YANGON — A Muslim militant organization behind the attacks on 30 police stations in northern Rakhine State last month has connections with foreign extremist groups despite their blanket denial of such accusations, according to a journalist who has been covering Myanmar and Asia for more than three decades.
In his latest story about the Muslim insurgency in northern Rakhine, Bertil Lintner writes that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s claim on fighting for self-determination like other ethnic armed groups in the country and rejection of being branded as a terrorist organization by the Myanmar government are unfit with the realities on the ground.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has claimed its attacks were part of a campaign to achieve basic human rights for self-identifying Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine. However, the Myanmar Army responded to the offensive with a brutal crackdown, forcing an estimated 420,000 to flee to Bangladesh, bringing accounts of indiscriminate killing and rape by security forces.
In “The truth behind Myanmar’s Rohingya insurgency” published in Asia Times, the Swedish journalist cites intelligence analysts as saying the group’s mentor is Karachi-based Abdus Qadoos Burmi, a Pakistani of Rohingya descent. He has appeared in videos spread on social media calling for ‘jihad’ in Myanmar, according to the article.
“Abdus Qadoos has well-documented links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, or the Army of the Righteous, one of South Asia’s largest Islamic terrorist organizations that operates mainly from Pakistan. The group was founded in 1987 in Afghanistan with funding from now deceased Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Abdus Qadoos has even appeared in meetings together with Lashkar-e-Taiba supremo Hafiz Mohammed Syed,” writes Lintner.
The article describes the group’s leader as Ataullah abu Ammar Junjuni, also known as Hafiz Tohar, who was born in Karachi and received madrassa education in Saudi Arabia.
Alleged links to foreign extremist groups contradict an ARSA statement posted on Twitter on Sept. 14, which said it has no “links to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Lashkar-e-Taiba or any transnational terrorist group.”
ARSA added “it to be known by all states that it is prepared to work with security agencies to intercept and prevent terrorists from entering [Rakhine] and making a bad situation worse.”
Lintner highlights ARSA’s second-ranking leader, “a shadowy man known only as ‘Sharif’ who comes from Chittagong in southwestern Bangladesh and does not appear in any of the group’s propaganda videos.” He reportedly speaks with an Urdu language accent, the official language of Pakistan.
Security analysts note 150 foreigners among the ARSA rank, according to the story, as well as the likelihood of “angry and desperate young men” among the self-identifying Rohingya in Rakhine and refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“Most of them are from Bangladesh, eight to ten come from Pakistan with smaller groups from Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand. Two are reportedly from Uzbekistan. Trainings held in the Myanmar-Bangladesh border areas have been carried out in part by older veterans of the Afghan wars, the security analysts say,” the journalist writes.
In fact, the name ARSA was unknown until late last year. Even after the first attack on police outposts in October last year, the group name was unheard of. The Myanmar government said ‘Harakah al-Yaqin, or “the Faith Movement’ was behind the attacks. Later the group changed its name to ARSA, according to the story.
“The moniker had clear religious connotations and notably did not contain the words Rohingya or Arakan (Rakhine). It was only last year it started to use the more ethnically oriented name ARSA, perhaps in an attempt to distance itself from the radical milieu in which the movement was born.”
Lintner also considers the tactics of ARSA to resemble the Muslim insurgents in southernmost Thailand, adjacent to Malaysia, more than Myanmar’s other ethnic armies, as the fighters mingle with villagers, wear civilian clothes, and retreat across the border to neighboring Bangladesh.
“They prefers to mobilize hundreds of unarmed villagers to attack state positions in the middle of the night…….The relatively small attacking party then moves in, kills the intimidated soldiers or police and escapes with their weapons. It’s a style of attack familiar in South Asia but altogether foreign until now in Myanmar,” he writes.
The strength of ARSA, he said, quoting analysts, is much less than what the rebels as well as Myanmar military authorities claim. According to insiders, ARSA’s strength is in the hundreds rather than thousands, with the total number of active trained combatants likely not exceeding 500.
After the attacks on August 25, the Myanmar military claimed to have killed 400 insurgents. The Swedish journalist estimated that most likely nearly all of them would have been conscripted villagers.
“If that many ARSA fighters had been killed, almost the entire organization would have been wiped out, according to security analysts monitoring the group,” he writes.