Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room and a central hall. But the sparse two-floor house-for-rent wasn’t open for entrepreneurs flocking to the exuberant town of Mae Sot on Thailand’s border with Myanmar: dealers in electronics and used cars, smuggled gems and teak, narcotics, laundered cash and trafficked women.
Its clientele was special: Khalistan terrorists from India and the UK, Lashkar-linked operatives from Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, Bangladesh jihadists, all arriving for discreet, week-long courses in the art of fabricating improvised explosive devices.
This month, photographs surfaced of Rohingya jihadists from the Harakah al-Yakin posing with newly opened crates of Kalashnikov assault rifles. The discovery has sparked growing concern among intelligence services from Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Thailand that a new arms smuggling route could have opened up, linking the terror group with South-East Asia’s Golden Triangle, heartland of the region’s narcotics trade.
In their search for answers, investigators are turning once again to the story of the house in Mae Sot, and a tall, powerfully built man called Harvinder Singh. Now held in prison near Patiala, Singh had a ringside view of the centre’s operations — and its complex web of international linkages.
Late this summer, Thai authorities arrested three military officers on charges of ferrying 30 Kalashnikov assault rifles, along with grenade launchers and over 100 M79 grenades and 4,000 rounds of ammunition to Karen National Union (KNU) insurgents, the Myanmar rebel group that once ran the Mae Sot explosives training facility as a revenue-generating operation.
Intelligence sources told The Indian Express that photographs of the Rohingya jihadists’ new weapons have raised fears that Harakah al-Yakin could have been the final recipient. The discovery of the Mae Sot weapons caché came about by chance: Thai air force officer Flight-Sergeant Pakhin Detphong was held after his pick-up truck crashed into a ditch. The truck bore a fake licence plate identifying it as belonging to the Thai military’s Internal Security Operations Command.
Flight-Sergeant Detphong, Thai officials say, admitted to having made at least three similar runs since the beginning of 2017, purchasing weapons from a Cambodian army officer and handing them over to a Karen contact in Mae Sot. In 2016, another consignment of ten M-16 rifles and seven Kalashnikovs were seized in the area from a former police officer in Mae Sot. The KNU was named as their intended recipient, but denied the allegation.
Last year, Thai intelligence services warned that Noor Kabir and Fareed Faizullah, Pakistani nationals of Rohingya origin, had been operating across the Thai border with Myanmar, fuelling recruits into the country’s north. Fearing that Rohingya jihadists could provide support for jihadists fighting in three of its own southern provinces, Thailand had sought to clamp down on terror training camps in the Mae Sot area. But the patronage of the cartels of insurgents and traffickers serving the drug routes from Thailand into Bangladesh has made bases like the bomb-training school used by Harvinder resilient against efforts to shut them down.
Harvinder — “Mintoo” to his friends — arrived in Mae Sot late in the summer of 2014, along with a group of UK-based jihadists led by Coventry-based Khalistan Liberation Front organiser Gurcharanbir Singh. The group had been put together by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, Harvinder told Indian intelligence — the testimony cannot be used against him as evidence, according to law.
In Mae Sot, the men were received by two men Harvinder described during interrogation as “Burmese looking”, but “speaking Pashto and Urdu”. The instructor, he claimed, said “he had earlier trained Afghan jihadis on behalf of Pakistan’s ISI”. Bangladesh and Burmese nationals were also training in the camp, Harvinder said, but the two groups were not allowed to meet.
From August 4-10, 2014, the Khalistani group learned to fabricate small improvised explosive devices that could be used against civilian targets, notably timed petrol bombs that could set buildings on fire. The trainer told them that he once used to run a larger camp, but it was closed down because of pressure from Thai authorities.
Thailand’s intelligence services had begun noticing the use of Rohingya refugees by jihadists as early as 2007, claiming they were being used as mercenaries by Islamist insurgents operating in the country’s conflict-torn southern provinces.
Royal Thai Navy Vice-Admiral Supot Prueska told reporters that year that Rohingya were “not coming here to take up decent jobs, but only to help insurgents in the three [southern] provinces”.
Then, as ethnic violence sparked off a massive exodus of Rohingya refugees in 2012, the Lashkar initiated a programme in support of the Rohingya jihad, inviting its leader Abdul Quddus Burmi to share a platform with its chief, Hafiz Saeed.
Later that year, senior Lashkar operatives Shahid Mahmood and Nadeem Awan were despatched to set up an arms supply route for Burmi’s organisation. Bangladesh authorities also arrested Karachi-based cleric Noorul Amin and Afghan jihad veteran Ali Ahmed, who the Lashkar had tasked with recruiting cadre.
The Mae Sot training facility was set up to support these operations — a safe distance from the locations in Bangladesh where intelligence services were hunting them down. Funding for weapons and training, Myanmar officials say, has been intense among the large Rohingya diaspora in Malaysia — a country that over 100,000 have made their home over the past decade, making a living as low-wage labourers.
In 2015, over 139 burial sites were discovered on the Thai-Malaysian border, where criminal gangs had put Rohingya slave-labour to work. Malaysia’s liberal visa policies have, Indian intelligence officials believe, also allowed organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to reach out to Rohingya inside Malayasia, operating under the cover of the group’s charitable wing, the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation.
Last month, Malaysian counter-terrorism police chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay warned that Islamic State recruits from the country “are planning to go to Rakhine state”. “The southern Philippines, where there is an ongoing conflict, and now Rakhine have become their latest destination for jihad,” he said.
Earlier this year, The Indian Express first reported, an FIF mission made contact with Rohingya inside Rakhine, in what many intelligence officials believe could lead to direct military support for terrorism. FIF operations, Myanmar believes, have been routed through Kuala Lumpur, using contacts in the diaspora there.
Thailand, for its part, has worked with Myanmar to stop Rohingya refugees from arriving at the nine camps along its western border — home to displaced populations from the many ethnic groups at war with Naypyidaw’s rule. Royal Thai Navy personnel also have instructions to push back Rohingya refugees seeking to arrive by boat. Peerawat Saengthong, from the Internal Security Operations Command, said that if refugees arrive in the country’s waters, “we will act according to the law by pushing the boats away”.