Pakistan’s fingerprints in formation of Rohingya militant group ARSA are unmistakable


Karachi born Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi heads ARSA that has drawn  Rohingya into its militant ranks


by Saleem Samad     9 April 2023
Initially Bangladesh, Myanmar and India failed to accept Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) a jihadist outfit. The militant group was described as ‘Rohingya Muslim vigilantes’ with a limited ordinance, disorganized, therefore nothing to be worried about.
The name ARSA first surfaced in August 2017, when the outfit claimed responsibility for attacks on several border police and army posts of Myanmar at the international borders with Bangladesh.
The attacks sparked Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar military) brutal genocidal campaign against Rohingya Muslims. The troops torched hundreds of villages and went on a killing rampage.
The ethnic community was forced to flee from the volatile Rakhine State of Myanmar and later sheltered in Bangladesh. The country hosts nearly 1.2 million Rohingyas.
The panicked Rohingyas poured into Bangladesh, through porous international borders, fueling a historic migration crisis in Asia.
India is now worried that the jihadist outfit’s presence at the border of Bangladesh-Myanmar-India. ARSA’s recent skirmish with Myanmar troops has raised their eyebrows, while Bangladesh is alarmed by the visible presence of ARSA in the territory.
The ARSA militants are mostly recruited from the Rohingya refugees. It was not to anybody’s surprise that the leadership are Pakistan-born Saudi émigrés. They raise funds mostly from Rohingya living in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Meanwhile, news surfaced that an undisclosed partnership between Bangladesh and Myanmar military led to a joint operation to address the ARSA insurgency.
The documents from a December 23 meeting of the Central Committee for Counter-Terrorism of the Myanmar Home Affairs Ministry, published by a private ‘Khit Thit Media’ on last January 10 have been verified by security experts.
The document stated that “During 2022, there have been only 4 skirmishes between our [Myanmar] forces and ARSA. We were able to meet, discuss and coordinate with the Bangladesh Border Guard Force over ARSA.
“The result was that Bangladesh special forces launched a military operation in the refugee camp where ARSA took shelter, killing the ARSA’s 2nd in Command and 2 terrorists. From one intelligence exchange with Bangladesh, we learned that the ARSA leader Ataullah and 60 of his followers are facing legal actions in Bangladesh.”
The Naypyidaw (capital of Myanmar) labelled ARSA as an “extremist Bengali [Bangalee] terrorists, also Rohingya Muslim terrorists,” warning that its goal is to establish an Islamic state in the region [South-East Asia].
In a rare interview with an international media, Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi, commonly known simply as Ataullah, the supremo of ARSA said that their objective would be “open war” and “continued [armed] resistance” until “citizenship rights were reinstated” of Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Despite the denial of Ataullah, who was born in Karachi and moved to Saudi Arabia, of having links to the Islamic State or ISIS in a video and said he turned his back on support from Pakistani-based jihadists, security agencies of Bangladesh and India are sceptic of his claim.
A security expert in Bangladesh explains that ARSA has ideological differences from other terror outfits and has reason to distance itself from the transnational jihadist network.
The global terror network’s footprint is absent in the region. The territory is too hot to handle, as some experts explained, especially when India remains a deterrent to the physical presence of jihadists and terror networks.
The exodus of more than one million Rohingyas from restive Rakhine State has also brought the ARSA operatives and sympathizers into Bangladesh.
The security agency in Bangladesh has trained their eyes and ears on their activities. The agency explains ARSA is also known as ‘Al Yakin’ in the refugee camps – the militant’s prey on the refugees.
ARSA operatives are responsible for widespread kidnaps, extortions, tortures and executions of suspects. The crimes are committed to collect funds for local operations in the world’s largest squalid Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, in southern Bangladesh.
Cash-starved Al Yakin, the volunteer group of ARSA is mostly responsible for gang war in the refugee camps to establish dominance over other non-militant groups in the camps.
The recruiters from sleepers-cell disseminate a message that joining ARSA or ‘Al Yakin’ was a Farj (a religious obligation).
However, ARSA remains focused on recruitment and indoctrination, followed by establishing small units and engaging in rudimentary military training.
Often breaking news from Rohingya refugee camps of robbers, dacoits, and armed gangs killed in encounters by anti-crime forces – the slain victims are radicalized Rohingya militants.
Despite ARSA’s name still commands a mix of cautious respect and fear among some in the Rohingya camps. The members remain low profile to avoid confrontation with Bangladesh security forces.
For funding the militant’s network, the foot soldiers are also engaged in providing armed escorts to cross-border smugglers and drug traders.
The intels still believe ARSA have a low ordinance and the militants were unable to launch any large-scale armed clash with Myanmar troops after August 2017.
However, Myanmar security forces do not agree and said that last year in mid-September, “the Arakan Army launched attacks in cooperating with ARSA from a certain distance on the Taungpyo Latwal police outpost near BP-31 between Myanmar and Bangladesh using small and heavy arms and three shells fell into the Bangladesh side and three exploded.
“On the other hand, their hit-and-run tactics were significantly neutralized after Myanmar troop’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims [ARSA],” said Myanmar’s official website Info Sheet.
Myanmar blames Pakistan’s dreaded spy agency ISI for its share in mentoring the jihadist outfit. Their theory that ARSA has been raised, funded, provides logistics and indoctrination was masterminded by ISI and is also believed by both Bangladesh and India.
Consequently, the encampment at No-Man’s-Land or Zero-Point was attacked once again on January 18, 2023, resulting in the camp’s destruction, and the forced displacement of all Rohingya refugees living there, writes Saifur Rahman, a Rohingya journalist who is living in exile in a third country.
ARSA’s militancy capability remains poor due to strict surveillance by security agencies of India and Bangladesh and sharing mechanism of intels – reducing ARSA into a toothless tiger.
First published in the India Narrative on 7April 2023
Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh