Bangladeshi police stand guard at a hotel after a raid on a militant hideout in Dhaka on 15 August 2017. NURPHOTO/Mehedi Hasan
Report 295 / Asia

Countering Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh

With political polarisation reaching historic highs and local jihadist groups forging links with transnational movements, new forms of militancy threaten security and religious tolerance in Bangladesh. The government should reinforce the capability of law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, and build political consensus on tackling the menace.

What’s new? Two groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh and Ansarul Islam, dominate Bangladesh’s jihadist landscape today. Attacks since 2013 have targeted secular activists, intellectuals and foreigners, as well as religious and sectarian minorities. The ruling Awami League has politicised the threat; its crackdowns on rivals undermine efforts to disrupt jihadist recruitment and attacks.

Why did it happen? Bangladesh’s antagonistic politics have played a part in enabling the jihadist resurgence. The state confronted groups responsible for an earlier wave of violence with some success from 2004 to 2008. Subsequently, especially since controversial January 2014 elections, bitter political divisions have reopened space for new forms of jihadist activism.

Why does it matter? A lull in violence over recent months may prove only a temporary respite. With elections approaching in December, politics could become even more toxic. The government’s continued marginalisation of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and its forcing underground of opponents like Jamaat-e-Islami, risk sapping resources from efforts to disrupt jihadists.

What should be done? Instead of relying on indiscriminate force, including alleged extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the government should adopt a counter-terrorism strategy anchored in reformed criminal justice and better intelligence gathering. Rather than cracking down on rivals, it should forge a broad social and political consensus on how to confront the threat.

Executive Summary

As Bangladesh’s political polarisation reaches historic highs and local jihadist groups forge links with transnational movements, conditions are ripe for new forms of militancy that could threaten the country’s security and religious tolerance. Two groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarul Islam, dominate today’s jihadist landscape; a faction of the former appears to have consolidated links to the Islamic State (ISIS) while the latter is affiliated with al-Qaeda’s South Asian branch. Both have perpetrated a string of attacks over the past few years, some targeting secular activists, others Bangladeshi minorities. The ruling Awami League has politicised the threat. Its crackdowns on political rivals sap resources from efforts to disrupt jihadist activities. Instead, it should invest in reinforcing the capability of the security forces and judiciary and build political consensus on how to tackle the threat.

The country’s recent history of jihadism dates to the late 1990s, when veterans of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan returned to Bangladesh. A first wave of violence, involving two groups, the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh and the JMB, peaked on 17 August 2005, when the latter group synchronised bomb blasts in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Successive governments subsequently took action against the JMB’s leadership, but the group has revived itself, albeit in a new form. Another group, Ansarul Islam (or Ansar), has also emerged, while a JMB splinter – dubbed the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” by law enforcement agencies – calls itself the Islamic State-Bangladesh and has funnelled fighters into Iraq and Syria.

Ansar portrays itself as the defender of Islam from those who – in its leaders’ view – explicitly attack the religion. The JMB, on the other hand, has named a longer list of enemies: it considers perceived symbols of the secular state and anyone not subscribing to its interpretation of Islam as legitimate targets. The Bangladesh police allege that JMB operatives have played a part in attacks claimed by ISIS on prominent members of minority communities and religious facilities and events, including Ahmadi mosques, Sufi shrines, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Shia festivals. An attack on a Dhaka café on 1-2 July 2016 that killed over twenty people, mostly foreigners, appears to have involved loose cooperation between different groups, including both rural-based madrasa students and elite urban young men.

Bangladesh’s contentious national politics have played a role in enabling the jihadist resurgence.

Bangladesh’s contentious national politics have played a role in enabling the jihadist resurgence. Ansar found its initial raison d’être in the Awami League government’s post-2010 trials of people accused of war crimes perpetrated in the 1971 war of independence. Those trials, targeting the senior leadership of the largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), prompted criticism for violating due process, lacking transparency, and involving intimidation and harassment of defence lawyers and witnesses. The prosecutions were used to crush the JeI, a close ally of the Awami League’s main political rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and to discredit the BNP itself. They provoked widespread anger among Islamists, which was mostly expressed through mass protest, not jihadist violence. Yet Ansar, depicting the trials as an assault on Islam, recruited urban, educated youth, albeit in relatively small numbers, and perpetrated brutal attacks on secular activists and bloggers who had demanded harsh punishment for those prosecuted.

Political polarisation has contributed to the growth of militancy in less direct ways, too. The marginalisation of the BNP through politically motivated corruption and other trials of its leadership, including party chief Khaleda Zia’s 8 February 2018 conviction and five-year sentence for corruption, and of the JeI, through the war crimes trials and a ban on its participation in elections, have eliminated most democratic competition and encouraged the growth of a jihadist fringe. A purge of BNP and JeI sympathisers from the armed forces has elicited animosity within some military circles toward the Awami League, which the jihadists also appear to be seeking to exploit. The BNP, for its part, has on occasion used terrible violence, or supported groups that do so, fuelling political animus and deepening schisms.

The influx of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August-December 2017 also raises security concerns for Bangladesh. Jihadist groups – including ISIS and Pakistani militants – have referenced the Rohingya’s plight in efforts to mobilise support. For now, though, little suggests that the refugees are particularly susceptible to jihadist recruitment. Bangladesh’s response to the humanitarian tragedy should focus primarily not on counter-terrorism but on providing support for refugees and redoubling efforts to assuage potential friction between them and host communities.

The state response to the surge of jihadist violence over the past few years has relied primarily on blunt and indiscriminate force, including alleged enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Such tactics have eliminated large numbers of jihadists and weakened militant groups. But they undermine intelligence gathering. Security officials fear the ability of jihadist movements to recruit, raise funds and conduct operations remains intact. To make matters worse, Awami League leaders have exploited the threat to further discredit the BNP and JeI, accusing them of complicity in high-profile attacks. The government continues to use security forces to target its opponents, motivated, it appears, by the imperative of victory in the December 2018 general elections.

While the past year has seen a lull in attacks, marginalising the mainstream political opposition is likely to play into the hands of jihadist groups. Politicised, the police force and judiciary will continue to struggle with the detailed investigative work necessary to disrupt networks that now tap not only madrasa students and their families in deprived rural areas but also privileged students in wealthier quarters of the capital. While the Awami League appears little inclined to do so ahead of this year’s vote, reversing the polarisation that creates an enabling environment for jihadists and building political consensus on how to tackle the problem, while investing in a professional police and judiciary, are likely prerequisites of forestalling further jihadist violence. Without a change of course – and particularly if the December elections trigger a crisis similar to that around previous polls – the country could face another jihadist resurgence.

Brussels, 28 February 2018

I. Introduction

Bangladesh faces a sustained threat from jihadist attacks.[fn]For Crisis Group analysis of Bangladesh’s political and security dynamics, see Asia Reports N°s277, Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice in Bangladesh, 11 April 2016; 264, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, 9 February 2015; 187, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, 1 March 2010; 182, Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track, 11 December 2009; 151, Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh, 28 April 2008; and 121, Bangladesh Today, 23 October 2006.Hide Footnote Since 2015, two jihadist groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarul Islam (hereafter Ansar), have targeted foreigners, secular activists and intellectuals, religious and sectarian minorities, and other perceived opponents with rising frequency.[fn]“Ansar” in this case should not be confused with the Bangladesh Ansar, a volunteer paramilitary force under the home affairs ministry’s authority.Hide Footnote These groups appear to be more integrated into transnational networks than earlier generations of jihadists. Yet their expansion is largely rooted in domestic political dynamics, which influence and inform state efforts against them.

The bloody 1-2 July 2016 siege at a café in Dhaka’s upscale Gulshan neighbourhood, the heart of the diplomatic zone, forced domestic and international policymakers to reconsider the extent to which jihadist militancy had taken root in Bangladesh. That three out of five alleged attackers belonged to Dhaka’s elite, not the madrasa sector more commonly associated with such jihadist militancy, suggests that the appeal of jihadism has spread and that jihadists may be able to tap a new constituency from which to recruit, even if thus far only in small numbers.[fn]For definitions of “jihadism” and “jihadist”, see Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016, p. 2. This report uses these terms in accordance with Crisis Group practice; in Bangladesh, however, the preferred terms are “Islamic militancy” and “Islamic militant”.Hide Footnote

The report analyses the roots of Bangladesh’s jihadist groups, their goals, organisational dynamics, recruitment patterns and links to regional and transnational networks. It is based on interviews conducted in April-August 2017 with security officials, the legal community, and political and civil society actors, including representatives from Islamist parties and umbrella groups. Security risks inhibited access to jihadist groups and detainees; the report thus draws on their leaflets, online literature and public statements, and interviews with lawyers and law enforcement officials who have closely dealt with them. It proposes measures to counter the threat, based on analysis of the impact and effectiveness of the government’s response. Given the topic’s sensitivity, and an increasingly repressive environment in Bangladesh, most names have been withheld.

II. Genesis of Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh

Jihadist militancy in Bangladesh began in the 1980s, when around 3,000 Bangladeshis reportedly joined the U.S. and Saudi-sponsored anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.[fn]Riaz Ali, Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web (London, 2008).Hide Footnote A first generation of Bangladeshi militants were veterans of that war. In 1992, a new group, Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (also referred to as Harkat-ul Jihad), led by three Afghanistan veterans, Mufti Abdur Rouf, Mowlana Abdus Salam and Mufti Abdul Hannan Sheikh, declared that Bangladesh should become an Islamic state.[fn]All three had reportedly fought under Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Zayadul Ahsan and Pavitra Banavar, “Who are the militants?”, in Ali Riaz and C. Christine Fair (eds.), Political Islam and Governance in Bangladesh (Oxford, 2011), pp. 71-90.Hide Footnote The group, which operated from the Chittagong Hill Tracts bordering Myanmar, also aimed to aid the Rohingya Muslims in that country.[fn]For more on ties between Harkat-ul Jihad and the Myanmar insurgent group Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, see “How Southeast Asian and Bangladeshi extremism intersect”, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, No. 37, 8 May 2017.Hide Footnote A Harkat-ul Jihad leader, Fazlul Rahman, along with jihadist leaders from Pakistan and the Middle East, signed Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa calling for jihad against the U.S. and its allies.[fn]Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 (London, 2006).Hide Footnote In 1999, the group claimed a failed assassination attempt on Bangladesh’s leading poet, journalist and human rights activist Shamsur Rahman, and carried out a bomb attack at a cultural event in Jessore that killed ten people.[fn]“Huji attacked poet Shamsur in ‘99”, The Daily Star, 30 November 2007; “Udichi observes Jessore tragedy day in city”, New Age, 7 March 2016.Hide Footnote

After the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S., the group became more active under the leadership of Mufti Hannan, who had established strong links with Lashkar-e-Tayyaba in Pakistan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior retired military officer, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote In February 2002, it attacked the American Center in Calcutta, killing four police constables and a security guard, and injuring over twenty in the first strike on a target in India. In May 2004, it attempted to assassinate the British high commissioner to Dhaka. Its deadliest action was the August 2004 grenade attack on an election rally of then opposition leader and chief of the secular Awami League party, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, killing over twenty people; scores, including Hasina herself, were injured.[fn]“3 HuJI activists held in Gujarat for Kolkata attack”, The Times of India, 16 February 2002; “British diplomat hurt in Bangladesh bombing”, The Telegraph, 21 May 2004.Hide Footnote In addition to attacks in Sylhet Division, in the north east, and areas around Dhaka, the Harkat-ul Jihad also struck numerous times in southern locations such as Akhaura, Bagerhat and Khulna, mostly between 1999-2005.[fn]Home ministry’s internal report on militant organisations, provided to Crisis Group, June 2017.Hide Footnote

Founded in 1998, the JMB and its militant wing Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh became active in the early 2000s, recruiting and training, raising funds, running outreach programs, and mobilising members across the north and in selected southern districts such as Chittagong, Jessore and Khulna. Its Dhaka-based leader Abdur Rahman also began establishing links with political powerbrokers willing to support his agenda.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Increasingly bitter competition between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party [...] led to paralysing street violence and a political crisis.

Jagrata itself began as a vigilante group in north-eastern regions that had been the base of left-wing militants for decades. Khaleda Zia’s BNP-led government (2001-2006) initially failed to take action against it, due to limited law enforcement capacity but also sympathy for these groups within Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party and a member of the BNP’s governing alliance.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice in Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote The animosity of the military and some BNP leaders toward India also drove them to patronise various Islamist groups supporting insurgencies in India’s north-eastern provinces and Myanmar’s Rakhine state.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Some government and police officials saw the JMB and Jagrata as useful tools against left-wing militants.[fn]Officials involved in counter-terrorism efforts at the time confirmed that some members of the coalition government had actively promoted the militants, while police backed their anti-left operations. Crisis Group interviews, security officials and analysts, Dhaka, May-June 2017. Also see Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote Despite these reservations, domestic and international pressure nudged the government to form, in 2004, an elite paramilitary anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, which includes military and police personnel.

JMB’s 17 August 2005 countrywide coordinated and simultaneous attacks, involving over 459 low-intensity bombs, in all but one of Bangladesh’s 64 districts, killing two people and injuring around 100, proved a turning point.[fn]“459 blasts in 63 districts in 30 minutes, 2 killed, 100 injured; all explosions were time bombs; Jamaat-ul Mujahideen leaflets found”, The Daily Star, 18 August 2005; “Bombs explode across Bangladesh”, BBC News, 17 August 2005.Hide Footnote The subsequent security crackdown, including trials and executions of top JMB members, forced the group into hiding. In the following years, its leaders described the synchronised 2005 attack as a “sound blast” to draw attention to their message, contained in leaflets left at the bombing sites, which called for war against “Western imperial powers” and their local allies, including Bangladesh’s secular state. The judicial system was a particular target; there were several attacks on judges and court premises.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.Hide Footnote

While JMB and Harkat-ul Jihad represented similar threats, and often operated in tandem, violently opposing Bangladesh’s secular traditions, there were fundamental differences. Harkat-ul Jihad drew on South Asian Islamic traditions, its ideological bent close to that of today’s Deobandi-inspired Hefazat-e-Islam, a hardline Islamist movement which over recent years has won concessions from the ruling party (see Section VII.B). Harkat-ul Jihad was largely based in the south, and it found its recruits in qaumi (privately run) madrasas. JMB, on the other hand, drew on the Wahhabi-inspired Ahl-e Hadith movement and was located mainly in the north east, though it also conducted outreach and recruitment drives in the south west, in Satkhira and Bagerhat districts.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Shakhawat Hossain, Ahl-e Hadith Andolon Bangladesh spokesperson, Rajshahi, June 2017. The group claimed as its lineage, and the inspiration for its name, Islamist groups that had fought British colonialism in the early 19th century. Its base, in the north east, has also been the seat of the Ahl-e Hadith movement since 1994, when a former Rajshahi university professor, Asadullah Ghalib, formed an organisation he called Ahl-e Al Hadith.Hide Footnote

Increasingly bitter competition between the Awami League and BNP ahead of elections scheduled for January 2007 led to paralysing street violence and a political crisis, prompting a coup and military rule, between 2006 and 2008, behind the veneer of a caretaker government.[fn]Following the bloody civil war that led to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman, formed the first government. In 1972, it enacted a constitution that, like the party’s founding ideology, drew on the principles of democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism. Mujib and most of his family were killed by army personnel in the 15 August 1975 coup. His daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, took over the leadership and remains the head of the Awami League. BNP leader Khaleda Zia is the wife of Bangladesh’s first military ruler, Major General Ziaur (Zia) Rahman (1977-1981), who created the party as a civilian proxy and alternative to the secular Awami League. Crisis Group Report, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote The military jailed much of the political class. The military-backed government redoubled counter-terrorism efforts, including through specialised trainings for law enforcement officials and anti-militancy messaging in the media and the state-run Islamic Foundation, as well as through Friday sermons in mosques across the country.[fn]The Bangladesh Islamic Foundation is a state-run organisation that supports research and scholarship on Islam and dissemination of “Islamic values”. “Combating extremism: Still relying mostly on force”, The Daily Star, 30 June 2017.Hide Footnote It also tried some JMB leaders. Arrests and convictions of JMB and Harkat-ul Jihad members continued after the restoration of democracy and elections in December 2008, which returned the Awami League to office.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote By that time, the jihadist leadership appeared to have been dismantled and the security environment seemed much improved, leading law enforcement agencies to shift attention away from militant groups.

III. Setting the Stage for a Jihadist Resurgence

A. Politicised Justice and an Islamist Backlash

The Awami League came to power in January 2009 having promised an international war crimes tribunal to prosecute those responsible for atrocities during the 1971 war of independence, a longstanding demand popular with the party’s voter base. Most of those expected to be tried were JeI members; others were from the BNP. The tribunal was established in 2010.

While the quest for justice was legitimate, the trials were deeply flawed, lacking due process. They were also convenient tools for sidelining or eliminating rivals and rallying the Awami League’s political base. The convictions and executions that followed provoked a domestic backlash; many of the accused had major followings, notably among religiously conservative constituencies across the country. In particular, the 2013 death sentence for JeI leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a popular preacher, prompted violent countrywide demonstrations and clashes with police that left hundreds of protesters dead. Islamists portrayed the trials as an attack on Bangladesh’s Muslim identity.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Secular activists mobilised, too, though to insist on harsher sentences. In February 2013, after another JeI leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, was given life imprisonment, activists demonstrated in Dhaka’s Shahbagh square demanding a death sentence.[fn]In response, the government repealed a law that prohibited appeals of war crimes trial verdicts. The high court resentenced Mollah, this time to death, in September 2013.Hide Footnote These protests, dubbed the Shahbagh movement, were led by urban, secular youth, including bloggers critical of the role of organised religion in Bangladesh’s secular polity. Islamists highlighted these opinions to discredit the movement as anti-Islam, demanding that Shahbagh organisers be punished.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The war crimes trials and the Shahbagh movement provided the backdrop for a new era of Islamist and jihadist activism.

The war crimes trials and the Shahbagh movement provided the backdrop for a new era of Islamist and jihadist activism. By 2013, JeI was on the defensive, with most of its top leaders on trial. Hefazat-e-Islam, a hitherto marginal umbrella organisation sustained by qaumi (privately run) madrasas, stepped into the gap, quickly becoming a prominent socio-political force by channelling Islamist sentiment against the trials in large street demonstrations in late 2013. To defuse the protests, the government made concessions, including withdrawing plans to regulate the qaumi madrasa sector.[fn]Ibid. See also “Bangladesh’s radical Muslims uniting behind Hefazat-e-Islam”, The Guardian, 30 July 2013.Hide Footnote Hefazat also allegedly delivered the government a list of 84 bloggers and activists it wanted prosecuted and executed for making derogatory statements about Islam.[fn]Amid the killings of bloggers, Hefazat officially denied association with this list. “Hefazat has no list of bloggers”, Prothom Alo, 25 May 2015.Hide Footnote

A new kind of jihadist mobilisation surfaced shortly thereafter. On 15 February 2013, ten days after the Shahbagh demonstrations began, prominent blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, whose writings had in part inspired those demonstrations, was brutally murdered outside his home in Dhaka.[fn]Another prominent blogger Asif Mohiuddin survived a similar attack by militants a few weeks before the protests began.Hide Footnote A new group, the Ansarullah Bangla Team (later renamed Ansarul Islam), an affiliate of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility. The following month, the group gave a thirteen-point list of demands to the government, including for a blasphemy law to try secular bloggers, marking a convergence in aspects of its agenda – though not its methods – with Hefazat.[fn]

B. Political Polarisation

In addition to the flawed trials, Bangladesh’s deeply polarised politics and the increasingly exclusionary bent of the Awami League-led government have contributed to the resurgence of militancy. In mid-2013, the Bangladeshi high court banned JeI from contesting forthcoming parliamentary elections on the grounds that an Islamist party running violated the secular constitution. Even if not a political ruling, this ban served to undercut a critical ally of the Awami League’s main rival, the BNP. It also led the JeI to resort to violence ahead of the January 2014 vote. As elections approached, the government pushed ahead with preparations despite the BNP’s objections; in the end, the BNP announced the day before the polls that it would boycott. Law enforcement agencies focused attention on opposition leaders and activists spearheading violent protests to subvert the election.[fn]These actions included countrywide hartals (strikes), demonstrations and traffic blockades that stalled economic activity and travel outside the urban centres. Awami League supporters and officials were also attacked in the run-up to and on election day. “Democracy in the crossfire: Opposition violence and government abuses in the 2014 pre- and post-election period in Bangladesh”, Human Rights Watch, April 2014.Hide Footnote

By the end of 2013, at least 500 people had been killed, making it the deadliest year of civil strife since Bangladesh’s secession from Pakistan in 1971. The polls themselves, in January 2014, were likewise marred by violence. Given the BNP’s boycott, Bangladesh’s parliament is almost bereft of opposition to the ruling party. A year later, a very violent campaign led by the BNP and JeI – replete with arson attacks on polling stations and assaults on policemen, as well as hartals (strikes) and transport blockades – marked the anniversary of those elections. This campaign, aimed at forcing fresh elections, provoked months of clashes, leaving around 150 people dead or missing. JeI activists were responsible for some of the worst attacks.[fn]

The BNP’s marginalisation from mainstream politics – part self-inflicted through its boycott and violent tactics; part due to the government’s rejection of its demands for electoral reforms – together with the government’s targeting of the JeI through the war crimes trials and electoral ban, created a major political vacuum. As law enforcement agencies focused on containing the Awami League’s political opponents, they failed to effectively counter the emergence of the Ansarul Islam and the re-emergence, starting around mid-2014, of the JMB, which still had a nationwide network of members recruited from qaumi madrasas, informants and sympathisers.

IV. Today’s Jihadist Landscape

A. Ansarul Islam

What had started as an online community reportedly inspired by the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who joined al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, gradually morphed into a group of young Bangladeshis following a fiery local preacher, Jashimuddin Rahmani, based in Dhaka’s Basila neighbourhood.[fn]Rahmani, currently serving a five-year sentence for the murder of blogger Rajib, appears to have come into contact with many future Ansar organisers, including the primary men accused in the murder of Rajib, Rezwanul Azad Rana and Junoon Shikder, while serving as a cleric at a Dhaka mosque. Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism officials, Dhaka, May-June 2017.Hide Footnote Ansar soon began identifying itself, through online posts, as the Bangladesh chapter of al-Qaeda.[fn]“Ansarullah Bangla team reorganised as Ansar-ul-Islam”, Protom Alo, 10 April 2016.Hide Footnote

Beginning in 2013, Ansar prioritised killing liberal and secular bloggers, many of whom were reportedly on the Hefazat’s alleged list of 84 activists.[fn]“Fourth blogger hacked to death in Bangladesh”, The Wall Street Journal, 7 August 2015.Hide Footnote In an online statement, Ansar said it was targeting writers, journalists, intellectuals and artists who publicly insulted Islam, rather than unbelievers who kept their views private.[fn]“Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh lists categories of potential targets for killing”, SITE Intelligence Group, 29 May 2015: Footnote In February 2015, Avijit Roy, a prominent U.S.-based blogger visiting Dhaka, was killed by machete-wielding assailants at a major book fair. In the course of the year, six more bloggers and two gay rights activists were similarly hacked to death, and four others injured, either in their homes or in public places, with all attacks claimed by Ansar.[fn]“Behind killings in Bangladesh lies a brutal power struggle”, The Indian Express, 29 April 2016.Hide Footnote

Ansar is primarily urban-based. A well-informed source said many members do not know each other except through pseudonyms.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote Although it remains a small organisation, according to intelligence and counter-terrorism officials, Ansar has a formal structure that divides members into three groups, managed by a coordination team: dawa, which oversees logistics and recruitment; asqari, which oversees military training; and a media wing run by IT experts that collates domestic and international coverage of the group.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, intelligence and counter-terrorism officials, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote The group also includes a sub-group, mashul, which plans and oversees all attacks, while the foot soldiers executing operations are part of a subcategory called mamur.[fn]Crisis Group interview, well-informed source, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote

Many prominent online activists either have fled Bangladesh or keep a lower profile.

Many of Ansar’s leaders and members appear to be well educated and Dhaka-based. Rezwanul Azad Rana, a former activist from Shibir, the youth wing of the JeI, and a teaching assistant at North South, Dhaka’s largest private university, was reportedly one of the group’s first organisers and allegedly planned and oversaw the bloggers’ murders, before fleeing to Malaysia after law enforcement agencies learned of his role.[fn]Security officials said they first learned about Rana from U.S. intelligence contacts who had obtained information about him from a former North South student who is now serving a 30-year term in a U.S. federal prison. Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Dhaka, May-June 2017. See also “Blogger Rajib killing: convicted Rana hiding in Malaysia”, The New Age, 22 January 2016; “Blogger Rajib murder mastermind arrested”, Dhaka Tribune, 20 February 2017; Sajjan Gohel, “The nexus of local and international extremist groups in Bangladesh”, South Asia@LSC blog, 22 July 2016.Hide Footnote Other members kept Ansar’s organisation intact and active after Rana’s departure. One was reportedly Junoon Shikder, another North South student, arrested in 2013 for alleged links with Ansar but released on bail a year later. He, too, fled to Malaysia, in 2014, whence he reportedly moved to Syria, suggesting he may have shifted his allegiance from al-Qaeda to ISIS.

Since late 2015, the killings of bloggers have stopped. Many prominent online activists either have fled Bangladesh or keep a lower profile.[fn]“Living in fear away from home”, The Hindu, 17 May 2016. Investigators and prosecutors have made little progress on the cases of the bloggers’ killings.Hide Footnote Ansar itself appears to have faded from public attention, its appeal perhaps diminished in part because it arose in the context of the war crimes trials. With most high-profile Islamists accused of atrocities in 1971 convicted and some executed, the trials generate less immediate attention from the constituencies they initially outraged. Still, some security officials believe that Ansar and what the government calls the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” (discussed below) work closely together, contributing some of the 40 Bangladeshis who reportedly travelled to join ISIS in Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism officials, Dhaka, May-June 2017.Hide Footnote

Junoon and an unspecified number of other jihadists allegedly continue to operate Malaysia- and Singapore-based cells, which have been key to the transition of some Ansar members to ISIS, as well as to the facilitation of movement to Syria.[fn]“How Southeast Asian and Bangladeshi extremism intersect”, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Report No. 37, 8 May 2017.Hide Footnote Three of the five alleged attackers in the 2016 Dhaka attack reportedly had operated in Ansar’s Malaysia cells for various durations, while four others, who were indirectly involved, had also spent time in that country.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Intelligence officials claim to regularly discover communications between jihadists in Bangladesh and Malaysia- or Singapore-based Ansar cells during investigations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Dhaka, May-June 2017. See also “Singapore says arrests 27 Bangladeshi Islamists, deports 26”, Reuters, 20 January 2016.Hide Footnote Ansar’s current threat level is difficult to gauge, given that the organisation seems to be moving on from its original raison d’être, the war crimes trials, to a broader agenda.

B. Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh

There were initially clear distinctions between Ansar and JMB. Ansar members saw themselves primarily as defenders of Islam battling Western secular ideas, rather than fighting for an Islamic state. The group’s targets were limited to those it considered to have insulted the faith. Most Ansar leaflets that investigators recovered at attack sites emphasised that the organisation was not at war with peoples of other faiths unless they slighted or undermined Islam.[fn]“Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh lists categories of potential targets for killing”, SITE Intelligence Group, 29 May 2015: Footnote

In contrast, JMB since its founding almost two decades ago, and again in its recent resurgence, has pursued the establishment of Islamic law and perceived anyone not subscribing to its interpretation of Islam, including religious and sectarian minorities, as well as non-Muslim foreigners, as legitimate prey. Thus, while Ansar targeted only individuals such as Bangladeshi secular and liberal bloggers, JMB, both as a whole and, later, a faction more closely identified with ISIS (discussed below), focused on Bangladesh’s minority communities, attacking Ahmadi mosques, Sufi shrines, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Shia festivals, as well as prominent members of these communities. While ISIS claimed some of these attacks, police suspect a JMB role in executing them.[fn]“Tavella shot dead by ‘Neo-JMB’”, The Daily Star, 22 October 2016.Hide Footnote Since 2015, JMB has expanded its activities beyond its traditional strongholds in the north and south west, and conducted attacks countrywide, including in Dhaka, where it was responsible – at least partly though perhaps entirely – for the 2016 attack.

According to counter-terrorism officials, the [Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh] group recruits not just young men, but entire families, including women.

At the outset, the outfit had four tiers, each defined by level of responsibility and commitment to the organisation: majlis-e-shura, a consultative decision-making council directly under the amir, or chief; ehsar, or full-time members; gayeri ehsar, or part-time activists; and sudhis (well-wishers) and saathis (comrades). In principle, JMB’s organisational structure included a military wing, comprised entirely of ehsar (the other sections made up the non-military wing). This wing was meant to include six divisions, each with a chief and deputy, and four sectors – ordnance, operations, intelligence and medical – but it was never fully operationalised. Each sector was also meant to have subdivisions. For example, explosives, electronics technology, weapons collection and stockpiling fell under ordnance; guerrillas and fedayeen (suicide attackers) under operations.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Today, the majlis-e-shura reportedly has seven members. It approves all attacks and killings. The current amir, Salauddin, oversees regional commanders and brigades, which have both dawa, or logistics and recruitment, and military wings.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism and intelligence officials, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote In a recent interview, Salauddin said the group was expanding its network beyond Bangladesh, although it is difficult to assess the veracity of this claim; despite ties to militants elsewhere, the JMB itself has never perpetrated an attack outside Bangladesh.[fn]“Jamaatul Mujahideen amir Shaikh Salahuddin – special interview”, Sahm Al Hind Media, 13 May 2017.Hide Footnote

According to counter-terrorism officials, the group recruits not just young men, but entire families, including women.[fn]Several JMB hideouts raided in March and April 2017 were homes where most household members were allegedly involved in jihadist militancy in some capacity. The group has recruited entire families since its early days. “The family network of militants”, Samakal, 14 August 2016. See also Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.Hide Footnote They claim that recruiters also are attempting to attract youth in regions outside Dhaka that are politically volatile and have a large conservative base, including the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Noakhali, Lakshmipur and Chapainababganj.[fn]

C. “Neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” and ISIS

Since the 2016 Dhaka attack, law enforcement officials began using the term “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen”. Some analysts argue they use this term to obscure ISIS’s role in Bangladesh, and that many ISIS members are described by security officials as “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security analysts and journalists, Dhaka, May 2017.Hide Footnote In an interview, JMB’s current amir, Salahuddin, dismissed the term as an invention of “infidels”. He did, however, acknowledge that some members had joined ISIS.[fn]“Jamaatul Mujahideen amir Shaikh Salahuddin – special interview”, Sahm Al Hind Media, 13 May 2017; “Living in fear away from home”, The Hindu, 17 May 2016.Hide Footnote

The “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” faction – which refers to itself as Islamic State Bangladesh – was thought to be led by a Canadian-Bangladeshi, Tamim Chowdhury, until his August 2016 death in an alleged extrajudicial killing. The faction was divided by geographic region, with each regional unit led by a commander who focused on operational activities endorsed by the central leadership. Several regional commanders have been killed in Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi and points further north. The structure that Chowdhury headed appears to have been dismantled but counter-terrorism officials say it has splintered into smaller cells that, for now, conduct fewer coordinated operations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism, intelligence officials, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote

In the run-up to the 2016 Dhaka attack, Chowdhury reportedly played a pivotal role in bringing together Ansar, a section of JMB’s network still active in northern districts and the south east, and individuals acting on behalf of ISIS in Bangladesh and Syria. Counter-terrorism officials believe he was the primary coordinator between ISIS and Bangladeshi jihadist groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote Chowdhury concentrated his recruitment efforts in Dhaka’s Banani neighbourhood and cantonment area, possibly tapping into discontent inside the army (discussed below). He also established contact with young extremists who provided access to youth studying at coaching centres.[fn]These are informal evening schools at private residences or rented school premises, where teachers give private tutorials mostly to O and A level students. Crisis Group interview, senior intelligence official, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote Many suspected militants detained or killed in security raids since July 2016 were young boys from affluent backgrounds who had months earlier left home; the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” appears to be mining a similar demographic to Ansar, in other words.[fn]“Where have the rest of the missing people gone?”, Dhaka Tribune, 4 April 2017.Hide Footnote

ISIS began claiming responsibility for several attacks in Bangladesh on social media.

Even earlier, in 2015, Bangladeshi intelligence and security agencies uncovered communications between local jihadists and Bangladeshi fighters in Syria, though they could not decode much of the content. In a Chittagong raid, officials also discovered an ISIS flag and evidence of communication among JMB members arguing in favour of joining ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism officials, Dhaka, Chittagong, June 2017.Hide Footnote ISIS also began claiming responsibility for several attacks in Bangladesh – including the 2016 Dhaka attack – on social media. The October 2015 issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s monthly magazine, contained a special story on Bangladesh, praising earlier JMB exploits. Saifullah Ozaki, a Bangladeshi who formerly was an associate professor in Kyoto, reportedly played a key role through an online platform in recruiting Bangladeshis to ISIS and arranging their travel to Syria. There have been claims he may today even be the leader of the JMB faction – the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” – that is more closely identified with ISIS.[fn]“How JMB evolved to ‘Neo JMB’”,, 17 August 2016; “Islamic State claims they now have a regional commander in Bangladesh”,, 23 November 2015; “Bangladeshi who taught at Ritsumeikan among 10 suspects wanted by police over Dhaka attack: sources”, The Japan Times, 21 July 2016.Hide Footnote

According to Bangladeshi counter-terrorism officials, local jihadists began using ISIS propaganda to appeal to middle- and upper middle-class youth, and inducting former activists from Hizb-ut Tahrir, a pan-Islamist missionary movement that rejects jihadist violence, and retired military personnel.[fn]Crisis Group interview, counter-terrorism official, directorate general of forces intelligence, Dhaka, June 2017. Hizb-ut Tahrir is a transnational Islamist proselytising organisation that is banned in Bangladesh.Hide Footnote By the time of the 2016 Dhaka attack, some Ansar and JMB elements appear to have also formally pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[fn]“Glimpses into ‘jihadi’ minds”, The Daily Star, 2 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Many security and counter-terrorism experts believe that a new generation of jihadists, earlier linked to JMB or Ansar, now identifies more directly with ISIS than with purely homegrown entities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials, Dhaka, May-June 2017.Hide Footnote The government, however, refuses to acknowledge an ISIS presence in Bangladesh. Some police officials contend that acknowledgment of such a presence would be too politically costly at a time when the government claims counter-terrorism successes.[fn]

V. Flashpoints

A. Resentment in the Military

Soon after it assumed office in 2009, the Awami League faced a mutiny by personnel from the Bangladesh Rifles, a border security force. Around 74 people were killed, including senior counter-terror officials and 57 army officers. The consequences of the insurrection, including a subsequent shakeup that saw several officers removed or reassigned, continue to reverberate within an institution that has held the levers of political power for seventeen of Bangladesh’s 46 years as a state.[fn]In November 2013, a special court, trying 850 persons, including 23 civilians, for involvement in the 33-hour coup attempt, condemned 152 to death and 162 to life imprisonment. “8 years on, gruesome BRD mutiny still in memory”, Dhaka Tribune, 25 February 2017; “Real cause of BDR mutiny still a mystery”, Dhaka Tribune, 25 February 2014; “Death to 152 in Bangladesh Rifles mutiny case”, The Hindu, 5 November 2013.Hide Footnote

In November 2009, five serving and six former army officers were detained in the attempted murder of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s nephew, Awami League parliamentarian Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh. In January 2012, the army detained twelve officers for an alleged coup attempt. Although none was tried, most were dismissed on various grounds, most often indiscipline. Estimates of the number of officers sacked or forced into retirement since 2009 vary from 50 to 250.[fn]“Bangladesh military foils coup plot”, The Guardian, 19 January 2012; “The armed forces in four years of alliance rule: 197 dismissed, 161 left job”, Prothom Alo, 26 May 2013.Hide Footnote Many former officers, and even an adviser to Hasina at that time, believe the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny was used as a pretext by the Awami League government to restructure the army and purge it of more conservative pro-JeI and BNP elements that oppose the Awami League’s secularism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former army officers, Dhaka, June-July 2017. See also Crisis Group Report, mappMapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote

To quell further dissent and unrest among officers and soldiers, the government offers financial incentives: salary hikes, budget increases and lucrative government contracts to military-controlled entities involved in housing, transport and major infrastructure projects.[fn]“Project areas includes flood zone”, The Daily Star, 29 October 2010; Crisis Group Report, Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote While these concessions may have yielded a less interventionist military in the short term, the aftereffects of the mutiny and the subsequent purges, which one former general officer described as “both a physical and psychological scar”, may have pushed a small number of his colleagues toward jihadism.[fn]

Much as discontent in the military provides opportunities that jihadists might exploit, so too could the Rohingya crisis.

One of the officers implicated in the 2012 attempted coup, Major Syed Ziaul Hoque, reportedly became Ansar’s military commander.[fn]“Homegrown militants and ex-major behind Bangladesh attacks, police say”, Reuters, 30 June 2016.Hide Footnote Several young men living in residential quarters for former army officers were arrested in 2015 for attempting to establish ties to ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official, Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTC), Chittagong, June 2017.Hide Footnote The same year, a counter-terrorism official claimed that law enforcement officials had found military training manuals and military-issued uniforms and bullets during a 2015 raid of a jihadist hideout in Chittagong.[fn]“Arrested youth, Galib, planned to set up Islamic State like organization in Bangladesh”, Ittefaq, 31 May 2015; Crisis Group interview, CTTC official, Chittagong, June 2017.Hide Footnote Jihadist organisations are clearly trying to tap into military disgruntlement.

B. The Rohingya Crisis

Much as discontent in the military provides opportunities that jihadists might exploit, so too could the Rohingya crisis.[fn]“Bangladesh says to meet with Myanmar on Rohingya trapped at border”, Reuters, 19 February 2018. For more on the Rohingya crisis, see Crisis Group Statement, “The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar’s Transition”, 8 September 2017.Hide Footnote A brutal military campaign against the Rohingya in late 2017, following an attack on security personnel by the militant group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA, also called Harakah al-Yaqin) in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, forced close to 700,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017.Hide Footnote The Awami League government’s response has included confinement of Rohingyas to camps in border regions and diplomacy aimed at ensuring the refugees’ return, including through a late November repatriation agreement. Such efforts appear unlikely to bear fruit, given the Myanmar authorities’ uncompromising stance and because conditions in Rakhine state are not conducive to refugees returning in a safe and sustainable manner.[fn]The tenor of long-running discussions between the two countries on the subject suggests that this effort is unrealistic, as do Myanmar’s deliberately rigid standards and the continuing crackdown on and isolation of Rohingya communities. “Bangladesh agrees with Myanmar to complete Rohingya return in two years”, Reuters, 16 January 2018; “Number of refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh up to 480,000: Agencies”, Reuters, 25 September 2017; “‘Textbook example of ethnic cleansing’: 370,000 Rohingyas flood Bangladesh as crisis worsens”, The Washington Post, 12 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The Rohingya influx has significant security ramifications for Bangladesh, though the challenge for Bangladeshi authorities is to assess the dangers accurately and adopt a measured and sensible response. A large, stateless population with slim prospects of returning to Myanmar any time soon places enormous strain on authorities and host communities, raising the potential for friction between refugees and the local population.

That said, clearly it would be counterproductive – even offensive – to portray the long-suffering Rohingya community, for many of whom the past few months have brought unimaginable horrors, as jihadists in waiting. Some reports suggest that a small number from the refugee camps have joined the ARSA, though that group remains focused on Myanmar; as yet no evidence suggests it has ties to transnational jihadism.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, op. cit.Hide Footnote In the past, militant Rohingya groups had small bases in Bangladeshi territories and one, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, collaborated with Jamaat-ul Mujahideen on weapons and explosives training; and some counter-terrorism analysts believe that Ansar might be training and arming Rohingya militants today.[fn]

Regional and transnational jihadist networks have shown interest in exploiting the Rohingyas’ plight.

Certainly, too, regional and transnational jihadist networks have shown interest in exploiting the Rohingyas’ plight. An April 2016 issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s online magazine, included a Bangladeshi ISIS commander sounding a rallying cry to fight for Rohingya rights. Al-Qaeda had included Myanmar on a 2014 list of key targets, and in December 2016 its Bengali media output included a video call to arms to avenge the persecution of Arakan Muslims. In a mid-September 2017 article in the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed’s main publication, Masood Azhar, its leader, wrote: “All Muslims of the world must unite for this cause. We have to do something and do it urgently. Myanmar’s soil is earnestly waiting for the thumping sound of the footsteps of the conquerors”.[fn]“Myanmar’s Buddhist leader is a coward, unlike bin Laden”, Daily Times, 12 September 2017; “Militant outfits look to cash in on Rohingya crisis”, Dhaka Tribune, 13 September 2017.Hide Footnote Akayed Ullah, the Bangladeshi immigrant who detonated a pipe bomb in a New York subway corridor on 11 December 2017, had visited the Rohingya camps three months earlier.[fn]“Akayed visited Kutupalong Rohingya camp in October”, Dhaka Tribune, 14 December 2017; “A mysterious act of mercy by subway bombing suspect”, The New York Times, 18 December 2017.Hide Footnote That said, jihadists have long drawn attention to the suffering of Muslims around the world – including, for example, that of the Palestinians – to inspire attacks yet frequently this tactic does not translate into jihadist inroads into the conflicts in question.

Clearly, Bangladeshi authorities must remain alert to such dangers. Overall, though, their response to the Rohingya crisis should involve less counter-terrorism than humanitarian provision for a traumatised refugee population. They should concentrate as well on preventing and containing friction between Rohingyas and host communities.

VI. The State’s Response

A. Blunt Force

Since the 2016 Dhaka attack, law enforcement agencies have raided numerous jihadist hideouts in different parts of the capital, neighbouring Narayanganj and Gazipur, Chittagong, as well as in the north. Yet many counter-terrorism operations seem focused on killing those suspected of involvement with jihadist networks, rather than disrupting or dismantling those networks and countering their influence.[fn]For example, a month after the Dhaka attack, police raided an apartment in the densely populated Kalyanpur neighbourhood, claiming that nine militants had been killed in a standoff. Since no police were injured, many in the media speculated that the encounter was staged. Similarly, in August 2016, the police claimed to have killed the alleged mastermind of the 2016 Dhaka attack, Tamim Chowdhury, and two accomplices in a gun battle. But there were allegations that Chowdhury had been in police custody for at least two weeks before the supposed encounter. “9 militants killed in Dhaka hideout”, The Daily Star, 27 July 2016; “Extremism suspect killed in Lalbagh police raid”, New Age, 11 September 2016.Hide Footnote Some of these killings reportedly have been staged as “fake encounters” or gun battles between militants and police in which militants are killed.[fn]“Bangladesh: End disappearance and secret detentions”, Human Rights Watch, 6 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights organisation, estimates that there have been as many as 2,000 such killings since 2001 by the Rapid Action Battalion and police, with 128 in 2016 and 154 in 2017. This group also says at least 330 people, including alleged militants as well as opposition BNP and JeI members, have disappeared since the Awami League government came to office in 2009.[fn]See the following Odhikar publications: “Crossfire/gunfight from 2001-2007”; “Bangladesh: annual human rights report 2016” (undated); “Enforced disappearance 2009-2017 February” (March 2017); and “Bangladesh: annual human rights report 2017” (January 2018), p. 30.Hide Footnote Many others have been detained for long periods without charge. Among the latter category were two survivors of the 2016 Dhaka attack, Hasnat Karim and Tahmid Hasib. Family members claimed that law enforcement personnel had apprehended them from their homes without warrants after images/videos of supposedly suspicious behaviour during the siege emerged on social media. Hasib was detained for almost a year before being released without charge; Karim remains in custody, charged with involvement in the attack, though officials have provided few details.[fn]David Bergman, “Bangladesh’s secret detentions: The case of the two Dhaka attack hostages”, The Wire, 12 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Since the 2016 attack, the Dhaka metropolitan police’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit, rather than the Rapid Action Battalion, has been given the counter-terrorism lead, a shift in authority that aims, according to officials, to build specialised counter-terrorism expertise in the force. But instead of using intelligence for operations aimed at dismantling jihadist groups, the state’s response continues to consist mostly of killing suspected militants, as is evident in recent raids in Comilla, Chittagong, Sylhet, Rajshahi and elsewhere.[fn]“New JMB Rajshahi military chief killed in gunfight”, Dhaka Tribune, 3 March 2017.Hide Footnote A district police official acknowledged that extrajudicial killings were common.[fn]

Some law enforcement officials express concern that killing rather than apprehending militants wastes opportunities to obtain vital intelligence.

Many government and law enforcement officials believe the criminal justice system incapable of dealing effectively with terrorism cases, as delays and prolonged trials often end without convictions while militants recruit and proselytise in prisons. A former Rapid Action Battalion official claimed that jailed militants established protection rackets for petty criminals, whom they eventually recruit.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote A prison official suggested that prisons employ Islamic scholars: “I find myself at sea trying to argue religion with [detained] militants, who know a lot more about Islam than I do. How am I meant to prevent radicalisation here?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, district jail official, Chandpur, June 2017.Hide Footnote

Circumvention of the criminal justice system is clearly the wrong response, however. It undermines the state’s legitimacy, sows fear and mistrust between authorities and communities, and risks provoking a violent backlash. The culture of impunity it breeds also erodes professionalism in the security forces and in some cases appears to have encouraged other forms of criminality. Some members are involved in contract killings and kidnappings for ransom; in 2014, a spate of murders in Narayanganj involved top Rapid Action Battalion officials including a former army lieutenant colonel.[fn]In April 2014, seven people, including a Naranyanganj city councillor and a lawyer, were abducted and killed. At least 27 RAB officials, including three top officials seconded from the army, were found responsible for the contract killing commissioned by a rival politician of the ruling party. “7-murder: Nur Hossain, RAB commander Tareque, 24 others get death”, The Daily Star, 16 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Human rights activists argue that the culture of impunity around enforced disappearances and unlawful detention has a lasting impact on victims and their families and undercuts the government’s internal security objectives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote Extrajudicial killings feed jihadist propaganda about injustice; Ansar has shared images of those killed during the 2013 Hefazat protests through its Telegram channel to entice new recruits.[fn]

Some law enforcement officials also express concern that killing rather than apprehending militants wastes opportunities to obtain vital intelligence. A security official contended that a killing in 2015 in which he was involved might have cost law enforcement agencies an opportunity to uncover planning for and disrupt the 2016 Dhaka attack.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Dhaka, June-August 2017.Hide Footnote Other security officials said the killing of captured militants prevented investigation of suspected cells, including in regions close to Bangladesh’s border with India.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Inadequate investigations and questioning of arrested militants may lead to similarly squandered opportunities. A prominent human rights activist argued, for example, that more thorough investigations of arrested militants’ involvement in earlier attacks on foreigners could have yielded intelligence about impending attacks, including that same Dhaka attack.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-terrorism officials, Chittagong, June 2017; Nur Khan Liton, human rights activist, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Following the Money

Jihadist groups raise funds from multiple sources. Militants’ families apparently contribute considerable sums for individual attacks, to hide and train operatives, and to acquire weapons. Zakat, obligatory Islamic alms for the poor, was a major funding source for the previous generation of jihadists and is still tapped by such groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, serving and retired security officials, Dhaka, June 2017; “A year after Gulshan attack, police are still looking for five fugitives”, Dhaka Tribune, 1 July 2017; and Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Bangladesh’s long, porous borders with India and Myanmar pose particular challenges to countering the flow of illicit funds, some of which may end up bankrolling jihadist operations. Indeed, Bangladesh is “a trans-shipment point for drugs produced in both the ‘golden triangle’ of Southeast Asia and ‘golden crescent’ of Central Asia”.[fn]2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. State Department, 2014.Hide Footnote According to a former senior security official, jihadist outfits also depend on forged Indian currency from Pakistan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote Individuals as well as organisations from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in particular fund madrasas and mosques across Bangladesh, with some of the money apparently finding its way to jihadist groups.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.; “Militant funding: 17 foreign NGOs under intel surveillance”, Dhaka Tribune, 19 July 2017. See also “Saudi Arabia giving $20 million for Bangladesh mosques”,, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Particularly vexing is the jihadist use of hundi, an informal domestic and international money transfer mechanism. For the most part, this mechanism is benign: an estimated six million Bangladeshis working in the Middle East and South East Asia send home about $12-15 billion annually, about half of it through hundi.[fn]“Overseas employment remittances from 1976 to 2017”, Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment, Government of Bangladesh: Footnote But JMB has long run its own hundi operations that provide both profits and a secure method of moving funds.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, op. cit.Hide Footnote Moving small sums over time is a simple way of evading detection. The central bank, Bangladesh Bank, has had marginal success in screening these transfers. More promising are its attempts to make more attractive the use of regular banking channels for remittances.

The government has taken steps to counter money laundering and terrorist financing.

The government has taken steps to counter money laundering and terrorist financing. The 2009 Anti-Terrorism Act empowered Bangladesh Bank to freeze accounts and take other actions to curb criminal activity. The Money Laundering Prevention Act of 2012 and 2013 amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Act lengthened the list of money laundering offenses and expanded the categories of reporting entities, while widening the scope of legal sanctions. The 2012 Mutual Legal Assistance Act aimed to strengthen international cooperation efforts. And Bangladesh became a member of the Asia Pacific Group on money laundering in July 2013.

These efforts have met with international approval. In February 2014, the international Financial Action Task Force removed Bangladesh from its “grey list” which includes “jurisdictions with strategic AML [Anti-Money Laundering]/CFT [Combatting the Financing of Terrorism] deficiencies that have not made sufficient progress in addressing the deficiencies”,[fn]FATF website, Footnote and an October 2016 Asia Pacific Group assessment noted significant improvement in compliance with international anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing standards.[fn]“Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures: Bangladesh”, Mutual Evaluation Report, Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, October 2016; Basel AML Index Report, Basel Institute of Governance, 16 August 2017.Hide Footnote It also found that the Bangladesh Bank’s Financial Intelligence Unit effectively disseminated information to law enforcement and other agencies. The 2017 Basel anti-money laundering index, published by the Switzerland-based Babel Institute on Governance, ranked Bangladesh second in South Asia behind India.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Bangladeshi authorities now need to get better at investigating and prosecuting complex financial crimes. The state has won very few money laundering and terrorist financing convictions, though hundreds of cases are pending.[fn]“Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures: Bangladesh”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Law enforcement agencies lack the capacity to collate and understand financial intelligence, including that gathered by the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit, and at making use of that intelligence in their investigations.[fn]

C. Politicising Counter-terrorism

Rather than building political consensus on the threat posed by jihadist groups and how to tackle it, Prime Minister Hasina’s government has more often exploited the militants’ attacks to discredit the opposition. Awami League leaders accuse the BNP of assisting militants when it was in office from 2001-2006; some of them go so far as to accuse it of involvement in high-profile jihadist attacks since 2015.

Condemning the 2016 Dhaka attack, Hasina blamed those who “have resorted to terrorism after failing to win the hearts of people democratically”, a thinly veiled reference to the BNP and its JeI allies.[fn]“PM blames it on local, int’l quarters”, The Daily Star, 3 July 2016.Hide Footnote Even before the investigation into the August 2015 murder of Italian national Cesare Tavella started, Hasina pointed to the BNP and JeI; three weeks later the home minister, without evidence, named a BNP leader as the murder’s mastermind.[fn]Hasina was quoted as saying that the BNP and Jamaat have “definitely abetted these murders in an attempt to overshadow Bangladesh’s achievements”. “Hasina accused ‘BNP-Jamaat’ of killing foreigners in Bangladesh”,, 4 October 2015.Hide Footnote In October 2016, a year after police had charged seven people, including a mid-ranking BNP member, for that murder, the Rapid Action Battalion held JMB responsible. Even now that internal government documents attribute the killing to the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” and nothing suggests the BNP member who has been charged has ties to that group, his trial continues.[fn]Internal government documents provided to Crisis Group. “Tavella shot dead ‘by neo JMB’”, The Daily Star, 22 October 2016; “Bangladesh minister accuses BNP man of Italian’s murder”, Economic Times, 28 October 2015; “Bangladesh PM Hasina smells link of BNP-Jamaat”, The Daily Star, 5 October 2015.Hide Footnote

Notwithstanding the BNP’s mixed record of combatting militancy while in office in the 2000s, the governments’ accusations of BNP support for such groups today have little credibility and serve mainly as a way for the ruling party to tarnish its principal political rival. Similar accusations against JeI are equally politicised, as evidenced by the measures taken to force the party from politics and its base almost entirely underground. With the JeI weakened and many senior leaders executed following the war crimes trials, there is a risk that some supporters throw in their lot with harder-line groups, as avenues to pursue goals peacefully close.

The party’s student wing, Shibir, was once a key source of recruits for JMB, whose founder Shaikh Abdur Rahman was a Shibir member. One senior counter-terrorism official claimed that several former leaders of Shibir, which has a long history of violence, have joined jihadist organisations in recent years. It is, however, difficult to assess government and even nominally independent analysts’ claims of links between JeI and jihadists, particularly given the repression the JeI has suffered over the past years and the partisan agendas of many domestic observers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CTTC official, Dhaka, June 2017; and security analyst, January 2018. See also “New JMB’s Shibir connection”, Dhaka Tribune, 17 August 2017.Hide Footnote Leaders of JeI and its student wing deny allegations that party members have turned to jihadism, scorning those charges as a government conspiracy to discredit the party.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Chhatra Shibir central leadership, Dhaka and Magura, June-August 2017.Hide Footnote A Shibir leader said: “Judicial commissions had been formed in the past to find our links to militancy and found nothing”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Islami Chhatra Shibir finance secretary, Magura, April 2017.Hide Footnote Yet suppressing the largest Islamist party could, by pushing its supporters underground, work to jihadists’ advantage.

VII. Improving the Government’s Response

A. Reforming the Criminal Justice System

Law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh rely on brute force in part because the criminal justice system is enfeebled, with poor investigative capacity, weak prosecutors and a paralysing backlog of court cases. This is particularly the case in rural communities where significant jihadist recruitment takes place and police are poorly paid, prone to corruption and lacking in basic training. Together, these factors have allowed scores, possibly hundreds, of detained militants to escape punishment.[fn]“148 ‘militants’ out on bail create fresh threat”, Protom Alo, 13 June 2017.Hide Footnote

By resorting to extrajudicial methods to overcome these problems, the state plays into jihadists’ hands, as such tactics harden popular perceptions of politicisation and score settling. A prominent ex-military security analyst said: “If extrajudicial killings continue, there is a possibility we will get more and more extremists. They can now say, ‘we told you there is no rule of law and this is the evidence’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Major General (retired) Moniruzzaman, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote Killing alleged jihadists is doubly injurious: it validates this view while impeding intelligence gathering.

It seems some political leaders would rather continue to use the flawed justice system against rivals than reform it. But hampering the ability of the police and courts to tackle the threat presented by jihadist groups will almost certainly erode the government’s own position. To implement a more effective counter-terrorism strategy, it will need to address the causes of its deteriorating criminal justice system, notably obsolete investigation methods and resources as well as the failure to professionalise police and prosecution agencies.[fn]For detailed analysis and recommendations, see Crisis Group Report, Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice in Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

B. Political Reconciliation and Democratic Debate

Of equal importance, the government ought to redress the acute politicisation that has created space for the re-emergence of jihadist movements and hindered efforts to tame the threat they pose. That task will require a reorientation of present exclusionary policies. The Awami League, which claims to be the sole political custodian of the country’s constitutionally mandated secularism, has painted the opposition BNP as having been soft on militancy when in government and now, in opposition, reliant on groups such as JeI, which – the government argues – are friendly to or even conveyor belts toward jihadism.

That welter of accusations is dubious on several counts. Certainly, the BNP’s track record in office was at best inauspicious; its rule between 2001-2006 saw an increase in militant activity (see Section II above). But the Awami League government’s marginalisation of the BNP and JeI ahead of the December general election is politically motivated. Khaleda Zia’s 8 February conviction and five-year sentence for corruption, whose timing suits the Awami League’s electoral planning, could prohibit her from contesting the polls and widen divisions.[fn]The chief election commissioner said Zia cannot contest the next general election unless she persuades the Supreme Court to overturn her conviction or lessen her sentence. “Khaleda can’t run polls in present context: CEC”, The Daily Star, 19 February 2018.Hide Footnote At the same time, the government is making its own concessions to Islamists, notably Hefazat, whose views – it opposes the principle of a pluralist, secular democracy; allowing women in the workplace; or appointing Hindus to key government posts – are arguably harder-line than those of JeI.[fn]Hefazat leaders deny any direct political ambitions, though they do call themselves the “kingmaker” in Bangladeshi politics. Crisis Group interview, Munir Ahmed, press secretary to Allama Shah Ahmed Shafi, amir, Hefazat-e-Islam, Chittagong, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The BNP joint secretary general warned: 'Only a return to a multiparty democratic space can ensure solutions to rising militancy'.

In January 2017, responding to criticism from Hefazat, the government agreed to remove contributions by non-Muslim and secular authors in public school textbooks. In April, the education ministry agreed to recognise qaumi madrasa higher education degrees (known as dawra-e-Hadith) as equivalent to a master’s degree, despite the absence of regulation or enforcement of education standards in the madrasas. This decision effectively opened to madrasa graduates employment opportunities that are closed to others with the same limited formal schooling. The following month, Prime Minister Hasina supported Hefazat’s demand to remove a statue of Lady Justice, which the group deemed un-Islamic, in front of the Supreme Court.[fn]Secular activists and sections of the media denounced these measures as kowtowing to Islamist hardliners. See “Removal of statue is capitulation to communalism”, The New Age, 28 May 2017; “Lady Justice statue in Bangladesh is removed after Islamist objections”, The Guardian, 26 May 2017; “To secular Bangladeshis, textbook changes are a harbinger”, The New York Times, 22 January 2017. Even an Awami League leader went so far as to say that the government was trying to buy Hefazat’s support. Crisis Group interview, Awami League advisory council member, Dhaka, May 2017.Hide Footnote These concessions are effectively giving greater currency to the Hefazat’s hardline exclusionary agenda.

The government’s targeting of BNP and JeI risks doing jihadist groups a service. Not only does it divert police resources from disrupting jihadist recruitment and planning. But, in addition, by depriving JeI of legitimate platforms for dissent and exposing it to a harsh crackdown, the government might force some JeI activists to follow exactly the path it accuses them of taking already – the path toward finding common cause with militants. The BNP joint secretary general warned: “Only a return to a multiparty democratic space can ensure solutions to rising militancy”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, Bangladesh Nationalist Party joint secretary general, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote Some in the Awami League harbour similar misgivings, but the party’s top decision-makers fear losing to the BNP in a credible election, which would be the basis of any meaningful engagement between the two parties, and thus prefer the current stalemate.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Awami League members, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote

While the Supreme Court decision on the JeI’s participation in elections appears for now difficult to reverse, the government’s crackdowns on the party and the BNP are counterproductive. Instead, the Awami League would be better served by forging consensus with the BNP on how to tackle the threat. Zia’s conviction has made such a dialogue even more elusive. Her party, whose activists have already resorted to street agitation – which could turn violent – has said it will not field candidates in December if she remains imprisoned; another virtually uncontested election would further erode government legitimacy and risk violent BNP-Awami League clashes as in 2014.[fn]“BNP rules out going to election with Khaleda in jail”,, 18 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The Supreme Court could reduce Zia’s sentence on appeal to less than two years, thus removing any prohibition on her own electoral candidacy. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, in the interest of social peace, the Awami League should withdraw politically motivated corruption and criminal charges against Zia and other senior BNP officeholders and stop the repression of their supporters. The BNP should urge its cadres to exercise restraint, rather than turning to violence, and craft a compromise with the government. The alternative is continued confrontation and zero-sum politics that will increase the risks of another deeply contested election, with jihadists potentially taking advantage of any ensuing crisis or violence.

C. Curbing Recruitment: Engaging Bangladesh’s Youth

Police officers, lawyers, and others who have interacted with jihadists contend that large numbers of militants are drawn to jihadist ideas online prior to joining violent groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Dhaka, June-August 2017.Hide Footnote That said, there is little credible research on what drives recruitment or on the profile of those recruited, beyond approximate age group (15-35) and broad geographic location (with a heavy concentration in northern regions). Indeed, recruits show enormous diversity: from madrasa students to upper middle-class youth at private universities. A senior counter-terrorism official admitted: “We are struggling to disrupt recruitment”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dhaka, April 2017.Hide Footnote

The government has adopted some strategies beyond law enforcement to counter the appeal of jihadism. Its approach includes public awareness campaigns and training muezzins (mosque preachers) to give anti-militancy sermons at Friday prayers.[fn]The government has inter-ministerial committees instructing various ministries, including religious affairs, culture, information, education and law, to conduct counter-extremism campaigns. Ministry records suggest that Friday sermons against militancy have been delivered at over 300,000 mosques. Prominent international clerics have been invited to speak against radicalisation, and documentaries and television advertisements with the same message have been aired. Crisis Group interviews, government officials, Dhaka, August 2017.Hide Footnote But the effectiveness of such measures remains unproven and, in any case, they are inconsistently implemented.

Little has been done to regulate the qaumi madrasas, which teach around 1.4 million students in rural and other economically deprived areas, and which continue to supply a potential, if limited, pool of recruits and sympathisers.[fn]“Modernisation of madrasa education in Bangladesh: a strategy paper”, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, June 2011.Hide Footnote Aliya madrasas are largely state-funded and registered under the government-mandated Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board, which also designs curricula, holds exams and contracts textbook production. In contrast, the qaumi sector evades government supervision, even as security officials suggest tighter monitoring. The Awami League government’s decision to formally recognise a qaumi madrasa degree as equivalent to a master’s degree only makes these seminaries more attractive.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Awami League advisory council member, Dhaka, June 2017.Hide Footnote To be sure, the vast majority of madrasa students do not turn to jihadism, but the lack of government regulation allows for the promotion of sectarian intolerance and, in some cases, even incitement to violence. Until there is greater state oversight over the madrasa curriculum, the government should rescind its master’s degree decision.

The challenge goes well beyond the madrasa sector, though. Private university campuses like North South’s have also seen students drawn to jihadism, whereupon they have perpetrated some of the most lethal attacks at home and/or travelled to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria.[fn]“Latest Bangladeshi IS fighter killed in Iraq is Taz Rahman”, Dhaka Tribune, 12 May 2017; Saroj Kumar Rath, “Wolf-Pack terrorism: Inspired by ISIS, made in Bangladesh”, YaleGlobal Online, 5 July 2016.Hide Footnote Yet security agencies appear far more focused on countering opposition to the government than disrupting jihadism recruitment on campuses. While political polarisation deepens and the partisan crackdowns on the Awami League’s rivals continue, that is likely to remain the case.

VIII. Conclusion

Although there was no major attack in 2017, the potential for further jihadist violence in Bangladesh remains. The resurgence of jihadist groups over the past few years has been facilitated if not accelerated by years of political deadlock. While there is no direct line between toxic politics and the rise of jihadist violence, a bitterly divided polity, between those espousing secularism and those emphasising Bangladesh’s Muslim identity, and a brutal and highly partisan policing and justice system, nonetheless has opened space for jihadist groups. The politicised trials of senior JeI leaders contributed to the environment in which Ansar emerged. The BNP’s alliance with the JeI, whose activists, along with BNP cadres, have been responsible for much of the worst political violence since 2013, raises understandable concerns. Yet that violence was provoked by the attempt to drive JeI underground, itself the byproduct of a zero-sum game between the two largest parties.

Ending the deadlock is even more urgent today as Bangladesh confronts a new generation of potentially more dangerous jihadists with apparent links to transnational terror groups such as ISIS. Instead, Sheikh Hasina’s government has made no serious attempt to reconcile with the mainstream opposition, opting instead to waste police resources on repression of opponents. This choice has undermined both democracy and security, with countrywide violence bringing the country to a standstill for months at a time. Given the jihadist revival since then, another breakdown of law and order would almost certainly play into the hands of groups like Ansar and JMB. If the government does not change course, such forces may experience another resurgence.

Brussels, 28 February 2018

Appendix A: Map of Bangladesh

Map of Bangladesh UNITEDNATIONS/Department of Peacekeeping Operations, no. 3711 Rev. 2, January 2004.
A Rohingya refugee looks at the full moon with a child in tow at Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Report 292 / Asia

Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase

The mass flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine State has created a humanitarian catastrophe and serious security risks, including potential cross-border militant attacks. The international community should press the Myanmar government to urgently implement the Annan commission’s proposals, including as regards discrimination, segregation and citizenship.

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  • What’s the issue?  The response of Myanmar’s military to militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s (ARSA) August attacks has led to one of the most catastrophically fast refugee exoduses in modern times. More than 624,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, creating the world’s largest refugee camp.
  • Why does it matter?  The eviction of the Rohingya community from Myanmar is far from the end of the crisis. The situation is transforming Myanmar’s domestic politics and international relations, and potential future cross-border attacks by ARSA militants could increase tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
  • What should be done?  Imposing targeted sanctions can send an important message and potentially deter others from similar actions against minority communities. But they are unlikely to produce positive change in Myanmar. Even as they impose targeted sanctions, the international community should continue to provide humanitarian support for Rohingya refugees and resist pressure to disengage from the country.

Executive Summary

Three months after militant attacks triggered a brutal army operation targeting Rohingya Muslim communities in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, more than 624,000 have fled to Bangladesh, one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times. In addition to unimaginable human suffering, the crisis has transformed Myanmar’s domestic politics and international relations and will have a huge impact on the regional security landscape.

Myanmar is rapidly losing what remains of the enormous international good-will that its political transition had generated. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in particular has been widely criticised for failing to use her moral authority and domestic legitimacy to shift anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar and the government’s current course. Meanwhile, the exodus continues and will likely soon reach its tragic end point: the almost complete depopulation of Rohingya from northern Rakhine State.

As the world struggles to define a response, and as the crisis enters a new, fraught and highly uncertain phase, several important elements need to be borne in mind. First, there needs to be continued insistence on the right of refugees to return in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner. At the same time, the grim reality is that the vast majority of the Rohingya in Bangladesh will not be going home any time soon. This presents the enormous humanitarian challenge of sustaining lives and dignity in the largest refugee camp in the world. It also presents grave political and security risks that need to be addressed, including potential cross-border attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group and possible transnational terrorism.

Second, it is important to recognise that Myanmar’s political direction has been set and will be extremely difficult to change. The strength of the national consensus is hard to overstate: the government, military and almost the entire population of the country are united on this issue as on no other in its modern history. This will make it extraordinarily difficult to move official policy. Any imposition of sanctions thus requires careful deliberation: they can help send a welcome signal that might deter others around the world contemplating similar actions, but they are unlikely to produce positive change in Myanmar and, depending on what precisely is done, could make the situation worse.

This report examines the lead-up to the ARSA attacks on 25 August 2017, revealing new and significant details about the group’s preparations, and the attacks themselves. This is based on research in Myanmar and Bangladesh since October 2016, including interviews with members of ARSA, analysis of WhatsApp messages sent by the group and its supporters, publicly-posted videos and interviews with villagers in Rakhine State and recently-arrived refugees in Bangladesh. Much of the research has been done by experienced personnel fluent in the Rohingya language.  The report also assesses the impact the crisis will have on Myanmar. Finally, it discusses some possible international policy responses.

Brussels, 7 December 2017

I. Background to the Crisis

While the current crisis is rooted in longstanding discrimination and denial of human rights, the immediate trigger was the emergence of a militant group within the Rohingya population in the north of Rakhine State.[fn]For detailed background on the situation in Rakhine State, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013. For other recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 149, Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, 19 October 2016; 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; also Asia Reports N°s 290, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, 5 September 2017; 287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017; 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote This hardened national sentiment toward the Rohingya and shifted the calculus of the security forces.

Harakah al-Yaqin, subsequently rebranded in English as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), first began organising itself after deadly communal violence in 2012. It launched its initial attacks – coordinated assaults on the Border Guard Police (BGP) headquarters and two other bases – on 9 October 2016. Previous armed militant groups had been based in the hills (the Arakan mujahidin in the 1950s), or launched hit-and-run attacks from across the border in Bangladesh (for example the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation in the 1990s). In contrast, ARSA operates from within Rohingya villages, using cells of villagers who have been given some basic training but most of whom do not have access to firearms, only bladed weapons and some improvised explosive devices (IEDs).[fn]See Crisis Group Report, A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In response to the October 2016 attacks, the military deployed overwhelming retaliatory force against nearby villages, followed by extensive “clearance operations” – brutal counter-insurgency operations that the military has used for decades in other parts of the country – with the stated purpose of recapturing the dozens of small arms and thousands of rounds of ammunition looted by ARSA.[fn]For details on the Myanmar military’s counterinsurgency approach, known as the “four cuts”, see Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 2nd ed. (London, 1999), p. 288 ff.; Andrew Selth, Burma’s Armed Forces (Norwalk, 2001), pp. 91-92; and Maung Aung Myoe, “Military Doctrine and Strategy in Myanmar”, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, working paper 339, 1999, p. 10.Hide Footnote When troops came under attack from militants and villagers and a senior officer was killed, the military further escalated, including the use of helicopter gunships in civilian areas. Over the following weeks, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and security forces burned down several thousand homes.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote A United Nations (UN) human rights office report found the “very likely commission of crimes against humanity”.[fn]“Interviews with Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar since 9 October 2016”, Flash Report, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) mission to Bangladesh, 3 February 2017.Hide Footnote A retired senior army officer noted that it would have been more effective to use the police to achieve the operation’s stated purpose of recovering the looted weapons and ammunition (most were not found).[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yangon, March 2017.Hide Footnote

In the months following the October 2016 attacks, ARSA set about consolidating its authority in Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine and preparing for the next round of attacks. It did this through the targeted killings of dozens of Rohingya men with links to the authorities (such as village heads, other local administrators and suspected informers), ramped up training in the hills as well as IED production in safe houses. The authorities were aware of these developments, with the state media reporting many of the killings as well as the discovery of IED factories. For them, the next ARSA attacks were seen as a matter of when, not if.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials and military officers, Yangon, Naypyitaw and Sittwe, November 2016-August 2017; “Rakhine slayings by insurgents”, Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM), 22 July 2017. GNLM is the state-owned English-language daily. For details on discovery of IED production sites, see section II below.Hide Footnote  

II. Build-up to the Crisis

In the months before the August 2017 ARSA attacks, a series of incidents suggested an uptick in ARSA training and preparation, putting Rakhine Buddhist villagers and the security forces on edge:

  • On 4 May, the accidental detonation of an IED during an ARSA explosives training course in Kyaung Taung village tract (north Buthidaung) killed seven men including the instructor, and injured at least five others. According to a reliable source close to the events, the instructor was Pakistani, not Rohingya. He was badly injured and died in Padakar Ywar Thit village tract (Maungdaw) while being carried to Bangladesh for treatment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local villagers with direct knowledge of the events, Rakhine State, May 2017. It appears there was a subsequent – possibly related – mass killing by the army of “at least scores” of Rohingya in an adjacent village (Min Gyi, or Tula Toli) on 30 August. “‘My World Is Finished’: Rohingya Targeted in Crimes Against Humanity in Myanmar”, Amnesty International, 18 October 2017, p. 21.Hide Footnote The people carrying him asked a village head to arrange his burial in a local cemetery but after being informed of the situation, security officials arrested the village head and took the body to Buthidaung hospital. These officials were the source of domestic Myanmar media reports some days later about the death of a foreign militant.
  • On 7 May, security forces investigating the IED detonation discovered the training camp and bomb-making materials. Six days later, the government announced it had found the bodies of five victims buried nearby, which they said included two foreigners. This prompted security forces to undertake violent evictions and clearance operations in the area (particularly around adjacent Tin May village tract), killing several people and prompting some families to flee to Bangladesh in May and June.[fn]While the government says two foreigners were killed in the 4 May incident, ARSA sources say there was only one, the Pakistani trainer who died. Six other people died, four on the spot and one later at a medical facility in Bangladesh. Five injured people received treatment at different medical facilities in Bangladesh; three were reportedly arrested by the Bangladeshi authorities. Crisis Group interviews, medical staff, Bangladesh, May 2017; refugees from Tin May, Bangladesh, May-July 2017. See also “Five Bodies Found in Buthidaung”, The Irrawaddy, 15 May 2017; “Five bodies unearthed near 5 May explosion site in Buthidaung”, GNLM, 16 May 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On June 20-21, the government reported that security forces had killed three men while clearing a likely ARSA training camp in the mountains near Sein Hnyin Pyar village tract (south Buthidaung).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local villagers, June 2017; “Terrorist training camps, guns uncovered in Mayu Mountains”, GNLM, 22 June 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On 24 June, four Rakhine Buddhist villagers came across bomb-making material while foraging in Kyun Pauk Pyu Su village tract (north Maungdaw). ARSA members shot two of them dead; the two others, one of whom was injured, fled and alerted authorities. However, ARSA members apparently removed the incriminating material before the security forces reached the spot. This was the first known case of ARSA killing non-Rohingya civilians, and significantly increased anxiety among Rakhine Buddhist villagers; some 200 fled to Maungdaw town, fearing ARSA attacks. On 27 June, security forces in the area were placed on high alert; on 30 June, senior government officials in Naypyitaw discussed the situation at a “special meeting on Rakhine State”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ARSA member with knowledge of the events, June 2017. See also, “Four local ethnic people were attacked by swords and killed two”, GNLM, 26 June 2017; “Troops in Myanmar’s Rakhine on high alert after killings of Rohingya”, Reuters, 27 June 2017; “Special meeting on Rakhine issue held”, GNLM, 1 July 2017. The “special meeting” comprised the president, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, vice presidents one and two, the legislative speakers, deputy commander-in-chief, relevant ministers, and national security adviser.Hide Footnote
  • On 1 August, authorities reported that an IED accidentally exploded at an ARSA safe house in Pan Taw Pyin village tract (Maungdaw) and that they found explosives and other bomb-making material at the house.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local Rohingya villagers, August 2017; “IED explodes in Maungdaw”, GNLM, 2 August 2017.Hide Footnote Two days later, eight members of the Mro ethnic group, both men and women, were killed in the hills of Maungdaw township. The government immediately blamed ARSA, although some local villagers say the killings were related to the illicit methamphetamine trade.[fn]According to local sources, the area is on a methamphetamine smuggling route from Buthidaung to Bangladesh, and there had been previous tensions between the Mro village and a nearby NaTaLa (Buddhist resettlement) village, but generally good relations with nearby Rohingya villages; the method of killing of the Mro was not consistent with ARSA assassinations, which normally involve a machete cut to the neck. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya villagers in the area, August 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On 4 August, BGP clashed with a group of villagers in Auk Nan Yar village tract, Rathedaung township, firing a dozen or more shots while trying to disperse a 300-strong crowd angry over the arrest of villagers suspected of being associated with ARSA, including a prominent local imam. During the clash, one of the suspected militants escaped; local villagers reported several injuries from gunshots, including four people taken to Bangladesh for treatment.

There were already significant tensions in the area. On 27 July 2017, a Rakhine villager had gone missing while foraging in nearby Chut Pyin village tract. Three days later, while searching in the surrounding hills, security forces and villagers discovered a stash of tarpaulins and food, including World Food Programme (WPF)-branded energy biscuits (see section V.A below), which they took to be an ARSA camp. Believing militants killed the missing person, Rakhine villagers declared a boycott of Muslims in the area. In the nearby village of Zay Di Pyin, Buddhist villagers blocked all access roads with barbed wire and prevented residents from going to work or accessing the mosque, food markets and water sources.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local villagers, August 2017. See also “Tents of violent attackers discovered in Mayu Mountain”, GNLM, 1 August 2017; “Attack on police force arresting financial supporter of violent attackers in Yathedaung”, GNLM, 5 August 2017; “Rohingya villagers blockaded amid fresh tensions in Myanmar’s Rakhine – residents”, Reuters, 22 August 2017.Hide Footnote According to various sources, on 27 August, security forces and local vigilantes perpetrated a mass killing of “at least scores” of Rohingya villagers in Chut Pyin.[fn]Amnesty International, op. cit., p. 13.Hide Footnote

These events provoked heightened nervousness. On 9 August 2017, the commander-in-chief and other senior military officers met with leaders of the Arakan National Party, the largest party in Rakhine State – a rare meeting between the top brass and a political party. The party expressed concerns about the security situation in northern Rakhine and requested the arming of local Rakhine Buddhist militias. That same day, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi convened a ministerial meeting on the security situation in Rakhine to discuss the recent killings and rising tensions. The following day, the government highlighted its deployment of some 500 troops to northern Rakhine to reassure local non-Muslim villagers and conduct patrols in the mountains between Maungdaw and Buthidaung where militants were suspected of having established training camps.[fn]See Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Facebook post, 10 August 2017,; “State Counsellor, Union Ministers hold talks on security in Rakhine State”, GNLM, 10 August 2017; “Myanmar Army Deployed in Maungdaw”, The Irrawaddy, 11 August 2017.Hide Footnote

The escalatory dynamic was well under way. On 16 August, ARSA uploaded a video of its commander, Ata Ullah, flanked by armed fighters and warning the Myanmar military to demilitarise northern Rakhine State and end abuses of Rohingya; he specifically cited the blockade of Rohingya villagers in Zay Di Pyin. He reiterated that the group had no relation with international jihadist groups and said that, contrary to government assertions, it did not target Rakhine civilians.[fn]ARSA Commander Addresses Rohingya diaspora & the world; Warns Myanmar military”, video, YouTube, 16 August 2017.Hide Footnote  

III. ARSA Attacks and Military Response

A. ARSA Attacks

In the early hours of 25 August 2017, from 1am until dawn, ARSA launched attacks on some 30 BGP posts and an army base.[fn]The information in this sub-section comes from Crisis Group interviews with ARSA members, Rohingya in Rakhine State and refugees in Bangladesh, August-October 2017; and from analysis of WhatsApp audio messages sent by Ata Ullah and others.Hide Footnote Their human wave attacks in some cases involved hundreds of people, mostly untrained local villagers armed with farm tools as well as some hand-held and remote-detonated IEDs. A small number of further clashes occurred over the next several days. The official death toll was fourteen members of the security forces, one government official and 371 people the government characterised as militants.[fn]Death toll listed in “Humanitarian aid provided to displaced people without segregation”, GNLM, 6 September 2017.Hide Footnote

ARSA initiated the attacks via a WhatsApp audio message delivered shortly after 8pm on 24 August. It instructed cell leaders to mobilise all male villagers over the age of fifteen, assemble in pre-planned locations with whatever sharp objects were available and attack designated targets. Many ordinary villagers apparently responded to the call, which was often conveyed by respected local Islamic clerics (known as “Mullahs” or “Maulvis”) or scholars (“Hafiz”) who seemingly made up most cell leaders and who enjoy considerable religious and community authority. Many untrained villagers were provided with IEDs for use in the attacks.

The targets were mostly small police posts and checkpoints, except for the army base in Chin Tha Mar village (near Nga Yant Chaung or Taung Bazar), Buthidaung township, though not many villagers appear to have joined this attack, which was quickly overpowered. ARSA members claim they planned to attack additional targets but that some police posts were deserted when militants reached them. Other targets were more heavily defended than expected and the attackers suffered heavy casualties. The security forces assert that they had several hours advance warning; whether accurate or not, they clearly were expecting attacks at some point.

On 25 August, ARSA issued a series of messages apparently intended both to instil confidence and resolve among its members and followers and to promote and glorify martyrdom, the goal being to encourage lightly armed male villagers to participate in highly risky attacks. Some messages falsely claimed that ARSA was taking control of the areas it attacked. Members were also reassured that armed reinforcements had been dispatched; they never arrived.

On 28 August, Ata Ullah issued WhatsApp audio messages instructing his followers to burn down Rakhine Buddhist villages with Molotov cocktails. This was in direct contradiction to the group’s repeatedly stated policy and prior approach, which was to refrain from attacking non-security targets. The reason for this change is not clear, though it may have been because non-Rohingya vigilantes from nearby villages were helping the military burn Rohingya villages during clearance operations. ARSA might have concluded that Rakhine and other non-Rohingya villagers therefore were a fair target.[fn]The Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist ethnic group, make up the majority of the non-Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State, but numerous other ethnic groups live in the area and some have also reportedly been involved in vigilante attacks. See Amnesty International, op. cit.Hide Footnote In the event, the order does not appear to have been widely acted upon as only three non-Rohingya villages are known to have been attacked or burned down by Rohingya.[fn]On 28 August 2017, there were deadly attacks on the Rakhine Buddhist village of Auk Pyu Ma and the Mro village of Khon Taing (Pa Da Kar Ywar Thit village tract), as well as an earlier attack on the Daingnet village of Aung Zan (all in Maungdaw township). ARSA’s involvement in attacks on two Hindu villages (Myo Thu Gyi and Kha Maung Seik) is alleged, but not confirmed.Hide Footnote

One particularly high-profile case is the alleged massacre by ARSA of dozens of Hindu men and women in Kha Maung Seik (also known as Fakira Bazar) in Maungdaw township. Conflicting accounts of the incident and of who was responsible have surfaced. Survivors who fled to Bangladesh initially told Bangladeshi journalists in late-August that the killers were Rakhine militants; others said later that they wore masks, preventing identification. The first report of the incident by Myanmar media on 5 September 2017 attributed the killings to ARSA, based on interviews with survivors in Myanmar. A more detailed account reaching the same conclusion was posted on Facebook on 13 September by a Rakhine nationalist parliament member who investigated the incident. The security forces reported finding and exhuming a mass grave containing the victims’ bodies on 24 September; these subsequently were cremated. It is not clear what forensic evidence remains.[fn]“Hindus too fleeing persecution in Myanmar”, The Daily Star (Bangladesh), 31 August 2017; “Mystery surrounds deaths of Hindu villagers in Myanmar mass graves”, The Guardian, 12 October 2017; “Dozens of Hindus Killed in Maungdaw: Relatives”, The Irrawaddy, 5 September 2017; Kyaw Zaw Oo (Arakan National Party, Sittwe-2 constituency), Facebook post, 12 September 2017,; See “45 Hindu corpses cremated”, GNLM, 29 September 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Catastrophic Military Response

A brutal military response that failed to discriminate between militants and the general population, followed by continued insecurity and restrictions that have imperilled livelihoods, has driven more than 624,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. This is one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times and has created the largest refugee camp in the world. A large proportion of Rohingya villages in the area have been systematically reduced to ashes by both troops and local Rakhine vigilante groups that were equipped and supported by the military following the 25 August ARSA attacks.

This [Rohingya crisis] is one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times and has created the largest refugee camp in the world.

Grim details of the military and local vigilante campaign of violence, described by the UN as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (a characterisation that has now been echoed by the United States) and by human rights groups as crimes against humanity, have been set out in a series of detailed reports by these organisations. They document widespread, unlawful killings by the security forces and vigilantes, including several massacres; rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and children; the widespread, systematic, pre-planned burning of tens of thousands of Rohingya homes and other structures by the military, BGP and vigilantes across northern Rakhine State from 25 August until at least October 2017; and severe, ongoing restrictions on humanitarian assistance for remaining Rohingya villagers.[fn]See, in particular, Amnesty International, op. cit., as well as “Destroyed areas in Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Rathedaung Townships of Rakhine State”, UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)/UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) imagery analysis, 16 November 2017; “Burma: New Satellite Images Confirm Mass Destruction”, Human Rights Watch, 17 October 2017; “Mission report of OHCHR rapid response mission to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 13-24 September 2017”, OHCHR, October 2017; “U.N. sees ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar”, Reuters, 11 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group’s analysis of population data for northern Rakhine State from various sources suggests that around 85 per cent of the Rohingya population in these three townships has fled to Bangladesh over the last twelve months, leaving behind only 100,000-150,000. There are also some 320,000 Muslims in central Rakhine State, many but not all of whom identify as Rohingya; 120,000 of these have been confined to displacement camps since communal violence in 2012.[fn]Analysis based on 2014 census estimates of non-enumerated (Rohingya) population; government 2016 General Administration Department figures; UN figures for camp populations; and community estimates of Rohingya population by township, all broadly consistent. There are 20,000-plus Muslims in southern Rakhine, where communal relations tend to be better.Hide Footnote

The three northern townships were impacted in somewhat different ways:

  • Maungdaw township was the focus of ARSA attacks on 25 August 2017 and in October 2016. It had the largest Rohingya population and shares the longest border with Bangladesh (river and land, as well as adjacent seaboard). It bore the brunt of the military response and it appears that almost the entire township has been depopulated of Rohingya, apart from some parts of Maungdaw town and a small number of villages.[fn]UNITAR/UNOSAT imagery analysis, op. cit.Hide Footnote
  • Buthidaung township has historically been less affected by violence and displacement than Maungdaw. It also shares a land border with Bangladesh, along the hilly and hard to access northern part of the township; most of the population lives in the south. There were no ARSA attacks here in October 2016, only a small number in August 2017, to which the initial military response appears to have been more localised and limited. Far fewer Rohingya villages were initially burned here compared to Maungdaw. While the military response and burnings triggered some immediate departures to Bangladesh, the vast majority left later to escape untenable living conditions: continued burning of villages and attacks or threats by Rakhine vigilantes plus new, severe movement restrictions that deprived people of their normal means of survival from farming, fishing, foraging and trading. With humanitarian assistance also heavily restricted, communities came to the decision in late September 2017 that they had no choice but to make the long and dangerous journey in large groups, over the mountains to Maungdaw and on to Bangladesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, villagers, Buthidaung and Bangladesh, August-November 2017.Hide Footnote
  • Rathedaung township, unlike Maungdaw and Buthidaung, is a Rakhine Buddhist-majority area that does not share a border with Bangladesh. One of the three October 2016 ARSA attacks was here, in Koe Tan Kauk (close to the boundary with Maungdaw); the government claimed an ARSA attack in this area on 25 August 2017. Subsequent anti-Rohingya violence and threats had a much greater communal component. Nearly all Rohingya in the township have now fled to Bangladesh, apart from five villages with no viable escape route and only very limited access to food or humanitarian support.[fn]“‘We will kill you all’ – Rohingya villagers in Myanmar beg for safe passage”, Reuters, 17 September 2017.Hide Footnote

In addition to the massive Rohingya exodus, the crisis also led to the displacement of some 27,000 non-Rohingya villagers and government employees in northern Rakhine, most of whom fled the initial ARSA attacks and subsequent clashes. Nearly all moved or were evacuated inland, to the main towns of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Sittwe. The government is now strongly encouraging them to return and begin rebuilding their damaged or destroyed houses.[fn]“Ethnic IDPs who fled homes due to terrorist attacks”, GNLM, 6 September 2017; “Rakhine State Govt to Close Hindu, Ethnic Arakanese Displaced Person Camps”, The Irrawaddy, 30 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Since 25 August 2017, the government has blocked access to northern Rakhine State by the UN and most other humanitarian actors. The Red Cross movement (the International Committee, International Federation, and Myanmar Red Cross Society) have been permitted to work, although they face delays and restrictions as well as enormous logistical challenges in reaching populations in need; they have called for other humanitarian actors to be granted access. On 6 November, the World Food Programme was able to resume food aid to Rohingya and non-Rohingya communities through the government but with no staff access to monitor distribution directly.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international humanitarian staff, Yangon, September-November 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Dangers Ahead

A. Repatriation Remains a Distant Hope

More than 624,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the last three months. Myanmar’s neighbours and other members of the international community must insist on their right of return and press the Myanmar authorities to create conditions conducive to a voluntary and safe repatriation. At the same time, prospects are extremely dim for the return of any significant number of Rohingya refugees to their home areas in Myanmar in the short or medium term.

Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a repatriation agreement on 23 November 2017 in Naypyitaw.[fn]“Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State”, 23 November 2017.Hide Footnote While it was politically expedient for both sides – Bangladesh to signal that it will not host the refugees indefinitely, and Myanmar to respond to charges of ethnic cleansing and ease pressure for action – it should be seen as a statement of intent rather than a sign that return is imminent. On paper, the criteria for returnees to be accepted by Myanmar are not too onerous: they need to have left Myanmar after 9 October 2016 (ruling out historical caseloads) and to provide evidence of bona fide residence in Myanmar, with no need for any particular documentation (an address should be sufficient).

But the main obstacle to repatriation is that most [refugees] are very unlikely to want to do so.

But the main obstacle to repatriation is that most are very unlikely to want to do so (according to the agreement, returns must be voluntary). The conditions on the ground in northern Rakhine are far from conducive, and the exodus of deeply traumatised refugees continues. There is lack of clarity from Myanmar on whether they would be allowed to return to their villages of origin and reclaim their farmland. The agreement also provides for the issuance of National Verification Cards at the point of return – a document most Rohingya reject out of fear that it will codify second-class citizenship status. The government and security forces have expressed concern about the presence of “terrorists” (that is, ARSA) or their supporters among the refugees, warning they would arrest such individuals upon return, which suggests returnees will be subject to extreme scrutiny or vetting. Another major obstacle is that Rakhine Buddhist leaders and communities are strongly opposed to the return of any Rohingya refugees.

A repatriation effort on this scale would overwhelm Myanmar’s capacity and resources.

Even if these obstacles could be overcome, a repatriation effort on this scale would overwhelm Myanmar’s capacity and resources; a senior official asserted that only 300 could be processed per day. Myanmar has consistently declined any role for the UN Refugee Agency, which could mobilise the necessary support as well as credibility in the eyes of the Rohingya and internationally; the bilateral agreement does not require it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, September-November 2017; “Sales from Maungtaw paddy kept as national budget”, GNLM, 12 November 2017; “Govt Suggests Possible Daily Repatriation of 300 Rohingya Refugees”, The Irrawaddy, 30 October 2017; “Tensions over Rohingya return highlight donor dilemmas”, Nikkei Asian Review, 27 October 2017; “Returning Rohingya may lose land, crops under Myanmar plans”, Reuters, 22 October 2017; “‘Caged Without a Roof’: Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State”, Amnesty International, 21 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Fundamentally, neither the government nor security forces possess the political will to create conditions for voluntary return and implement a credible and effective process to that end. This raises the prospect of a long-term concentration of hundreds of thousands of traumatised Rohingya confined to squalid camps in Bangladesh, with no obvious way out or hope for the future. That would not only be a human tragedy, but also a grave security threat. Such a context would be ripe for mobilising further violent responses and potential transnational jihadist recruitment.

B. Security Risks

ARSA may still be reeling from the enormity of the crisis that its attacks triggered; tellingly, no videos of Ata Ullah have been released since 28 August 2017. Still, it appears determined to regroup and remain relevant. A Twitter account that likely represents the group remains active. It issued a statement on 7 October 2017 announcing the end of its unilateral ceasefire two days later, putting pressure on the group to demonstrate its continued capabilities. ARSA has not launched any new attack since then, but will undoubtedly strive to do so.[fn]“Assessment of the humanitarian pause”, ARSA press statement, 7 October 2017. The Twitter handle is @ARSA_Official; the 28 August video is available at Footnote

Given how ARSA is organised, this will require a significant departure from its previous way of operating. Rather than basing uniformed, armed militants in camps, ARSA has, to date, organised cells within hundreds of villages, led by a network of respected local leaders, including young Mullahs. It attempted to incite a general uprising among the population, overrunning police posts using overwhelming numbers of ordinary villagers with farm tools, rather than military might. Yet operating under cover of the civilian population is no longer possible given that few Rohingya villages remain. Most of the group’s organisers and fighters are now in the Bangladesh camps, having fled along with the rest of the population.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ARSA members and well-placed individuals in the camps, Bangladesh, September-November 2017. For details on ARSA organisation, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The group may thus shift to cross-border attacks, which would require different training, access to weapons as well as operating space in Bangladesh. Acquiring that space might now be more realistic given Bangladesh’s anger and frustration toward Myanmar. If ARSA launches cross-border attacks, it could aim at opportunistic security targets in northern Rakhine or turn to attacking any non-Muslim villagers resettled on Rohingya lands, an easier target.

Inevitably, such attacks would have profoundly negative consequences. They would escalate tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar and could potentially lead to clashes between the two countries’ militaries. New ARSA attacks would reinforce anti-Rohingya sentiment within Myanmar and prompt heightened security measures that would further diminish prospects for an eventual refugee return. Moreover, attacks against Rakhine Buddhist villagers would inflame anti-Muslim sentiment in general and could tip central Rakhine State, so far untouched by the recent violence, into crisis. Intercommunal relations are now on a knife-edge, which further constrains the ability of Muslims in the area to move freely and access services and livelihoods. Communal attacks there are a very real threat, and unlike their coreligionists in northern Rakhine, these communities have no viable escape routes.

While new ARSA attacks could provoke further violence, international jihadist groups represent a far bigger security threat to Myanmar.

Finally, while new ARSA attacks could provoke further violence, international jihadist groups represent a far bigger security threat to Myanmar. The country has justified what it calls clearance operations by arguing the nation faces a terrorist threat. This could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The plight of the Rohingya has captured the attention of the Muslim world, becoming a cause célèbre like perhaps no other since Kosovo.

Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other jihadist groups, which have long issued statements of solidarity with the Rohingya for propaganda purposes, are now calling directly for attacks on Myanmar and its leaders. Most recently, on 27 October 2017, the media arm of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent released a video message from the group’s leader, Abu Syed al-Ansari, repeating calls for a jihad against Myanmar in support of the Rohingya. Myanmar is not prepared to prevent or deal with such an attack, which could be directed or merely inspired by these jihadist groups. Any attack, particularly on a religious target in a major city, would shred the fraught relations between Buddhists and Muslims across Myanmar, potentially sparking widespread communal violence; there are Muslim communities in most cities and many rural areas in Myanmar.[fn]See “Bangladesh dragging feet over repatriating Rohingya refugees, says Myanmar”, Reuters, 1 November 2017. For examples of earlier propaganda statements see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit., section V.E.Hide Footnote

C. Impact within Myanmar

Extreme Buddhist nationalist sentiment, a growing concern in Myanmar in recent years, has contributed to – and been reinforced by – the current crisis. This has included anti-Rohingya hate speech in state media under the civilian government’s editorial control and in sermons by prominent Buddhist monks.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Report, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, op. cit. See also a 2016 editorial (in Burmese and English) referring to the Rakhine State violence as caused by “detestable human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench”; “A flea cannot make a whirl of dust, but …”, GNLM, 27 November 2016.Hide Footnote

A sermon by Sitagu Sayadaw, one of Myanmar’s most revered monks and a leading doctrinal authority, is particularly alarming. Preaching to military officers at a garrison and training college in Kayin State on 30 October 2017, he urged unity between the military and monkhood, then appeared to provide a religious justification for the mass killing of non-Buddhists. He recounted a well-known fifth century legend from Sri Lanka commonly used in Myanmar to justify violence in defence of the faith, telling the soldiers that no matter how much they had to fight, they should remember that non-Buddhists killed were “not fully human”. The sermon and local media reporting of it have been widely shared on social media, with many Myanmar people expressing support, though some have voiced unease or opposition.[fn]See Matthew J. Walton, “Religion and Violence in Myanmar: Sitagu Sayadaw’s Case for Mass Killing”, Foreign Affairs, 6 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The government and military’s repeated, blanket denials of wrongdoing, widely disseminated in English and Burmese via state media, further reinforce a climate of impunity. This is particularly dangerous given that negative sentiments toward the Rohingya population are widespread at all levels of the military and in society as a whole. A recent editorial in the state paper dismissed “baseless accusations against the Myanmar Armed Forces” and stated that “it certainly does not take a legal expert to come to the conclusion that all those village[r]s who took part in the raids are also punishable under the anti-terrorism law. This fact may perhaps explain why nearly half-a-million people decided to cross over to … Bangladesh”.

A detailed internal investigation by the military concluded that troops fired “not a single shot” on civilians and that “all security members … strictly abided by the orders”, a further signal of impunity. In a 21 September speech to northern Rakhine State troops, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing honoured “brilliant efforts to restore regional peace, security” and warned that a “race cannot be swallowed by the ground but only by another race” (a well-known Burmese saying that is also the motto of the immigration department). In a 15 November meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson, he stated that those who had fled to Bangladesh were ARSA terrorists and their families.[fn]“Rakhine State affair and cooperation”, GNLM, 2 November 2017; “Troops did not commit sexual violence nor killed civilians: Investigation Team”, GNLM, 14 November 2017, p. 10; Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Facebook posts, 21 September 2017, and 16 November 2017, See also the dated immigration ministry website at Footnote

Beyond the risk of further abuses against the Rohingya, the authorities have reinforced an ugly strand of nationalism that will outlast the current crisis and could be channelled to target other minorities.

Beyond the risk of further abuses against the Rohingya, the authorities have reinforced an ugly strand of nationalism that will outlast the current crisis and could be channelled to target other minorities. At a minimum, it will be more difficult for national leaders to make the necessary concessions in the peace process of greater minority rights and political and economic devolution.[fn]For details on the peace process with ethnic armed groups, see Crisis Group Report, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, op. cit. ARSA is not (and likely never will be) part of the peace process, given that the Rohingya are not a recognised ethnic group.Hide Footnote This could undermine prospects for a stable, peaceful and more prosperous future, and thus imperil the country’s political transition or significantly shift its landing spot.

The crisis also will define the country in the eyes of much of the world for years to come. This will have a negative impact on trade, investment, tourism and global good-will, at a time when Myanmar is emerging from decades of isolation from the West. This is in turn likely to feed anti-Western sentiment, leading to greater estrangement and potentially cementing the country’s status as a pariah. The government’s priority long-term aims – balancing China’s geostrategic influence, integrating into the global economy and rehabilitating the military’s international image – may now be all but impossible to achieve.

V. Government and International Response

A. Government Position

On the day of the attacks, the government declared ARSA a terrorist group under domestic law. It issued a warning to the media to refer to ARSA as “extremist terrorists” rather than use terms such as “insurgents”. It claimed that international NGOs may have been collaborating with ARSA and that World Food Programme (WFP) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) food aid had been diverted to the group. The government also stated that ammonia and tubes provided by development agencies for construction had been turned into IEDs. These statements set the tone for Myanmar’s escalatory response to the attacks and uncompromising attitude toward the UN and humanitarian agencies.[fn]“Anti-Terrorism Central Committee Order No. 1/2017”, 25 August 2017, under 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law, §72(B); “Warning in relation with extremist terrorists”, GNLM, 28 August 2017; “Terrorist hideouts discovered, items provided by int’l organisations found”, GNLM, 30 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Allegations of aid agency collusion were condemned by the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar as “absurd” and by the UN Human Rights chief as “irresponsible”, as they placed humanitarian staff “in danger and may make it impossible for them to deliver essential aid”. The accusations resulted in a boycott of aid agencies by their local contractors in Rakhine State and shipments came under mob attack. The government blocked access to northern Rakhine for all organisations (except the Red Cross) and most media.[fn]“US Ambassador Rejects Govt Implication of Aid Agencies in Rakhine Attacks”, The Irrawaddy, 31 August 2017; “‘Humanitarian catastrophe’ unfolding as Myanmar takes over aid efforts in Rakhine state”, The Guardian, 15 September 2017; “Myanmar police fire warning shots in Rakhine as mob attacks aid boat”, Agence France-Presse, 21 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The government blocked access to northern Rakhine for all organisations (except the Red Cross) and most media.

On 19 September and 12 October 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the Rakhine crisis in speeches that were criticised internationally, but gained strong local support. She questioned why Rohingya were fleeing, saying there were “allegations and counter-allegations” and claiming many Muslim villages were untouched and peaceful. She also announced the creation of a national fund for Rakhine State under her direction – the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development – and lobbied for Myanmar conglomerates and the general population to contribute cash; it has so far received some $20 million. Nine taskforces were established, all related to development.

The risk is that if, as seems likely, repatriation does not proceed quickly or at scale, and there is no dramatic progress on desegregation or citizenship for Muslim communities across Rakhine State, this fund will end up supporting development initiatives that increase inequality and exacerbate conflict.[fn]“State Counsellor: ‘Myanmar does not fear world scrutiny’”, GNLM, 20 September 2017; “Join hands for peace in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 October 2017. The taskforces are: infrastructure, agriculture and livestock, economic zone development, information and public relations, job creation and vocational training, healthcare, microfinance, crowdfunding, tourism promotion; “Nine private sector task forces formed to participate in UEHRD programme”, GNLM, 22 October 2017.Hide Footnote As we have noted in prior reports and briefings, development interventions must be properly sequenced with political steps to address discrimination, segregation and citizenship status.[fn]See, for example, Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

B. International Response

The crisis has prompted significant international scrutiny and criticism. UN Secretary-General Guterres sent an official letter to the Security Council on 2 September 2017 – the first time a Secretary-General has done so on any issue since 1989 – saying that “the international community has a responsibility to undertake concerted efforts to prevent further escalation of the crisis”. The Council met five times in August-October on the issue – including a briefing by Guterres on 28 September and a 13 October closed-door “Arria Formula” briefing with Kofi Annan, who was appointed by Suu Kyi in 2016 as chair of an advisory commission on Rakhine State, which completed its work in August. Guterres called on Myanmar to end the violence, allow unfettered humanitarian access, ensure the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of the refugees to their areas of origin, and prioritise implementation of the Annan commission recommendations – points echoed by several Council members.

On 6 November, given Chinese and Russian opposition to a resolution, the Council instead unanimously agreed on a presidential statement that “strongly condemns the widespread violence that has taken place in Rakhine State since 25 August, which has led to the mass displacement” of Rohingya communities; “expresses alarm at the significantly and rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation”; and “demands the Government of Myanmar grant immediate, safe and unhindered access to United Nations agencies and their partners”. Myanmar expressed “deep concern” at the adoption of the statement and its use of the term “Rohingya”. The UN General Assembly approved a human rights resolution on Myanmar on 16 November, reviving annual resolutions dropped in 2016 in recognition of the country’s progress.[fn]See “Briefing under ‘any other business’”,, 12 September 2017; “Public Briefing by the Secretary-General”, 27 September 2017; “Adoption of a Presidential Statement”, 6 November 2017; UNSC Presidential Statement S/PRST/2017/22, UN Security Council, 6 November; Statement of Myanmar Permanent Representative, GNLM, 8 November 2017; “Situation of human rights in Myanmar”, UN doc A/C.3/72/L.48, UN General Assembly, 31 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Some countries also raised concerns bilaterally in a series of phone calls and meetings with Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief. On 19 September, the UK announced it was suspending training programs for the Myanmar military and Prime Minister Theresa May signalled her willingness to support further action. The European Union Council of Foreign Ministers decided on 16 October to suspend visits of Myanmar military officers to Europe and review all defence cooperation, while also flagging the possibility of more formal sanctions.

On 23 October, the U.S. issued a statement outlining its own steps, including restrictions on travel of current and former senior military leaders to the U.S., cancelling military-to-military engagements and exploring options for visa bans and asset freezes under the Global Magnitsky Act. On 22 November, Secretary Tillerson declared that the situation in northern Rakhine constituted ethnic cleansing and that accountability would be pursued through U.S. law, including possible targeted sanctions. Congress is currently vetting draft legislation that would re-impose some of the sanctions lifted in 2016.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed a Special Envoy to spearhead diplomatic efforts to address the crisis, but the envoy, Bob Rae, was unable to secure any meetings with government officials during his visit to Myanmar in early November 2017.[fn]“UK suspends aid for Myanmar military”, BBC News, 19 September 2017; “Myanmar/Burma: Council adopts conclusions”, European Council Press Release, 16 October 2017; “Accountability for Human Rights Abuses in Rakhine State, Burma”, U.S. Department of State Press Statement, 23 October 2017; “Efforts To Address Burma’s Rakhine State Crisis”, U.S. Secretary of State Press Statement, 22 November 2017; Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Yangon, November 2017.Hide Footnote

Myanmar set its political direction early in the crisis, and, so far, international scrutiny, pressure and diplomatic engagement has brought about no meaningful change – not even seemingly minor concessions such as allowing UN humanitarian access to the area or signalling openness to international support or advice. Extremely strong domestic political consensus on this issue has united the government, military and vast majority of the population as never before in Myanmar’s modern history.

The huge reservoir of international good-will for Myanmar and for Suu Kyi personally that existed prior to the crisis is rapidly drying up.

The international community thus faces a major challenge. In the face of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, the political and moral imperative to take action has become overwhelming. The huge reservoir of international good-will for Myanmar and for Suu Kyi personally that existed prior to the crisis is rapidly drying up. Many countries wish to support Myanmar’s transition away from military rule, and have no desire to undermine its first democratically elected government in more than 50 years. But given the strong perception that the diplomatic channel is not producing results, and with public views hardening in many countries in the West and the Muslim world, the imposition of sanctions by Europe and the U.S. seems inevitable. Over time, the drumbeat for holding those most responsible criminally accountable will also likely increase.

Sanctions are very unlikely to prompt positive change in Myanmar.

Yet policymakers should be under no illusions: sanctions are very unlikely to prompt positive change in Myanmar. Indeed, – depending on specifics – they could make matters worse. Unlike in the past, there is no domestic debate on different policy approaches that sanctions might be thought to influence. Their most likely effect will thus be to push the government, military and population even closer together and to reinforce current narratives in Myanmar that the West is a fickle friend and unreliable partner. Government leaders have explicitly warned that criticism and punitive actions from the West will only push them closer to China.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Yangon, September-November 2017. See also “U.S. Pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi Only Helps China, Aides Warn”, Wall Street Journal, 13 November 2017.Hide Footnote

History also is a guide. Until 2012, Myanmar was under some of the most stringent bilateral sanctions of any country; contemporaneous Crisis Group research indicates that these did almost nothing to influence the military regime and had very little tangible impact on it. Although termed “targeted”, they had little impact on the regime and its leaders, but caused significant damage to the general economy and the fortunes of ordinary people – something acknowledged for example by then-Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton when she initiated a review of U.S. policy in 2009.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°78, Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?, 26 April 2004; Asia Briefing N°118, Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, 7 March 2011. “Shift Possible on Burma Policy”, Washington Post, 19 February 2009.Hide Footnote There are few new options on the table, and any return to sanctions will inevitably involve some of the same basic elements. For Myanmar, these do not represent ominous new threats but rather the prospect of return to a very familiar status quo ante.

Policymakers nevertheless feel they should act, not only in response to political pressure from their constituents but also to send an important broader signal to would-be perpetrators that such abuses will not go unpunished. There are ways policymakers can limit potential negative impact on the Myanmar people, who should not pay the price for the actions of a military that is constitutionally outside of democratic control.

  • First, resist the urge to disengage. Policymakers should not lose sight of the distinction between government and people. Myanmar is home to millions of the poorest people in the region, and their aspirations for a better economic future must not be forgotten. The urge to disengage from the country, therefore, should be resisted. People-to-people exchanges with the West through academic, cultural and commercial interactions and tourism are crucial for a country that was isolated for so many decades.
  • Second, maintain development assistance and non-military engagement. This will be easy for Western countries to commit to in theory, but hard to deliver in practice now that Myanmar is no longer a global good news story and its government is showing little flexibility on aid modalities. Trade preferences recently reinstated by the EU and U.S. are critical in supporting manufacturing jobs in Myanmar and should not be revoked.
  • Third, work carefully to minimise the collateral impact of any targeted sanctions. Targeted sanctions on specific individuals and entities against whom there is evidence of wrongdoing, can help to promote accountability. Recent experience in Myanmar shows, however, that ostensibly targeted sanctions can have broader systemic impact on the economy that should be avoided.
  • Fourth, engage with the military and government prior to imposing any sanctions. The goal should be to maximise any leverage that is available (even if minimal) at the critical moment of opportunity, by raising the prospect of any new sanctions and pushing for progress on the key objectives before these measures are imposed.

Given the limited utility of sanctions, the international community should do all it can to mitigate the humanitarian disaster and influence the situation in other ways. This could include:

  • Provide substantial ongoing humanitarian support to the Rohingya refugees, to reduce the risks of a further humanitarian catastrophe and alleviate the enormous burden on Bangladesh and local communities. This can help also mitigate the risk of refoulement.
  • Assist Myanmar to define a pathway out of the current crisis, on the understanding that at least part of the challenge relates to management and implementation ability, in addition to political will. In particular, since the development-first approach being pursued by the government will be neither credible nor effective, pushing for political decisions to implement key recommendations of the Annan commission, including as regards discrimination, segregation and citizenship. Meaningful progress on these issues is vital to creating an environment conducive to voluntary repatriation, and giving international credibility to the Myanmar’s efforts.
  • Begin contingency planning for the humanitarian, security and political consequences of a scenario where the Myanmar-Bangladesh bilateral process does not lead to significant numbers of refugees returning home. This will be discussed in detail in forthcoming Crisis Group reporting.

China is particularly well-placed to promote positive outcomes should it decide to prioritise these. While in recent decades it has always supported Myanmar governments politically, and continues to be sceptical of international pressure, its blanket support cannot be taken for granted by Myanmar. China does not want this to come at the cost of its important relations with Bangladesh and the wider Muslim world, which is part of the reason why it allowed the recent UN Security Council presidential statement to be issued. China also has significant economic and strategic interests in Rakhine State that could be impacted by the crisis. So far, however, it has focused on allowing Myanmar and Bangladesh to work out the issue bilaterally.

VI. Conclusion

The actions of the Myanmar military in northern Rakhine State have created a major humanitarian catastrophe, a crisis for the country and a security threat to the region. It has strengthened an ugly strand of nationalism that will be long-lasting and could lead to the targeting of other minorities in the future. The crisis will define Myanmar in the eyes of much of the world for years to come, with hugely negative consequences across the board on trade, investment, tourism. The country has squandered its considerable reserves of global good-will just when it needed them most, as it was emerging from decades of isolation from the West. Myanmar has also put itself at much greater risk of attack by transnational jihadist groups. Priority long-term aims of balancing China’s geostrategic influence and economic dominance in the country and rehabilitating the military’s international image have been significantly set back.

The abuses against the Rohingya minority have captured global public opinion, and the uncompromising posture of the government has exacerbated the situation. Western countries almost certainly will re-impose some of the sanctions that had been lifted in recent years. As they do so, they should acknowledge their inherent limitations and approach them in a manner that can maximise leverage while minimising collateral damage on Myanmar’s long-suffering population.

Brussels, 7 December 2017

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar Mike Shand/International Crisis Group, 2017.

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