Bangladesh-Myanmar border areas are teeming with Rohingya refugees now numbering well over half a million.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has elevated her stature several notches by organising massive humanitarian assistance and supply of relief material to the arriving refugees. This is not because they are Muslims but because she has improved her own image by demonstrating to the world that she is now a statesman and not merely a run-of-themill politician finishing off her political adversaries, trying war criminals and executing them. She has undoubtedly derived immense political mileage out of the refugee situation.
A few days ago I was in Dhaka in connection with a conference and tried to get a first-hand assessment of the security situation vis-a-vis the Rohingyas. The security challenges are enormous and need close watch as the huge numbers of Rohingya Muslims remain vulnerable to extremist forces who are bent upon radicalising a section of them to indoctrinate and push them towards ISIS or Al Qaeda ideology to destabilise the Hasina government and eventually abet terror in the fragile region, already reeling under security threats.
In Myanmar, we know of a segment of Rohingyas collaborating with a Bangladesh based terror group Jamai tul Mujahdeen Bangladesh (JMB) for training and subsequent infiltration inside Bangladesh to embark upon acts of extremism.
Meanwhile, reports indicate involvement of Lashkar e Taiba ( LeT) in training disgruntled Rohingya refugees. Both of Lashkar’s front organisations, Jamaat ud Dawa and Fala-I-Insaniyat Foundation, are reportedly active among Rohingya youth under the cover of relief and rehabilitation operations. Security experts also warn that Myanmar, Bangladesh and India’s eastern states must be closely watched as they seem to be on the verge of experiencing a sudden spurt in Islamic militancy.
There are also credible reports received from a section of the intelligence fraternity that the newly known outfit Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army( ARSA) is active under the leadership of Hafiz Tohar, chief of its military wing. ARSA’s nexus with LeT is more or less established. Tohar had earlier set up the Aqa Mul Mujahdeen ( AMM) and was trained in Pakistan after being inducted by one Abdul Qadoos Burmi – chief of the Harkatul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI-A).
Subsequently, Tohar integrated his outfit into ARSA and is suspected to be behind the attacks on Myanmarese security forces in October last year and in August this year. What’s also worrying, as per intelligence reports, is that refugee camps in certain areas are becoming hunting grounds for terror organisations. Recently, new cadres have been recruited from among the Rohingya community in Rakhine state and in camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
In the meantime, highly placed sources in the security establishment have indicated that an officer of the rank of Major of the Pakistani Army (possibly from the ISI), has been earmarked to oversee recruitment and training – thereby once again proving the Pakistani role in fomenting terror preceding radicalisation programmes directed principally against Bangladesh.
Amid these ongoing developments, external powers have evinced keen interest in the scene in Bangladesh emanating out of the Rohingya crisis. In this regard, it was quite surprising to note that Mrs Erdogan, the Turkish President’s wife, was perhaps the first to visit the refugee camps, providing handsome aid to the refugees and expressing sympathy with the Bangladesh government and the refugees. In addition, President Erdogan came to notice as the first Head of State of any country to criticise Myanmar for its excesses against Rohingyas, and out of sheer Muslim solidarity, coming to the help of the refugees and Bangladesh.
It must not be forgotten that the same Erdogan has always been a bitter critic of Hasina, having condemned her time and again for trying war criminals and executing them. Thus there appears to be more to Erdogan’s actions than meets the eye. Pro-Saudi, Wahabi elements, in the meantime, accuse Erdogan of jumping into the crisis in haste in an attempt to radicalise Rohingya Muslims with the tenets of the Muslim Brotherhood replacing the Wahabi school of thought currently suspected to be in vogue with Rohingya Muslims.
It would seem therefore that Turkey to outsmart Saudi Arabia is trying to draw attention of the Muslim community to phase out Wahhabism in the region. The Turkish Saudi ideological battle appears to have found a new theatre in Bangladesh.
It would be naive to think that Erdogan and others are interested only in humanitarian assistance. Other than external powers, media agencies too are drawn towards the present imbroglio. It is evident to them that this crisis will last for long. All this means that Bangladesh and Indian intelligence must be on guard. Bangladesh security and intelligence agencies are on full alert and it is presumed that India too is on board jointly tackling the radicalisation and terror menace. Cooperation between the two countries must be taken forward to yield tangible results from the security point of view.
It may be known that after a couple of months, Bangladesh will hold one of the biggest congregations called Vishwa Itzema – a gathering of lakhs of Muslims from all over the world. Against the backdrop of the Rohingya development, extra vigil is needed to look out for those elements of the Tabligi Jamaat attending this congregation who espouse terror.
Largely, the congregation is of innocent pious Muslims but possibility of undesirable individuals or groups sneaking in cannot be ruled out. This must be countered and will be a major challenge even with Bangladesh’s capabilities. Judging from all the factors discussed here, extra and abundant caution seems essential to ensure deradicalisation and security of Bangladesh.
It is particularly imperative as long as Rohingyas are on Bangladesh soil and the nexus of some of them with Pakistan continues. Humanitarian issues and aid should not be mixed up with the challenges of security faced by Bangladesh. We are going through a period of turbulence in terms of Islamic terrorism. That has to be tackled separately and effectively.
(The writer, a retired IPS officer and security analyst, was posted in Dhaka and has followed Bangladesh developments for many years. The views are personal.)