Since August 25, Myanmar’s security forces have conducted what the United Nations (UN) has described as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. It has forced more than 589,000 Rohingya civilians to flee to Bangladesh, killing an estimated 3,000 people and burning 288 Rohingya villages, according to rights groups and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (Human Rights Watch, October 1).
Myanmar describes its actions in terms of counter-terrorism operations, but its response to the threat posed by Rohingya militants is disproportionate and is likely to fuel militancy for years to come.
State violence against the Rohingya goes back decades, but the current anti-Muslim violence can be traced from June 2012, during the country’s democratic transition, when some 200 Rohingya were killed and over 100,000 were confined to Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. By 2014, over 400,000 had fled to Bangladesh. The issue had been festering for years and stems from the fact the Rohingya are not listed as one of the country’s 135 legally-recognized ethnic groups, despite evidence they have lived in the country for generations. The military government stripped them of their citizenship rights in 1982, and has since referred to them as illegal “Bengali” immigrants (al-Jazeera, September 28).
An armed movement, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), was active in the mid-1980s to 1990s. The RSO did little militarily, but its ties to the Jamaat-e-Islami and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami in Bangladesh and Pakistan caused concern (Asia Times, September 21). The RSO had limited ties to al-Qaeda and affiliated charities (Irawaddy, June 9). Indeed, al-Qaeda’s top representative in Southeast Asia at the time was in the process of bringing the RSO into an umbrella grouping with Jemaah Islamiyah and other groups, known as the Rabitatul Mujahidin. The proliferation of armed training camps compelled Bangladeshi security forces to move against them. By the mid-2000s, the RSO was defunct, but a convenient enough myth for the government to justify its abusive policies.
The Rohingya had hoped that the country’s democratic transition would address their legal rights. Yet democratic freedoms also unleashed extreme Buddhist nationalism. An active campaign of ethnic cleansing was underway in 2013 (Human Rights Watch, April 22, 2013). Despite a massive exodus of people between 2012 and 2015 — some 112,000 people fled — the conflict was allowed to fester with little international attention. A February 2017 UN report that documented “mass gang-rape, killings – including of babies and young children, brutal beatings, disappearances and other serious human rights violations by Myanmar’s security forces” elicited little outcry (OHCR, February 3).
The Emergence of Harakah al-Yaqin
In 2015, Attullah Abu Amar Jununi, also known as Hafiz Tohar, founded Harakah al-Yaqin (HAY), the Faith Movement, to “defend, save, and protect [the] Rohingya community … in line with the principles of self-defense” (ARSA, May 30).
Attullah was born in Karachi, Pakistan to Rohingya parents, and raised in Saudi Arabia, where he was a mosque employee. He moved to Bangladesh, crossing into Rakhine State in late 2015 or early 2016 via Pakistan (Dhaka Tribune, October 20).
HAY spun out of the Aqa Mul Mujahideen (AMM, the Faith Movement of Arakan), which itself emerged from another organization, Harakat ul-Jihad Islami-Arakan, headed by Abdus Qadoos Burmi, a Rohingya from Pakistan.
RSO members, frustrated by their leaders’ inaction, began to defect to HAY (Dhaka Tribune, October 19). By 2015, HAY was actively recruiting and organizing in the refugee camps and pressing religious leaders to issue fatwas (religious decree) endorsing their leadership (RSIS Commentary, October 18).
The statements that emerged from HAY in fall 2016 were Islamist in both tone and references. In a video message in October 2016, Attullah called on international supporters to join the HAY’s jihad, saying: “If you [Rohingya worldwide] want to save the honor of mothers and sisters of Arakan, if you want to save all the masjid and madrasas of Arakan from destruction […] take part in this great jihad with us.” (YouTube [posting has since been taken down]).
HAY undertook small-scale ambushes to acquire weapons, but in October 2016 it staged its first major operation — 170 men in coordinated attacks on police posts that resulted in the death of nine border policemen. As one militant stated: “We did not have guns so we attacked them like a swarm of hornets shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ wielding our sticks and machetes” and making off with more than 50 weapons and ammunition (France 24, September 1; BBC, October 9).
In HAY/ARSA’s October 2016 video, the most common firearms on display were old British Enfield carbines; those with the more modern AK-47 variants looked to be in Attullah’s personal security detail (YouTube, August 27). The vast majority of the several hundred men wielded nothing more than machetes, swords and spears.
Nonetheless, the attack caught the government by surprise. Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, responded with pogroms, including attacks on civilians and acts of arson. The UN estimated that violence in October-November 2016 led to some 87,000 Rohingya refugees crossing into Bangladesh (ReliefWeb, August 21).
In early 2017, HAY rebranded itself as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), ostensibly to appear less Islamist and more as a legitimate ethno-nationalist group fighting in self-defense. Its public statements have been stripped of Islamist language. But make no mistake, ARSA has continued to recruit through its network of clerics and mosques, and there is a far more religious basis to the movement than they publicly admit (Asia Times, October 31).
ARSA’s stated political goals are limited to the restoration of citizenship and legal protections of its people. In his first interview, Attullah said that ARSA would fight until “citizenship rights were reinstated.” To date, ARSA has not espoused secession or the establishment of an Islamic state or caliphate.
On August 18, 2017, Attullah released a 19-minute video statement justifying ARSA’s actions, stating that his group was established only in response to government and paramilitary abuses against the Rohingya community. “Our primary objective under ARSA is to liberate our people from dehumanized oppression perpetrated by all successive Burmese regimes,” he said (RFA, August 25).
He went out of his way to state that the group is independent, with no ties to any international terrorist organization. He also called on the Rohingya diaspora to support ARSA, but to “obey and abide by the laws of the land” of their host countries.
The August 25 Attacks: Reasons and Repercussions
Two days after UN Special Representative Kofi Annan issued his report on the Myanmar government’s mishandling of the Rohingya, some 150-200 ARSA militants attacked nearly 30 police posts in pre-dawn operations (Reuters, August 24; Channel News Asia, August 26). ARSA stated the attacks were pre-emptive, though they were clearly meant to secure more weapons (Asia Times, August 28).
Some 77 militants and 13 police were killed in the fighting. The Tatmadaw may have been tipped off about the attacks, possibly allowing them to go ahead in order to justify their own offensive, but one officer acknowledged he had been “surprised they attacked across such a wide geographical area” (Channel News Asia, September 7; Dhaka Tribune, October 18). The military chief openly talked about the “clearance operation” being “unfinished business” (Dhaka Tribune, September 3).
HAY/ARSA knew all too well that the Myanmar military’s response would be heavy handed. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy of extremists; it is also a calculated and cynical ploy. Only people with nothing left to lose would be willing to defy the odds and join a poorly funded group against the Myanmar military, currently the 11th largest in the world, with its long track record of repression against ethnic minorities.
Yet the scope of the full-blown, two-month long campaign of ethnic cleansing, with even senior officials in the government of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi justifying the military’s attacks on civilians, seems to have caught ARSA off guard.
Following the attack, ARSA issued a brief statement saying that the raids were a “legitimate step” to defend and restore their rights, a message that was reinforced by Attullah’s videos on August 27 and 28 (ARSA, August 24; YouTube, August 28). “After the lapse of 11 months, there is no sign to honor human rights to Rohingyas, rather the Burmese government and brutal military regime increased their atrocities against Rohingya (in commission of the last stage of genocide).” [sic]
He warned that “we have no other options but to engage in war” and condemned the military for the pogroms and denial of basic humanitarian aid. He made clear, that the Tatmadaw was fueling the insurgency: “You will never achieve your goals through committing atrocities … If you engage in a war, do it with us, ARSA, not with vulnerable children and women.”
Many Rohingya communities resisted ARSA’s entreaties. As one villager said: “They [ARSA] came at night. We refused to accept the terrorists’ mobilization. Our committee rejected them in their approach” (Irawaddy, September 8).
Another said: “These regular farmers-turned-fighters with few weapons will bring nothing but more woe to Rohingya Muslims” (AFP, September 1). One alleged fighter said 52 of his comrades were killed in the October 25 raids. “It was a big mistake. If ARSA hadn’t launched its attacks, the military wouldn’t have reacted as it did. And there wouldn’t be nearly half a million refugees here” (NPR, October 4).
As another ARSA member complained: “We had only knives and sticks, no guns. They promised us AK-47s, but we got nothing. The explosives didn’t work. We had two of them for the whole group, but when we threw them nothing happened” (Bangkok Post, October 5)
ARSA also stands to benefit from the precariousness of life for Rohingya refugees. For the more than one million people living in squalid refugee camps where violent gangs prey on people, there is an incentive to join militants like ARSA because it accords them and their families a degree of security and additional resources. Joining HAY/ARSA is now becoming farj (a religious obligation) (South China Morning Post, August 29).
The Myanmar government officially labeled ARSA as “extremist Bengali terrorists,” warning that its goal is to establish an Islamic state. Despite the Saudi Arabian and Pakistani roots of ARSA, to date, there is insufficient evidence to prove that ARSA has any ties to the transnational jihadist community.
The plight of the Rohingya has been referenced by international jihadists in the past, but always in passing. Abdullah Azzam, the preacher who inspired Osama Bin Laden, raised the Rohingya issue in the 1980s (Twitter, September 3). Al-Qaeda showed cursory interest in the 1990s. In the July 2014 speech in which he declared the establishment of a caliphate, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi referenced the Rohingya as among “oppressed” Muslim populations worldwide that IS was looking to defend (Benar News, June 11, 2015).  In 2016, the alleged chief of IS in Bangladesh, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, said in a Dabiq interview that IS sought to turn Bangladesh into a launching pad for attacks in India and Myanmar (Benar News, April 15, 2016).
HuJI-Arakan leaders have been photographed on the stage with Lashkar e-Taiba (LET) leaders, including Hafiz Said (Mizzima, September 5). The LET’s charitable arms, Jamat ud Dawa and Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation support the Rohingya refugees in Pakistan and Bangladesh (Economic Times, October 25, 2016). Indian and Bangladeshi security forces believe that the AMM received funding and support from Pakistan’s ISI via the LET (South China Morning Post, September 1). Reports — primarily attributed to Indian intelligence — suggest ties between the AMM and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the pro-IS affiliate that staged the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery siege, in which 21 people were killed (Mizzima, September 5).
In his August 18, 2017 video, Attullah denied any links to the IS and called on fellow Rohingya not to be seduced into joining terrorist organizations. Likewise, Attullah is reported to have eschewed support from Pakistani-based militants. Beyond ideological differences, ARSA has every reason to distance itself from transnational jihadist groups, which would compel Bangladeshi security forces to move against them.
Clearly the plight of the Rohingya resonates amongst the Muslim public in the region. The Myanmar government’s pogroms saw mass demonstrations in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. Protesters threw a Molotov cocktail at the Burmese embassy in Jakarta on September 2, while Indonesian Islamists recently uploaded videos exhorting volunteers to join the jihad in Myanmar, although there is no evidence that recruits have been dispatched (Straits Times, September 3). A video, based on still photos from 2013, appeared on a JI/al-Qaeda website in Indonesia, but did not actually depict ARSA (arrahmah.com, July 10).
While ARSA has no known ties to IS or al-Qaeda, there is a concern about groups perpetrating terrorist acts in their name. Indonesian authorities have broken up two separate terrorist plots by pro-IS militants to blow up the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. The most recent, a plot by Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, the leading IS organization, was in November 2016. In particular, there is concern about the Rohingya diaspora in Pakistan and the Gulf being radicalized.
Al-Qaeda’s general leadership issued a statement in September 2017 describing attacks against the Rohingya as part of an ongoing global campaign against Muslims conducted “under the guise of fighting terrorism,” and stated that it was an “individual” religious and legal obligation under sharia to come to their defense (Channel News Asia, 14 September).
The statement called on Muslims to “set out for Burma, and to make the necessary preparations — training and the like — to resist oppression against their Muslim brothers, and to secure their rights, which will only be returned to them by the use of force.” Al-Qaeda called on Myanmar to be punished for its crimes.
In late October 2017, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Abu Syed al-AnsarI, urged followers in a video statement to abandon demonstrations and actively engage in jihad on behalf of the Rohingya. At the same time, Bangladeshi security forces arrested four JMB militants plotting an aircraft-based terrorist attack, though it is unclear if the attack was to be carried out in the name of the Rohingya (Benar News, October 31)
As IS and al-Qaeda compete, they will continue to raise the plight of the Rohingya in their media, but the broader question is will they act in the name of the Rohingya as they attempt to outbid each other.
There has been a surge in arrests of Bangladeshi nationals across the region in connection with other pro-IS groups, including in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines (IPAC, May 8). In December 2016, Malaysian authorities arrested an Indonesian, who had received bomb training, en route to Myanmar to join the Rohingya (The Star, December 20, 2016). More recently they stopped one of their own nationals Channel News Asia, 14 September).
Indian authorities believe that AQIS has been active in supporting the Rohingya insurgency and recently arrested a suspected al-Qaeda operative. Bangladeshi security services have stepped up their scrutiny of the refugee camps and have recently recovered caches of small arms (Indian Express, January 6).
HAY/ARSA has a sophisticated online information campaign — using Facebook (briefly), Twitter (@ARSA_Official), Blogspot and several video-hosting websites —through which it distributes video and audio material in Rohingya, Bengali, Arabic, Urdu, English, and Burmese.  For its own followers, ARSA’s leadership relies on closed WhatsApp channels to communicate and recruit. Its so-called “ARSA.G1” is run out of Saudi Arabia. Another channel is run out of Malaysia.
The public nature of its information operations suggests that it has intentionally embarked on a strategy to win support from the international community, embracing the UN and other international monitoring and fact-finding missions (ARSA, July 3). Yet, Attullah has not been in a video statement since August 2017.
The September 10 declaration of a month-long unilateral ceasefire (ARSA, September 10) was smart, keeping the attention of the international community on the egregious human rights abuses of the Tatmadaw at a time when a militarily weak ARSA needed to lie low. In a statement on October 7, ARSA offered to unilaterally extend its ceasefire if the government reciprocated and allowed international humanitarian agencies unimpeded access to northern Rakhine state. The government spokesman and Tatmadaw leadership were quick to dismiss the offer stating that they would not “negotiate with terrorists” (Irawaddy, October 9).
Where to now?
To date, over 50 percent of the Rohingya population in Rakhine has fled to Bangladesh. The government of Aung San Suu Kyi is impervious to international pressure, despite high-level interventions by Malaysia and Indonesia. The military lived for decades under crippling sanctions, and has obviously calculated the economic and diplomatic costs into their decision-making.
Government operations against HAY/ARSA and the Rohingya population will continue. The government created a Catch-22 situation, stating that only those refugees who have proof of citizenship can return, knowing all too well that it stripped their citizenship in 1982. Hardline Buddhist clergy have called on Buddhists to defend themselves in firebrand sermons and put pressure on the government to refuse to allow the refugees to return (Facebook, August 30).
ARSA has said that there would be “open war” and “continued [armed] resistance” until full citizenship rights are restored. The Myanmar government and military are unlikely to accede to that demand.
ARSA’s military capabilities remain paltry. There have been no military operations for over two months, and it is unlikely there will be any in the immediate future. ARSA will focus on recruitment and indoctrination, followed by establishing small units and engaging in rudimentary military training. The degree to which they can do this is dependent on the Bangladeshi government. Bangladesh has accused the Myanmar government of committing “genocide” (Benar News, September 11). Giving ARSA space is one of the only points of leverage it has to get the Myanmar government to take back even some Rohingya.
The paucity of Rohingya left in Rakhine could prove advantageous to ARSA, which may be less fearful of retaliation and hence more emboldened in attacks. There will likely be attacks on Buddhist civilians, especially as such assaults would not require military-grade arms.
This is the start of a generational conflict. While HAY/ARSA will never be a match for the Tatmatdaw, nor a viable threat to the territorial integrity of Myanmar, they can still draw out a low-level insurgency, possibly for decades. ARSA’s hopes that the international community is willing and able to deliver them full legal protections are likely misplaced. That portends a more radical course of action in the future.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College where he focuses on Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect the position of the US Department of Defense, the National Defense University, or the National War College.
 The comments referred to by al-Baghdadi: “It is enough for you to just look at the scenes that have reached you from Central Africa, and from Burma before that. What is hidden from us is far worse. So by Allah, we will take revenge! By Allah, we will take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator.”
 There are a number of online video outlets that promote its cause. The Saudi-Arabian based Arakan New Agency’s website is in English and Arabic with its own YouTube channel and productions in Rohingya, English, Urdu, Burmese and Arabic. Another Saudi Arabian-based website, Arakan Times, also distributes news and graphic details of human rights abuses in English and Burmese. It too runs a YouTube channel. A third YouTube channel, Arakan News TV, is run out of Bangladesh.