Ever since the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) made themselves known, there has been a race to gauge exactly how strong their numbers are. The successful attacks on multiple outposts and camps showed they had the widespread capacity to carry out coordinated strikes. The fact that the Myanmar army still avoids some areas in Rakhine means ARSA has enough guerillas to retain their strongholds.
ARSA uses a five-layer leadership structure to relay its order to the troops. After talking to numerous Rohingya refugees, ARSA fighters and commanders, the Dhaka Tribune has learned that in every Rohingya village, there are at least 15-20 trained ARSA foot soldiers.
Every village is under the jurisdiction of a “jimmadar” (village commander/recruiter). The Jimmadar leads a team of around 20 members. The Jimmadars are usually selected from scholars or clerics for their reasoning skills and eloquent speech.
In Maungdaw, there are 105 jimmadars, who answer to 20 senior jimmadars who supervise the whole township. The 20 seniors then answer to six commanders: Master Khaled, Mufti Jiyabur Rahman, Marwan, Nurul Alam alias Azad, Maulvi Abu Bakar and Maulvi Mofiz.
Nurul Alam has been arrested by Bangladesh Police. Marwan left ARSA a while ago, and Mufti Jiyabur was injured in an explosion, according to several ARSA soldiers.
The entire operation in Maungdaw is overseen by Master Hashem who is Ata Ullah Abu Ammar Al Jununi’s right-hand man.
In Buthidaung, there are 20 senior jimmadars. The number of villages in the township could not be ascertained.
No information could be obtained about the ARSA operations in Rathedaung township.
The Dhaka Tribune has learned that some of the senior jimmadars in Maungdaw are also affiliated with the splinter insurgency called Tiger Group, which is noted for carrying out high-risk, high-value operations in Rakhine.
Although many ARSA troops refused to acknowledge the Tiger Group, several survivors of the attack on August 25 have identified many of the deceased in the shootout as their former comrades.
A tight-lipped commander
The Dhaka Tribune spoke to Master Hashem on September 24 via an encrypted phone call using a messaging app. He said no member of ARSA has been given authorisation to speak to the media or anyone else.
He refused to disclose anything about ARSA, but said the ARSA guerillas in Rakhine are in good condition.
He said: “We are good, Alhamdulillah. Hope you are well. We do not have any good internet connection here. Our Amir [Ata Ullah] and fighters are not in a position to speak to the media, so we unfortunately cannot talk to you. Our statements are being issued by expatriate jimmadars. Please contact them for any queries. Goodbye.”
Where does ARSA get the money for their operations?
The Dhaka Tribune investigation found that the majority of funding for ARSA comes from the Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. There is also some contribution from other Middle Eastern countries with a small Rohingya presence.
The Dhaka Tribune has obtained a list of 80 Rohingya financers living in Saudi Arabia. The list was authenticated by one of the top commanders of ARSA. When contacted, most of the names refused to speak.
One of them, a cleric in Saudi Arabia, said he has recently sent 10,000 Saudi Riyals to ARSA. He said he felt proud when Ata Ullah sent him a voice message confirming receipt of his donation and thanking him for his contribution to the cause.
He said he felt moved to support ARSA as they are the first to take a stance against the oppressive Myanmar.
“Maybe they will not be successful this time. But I will pray for their success. If not now, then later. Freedom does not come in just a month,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
After the August attack, ARSA received a huge amount of donation from people who were impressed with their capabilities. Audio recordings by Ata Ullah to these donors have been obtained by the Dhaka Tribune.
In the audio tape, Ata Ullah said: “Assalamualaikum. I, Abu Ammar Jununi, present myself in front of my community. First, I am grateful to Allah and want to thank my community for their support. I speak to you now because many of you want to help. Many of you think you have to talk to me directly to help me, that is not the case.
“We now wield blood and fire in our hands. It is not possible for me to speak to each and every one of you. So, I have handpicked men who will speak on my behalf and receive any contributions you make to our cause. Jimmadar Abul Kalam Haidery in Saudi Arabia and Maulvi Noman in Malaysia will be waiting for your help.”
Training in the dark
ARSA trains its foot soldiers in small, intensive sessions from 11pm to 1am or 2am. The training usually takes place near shrimp farms or in the forested hills.
Training is divided in two sessions – armed and unarmed.
Unarmed training involves martial arts, usually kung-fu and physical exercise involving calisthenics.
Armed training ranges from using firearms to preparing explosives – improvised explosive devices to be more precise.
The IEDs used by ARSA are made with urea, potassium chlorate, iron pipes as the container and metallic balls as shrapnel. The IEDs have an effective range of 45-90 metres.
The weapons they use
The video footage of ARSA training sessions showed they have very few weapons. Their firearms mostly comprise a few M-16 rifles, AK-47, G3 and G4 assault rifles.
Very few ARSA troops were carrying firearms during the October 2016 and the August 2017 attacks.
The October attack on the Myanmar Border Guard Police outpost gave them access to a huge cache of weapons – 61 assault rifles and 2,200 rounds of ammunition.
The August attacks on 25 police stations and army bases were not as successful, limiting their armed capability for the time being.
Those who do not have firearms use staves, swords, or other melee weapons.
The insurgent’s uniform
ARSA does not have any specific dress code, said the ARSA members. But all of the ARSA fighters usually wear three quarters and T-shirts during their training and operations. They also wear anklets or long socks on the feet and anklets also on the elbows.
Local supporters who also took part in ARSA’s operation are seen or heard to wear the normal Rohingya dresses which is lungi and T-shirt.
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