In what is likely to influence the discourse on Rohingya refugees in India, the Delhi police claimed on Monday to have arrested an Al Qaeda militant who was allegedly recruiting fighters to do battle for the persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In a statement, the police accused Samiun Rahman, 28, of helping “radicalised youth” enter Myanmar from Indian territory.

The police has not offered evidence to support the claims, however, and that raises questions.

The alleged militant was caught in Delhi on September 17, the police said, and his arrest was announced the next day. Just that morning, the central government had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court defending its plan to deport Rohingya refugees on the ground that they figured in the “sinister designs of ISI, ISIS and other extremist groups”, and thus constituted a threat to national security.

Big claims

According to the police, Rahman is a British national of Bangladeshi descent. He joined Al Qaeda in 2013, and underwent three weeks of training at its camp in Syria. He fought against Syrian government forces on the side of Jabhat Al Nusra, an affiliate of Al Qaeda until 2014.

It was in Syria, the police claim, that Rahman became aware of the atrocities being committed on the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Soon, he was chosen by Al Qaeda to raise a cadre of militants in Bangladesh. Rahman arrived in the country in 2014 and started operating with another militant identified as Yasin by the Delhi police.

Rahman has also been to Morocco, Mauritania and Turkey, the police’s statement states, but does not clarify further. It, however, offers a detailed account of his alleged connection to the “Rohingya issue”: in Bangladesh, Rahman “radicalised” dozens of men and sent them into Myanmar through the porous border at Chittagong until he was arrested in 2014, and jailed on charges of indulging in terror activities. When he got bail three years later, Al Qaeda told him to move to India and continue the recruitment. He set up bases in Mizoram and Manipur, raising funds, “radicalising” youth and helping them get into Myanmar to fight for the “Rohingya cause”.

Tricky questions

Pramod Singh Kushwah, deputy commissioner of the Special Cell, the Delhi police’s anti-terrorism unit, most of the men recruited by Rahman were Rohingya Muslims while a few were Bangladeshi citizens. “Once they managed to reach Myanmar, some of them merged with the existing rebel group fighting against the Burma military there, while others would fight under Al Qaeda’s banner,” he said.

The Myanmar government, which considers the rebel group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, to be a terror outfit, has never spoken about Al Qaeda or any other international Islamist group operating directly in the country. The rebel army, which claims to be fighting to regain the rights of the Rohingya, was the only group listed as a terrorist organisation by the Burmese government in a notification issued on August 27.

Reports have regularly emerged in the media linking the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army to terrorist outfits around the world such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, but the leadership of the group, earlier operating as Harakah al Yakeen, has denied such links, even as it has admitted to getting funds from Rohingyas settled abroad. The latest denial came as recently as September 14, when the rebels issued a statement that they do not welcome the involvement of foreigners in the conflict. Previously, when the group had declared a ceasefire with the military on September 10 to enable aid workers to reach the displaced Rohingya, they had urged the government to tighten security in order to prevent members of terrorist outfits from entering Rakhine.

Tenuous links

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s stance does not mean there is no involvement of foreign terrorist groups in Rakhine, or at least rhetoric. On September 12, Al Qaeda called upon all “mujahid brothers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines to set out for Burma to help their Muslim brothers, and to make the necessary preparations – training and the like – to resist this oppression”. The statement was reported by Reuters, which attributed it to the SITE intelligence group.

On September 16, News 18 reported about a speech by Hafeez Saeed, founder of the Pakistan-based banned terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, urging Rohingya Muslims to wage “holy war”. Saeed, in fact, has been talking about the “Rohingya cause” for at least two years now.

Yet, neither the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army nor the Myanmar government have referred to the involvement of groups such as the Al Qaeda or the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Rakhine.

In this context, the Special Cell’s record of fabricating evidence against alleged terrorists, many of whom were eventually acquitted, does not inspire confidence about its claim to have found evidence seemingly vindicating the government’s plan to deport the 40,000 Rohingya refugees living in India.