Will Former ISIS Fighters Help the Rohingya?

Why Calls for a New Jihad Are Falling on Deaf Ears

A Rohingya refugee in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 2017. Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

Never wanting to miss an opportunity, al Qaeda has used the occasion of renewed violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to release an unofficial call to arms: “The savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers in Arakan by the government of Myanmar under the guise of ‘fighting rebels’,” the statement went, “shall not pass without punishment, and the government of Myanmar shall be made to taste what our Muslim brothers have tasted in Arakan, with the permission of Allah.” The question is who is going to answer that call. Of particular interest to the international community will be the foreign fighters who used to belong to the Islamic State (ISIS) and could now be headed to fight on a new front. 

Who are the ex-ISIS fighters, and why might they head to Myanmar? Some fighters initially joined ISIS to defend Syrian civilians from Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Others wanted the free three-bedroom apartments that the armed group had promised them. Still others, of course, joined the group just to fight and die. These were the men who volunteered for the most dangerous, even suicidal missions. They were the first to die. According to one ex-foreign fighter for ISIS, of all the people he knew in assault units in 2015, he is the only one still alive. 

Many of those who survived those early operations were individuals who originally went to Syria not just to fight but to live. Tired of corruption, nepotism, and lawlessness in their home countries, they believed Sharia rule was their only option or that, in the caliphate, they could dedicate their lives to studying religion. But these fighters were quickly disillusioned. They soon started noticing problems, including the selective implementation of Sharia law and blatant corruption. Many voiced their disagreement. Peaceful protests against the “genocide of Muslims” have taken place everywhere from Chechnya to Indonesia, but there is little movement toward military action.

In response, ISIS initiated a terror campaign, accusing dissenters of takfirism (being

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