Why the Rohingya genocide has not attracted a greater Islamist extremist response

When it comes to Islamist terrorism there is a lot we know and a lot we don’t.  We may not be able to predict – ever – why and when a given individual chooses to adopt the violent radical ideology that leads him or her to engage in acts of extremism, but we do have some sense of the overall drivers that crop up all the time.  These drivers include feelings of injustice and anger in the face of human rights violations and these feelings only intensify when those suffering are seen as ‘your’ people.  A desire to do something – anything up to including terrorist acts – ensues.

The numbers of times where a group has been subject to such abuses is unfortunately all too high.  Whether we are talking about the plight of Palestinians, the rape and murder of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (or the US invasion of Iraq) and the subsequent deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghan (and Iraqi) Muslims, it should be obvious that atrocities on this scale do spur, and have spurred, many to take up arms (or strap on suicide vests) and use violence as a way to stop the killings from occurring (the fact that they use killing to stop killing does not seem to have struck them as hypocritical).

A recent ongoing humanitarian catastrophe seems to be bucking this trend.  Over the past few years, the army in Myanmar (Burma) has carried out a campaign of what many call genocide against that country’s Muslim minority, called the Rohingya.  Tens of thousands have been raped or killed, hundreds of villages have been torched and upwards of a million have been forced to flee to neighbouring nations, mostly Bangladesh.  This biblical scale disaster has captured the attention of the world and many are calling for punishing sanctions against Myanmar for its criminal acts.

Interestingly, it has not really grabbed the attention of the jihadi world.

That this clear mistreatment of a population of helpless Muslim civilians is right in the Islamist extremist wheelhouse of grievances demanding action is a no-brainer.  Jihadi leaders regularly use such crises as a way to recruit others and encourage terrorism against the perpetrators.  And yet aside from a few statements and a few mentions in laundry lists of why Muslims should come to the aid of their co-religionists, this issue does not seem to be resonating to any significant degree.  Yes, there have been attacks by a terrorist group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arakan is one name for the area in northwestern Myanmar where most of the Rohingya live), but that is about it.  A good question would be: why are we not seeing mobilisation like we did in Iraq and Syria a few years ago?

I am not sure I have all the answers but I do think that one reason is a very simple one: accessibility.  It is not as if there are easy ways to get to Myanmar, let alone Arakan state, and I am fairly certain that Burmese authorities are not keen to just let anyone in to cause havoc.  Similarly, most of the refugees are in eastern Bangladesh and that nation’s security and police are also doing what they can to prevent extremists from infiltrating the refugee camps and rallying the residents to radicalise and joint terrorist groups.  This could of course change, if the conditions do.

By comparison, the situation in Iraq and Syria in the post Arab Spring days was monumentally different.  Anyone who could afford an overseas flight to Istanbul, Beirut or Cairo, or afford an overland bus/train trip from London, Paris or Brussels, could get over the Turkish border and into the welcoming arms of IS or other terrorist groups.  And, as we saw, tens of thousands did and we are dealing with the aftermath of that jihad still.  Myanmar is a totally different situation even if the level of atrocity is on par with what happened in the Levant.

Different calls to action, different results.  Sometimes, then, terrorism mirrors real estate.  What matters is location, location, location.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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