Rakhine State – Southeast Asia’s Next Marawi?

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Rakhine State – Southeast Asia’s Next Marawi?

Myanmar’s political crisis has created the conditions for a possible widening of the jihadi theater in Southeast Asia.

Rakhine State – Southeast Asia’s Next Marawi?

In this June 29, 2018, file photo, a Myanmar border guard stands to provide security near a fence at a no-man’s land between Myanmar and Bangladesh, near Taungpyolatyar village, Maung Daw, northern Rakhine State, Myanmar.

Credit: AP Photo/Min Kyi Thein, File

What has distinguished jihadist groups and their appeal from other anti-state non-state actors has been their ability to construct a paradigm and narrative that the “land” in which a struggle is taking place is the “Land of Allah” and, hence, that jihadists need to join them in the struggle for the cause of Allah and Islam. This was what drew thousands of jihadists to Afghanistan in the 1980s, to Iraq and Syria from 2003 to 2018, and in the Southeast Asian region, to Marawi in the Philippines from May to October 2017.

Using a similar narrative and modus operandi, the Rakhine State-based militant group Katiba al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan is today projecting Rakhine State in the country’s west as the next “land of migration (hijrah) and lawful struggle (jihad),” used in jihadi strategic lexicon to refer to a “battleground” in Southeast Asia. In this sense, hijrah is also used as a tactic to escape repression by the “enemies,” allowing jihadists to regroup and launch their attacks later, as was undertaken by anti-Suharto groups that eventually morphed into Jemaah Islamiyah in 1993 following their hijrah to Malaysia from Indonesia in 1985.

Myanmar’s Militant Groups

For many years, Myanmar’s central state and army has waged a protracted struggle against the minority populations of Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan, especially the mostly Muslim Rohingya ethnic group.

This history of discrimination and violence has prompted a series of mujahidin struggles against the central state, The first ensued from 1947 to 1954, led by the North Arakan Muslim League, which had plans to make Rakhine either an independent state or part of East Pakistan, present-day Bangladesh. Most of these fighters surrendered by 1957 and the struggle fizzled out.

However, since then, a plethora of militant groups has surfaced to champion pro-Rohingya causes, which involve either the autonomy or the independence of Rakhine State. These groups include: the Rohingya Liberation Party and its armed wing, the Rohingya Liberation Army; the Rohingya Independence Front (later renamed as the Rohingya Patriotic Front); the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation; the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front; the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation; and later, a grouping calling itself Harakah al-Yaqin, later renamed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

The ongoing struggle, both political and military, involving the Myanmar state and Muslim groups since 1947 has been aggravated by the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw and its brutal suppression, often supported by right-wing Buddhist militias. More than one million Rohingyas have fled the country due to this repression since 2016, although as suggested, the history of violence and discrimination goes back much further. For some analysts, the plight of the Rohingya diaspora, especially in refugee camps, offers a fertile breeding ground for extremist influence.

The group Katiba al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan first surfaced in November 2020, being the latest Rohingya jihadi group to champion anti-Myanmar and pro-Rohingya causes. The Katiba, whose name translates as the “Brigade of al-Mahdi in Rakhine State,” presented itself as part of a global Islamist struggle. It can be distinguished from previous jihadi groups on a number of counts.

First, it openly defined itself with the term katiba or “military brigade,” which suggests that the use of violence is sanctioned to achieve its goals. Second, it openly identified itself as part of the Islamic State in Khorasan, namely, South Asia. Third, it has openly pledged its allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, which was subsequently acknowledged and published in the November 2020 of the Sawt al-Hind (“The Voice of Hind”) magazine. Finally, it has projected itself as the “savior” of the Rohingyas, evident from its use of the term al-Mahdi, which refers to Quranic prophesies in which a Messianic figure named Imam Mahdi will appear at the end of time to rid the world of evil and injustice.

However, what was particularly significant was Katiba’s description of Rakhine as a “land of hijrah and jihad,” in an attempt to mobilize foreign fighters against Myanmar. In short, Katiba has clearly distinguished itself from past Rohingya groups by openly calling for a military struggle as the only way forward. This will have serious consequences for the security of Myanmar and the surrounding region.

Katiba’s Belief System

Katiba’s ideas were elaborated in a 40-page document released in late 2020 titled “Arakan – The Call to Hijrah.” In this document, it argued that it was mandatory for Muslims to struggle, either in the place where they are residing or to undertake hijrah in order to transform the “land of the kufr (infidels)” into Darul Islam (the Abode of Islam). In this connection, the Amir (leader) of Katiba called on Muslims “to perform hijrah to Bilad al-Arakan.”

More importantly, Katiba openly identified two enemies to which it was opposed. First, the Buddhist population and the Myanmar state, who it claims have been behind the protracted repression of Muslims, especially Rohingyas, since 1947. Second, Katiba also condemned ARSA and declared it an enemy on the grounds that it was “nationalist” and not “Islamist.” Katiba’s approach and framing of the “problem” and identification of its “enemies” was clearly designed to enhance its Islamist credentials both at home and abroad.

The extent to which Katiba will be able to realize its goals remains to be seen. Still, it is important to take note of its intentions for a number of reasons. In recent years, Southeast Asia has witnessed the jihadists’ “politics of hijrah” and the serious consequences it can bring to a targeted area, in this case, the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines. Marawi City is yet to recover from the five-month occupation of the city by jihadists, even though it has already been more than three years since the jihadists and the foreign fighters were defeated.

If heeded, the call to arms and summons of foreign fighters to Rakhine State could have serious consequences for the security of Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, and the ASEAN states, potentially evolving into a second “hijrah war” in Southeast Asia. Such an outcome could be all the more disastrous given the intense turmoil that has followed the Myanmar military’s coup against the elected civilian government in February.

Compared to Marawi, Rakhine state is far more vulnerable to foreign fighters, as it can be accessed from multiple countries, including India and Bangladesh, as well as by maritime routes akin to the routes taken by Rohingyas escaping the wrath of Myanmar security forces in recent years. In particular, Bangladesh is an ideal entry point for foreign fighters as it has traditionally been a route for human, drug, and arms smuggling. The Myanmar-Bangladesh border is also difficult to secure due to its mountainous and dense jungle terrain.

In terms of global transnational jihadi movements, Katiba’s call for hijrah would represent IS’s second venture into the region through this strategy after Marawi. This also comes at a precarious time in view of the massive and continuing humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya of western Myanmar. Additionally, if Rakhine became the “land of hijrah,” given its location, it would also give foreign fighters’ an entry into South and Southeast Asia, with the area emerging as the alternative not just to Marawi but to other “lands of jihad” in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

While the “Arakan narrative” is not new, it could mark the widening of the jihadi theater in Southeast Asia. In this event, Southeast Asian jihadi groups, especially from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, might want to volunteer their services for this cause. In fact, previously in 2017, the Indonesian radical group Front Pembela Islam (FPI) is believed to have conducted the registration of 1,200 mujahidin volunteers seeking to join the humanitarian jihad in Myanmar. The same can be expected of Indonesian Islamic State (IS)-linked groups such as the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). Whether pro-Al Qaeda groups, in competition with IS, would join the fray also remains to be seen. One also cannot discount pro-IS groups from the Indian sub-continent joining this “hijrah and jihad” in Myanmar.

Equally noteworthy is the fact that there may be pockets of ready and willing Rohingyas in refugee camps in South and Southeast Asia who may be prepared to take up the cause. While the bulk of the Rohingyas in South Asia are in Bangladesh and Pakistan, in Southeast Asia, there are thousands of Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Such groups might be persuaded to join Katiba’s war in Myanmar, backed by a powerful and appealing ideology to “save” the Rohingyas while punishing Myanmar for its decades of mistreatment and abuses.


While IS may soon be defeated in the Middle East, it is far from being a spent force worldwide. The rise of Katiba al-Mahdi and its approach to jihad in Myanmar is a development that, if it continues, could have serious consequences for the security of South and Southeast Asia. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, a new terror threat may have surfaced in Myanmar. Exactly what threat it poses to Myanmar, and how it might connect with regional jihadists, are issues that remain unknown. That said, given Myanmar’s location between South and Southeast Asia, the implications of the existence of Katiba al-Mahdi need to be acknowledged and appreciated by security planners in the region.

As the jihadist groups are prone to compete with each other, how the existence of Katiba al-Mahdi would impact on the Rohingyas, who are in a dire situation in the refugee camps in Bangladesh or internally displaced within Myanmar, also needs to be monitored. While the call for hijrah by Katiba al-Mahdi is at the initial stage and may only be of rhetorical importance, the fact that such an organization exists is sufficient warning of the continued existence of the jihadi threat in the region, despite the slow degradation of IS in the Middle East.

With the domestic political situation in Myanmar worsening following the recent coup, and the country threatening to plunge into a new period of turmoil and aggravated conflict, new opportunities could open up for jihadist groups such as Katiba al-Mahdi to enter both Myanmar and the Southeast Asian region via Rakhine State, creating the potential for a “second Marawi” in Southeast Asia. The rising instability in Myanmar following the coup warrants close scrutiny to ascertain how national, regional, and transnational jihadist groups may want to exploit the possibilities of the unfolding crisis.