Does the militant group’s presence spell trouble for Bangladesh?
Early this month, on information that members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) were holding a secret meeting in a mosque in a Rohingya camp, the Armed Police Battalion raided the site. When the raid occurred at Chakmarkul Rohingya Block-3 camp, Amtala mosque, the members escaped the dragnet. The police seized 72 pairs of sandals as evidence of the botched meeting.
The ARSA members are mostly recruits from among the Rohingya refugees. They mostly raise funds from the Rohingya living in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
ARSA is the fledgling Rohingya militant group whose attacks on police posts across northern Rakhine State on August 25, 2017, provided an excuse for the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar military) brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya that prompted the region’s most severe refugee crisis. The exodus of more than one million Rohingya from the restive Rakhine State has also brought ARSA supporters into Bangladesh, and have taken shelter in squalid refugee camps.
Explaining in a rare interview to the 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 the Rohingya in Myanmar. Ataullah denied any links to the Islamic State or ISIS in his August 2017 video and claimed he turned his back on support from Pakistani-based militants.
A security expert in Bangladesh explains that ARSA has ideological differences with other terror outfits and has reason to distance itself from the transnational jihadist network, which would compel Bangladeshi security forces to move against them.
For obvious reasons, 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 threat to their physical presence. With dried ordinance, the militants were unable to launch any large-scale skirmishes with Myanmar troops after August 2017.
On the other hand, their hit-and-run tactics were significantly neutralized after the Myanmar troops’ crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. The Myanmar government labelled ARSA as “extremist Bangali terrorists,” warning that its goal is to establish an Islamic state in the region.
Myanmar also blames Pakistan’s spy agency ISI, claiming it has provided funds and logistics to ARSA. The security agencies have trained their eyes and ears on their activities. The officials said ARSA is also known as “Al Yakin” in the refugee camps, and the militants prey on people.
They are responsible for a series of kidnaps, extortions, tortures, and executions of suspects. The recruiters from sleeping-cells disseminate a message that joining ARSA or “Al Yakin” is a Farj (a religious obligation).
However, ARSA remains focused on recruitment and indoctrination, followed by establishing small units and engaging in rudimentary military training. One such session of recruits was in progress in the Amtala mosque earlier this month.
The International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution nonprofit organization, claims that the network of members and supporters in Bangladesh are fairly large. The cash-starved Al Yakin, the volunteer group of ARSA, is mostly responsible for gang war to establish dominance over other non-militant groups in the camps.
Often, there is breaking news from Rohingya refugee camps -- of robbers, dacoits, and armed gangs killed in encounters with anti-crime forces. The slain victims are radicalized Rohingya militants.
Despite that, ARSA’s name still commands a mix of cautious respect and fear among some in the Rohingya camps. The members maintain a low profile to avoid confrontation with Bangladesh security forces.
For survival, the foot soldiers are engaged in providing armed escorts to cross-border smugglers and drug traders. ARSA’s militancy capabilities remain poor due to strict surveillance by security agencies -- reducing ARSA into a toothless tiger.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender. Recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at [email protected]; Twitter: @saleemsamad.