The Lashkar-e-Taiba’s charitable wing, the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, has established operations reaching out to Muslim populations inside Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, the organisation has claimed in propaganda material released online. FIF volunteers, the organisation has said, “distributed millions in cash money and blankets among more than 300 besieged Rohingya Muslims”.
The claim was backed by Bangladesh-based intelligence officials, who told The Indian Express that the group had been operating in refugee camps near the town of Cox’s Bazaar, with the help of local Islamist groups.
Shahid Mahmood, FIF’s head of foreign operations, said in an online statement that a relief convoy raised by the organisation had succeeded in entering Rakhine “in extremely risky conditions” — an evident reference to the illegal crossing of the Bangladesh border. He said FIF intended to “start its relief activities in all areas of Burma where Muslims are besieged”.
The FIF’s operations, a senior Bangladesh intelligence official said, “could mark a dangerous new phase in the Myanmar conflict”, where transnational jihadist groups become more heavily involved in the fighting, so far spearheaded by the poorly trained and equipped Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known as the Harakah al-Yakin.
Lashkar links to the Rohingya conflict are known to date back to at least 2012, when its chief, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, shared a stage with jihadist commander Abdul Qudoos Burmi. FIF operations in the region began when it built homes and a madrasa for a community of over 1,000 refugees in Indonesia.
“ARSA hoped it could overwhelm the Myanmar state using a few bombs and villagers armed with spades and sickles,” the official said. “That was a disastrous calculation, and now others from Pakistan are stepping in”.
Bangladesh had, in October, shut down relief operations among local Rohingya by two controversial international Islamic charities, Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief, as the local Fazlullah Foundation. However, the groups continue to be free to operate elsewhere in Bangladesh, raising concerns that groups like the FIF may be able to use their work as cover.
Myanmar’s military has long alleged that ARSA insurgents were trained in fabricating improvised explosive devices — used during its first wave of strikes on police and army outposts in August — by trainers brought in from Pakistan. In May, an IED accidentally blew up while al-Yakin cadre were gathered in Kyaung Taung, north of Buthidaung, killing seven men and their Pakistani instructor.
From August 25, ARSA’s cadre began human-wave attacks against over 30 police and military outposts, using WhatsApp messages and announcements by local clerics to mobilise villagers
Three days later, ARSA’s Pakistan-born, Saudi Arabia-raised leader, Muhammad Ataullah, also issued WhatsApp messages asking villagers to burn down ethnic-Buddhist villages, apparently in retaliation against attacks by vigilantes.
Police sources in Bangladesh say much of the FIF’s work in the Cox’s Bazaar area have centred around the Imam Muslim Islamic Centre, run by local cleric Hafiz Salahul Islam, the first military chief of an earlier Rohingya jihadist group called the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation.
Abdul Rehman, an Islamic Centre official on the run and a cleric handling finances arriving from the large Rohingya diaspora in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, was responsible for knitting together ARSA’s assault plans, the sources said. He, in turn, drew in a Karachi-based jihadist who used the name “Umar Farooq”.
Facing sanctions from the United Nations and the United States, the FIF’s continued operations inside Pakistan have led to intense pressure on Pakistan’s banks and financial systems. In March, Pakistan’s State Bank, the equivalent of India’s Reserve Bank, is scheduled to make a presentation on action it has taken to deny the FIF and other sanctioned groups access to the banking system, or risk being blacklisted.