Ata Ullah Leads Rohingya Insurgents in Myanmar

On August 25, in what has been described as a “Tet Offensive” styled attack, Ata Ullah, the Emir of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), led an estimated 1,000 militants in a simultaneous attack on 24 police posts and army bases in Myanmar’s Rakhine state (The National, September 13; The Daily Star [Bangladesh], August 28). According to the Myanmar government, 12 police officers were killed in the attacks. The event marked an escalation in violence in the already troubled state and paved the way for a new military offensive by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) against the Rohingya community. The government’s counter-offensive has created a serious refugee crisis in the neighboring states of Bangladesh and India, and the reactionary attitude and scorched earth strategy of Myanmar’s military in response to the attacks have elicited heavy criticism from the international community.

While the long history behind the social tensions underpinning this crisis is well established, the history behind Rohingya militancy is somewhat lesser known. Rohingya reportedly have fought in jihadist conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Middle East (SCMP, September 1). Indeed, before founding Harkat ul Jihad-e-Islami Arakan in 1988, Abdul Qadoos al-Burmi fought alongside a mujahideen force in Afghanistan (Long War Journal, July 15, 2013). Thus, some experts view the movement currently being led by Ata Ullah and the ARSA as having roots stretching back to the Afghan War. The ARSA’s predecessor organization, Harkah al Yaqin, carried out a number of attacks in 2016. However, tensions in Myanmar came to a new head when Ata Ullah carried out the August 25 attack under the ARSA banner. In the Tatmadaw’s counter-offensive launched in response, the government reports that more than 400 people have been killed, including 370 ARSA militants and 15 military personnel (al-Jazeera, September 2). Skirmishes between the ARSA under Ata Ullah’s command and the Tatmadaw are still going on in the northern hill tracts of Myanmar.

In his public statements, Ata Ullah calls upon Rohingya Muslims to take up arms against government forces (Dhaka Tribune, n.d.). Hitherto, he has not tied the ARSA to any global jihadist movements. Though, Ata Ullah seems to harbor some Salafist ideological leanings, perhaps having been developed during his upbringing in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Ata Ullah is clear in statements about his motives: “Our primary objective under [the] ARSA is to liberate our people from dehumanized oppression perpetrated by all successive Burmese regimes” (Radio Free Asia, September 1). Ata Ullah also denies that the ARSA has any links to or receives financial support from global jihadist groups (al-Jazeera, September 13). Despite Ata Ullah’s stance, al-Qaeda has shown support for the Rohingya cause — a recent statement released by al-Qaeda vowed the group would seek revenge for the Myanmar government’s treatment of the Rohingya (SITE Intelligence, September 2; Reuters, September 13).

Ata Ullah continues to lead the ARSA from the Rakhine Mountains in western Myanmar against government forces. The low scale insurgency that he is trying to mobilize may bring further wrath from the state, though that may serve his broader goals. The overreaction of state forces has served to spotlight the issue in the international media. Such attention has helped the Rohingya and the ARSA gain foreign support, both financial and otherwise. Not only have the reactionary policy measures of Myanmar’s military attracted international attention to the plight of the Rohingya community, but it also has helped to direct the attention of global terrorist groups and other Islamist organizations to the cause. Al-Qaeda has vowed to seek revenge, and Islamist charity organizations around the world have started collecting funds to support the Rohingya cause. If Myanmar’s military continues its scorched earth policy and driving out the Rohingya community from Rakhine state, it risks further emboldening the ARSA and Islamist militancy in Myanmar. The current policy will only serve to swell the ranks of Ata Ullah’s ARSA.