Rohingya plight making Myanmar a target for Isis, Malaysia warns

Myanmar faces a growing danger of attacks by foreign Islamic State supporters fighting for persecuted Muslim Rohingyas, Malaysia’s top counter-terrorism official has said.

Malaysian authorities have detained a suspected Isis follower planning to head to Myanmar to carry out attacks, the head of the Malaysian police counter-terrorism division, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, said in an interview.

The suspect, an Indonesian man whom he did not identify, was detained in Malaysia last month. The suspect was scheduled to be charged on Wednesday for possession of materials linked to terrorist groups, which carries a seven-year jail term or fine, Ayob Khan said.

More militants were likely to try to follow his lead in support of the Rohingya cause, Ayob Khan said. “He was planning to perform jihad in Myanmar, fighting against the Myanmar government for this Rohingya group in Rakhine State,” Ayob Khan said.

A Myanmar army sweep since October in the north of Rakhine state, on its border with Bangladesh, has sent about 34,000 members of the Rohingya minority fleeing into Bangladesh, the United Nations said.

Residents and rights groups have accused security forces in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar of summary executions and rape in the army operation, launched in response to attacks on police posts on 9 October that killed nine officers. The government of Aung San Suu Kyi has denied the accusations of abuse.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said an official report on October’s violence in Rakhine state found no evidence of an Isis presence there or that the attacks were linked to Isis.

The conflict in Rakhine risks becoming a lightning rod for Islamists in a network that stretches from the Philippines to Indonesia and Malaysia, with links to Isis in the Middle East, security analysts and officials said.

Scores of south-east Asian Muslims, most from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, have travelled to the Middle East to join Isis, counter-terrorism police in the region said. Over the past year, Isis has claimed several attacks – or been linked to foiled plots – in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

“There is a high possibility that Muslims, be it from IS or other groups, will find the ways and means to go to Myanmar to help their Rohingya Muslim brothers,” Ayob Khan said.

The thinktank International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report last month the coordinated attacks on Myanmar police in Rakhine State were carried out by a group called Harakah al-Yakin. While the group had links to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it would be wrong to “over-interpret the significance of the international links”, ICG said. “Nevertheless, the longer violence continues, the greater the risks become of such links deepening and potentially becoming operational,” it said.

Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, which has the world’s biggest Muslim population, have led calls in south-east Asia for Myanmar to stop the violence against the Rohingya.

Rohingya have for years been fleeing persecution in Myanmar, which denies them citizenship because it sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They often end up on south-east Asian shores in rickety boats seeking asylum. More than 55,000 Rohingyas are registered with the United Nations in Malaysia.

Analysts have warned the large number of Rohingya migrants are a potential pool of recruits for militants. “The network between Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Rohingyas is there,” said Badrul Hisham Ismail, programme executive director of the Malaysian counter-militancy group, Iman Research.

Ismail said his group had discovered Malaysian militants involved in recruiting Rohingyas and sending them to Indonesia’s Poso region for training.

Rohan Gunaratna, a security expert at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Isis operatives in the region were “determined to mount attacks both inside Myanmar and against Myanmar targets overseas”.

In November, Indonesian authorities detained an Isis-linked militant over a plot to attack the Myanmar embassy there.

“The highest threat to Myanmar emanates from Islamic State networks,” Rohan said. “The Rohingya conflict is emerging as one of the rallying issues for IS. At a strategic level, Myanmar should resolve the Rohingya conflict to prevent IS influence and expansion.”