Fishing has been good this year, said Muhammad Illyas, letting his oar rest as the small wooden boat caught the tidal current of the Naaf estuary, drawing it gently towards Bangladesh. “I caught some great ilish here just the other day”. Light had begun to break and the far shore had receded enough to make it possible to imagine the soft grey cloud rising from the forests around the remote village of Nakphura was mist, not smoke from burning homes.
“The thing is,” the boatman went on, “I just can’t eat fish anymore.” “Every day, you see bodies floating down the river, and I know what they’ve been feeding on.” Fisherman, small-time smuggler, and — though he won’t discuss it — sometime trafficker of metamphetamine pills, Illyas is also an unlikely hero. For between Taka 2,000 and Taka 5,000 a ride (100 Bangladeshi Taka is Rs 78), men like him have made the dangerous journey across the Naaf in their small craft, risking arrest by border forces on either side to bring refugees to safety.
Illyas has a worm’s eye view of what is emerging as a security nightmare for Bangladesh, India and the wider region: the emergence of an Islamist insurgency in Myanmar’s jungles that could turn the country’s Rakhine region into a magnet for the global jihadist movement. The only sound in the darkness was the squelch of Illyas’s feet against sodden clay, as he dragged the boat on to the shore at a landing an hour’s walk from Nakphura. The broker who had hired him had brought three women, two infants and an elderly man. There were some whispers, an exchange of cash, and the boat slid back into the Naaf again.
“The Myanmar border guards don’t come near the shore at night”, Illyas said. “Perhaps they’re scared or they’re drunk, who knows?”. Salma, one of the women, said she hadn’t eaten for three days, as she had trekked through the forest where she had hidden with her baby Hasina after the August 25 attacks by Harakah al-Yakin (aka Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) jihadists on a bridge near Sikonchhori, 24 police posts and the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion’s base.
“The soldiers came and started burning houses down, saying we had fed al-Yakin”, she says. “When people started fleeing, the soldiers opened fire. I saw my father-in-law and mother-in-law, who could not run fast, die”. Nur Hashim, Salma’s husband, is fighting in the hills with al-Yakin, she says, pride in her voice. “The Burmese treated us worse than animals so we have no choice but to fight. All the young men in our village are fighting now, except the ones who are too weak”.
Azizullah, Sanjida’s husband, went with al-Yakin, too: “They came to our village asking the young men to join them after the Myanmar army attacked it. He could stay and die, he thought, or he could fight and die”. Behind the sheer brutality of Myanmar’s crackdown lies geopolitics. Faultlines of Geopolitics China has set up a gas and oil pipeline running from the Rakhine port of Sittwe to Kunming. Beijing has backed Myanmar’s savage crackdown hoping it will bring security to a region important for China’s energy security.
India, for its part, is working on the Kaladan transport project, linking Sittwe to Kolkata. New Delhi has also turned a blind eye to Myanmar’s crackdown, fearing the country might otherwise again grant safe havens to North-East insurgents. Even Bangladesh was building a four-lane highway running from Chittagong to Sittwe. “Friendship road”, reads the signboard marking the path of the road — now covered over by refugees’ ramshackle tents.
Yet, even though the flow of refugees from Rakhine, estimated at almost 500,000, has begun to still, there are signs the acquiescence might prove costly: in the dense mountain forests rising behind Nakphura, a powerful new Islamist insurgency is rising. Harakah al-Yakin’s story began at Nayapara refugee camp, not far from the village of Phular Del, across the river from Nakhphura.
The camp is home to tens of thousands of refugees, most of whom have been living in desperate poverty since communal violence tore Rakhine apart in 2012. That year, following weeks of tensions, Rakhine Buddhists attacked Rohingya homes near Bohmu, in Mungdaw, setting off large-scale killings and counter-killings. Estimates suggest over 100,000 refugees streamed into Bangladesh — some in the face of fire from the country’s border guards.
In October 2016, a group of men attacked an outpost of Bangladesh’s Ansar auxiliary police inside Nayapara refugee camp, killed constable Mohammad Ali Hossain, and made off with 11 assault rifles and ammunition. The man who carried out that attack, Nurul Avsar, also known as Ruhullah, was a registered refugee at the camp, known to police as a gangster who provided muscle to human traffickers and metamphetamine smugglers operating from Shah Porir Dwip.
Police sources in Bangladesh say Ruhullah was recruited by Abdul Rehman, a cleric handling finances arriving from the large Rohingya diaspora in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for the sprawling Imam Muslim Islamic Centre in Cox’s Bazaar. The Islamic Centre’s head, a soft-spoken cleric called Hafiz Salahul Islam, was once the first military chief of the organisation called the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO). Plans for a series of attacks on targets in Myanmar, Bangladesh Police said, were put together by a Pakistani national called Umar Farooq, who in turn was linked to jihadist groups operating out of Karachi.
Few took the threat seriously — until August 25, the day of the synchronized insurgent attacks. Abdullah Malik, now living in the grim, crowded desperation of Kutu Palong refugee camp, was one of the men who participated in those attacks. Shot through the leg while assaulting a police station, he received emergency treatment from the NGO Medicines Sans Frontiers, and then at Cox Bazaar’s Digital Hospital. Shah was a school student in Budithaung when he was recruited by al-Yakin-seeking revenge, he says, for the Myanmar Army’s treatment of his people.
“I lost two of my friends in the attack I was injured in”, he says, “but hundreds of youth are joining us now. The only problem we face is a shortage of weapons and ammunition, because Bangladesh is stopping us from getting what we need”. Few real details have emerged of the state of the warfare in Rakhine: however, satellite images of dozens of villages burned to the ground, and the continuing flow of refugees, bear witness to its savagery. “People I have transported tell me there isn’t a single house still standing in Khacchar Bil and Boli Bazaar”, said Illyas. “There are still some houses in Nakphura, but I see new fires there every day, almost”.
Some refugees have sold their cows at Shah Porir Dwip’s cattle market for as little as Taka 10,000 or 15,000 — a third to a half of the normal market price. “Their boatmen have been coming with their families, and sell their craft for to us only Taka 5,000”, says Illyas. “They need the money to get by, and they know the boat’s going to be no use to them in the refugee camps”. Terror links to Pak, Afghanistan Founded in 1982, four years after a brutal military sweep against local jihadists sent tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to camps in Bangladesh, the RSO tapped al-Qaeda’s networks in Afghanistan as well as seminaries in Pakistan to feed its armed wing, the Rohingya National Army (RNA).
After 9/11 United States troops found multiple videos of Myanmar jihadists under training at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. In 1994, RNA jihadists crossed the Naaf to stage their only significant military operation, planting bombs that damaged a few buildings, and seriously injured four people. But the RSO soon degenerated, Bangladesh intelligence officials say, into a criminal organisation, providing protection to metamphetamine traffickers and smugglers. Though funds were raised for jihadist operations, they allege, most went into property acquisitions by the RSO leadership.
Following the 2012 violence, though, RSO leader Abdul Qudoos Burmi shared a platform with Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed in 2012. Mohammad Ataullah, the Pakistan-born and Saudi Arabia-educated cleric who heads al-Yakin, was among dozens of new volunteers who joined its ranks. In 2013, Delhi Police interrogation of alleged RSO operative Khalid Mehmood, from the village of Yethwenkyawyng, threw up evidence that at least fifteen volunteers trained with Pakistan-based Rohingya in making ammonium nitrate-based explosives at Nakhphura.
Training also took place, intelligence officials know, across Myanmar’s eastern border in Thailand. Harvinder Singh Mintoo, a Khalistan terrorist arrested by the Delhi Police in 2014, described training at a camp at Thailand’s Mae Sot along with several Rohingya, coached by instructors from Pakistan. Fearing Bangladesh government action, intelligence sources say, the RSO’s leadership dragged its feet on actual operations. Ataullah revolted, and set up his own, new organisation with RSO’s dispirited new recruits.
“He was very inspired by what had happened in Iraq and Syria”, says the Islamic Centre’s Salahul Islam. “He believed that Myanmar’s army could be defeated if the people rose and attacked it”. The weapons for the first strike were shipped across the river in small boats, and used to stage al-Yakin’s first strike on Myanmar forces in October, 2016. “Everyone knew Rohingya were shipping weapons across the border”, says boatman Illyas. “Three months before the attack last year, we knew something was going to happen soon”.
Bangladesh intelligence sources estimate al-Yakin’s weapons holdings have grown from the 11 it stole at Nayapara to over 400 now. Funds, one official said, are being routed from the Rohingya diaspora and jihadist groups across the world. “Look at any online jihadi propaganda feed”, he noted, “and you will see only one cause on it these days”. “I think the bodies will keep flowing in this river for some time”, says Illyas.
(Next: Hindus and Muslims from Rakhine: divided by hatred, share common destiny as refugees)