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Ataullah — freedom fighter for Rohingya or curse?

Updated September 23, 2017

KARACHI: To his foes, Ataullah is a reckless amateur who has brought misery to thousands of Rohingya after launching an insurgency in Myanmar.

But to the supporters of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), their leader is an intrepid fighter who left a life of luxury in Saudi Arabia to defend the group against overwhelming odds.

“He’s very charismatic,” said Richard Horsey, an independent analyst based in Myanmar. “He inspires people. He speaks in a way that resonates with the grievances felt by that community.”

The insurgent left a comfortable life to fight for his community but was cheated by jihadists

Ataullah is believed to have ordered attacks by Arsa in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last month, provoking a ferocious offensive by security forces that has sent around 420,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

He first came to public attention last October when he announced his group’s arrival in videos posted online after launching ambushes on Myanmar border posts in Rakhine, long a hotbed of religious tensions between Muslims and Buddhists.

Ataullah is said to be in his early 30s and appears to oversee a ragtag network of cells comprising lightly trained men armed with sticks, machetes and a small number of guns.

In videos, flanked by masked gunmen and dressed in casual attire, Ataullah lists the crimes committed against the Rohingya by the Myanmar government, and promises to liberate the community from “dehumanised oppression”.

Life of luxury

A majority of the world’s Rohingya community have been stateless for decades, eking out miserable lives in ghettos in Myanmar or overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.

But Ataullah was raised in a middle-class home in Karachi.

His father studied at the esteemed Darul Uloom Madrassah in Karachi before moving the family to Saudi Arabia to teach in Riyadh and then in Ta’if, according to a relative.

There Ataullah recited the Holy Quran at a mosque where he caught the attention of wealthy Saudis who asked him to tutor their children. He was soon brought into the group’s inner circle, enjoying late-night parties and lavish hunting trips.

“The Saudis liked him a lot and treated him like one of their own,” a relative of the Ataullah family with knowledge of their time in Saudi Arabia said.

But after the 2012 communal rioting in Rakhine that displaced over 140,000 mostly Rohingya, Ataullah abandoned his comfortable life in Saudi Arabia to go back to Myanmar and fight.

Militant animosity

First, he returned to Pakistan with millions of dollars seeking guns, fighters and training from jihadi groups, according to militants in Karachi who met him.

Three figures from militant circles who met Ataullah in 2012 said money was sent to him via hawala, an informal system of payments based on trust which is far more difficult to trace than bank transfers. The sources added that they assumed the funds came from wealthy Saudis and Rohingya in Saudi Arabia.

He contacted figures tied to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Kashmiri groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, offering them large sums of cash in exchange for help — to no avail.

“Publicly, these organisations had expressed their solidarity with the Muslims of Burma and called for jihad but they gave him the cold shoulder,” said one source who collaborated with Ataullah in 2012.

Most of the Pakistani militants snubbed or ignored the requests, while others stole the money he paid for weapons that were never delivered.

“The calls for jihad in Burma [Myanmar’s old name] by various militant groups are nothing but a publicity stunt and a means to gain sympathy from Muslims,” said retired Pakistani general Talat Masood.

Sources from multiple militant circles who saw Ataullah said he left Pakistan a committed nationalist with a lingering distrust of the jihadi outfits who paid only lip service to the Rohingya’s plight.

Ataullah viewed other Rohingya groups, like the largely defunct militant Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), with outright disgust, said one source who presided over meetings between Ataullah and the RSO in Karachi.

Provoked a crisis

Following the new wave of violence in Rakhine, the same jihadists who once shunned Ataullah have reached out with promises of support for the poorly armed fighters.

Sources in contact with Ataullah said he has refused their offers, despite Arsa’s dire need for medical supplies and weapons.

“Some of his people have suggested accepting the offers of help but he has shown no interest,” said a source with ties to one of Ataullah’s training camps in Bangladesh.

He fears “that his mission might be hijacked if he involved other religious groups”.

RSO’s Pakistan representative Noor Hussain Burmi who met Ataullah in 2012 said the insurgent’s vanity and recklessness has brought more misery to the community in Myanmar.

“He does not want anyone else to set foot in Rakhine because he thinks they will overshadow him,” said Burmi.

And analysts warn that Ataullah’s stated aim of defending Rohingya has severely backfired.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2017