Above: The blast site inside St Anthony’s Church in Colombo. More than 300 people were killed in the explosions in Sri Lanka/Photo: UNI
Though there has been simmering tension between the Buddhists, Christians and Muslims in the island nation of Sri Lanka, the scale of the attacks suggests a global jihadi hand
By Seema Guha
A decade of relative peace in Sri Lanka was shattered on Easter Sunday when suicide bombers blew themselves up across churches and high-end hotels in the island nation. The results were devastating—320 dead and over 400 wounded, some of them seriously. Among the 36 foreign victims, 10 were Indian nationals.
Has this dastardly attack announced the arrival of jihadi terror not just in Sri Lanka but across South Asia? The ISIS has claimed responsibility, but it is in the habit of doing so to boost its credibility as it is now on the run. However, the ISIS released a video in which one of the terrorists, Zahran Hashim, was shown swearing allegiance to the group. He is suspected to be a cleric and his hate-filled sermons have garnered a huge following online. According to reports, he delivered the sermons before a banner of the Twin Towers and has given calls for all non-Muslims to be eliminated.
Sri Lanka has said that the group that carried out the deadly co-ordinated attacks is a little-known
home-grown Islamic outfit called the National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ). But the targets—Catholics celebrating one of the holiest events in the Christian calendar, and five-star hotels where mainly Westerners stayed—have the hallmark of an international plot and a group that subscribes to the jihadi ideology. Colombo is probing the international dimensions of the attack. The FBI, and Indian, Australian and British intelligence are all chipping in to provide inputs.
Ironically, there was specific information about a possible attack during Easter. India had tipped off the Sri Lankan authorities. But Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was kept out of the loop as a result of the continuing feud between him and President Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena finally asked defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando and police chief Pujuth Jayasundara to resign for security lapses.
The larger question is, what now? Will the island nation once again be wracked by terrorist violence of a different kind? Will Tamils in the Northern Province, disappointed that those responsible for large-scale human rights violations during the last days of the military campaign against the LTTE did not face any action, use this opportunity to start another violent movement? Tamil youngsters seething with resentment against the Sinhala government could link up with Islamic radicals. No one knows. But the possibilities exist considering that many of the promises made to the Tamils have not been fulfilled by the government.
The situation could even take a more communal turn. Sri Lanka is known for its ethnic conflict. Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism has been rampant since the days of SDR Bandaranaike and is responsible for alienating the Tamil minorities of the country. But religious differences were not part of Sri Lanka’s problem. According to the 2011 Census, the Buddhists form 70.2 percent of the population and are Sinhalese. Hindu Tamils make up 12.6 percent and are the largest minority, while 9.7 percent of the Muslim population is Tamil-speaking. Christians are just about 7.4 percent and are mainly Catholics. Christians are both Tamil and Sinhalese.
There have been some incidents of religious clashes in the past. During the LTTE years, Muslims’ villages were sometimes attacked by the Tigers. In the 1990s, two mosques were attacked. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress at one time talked of a Muslim enclave in the Eastern Province, but that move did not go far.
However, after the Sri Lankan army’s decisive victory against the LTTE, and its success in wiping out its entire top leadership in 2009, a tone of triumphalism crept into the discourse. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa became a national hero. His supporters compared him to the ancient Sinhala king, Dutugemunu, who was famous for defeating Tamil invaders 2,000 years back. The victory also fanned Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism (always present in the island’s southern areas) and led to a hardening of stance against minorities. Both Christians and Muslims bore the brunt. The Bodo Bala Sena was at the forefront of the move to intimidate minorities and claim Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy.
There were minor incidents, but nothing on a large scale. In 2013, a mosque was attacked by a Buddhist mob in Colombo, injuring 12.
Again in 2014, Muslims and their properties were attacked by Sinhala Buddhist mobs in the towns of Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga. Four people were killed and 80 injured.
In 2018, riots that began in Ampara spread to the Kandy area. Mosques and Muslim businesses were attacked. The Muslims retaliated and Buddhist temples and Sinhalese were targeted. The government took tough measures and brought things under control. But in December 2018, some statues of Lord Buddha were defaced and vandalised by Muslims in Kegalle district of central Sri Lanka.
Christians also have had their share of complaints. Buddhist monks tried to disrupt a church service earlier this year. Last year, 86 cases of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians were reported by the National Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka.
While some Buddhists had since 2009 tried to show Muslims and Christians their place in Sri Lankan society, there have been no reports of tension between Muslims and Christians. This is why the Easter Sunday bloodbath makes no sense. The sophistication of the attacks points to an external element. It is well known that ISIS and Al-Qaeda had called for revenge after the New Zealand mosque attacks in Christchurch. This could be a fallout of that. But the planning for the massive attack on Easter could have taken more than a year to streamline.
It is a fact that some Muslim boys have been swayed by the ISIS propaganda. Some 33 young Muslims from Sri Lanka had joined the ISIS when the Caliphate still had territory. Now with the ISIS on the run, many of the jihadi warriors are returning home.
Ajai Sahni, a counter-terrorism expert who runs Terrorism Portal, told India Legal: “The National Thowheeth Jamaath could be a local outfit, but it cannot carry out such sophisticated synchronised terror strikes without some degree of help from the worldwide jihadi movement.” He, however, believes that this is a one-off case. “I don’t expect the group to survive as the Sri Lankan police and defence forces will hunt it down to the last man.”
In addition, there have been reports of radicalisation of Muslim youth in Sri Lanka. Saudi Arabia has been funding the construction of new mosques there and these have helped to define the Sri Lankan Muslims’ identity as part of a larger pan-Islamic community.
Yet, it is not Sri Lanka but Sunni Muslim Maldives in the neighbourhood which has been the focus of counter-terrorism experts. Sri Lanka has come as a major surprise.
The question is with both ISIS and Al-Qaeda hoping to regroup, will South Asia be next on the jihadi list?
Sahni does not think so. Al-Qaeda was formally announced in the Indian subcontinent in 2014. “But they have hardly been able to make an impact so far. Authorities are always on the lookout and intelligence co-ordination among countries now is much better than it was earlier,” he said.
Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza, and the current leader of the organisation, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are in competition with the ISIS for the mantle of the Caliphate. The ISIS is already in Afghanistan and is certain to use its network of Islamic warriors who have returned quietly to their home countries to build up their profile in Asia.
Whether Easter Sunday’s terror strikes are an indication of things to come is uncertain. One thing is certain, though—tension between Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil-speaking Muslims will escalate. Much will depend on how the government handles the situation.