Pakistan, IS ‘behind Rakhine imbroglio’
Indian, Bangladeshi intelligence officials suggest links between Rohingya rebels and Islamic militant groups
Indian and Bangladeshi intelligence officials have said they intercepted three long phone calls that hold the key to why the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) unleashed a pre-dawn offensive against Myanmar security forces in Rakhine State on Aug 25. The attacks have triggered clashes with security forces and forced an exodus of the Rohingya into Bangladesh.
The phone calls involve conversations between Hafiz Tohar, chief of the military wing of ARSA, on Aug 23 and Aug 24 with two people.
Hafiz Tohar set up the Aqa Mul Mujahideen (AMM) and was trained in Pakistan by the dreaded Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), an Islamic militant organisation based in Pakistan, after he was recruited by Abdul Qadoos Burmi, the chief of Harkat ul Jihad al Islami-Arakan (HUJI-A), a Pakistanbased terrorist group with an affiliate in Bangladesh, from Kyauk Pyin Siek village of Maungdaw in 2014.
He merged his group into ARSA after it was formed in the summer of 2016 and is widely believed to be behind the deadly attacks on Myanmar security forces in Rakhine State from Oct 9-10 last year and on Aug 25 this year.
Following the training of a few initial recruits of the AMM in Pakistan, new cadres were brought on board from among Rohingya youth in Rakhine State and refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
They were then trained in camps set up on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, especially one at Naikhongcherri in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
One “Major Salamat” of Pakistan’s InterServices Intelligence (ISI), deputised for undercover operations with the LeT, was responsible for these training sessions during April-May 2016.
Sixty three activists of the Jamaat-ulMujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a terrorist organisation from Bangladesh that has been responsible for suicide bombings in the country according to the government, and 88 ARSA activists were trained in the Naikhongcherri base in April-May 2016, according to information revealed by two top JMB activists when interrogated by Bangladeshi intelligence.
This base was recently raided by the Bangladesh army and six JMB rebels were captured. During interrogation, they confirmed information about this base and the joint JMB-ARSA training stint conducted by ISI that Bangladeshi intelligence had garnered from top JMB leader Abul Kashem.
Mr Kashem’s information led to the raid on this hideout three months ago.
They found contact numbers of one “Brigadier Ashfaq” and of “Major Salamat” of ISI and one Islamic State (IS) recruiter in Iraq.
Bangladeshi intelligence placed these numbers under monitoring and also passed their numbers to India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the primary foreign intelligence agency, which has superb signals and intelligence capabilities with a regional reach.
Brig Ashfaq is said to be the officer in charge of ISI’s eastern operations, and he recently met Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader and former premier Khaleda Zia and her son Tarique in London.
Some Bangladeshi media outlets, quoting intelligence sources, reported that the ISI officer and Ms Zia discussed ways to bring down the Bangladesh government in Dhaka and boost the Rohingya insurgency in Rakhine, for which the support of the BNP-Jamaat e Islami was needed because Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League is not sympathetic to the Rohingya.
On Aug 23 at 11.32am Bangladesh time, there was a call from Brig Ashfaq’s number to a Bangladesh mobile phone used by Hafiz Tohar. The call lasted 37 minutes, and Brig Ashfaq told Mr Tohar that ARSA had to hit multiple targets within the next 48 hours. Mr Tohar said although his squads were in a position to strike, suggesting lengthy planning and mobilisation, it would not be possible to strike the multiple targets before midnight of Aug 24.
Indian intelligence also intercepted this call and were able to fully break the coded language that Bangladesh intelligence had not been able to decipher fully.
“Kala Admi report detehi hamla ho,” said Brig Ashfaq and Mr Tohar replied: “Ji Janaab, jo hukum, par 24 rat se pahle nahi hoga.”
“Kala Admi” or “Black Man” is presumed to be referring to Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary-general who has led a commission investigating the Rakhine situation. During the conversation, the ISI officer was asking for the attacks to be launched immediately after Mr Annan submitted his commission’s report to the Myanmar government.
Mr Tohar agreed but said it would not be possible before midnight of 24 Aug. Mr Tohar speaks clear Urdu (the national language of Pakistan) due to his long stay in Pakistan.
The second call came on 24 Aug at 2.13pm Bangladesh time and lasted for 28 minutes.
Brig Ashfaq asked when the “Kala Admi” (presumably Mr Annan) is making his report public. Mr Tohar said 3pm, just a few minutes from now.
Brig Ashfaq pleaded for the attacks to be launched as quickly as possible, soon after dark.
Mr Tohar said “runners” had been sent to all the ARSA squads with instructions to launch the attacks at midnight.
The ARSA appears to have been sending messages through physical runners in person, maintaining a total radio silence for fear of detection.
At 6.02pm a call came in from an Iraq number with someone introducing himself as “Al-Amin of Daesh” on the line to Mr Tohar.
The call was shorter than the AshfaqTohar calls, lasting under 14 minutes.
The caller wished the ARSA the best in its jihad against the Myanmar colonialists, and Buddhist and Hindu fanatics.
These three calls simultaneously intercepted by Bangladesh and Indian intelligence make it clear that the ARSA and their backers (IS and ISI) were determined to cause problems for the Aung San Suu Kyi government which had committed to setting up an inter-ministerial committee to implement recommendations made by the Annan-led Rakhine Commission.
It is nor clear whether Bangladesh or India raised a red flag with Myanmar to warn them of the impending attack.
Perhaps the absence of an intelligence-sharing mechanism did not enable the transfer.
“After IS’s huge failures in the Middle East in the face of Russian and US-led Western military action, there is a clear attempt to create a new theatre of jihad where the narrative of torture and human rights violations reinforced by heavy handed Burmese action can unsettle the Sheikh Hasina regime and destabilise India’s east,” said a top Indian intelligence official in Yangon before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to review
“That will divert the Indian military’s attention from Kashmir and Bangladesh from its battle against JMB and other jihadists. This is a clear Pakistani ploy.”
These reports could provide an explanation to why India and Bangladesh, mindful of their own security threats, might not have brought into the narrative of “genocide” as some in the West and many in the Islamic world have.
“The ARSA is determined to thwart Ms Suu Kyi’s good intentions to implement the Kofi Annan report’s recommendations. They want to brutalise the discourse in Rakhine and help remilitarise the area so that the narrative of torture and extrajudicial killings help them boost the level of jihad and find recruits,” said a top Bangladesh intelligence official.
But both he and the Indian intelligence official wished to remain anonymous.
Rohingya Muslims in the village of Shwe Zarr looking at Myanmar police, who are providing security due to recent nearby unrest, near Maungdaw township in Rakhine State on Wednesday.