Links between Bangladeshi and Southeast Asian extremists appear to be growing, fuelled by ISIS and increasing population movements across the region. If many governments in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) treat South and Southeast Asia as two separate regions in their foreign ministries and security agencies, it may be time to think about a broader geographical unit, at least as far as counter-terrorism programming is concerned.
The Bangladesh-Southeast Asian links take several forms:
- Bangladeshi migrants working in Singapore and Malaysia who recruit fellow workers for violence at home – a tiny proportion of the country’s overseas workers. Many have been supporters of Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), a group responsible since 2013 for several fatal attacks on secular activists. ABT, which now calls itself Ansarul Islam, is the Bangladesh arm of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
- Bangladeshi students from middle-class families studying at Malaysian universities who develop pro-ISIS sympathies, either at home or while in Malaysia.
- Bangladeshis who use Kuala Lumpur as the take-off point for travel to Syria.
- Bangladeshis and Southeast Asians who meet each other as ISIS fighters in Syria or Iraq.
- Pro-ISIS Malaysians or Filipinos who try to recruit Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants in Malaysia to fight in Mindanao.
- Indonesians, Malaysians and others seeking to assist the Rohingya in Myanmar through contacts with Bangladesh-based Rohingya groups.
None of the Bangladeshis arrested thus far in Singapore or Malaysia for extremist activities has been interested in attacking his host country. The focus has been overwhelmingly on Bangladesh itself, as well as on getting to Syria – and in a few cases, to the Philippines. Many have been young men radicalised in the aftermath of the so-called Shahbagh protests in 2013, when secular Bangladeshis massed to demand maximum punishment for Islamist leaders on trial for war crimes during the 1971 independence war.
The connection made between Indonesian and Malaysian ISIS fighters with their Bangladeshi counterparts in Syria is important for two reasons. Indonesian ISIS fighters see the relentless series of attacks in Bangladesh, many of them fatal, as a model for what their own supporters at home should be doing but cannot seem to pull off. They also undoubtedly envy the praise heaped on the attackers by the ISIS leadership in its various propaganda outlets. The desire to emulate Bangladeshi extremists may be an added incentive for Indonesians to encourage violence at home.
The Syria link between Bangladeshis and Southeast Asians could also encourage Bangladeshis seeking to leave the ISIS front to think about stopping to help out in Mindanao before going home. Pro-ISIS recruiters in peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, working with Malaysians who have joined former Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, would be happy to have more men, including Bangladeshis, to augment jihadi forces depleted by Philippine military operations. Two pro-ISIS Bangladeshi students were ready to leave in early 2017 but were caught in Malaysia and deported.
The wild card could be the new armed Rohingya insurgency operating along the Bangladeshi-Myanmar border, first called Harekat al-Yakin (Faith Movement) and later Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Indonesian and Malaysian mujahidin have long been interested in helping their persecuted brethren in Myanmar but have had no good channel for doing so. The historical ties of Southeast Asian extremists were all to the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) in the late 1980s and 1990s, operating out of southeastern Bangladesh but with some fighters on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Those ties lapsed in 2001 after regional governments cracked down on Jemaah Islamiyah, RSO’s chief ally in the region. RSO is not behind the new insurgency, which is doing everything it can to distance itself from international terrorism and the global jihad, but ARSA leaders have turned to some South Asian extremist groups for help with training. They are portraying themselves as an ethno-nationalist movement, similar to the Aceh guerrilla organisation Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or the insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South. But the existence of an armed group on the border mounting attacks on Myanmar security forces could inspire pro-ISIS groups in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia to do more systematic recruiting among their respective Rohingya communities to find individuals willing to carry out attacks on their own.
The urgent task now is for governments, journalists and NGOs to better understand cross-regional interaction among violent extremist organisations and look for interventions that could strengthen local resistance to recruitment.