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Championing Islamist Extremism

Guest Writer: Bertil Lintner at Chiang Mai, Thailand
Senior Writer, Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER)

Among the more than 60 video tapes that the American cable television network CNN obtained from the Al Qaeda's archives in Afghanistan in August this year, one is marked 'Burma' (Myanmar), and purports to show Muslim 'allies' training in that country. While the group shown, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), was founded by Rohingya Muslim's from Myanmar's Rakhine State and claims to be fighting for autonomy or independence for its people, the tape was, in fact, shot in Bangladesh. The RSO, and other Rohingya factions, have never had any camps inside Myanmar, only across the border in Bangladesh. The camp in the video is located near the town of Ukhia, southeast of Cox's Bazaar, and not all of the RSO's "fighters" are Rohingyas from Myanmar.

The Rohingyas, who are Muslims and speak the same language as the population in the Chittagong area of Bangladesh, are not regarded by the government in Yangon as an indigenous race. Hundreds of thousands of them fled across the border to Bangladesh during a crackdown in 1978, and militant groups soon emerged among the refugees. The UN eventually intervened, and most of the Rohingyas were repatriated to Myanmar. However, in 1991/1992, another wave of 250,000 refugees came across the border, and while most of them have also been repatriated, more than 20,000 remain in United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) supervised camps southeast of Cox's Bazaar. An estimated 100,000 Rohingyas live outside the UNHCR's camps, and it is among these destitute and stateless people that various Islamist militant groups have found fertile ground for recruitment.

The RSO was set up in the early 1980s when radical elements among the Rohingyas broke away from the more moderate, main grouping, the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF). Led by a medical doctor from Arakan, Muhammad Yunus, it soon became the main and most militant faction among the Rohingyas in Bangladesh and on the border. Given its more rigid religious stand, the RSO soon secured the support of like-minded groups in the Muslim world. These included the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh and Pakistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami in Afghanistan, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) in Jammu and Kashmir, and Angkatan Belia Islam sa-Malaysia (ABIM) - the Islamic Youth Organization of Malaysia. Afghan instructors ave been seen in some of the RSO camps along the Bangladesh-Burma border, while nearly 100 RSO rebels were reported to have undergone training in the Afghan province of Khost with Hizb-e-Islami Mujahideen.

The RSO's main military camp was located near the hospital that the Rabitat-al-Aalam-al-Islami had built at Ukhia. At this stage, the RSO acquired a substantial number of Chinese-made RPG-2 rocket launchers, light machine-guns, AK-47 assault rifles, claymore mines and explosives from private arms dealers in the Thai town of Aranyaprathet near Thailand's border with Cambodia, which in the 1980s emerged as a major arms bazaar for guerrilla movements in the region. These weapons were siphoned off from Chinese arms shipments to the resistance battling the Vietnamese army in Cambodia, and sold to any one who wanted, and could afford, to buy them.

The Bangladeshi media gave extensive coverage to the RSO buildup along the border, but it soon became clear that it was not only Rohingyas who were undergoing training in its camps. Many, it turned out, were members of the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the youth organisation of Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami, and came from the University of Chittagong, where a 'campus war' was being fought between Islamist militants and more moderate student groups. The RSO was, in fact, engaged in little or no fighting inside Burma.

It is unclear when the now-famous videotape was shot, but it presumably dates from the early 1990s, since, by the late 1990s, he RSO's training camps southeast of Cox's Bazaar were taken over by Bangladeshi Islamist militants. Bangladesh's main militant outfit, the Hakrat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), was formed in 1992, allegedly with financial support from Osama bin Laden himself. HuJI now has an estimated strength of 15,000 followers and is led by Shawkat Osman aka Maulana or Sheikh arid in Chittagong. Its members are recruited mainly from students of Bangladesh's more than 60,000 madrassahs (seminaries), and year 2001, they called themselves the 'Bangladeshi Taliban.' The group has become notorious for masterminding violent attacks on Bangladesh's Hindu minority, as well as on moderate Bangladeshi Muslims. In a statement released by the US State Department on May 21, 2002, HuJI was described as a terrorist organisation with ties to Islamist militants in Pakistan.

The existence of firm links between the new Bangladeshi militants and Al Qaeda is established through Fazlul Rahman, leader of the 'Jihad Movement in Bangladesh' (to which HuJI belongs), when he signed the official declaration of 'holy war' against the United States on February 23, 1998. Other signatories included bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri (leader of the Jihad Group in Egypt), Rifa'i Ahmad Taha aka Abu-Yasir (Egyptian Islamic Group), and Sheikh Mir Hamzah (secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan).

HuJI sent its own people, as well as Rohingya recruits, to Afghanistan to fight for the Taleban and Al Qaeda. The Rohingyas, especially, were given the most dangerous tasks in the battlefield, clearing mines and portering. According to intelligence sources, Rohingya recruits were paid 30,000 Bangladeshi taka ($525) on joining and then 10,000 ($175) per month. The families of recruits killed in action were offered 100,000 taka ($1,750). [Ed.: While these appear to be small sums in dollar terms, they are princely amounts in a country where the annual per capita income works out to a bare US $ 380]. Recruits were taken mostly via Nepal to Pakistan, where they were trained and send on to military camps in Afghanistan. It is not known how many people from this part of Bangladesh - Rohingyas and others - fought in Afghanistan, but the number is believed to be quite substantial. Others have gone to Kashmir and even Chechnya to join forces with Islamist militants there.

In an interview with the CNN in December 2001, American 'Taliban' fighter, John Walker Lindh, relates that the Al-Qaeda-directed ansar (companions of the Prophet) brigades, to which he had belonged in Afghanistan, were divided along linguistic lines: "Bengali, Pakistani (Urdu) and Arabic," which suggests that the Bengali-speaking component - Bangladeshi and Rohingya - must have been significant. It is now also becoming clear that some militants fleeing the American strikes in Afghanistan in late 2001 have ended up in Bangladesh. With the heavy American presence in Pakistan, many militants who fled Afghanistan in October and November 2001 have found it safer to hide in third countries. In early 2002, a ship reportedly sailed from Karachi to Chittagong carrying assorted militants from Afghanistan.

On May 10-11, 2002, nine Islamist fundamentalist groups, including HuJI, met at a camp near Ukhia South and formed the Bangladesh Islamic Manch (Association). The new umbrella organisation includes groups purporting to represent the Rohingyas and the Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA), a small group operating in India's northeast. By June, Bangladeshi veterans of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan were reported to be training members of the new alliance in at least two camps in southern Bangladesh.

An internal document from HuJI lists no less than 19 'training establishments' all over Bangladesh, but it is uncertain how many of them actually offer military training. What is certain, however, is that since a new coalition government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) took over in October 2001, Bangladesh's Islamist militants have become more vocal and active. The coalition includes, for the first time, two ministers from the Jamaat. The four-party electoral alliance that brought the new coalition government to power also includes a smaller Islamic party, the Islamic Oikya Jote, whose chairman, Azizul Huq, is a member of HuJI's advisory council.

The Bangladeshi authorities have shown no sign of being willing to crack down on these groups and their activities. On the contrary, after some adverse international publicity about the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in Bangladesh earlier this year, the government cracked down on the most moderate of the Rohingya factions, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO; Arakan is another name for Myanmar's Rakhine State), in Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar. ARNO has no known links to Al Qaeda or any of Bangladesh's groups of Islamist militants. It issued a strong statement condemning the crackdown and disassociating itself from the militants. The RSO, on the other hand, was not targeted by the Bangladeshi authorities.

For many years, Bangladesh was seen as a moderate, even liberal, Muslim country. This is evidently changing, and the formation of the Bangladesh Islamic Manch in May this year clearly indicates that co-operation between the country's Islamist militants is becoming closer. The presence of trainers from Afghanistan and the arrival of more militants with Al Qaeda connections, demonstrate their participation in an international terrorist network.

This article first appeared in the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal, September 16, 2002

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