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 un-Islamic), an accusation carrying the death penalty. Meanwhile, the group made it very hard for dissenters to leave. It closed borders, increased surveillance at checkpoints, put landmines on smuggling paths, and recruited shepherds in villages near the border to report people looking for a road to Turkey. Even talking about thinkingof escaping ISIS was dangerous.

Many of those ex-fighters who did manage an escape are thus the most hardened enemies of the group. These are now deeply cynical of anything ISIS related, do not consider it Islamic, and actively discourage any potential recruits from joining. The chances of any in this group of former fighters taking up arms in response to al Qaeda’s call are fairly slim. Not do they see al Qaeda as non-Islamic but the most radical among them do not consider the Rohingyas Muslim. One Russian-speaking ex-ISIS foreign fighter, who spent four months in an ISIS prison for disagreeing with the group’s brand of Islam before escaping to Turkey, characterized the conflict in Myanmar as “polytheistic Buddhists … killing polytheistic non-Buddhists.”

Meanwhile, less radical ex-foreign fighters who also left ISIS-held territories are busy trying to survive. Joining another war is not on their minds, at least for the time being.

Who is left as a potential audience for the call to avenge the Rohingya? In addition to foreign fighters, there are also foreign civilian ISIS members. These people call themselves “representatives” but have never visited ISIS-controlled territory. The fighters call this wide network of foreign supporters “fans.” The fans often claim that, when the time is right, they will indeed go to fight. And some of them might think that the time is now right. For example, according to Ilyas Adji-Bulat, who waged a one-person protest in a city called Dnipro in Ukraine (where Muslims make up less than one percent of the population), “[until] Marines of the Islamic army land in Arakan, we could not talk about any real solution to the problem.”

Rohingya refugees wait for aid in Bangladesh, September 2017.
Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

Unlike hardened fighters, they still have idealist views of ISIS and war. In fact, they still support the group from the outside, while fewer and fewer support it from the inside. And because these people have their documents in order and are generally not on law enforcement’s radar, it is easy for them to move around. They might also be more sympathetic to al Qaeda. Although, according to ex-fighters, ISIS members generally oppose the group, the distinction is of concern only to a small group of ultra-dedicated supporters. 

All in all, al Qaeda’s statement has generated very little response. Peaceful protests against the “genocide of Muslims” have taken place everywhere from Chechnya to Indonesia, but there is little movement toward military action. Even among the Russian-speaking ISIS community, one of the biggest foreign fighter factions in ISIS, there is no leader recruiting for Myanmar (as Saifullah Shishani did for the war in Syria). Even in a popular audio message shared on closed ISIS Telegram channels, a preacher encourages listeners to share information about the crisis on social media, asks Pakistan to threaten Myanmar with nuclear weapons, and even suggests that Gulf governments simply buy Myanmar. But he gave not one word to his listeners about going to the frontline. 

And because there have been no major clashes with Myanmar armed forces yet, there is little actual demand for foreign fighters on the ground yet, besides as potential trainers. For example, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), one of the main armed groups claiming to be defending Rohingya Muslims, doesn’t want help from foreign fighters. At least not yet. It understandably could be worried about foreign fighters’ bad reputations and the difficulty of managing them. In an official statement, the group explicitly called “for states in the region to intercept and prevent terrorists from entering Arakan and making a bad situation worse.”

Even if demand appears, serious logistical problems remain. Several ex-ISIS foreign fighters interviewed about the subject agreed that, right now, Western ISIS supporters would not go to Myanmar simply because it is physically difficult to do so. They would wait for a developed infrastructure like there was in Syria: weapons and ammunition, safe houses, taxies to the border, and a network of people facilitating such travel. Indeed, right now, according to a preacher on Telegram, “one should not go, because there are actually no major armed groups there and, as a white person, you will immediately stick out.” 

Still, if a need arises for experienced and dedicated foreign fighters, for example to conduct suicide missions, and a well-organized group starts recruiting, ISIS supporters (particularly from East Asia) could consider going. Meanwhile, according to an ex-ISIS foreign fighter, the biggest danger is that, unable to travel, individuals could act on their grievances by attacking Myanmar embassies and delegations abroad. In an interview, an ex-ISIS foreign fighter, who admitted that before going to Syria he was planning a terrorist attack in Moscow, asked for the location of the Myanmar embassy in the country where he is currently hiding to assess possible risks. “Back in 2012, I failed to buy explosives to make an attack, but now one could find manuals anywhere,” he commented.

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