrocities perpetrated by the military junta.

Regional jihadist networks across South and Southeast Asia have been particularly vocal regarding the Rohingya cause, with both the Pakistani Taliban and Islamic State’s affiliate in Bangladesh offering training, weapons and financial assistance to aspirant jihadist groups in Rakhine State. Moreover, Salafi-Jihadist organisations in Indonesia have reportedly expressed its intention to raise 1,200 volunteers for ‘humanitarian jihad’ in Myanmar, ostensibly to provide aid to Rohingya communities, yet the emphasis on recruits possessing ‘martial ability’ and a ‘willingness to die for Islam’ suggests otherwise.

Despite the high levels of attention dedicated to the Rohingya cause by al-Qaeda and Islamic State, Salafi-Jihadist groups have so far failed to gain a significant foothold in Rakhine State itself. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the major Rohingya resistance group remains predominantly secular and separatist in orientation, with few links to transnational jihadist groups, despite allegations that senior members had previously attended training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the conspicuous absence of any sizeable jihadist presence in a promising theatre of conflict may be about to come to an end.

Myanmar’s Spiralling Humanitarian Crisis

On 1st February 2021, Myanmar’s top generals launched a coup d’état following the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in nationwide elections last November, bringing Myanmar’s tentative democratic transition to an end. The aftermath of the coup has plunged Southeast Asia’s poorest nation into a chaotic and multidimensional humanitarian crisis. Throughout the country, violent clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and Tatmadaw forces have fused with longstanding insurgencies waged by ethnic armed organisations in Chin, Shan, Kachin and Rakhine States, bringing Myanmar to the brink of civil war.

Escalating violence has led investment to dry up as the economy has gone into freefall, with the banking system on life support and the state failing to fulfil core functions as civil servants defect to join pro-democracy protests, plunging over half of Myanmar’s 54 million citizens into poverty with no respite in sight. Combined with the immense pressure placed on dilapidated and overstretched infrastructure by mass internal displacement and skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, Myanmar’s humanitarian catastrophe risks spiralling into wholesale state collapse.

Against this backdrop, Katibah al-Mahdi finds itself confronting a highly favourable background context. Given the Tatmadaw’s preoccupation with crushing urban dissent in the aftermath of the coup, what limited state presence existed has atrophied across vast swathes of Myanmar’s mountainous borderlands, including Rakhine, rendering such areas de facto ungoverned spaces which offer a potential safe haven for jihadists to plan, train and coordinate their activities. Moreover, extreme levels of discrimination against Rohingyas in Myanmar and the maltreatment of refugees densely packed into overcrowded camps, such as Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, makes pockets of displaced Rohingyas highly vulnerable to radicalisation.

Given the presence of Islamist groups eager to exploit the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand and Indonesia, the largest recipients of Muslim refugees from Myanmar, it would be unsurprising if the Rohingya diaspora became a powerful force fuelling the ambitions of Katibah al-Mahdi or similar groups promising salvation for Rohingyas remaining in the country and vengeance for the abuses perpetrated by the Tatmadaw. Furthermore, the presence of ARSA and other pre-existing pro-Rohingya militant groups operating within Rakhine itself may provide a reservoir of hardened fighters embedded within the local population, provided that such fighters give up their secular goals and embrace Katibah al-Mahdi’s Salafi-Jihadist agenda. Perhaps a more likely trajectory would be a hybridisation of secular and jihadist goals, with Katibah al-Mahdi synthesising Salafi-Jihadism with Rohingya separatism and sacrificing ideological purity to build grassroots support in Rakhine by embedding themselves within the local context, similar to the successful model adopted by al-Qaeda affiliates across the Sahel, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

Rakhine’s other characteristics make the region a highly amenable location for an incipient jihadist insurgency to take root, with a convoluted coastline of islands, inlets and mangrove swamps and the mountainous Bangladesh-Myanmar border creating a porous frontier allowing any aspiring militants to wage a potent cross-border insurgency. More worryingly, Katibah al-Mahdi has sought to brand Rakhine as the ‘land of hijrah’, encouraging Islamists from across the globe to migrate to Myanmar to wage jihad. Rakhine’s unique location astride mountainous and maritime smuggling routes across porous frontiers is likely to enable foreign fighters to infiltrate the region undetected, allowing a hypothetical jihadist insurgency to metastasize undetected and strike with little prior warning, as exemplified following the capture of the city of Marawi in the Philippines by IS-linked insurgents in 2017.

Looking Ahead: Southeast Asia’s Next Frontline of Jihad?

It is important not to overstate the risks of a burgeoning jihadist insurgency bursting onto the scene in Myanmar. Katibah al-Mahdi has yet to claim any successful attacks and despite an initial burst of activity, its propaganda output remains limited. Nonetheless, Myanmar’s collapse in the aftermath of the 1 February coup opens up many opportunities for aspiring jihadists seeking to exploit state failure at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia.

Given the high profile of the Rohingyas’ plight in contemporary jihadist discourse, Rakhine may represent a magnet for foreign fighters from across the region seeking to establish a new front in Southeast Asia. The indefinite hosting of Rohingya refugees in overcrowded Bangladeshi camps such as Cox’s Bazaar and Bhasan Char provides a fertile breeding ground for radical ideologies to take root, with Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh already concentrating their recruitment efforts amongst the displaced Rohingya diaspora.

Considering the wider context, the reestablishment of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan has provided impetus to the global jihadist movement, potentially providing a useful base from which Katibah al-Mahdi or other Rohingya jihadist groups can train, plan and coordinate an insurgency in Myanmar from afar. As recent history shows, Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other rival groups have a tendency to compete for dominance in various theatres of jihad, creating a distinct possibility that Katibah al-Mahdi gaining a foothold in Rakhine may precipitate a ‘snowball’ effect which leads to the rapid influx of militant groups into Myanmar. Should Katibah al-Mahdi successfully manage to exploit state failure at the crossroads of India, China and Southeast Asia, the ramifications for the trajectory of local, regional and transnational jihadist groups would be undeniably profound.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Risk Pulse

About Author