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Sri Lanka Terror Attacks: The Regional Threat of Rising Islamic Extremism

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The recent Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, one of the worst modern terrorist attacks after 9/11, have announced the open arrival of Islamic terrorism in South Asia, and right in India’s backyard, directly threatening our southern states. The magnitude of the attacks – launched in major five star hotels and most famous churches – which killed over 300 people and injured about 500 others, shows that months of planning and meticulous international funding had to have gone into them.

While a local terrorist organization called National Thowheeth Jaamath (NTJ) launched the attacks, the direct support came from Islamic State network (ISIS). It is not possible for the NTJ – which became active in 2014 and catapulted to limelight last year – to have carried out the terror operation on its own. Besides, ISIS has now taken responsibility for the attacks and has stated that it was revenge for ousting them from Syria and Iraq.

In Sri Lanka, the eastern province, especially, the town of Kuttankudy, being a Muslim-dominated region, provided ideal conditions for the ISIS to launch its arrival in the region in a major way. All it had to do was to utilize its network in South Asia and operate through a local terrorist outfit, NTJ, led by Zaharan Hashmi.

Because of ISIS money and support, a little known organization was able to carry out such large-scale attacks, otherwise, the NTJ was little more than a new, fledging Islamist terror outfit operating in the eastern parts of Sri Lanka.

Why Sri Lanka: Rise of Buddhist Nationalism and Islamic Extremism Since 2009

A major question that has arisen in the wake of the attacks is why Sri Lanka was chosen by the ISIS to assert itself and why was the Christian community in Sri Lanka singled out for the attacks. Christians form the smallest minority in the country. Sri Lanka has about 70% Sinhalese Buddhist people, 12.6% Hindus, roughly under 10% Muslims and near 7.4% Christians. The reasons for targeting Christians have not come out clearly, especially because Christians and Muslims have always lived peacefully with each other in the country.

One of the explanations emerging from the local scenario might be that the Sri Lankan government’s ongoing war against drugs was supported by the Christians and it involved heavy arrests of Muslims, from which the drug peddlers came. Drug trade provided sources of financing for Muslim terror networks linked to ISIS.

Besides this, attacking Christian churches served three purposes –

One, since historical relations between the two minorities have been cordial, the backlash was not feared, unlike if they had attacked the Buddhist or the Hindu communities,

Two, Christians are the smallest minority, thereby enabling the attackers to send out their tough Islamic message without fearing reprisals. Had they attacked the Sinhalese community, Sri Lanka might have turned into another Myanmar.

Three, and the most subtly un-grasped reason has been that since 2006, Catholics in Sri Lanka have stood out against what they called the proselytizing Protestants as well as the Muslims. They have often made common cause with Buddhist nationalists in restricting the freedoms of Muslim extremists and a small section of Protestants. Since 2009, with the end of the civil war, the Catholic Church has been consistent in its defence of the government and Buddhist nationalists against charges of ‘intolerance’ against the Muslims. Thus, the uniform historical Christian-Muslim peace in Sri Lanka has not been so uniform.

In the context of the intensifying Sinhalese-Muslim conflict, these attacks send out the message that Islamic extremism has arrived in Sri Lanka and that Muslims are not just defenseless minorities who were battling the Buddhists – they have had the whole backing of the global Islamic Caliphate of the ISIS behind them.

Till 2009, the major conflict in Sri Lanka was the ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese Buddhists. But after 2009 and the crushing of the LTTE, new fault lines emerged between Buddhists and other religious minorities like Muslims and Christians, especially Muslims. Notably, Hindus were never the object of Buddhist ire in Sri Lanka. And the post-2009 scenario has seen a uniting of Buddhist and Hindus. In the case of the present terror attack as well, both the Tamils and the Sinhalese are outraged, since the Christians came from both these communities.

In all these overlapping religious and ethnic commonalities, the only outsider that stands out, in both racial and religious respects, is the Muslim. Although Muslims in Sri Lanka speak both Sinhalese and Tamil languages, their historical allegiance has always been to the Arab world and even the Tamil Muslims do not regard their Tamil language identity as meaning anything. During the LTTE civil war, while Tamil Muslims initially sided with the LTTE, they ceased to support it after LTTE raided some mosques in Kuttankudy during the 1990s.

Subsequently, during the LTTE civil war itself, unbeknownst to the world, Islamic fundamentalism sensed the opportunity and took root in Sri Lanka. Its first task was to subjugate other Muslim communities that were not Sunnis, enabling them to raid Sufi mosques in 2006. The conflict between various Muslim sub-groups and ethnicities in Sri Lanka is also intense, with Sufis often directly coming into conflict with Sunni radical outfits like Pakistan-based Jamaat-i-Islami and India-based Thablighi Jamaat. Thus, there were two levels to Muslim problem in Sri Lanka – one, Muslims versus the others, since Muslims have had their own distinct identity and have not subscribed to ethnic identities like Sinhala or Tamil, and, two, Muslims conflict within various Muslim sub-groups. The latter is increasingly being subdued since the Arab influence finally has a decisive upper hand.

In recent years, Arab influence, in the form of radical Wahhabism and Salafism, has intensified among Sri Lanka’s Sunni Muslim community in the eastern province, making them further disassociated from the Lankan society. It has entirely pervaded their education systems and community organizations, so much so that eastern province has been left alone, in isolation, by the Lankan authorities – the extent of rising Muslim radicalism and isolation has become such that, now, the entire area has become too opaque and tough for the intelligence community to infiltrate

Not only have Muslim organizations become more vocal and engaging in forceful conversion, exploiting the poor Buddhists and speaking freely in the ghettoized eastern province, the target of local radicalized Islamist preachers’ ire has also focused on defaming Buddhism as well as defacing Buddha statues. Social media and internet have helped them, as they have followed the teaching of terror lords like Zakir Naik, who is wanted by India, and established effective linkages through internet.

As a result, Buddhist nationalism, too, has been on the rise in Sri Lanka. This was especially so after the civil war against the LTTE ended in 2009. The Bodu Bala Sena – a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization – was formed in 2012 and was supported by the previous nationalist government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who directly commanded the operations wiping out the LTTE. The Sena also has links with Myanmar’s Buddhist ‘969 Movement’ which fought against the Rohingya Muslims, thereby forging a kind of South Asian Buddhist solidarity against Muslim extremism.

Between 2012 and 2014, the Bodu Bala Sena carried out intensive anti-Muslim and anti-Christian rallies and checks, alleging conversions by Islamic preachers and evangelical pastors. In 2013, its general secretary described the organization as a “civilian police force against Muslim extremism” and held a massive anti-Muslim rally. In reaction, in 2013, in the eastern province, an outfit named Muslim Rights Organization organized a counter-rally to protest against Bodu Bala Sena. Between 2014 and 2018, there were communal riots as well, with the latest being a massive riot in Ampara and Kandy districts of Sri Lanka in 2018.

The February 2018 riots brought sharp international focus on the Muslim question in Sri Lanka. Despite the fact that the riots were triggered by a group of Muslims killing a Sinhalese and inciting a counter-reaction and the fact that both Sinhalese and Muslims attacked each other’s places of worship, the international condemnation from the West flowed freely against the Sinhalese. The so-called secular elements in the country – including the present government – were quick to crackdown on the majority community.

In cases such as these, the burden of democracy and secularism becomes all the more glaring, holding a country hostage and targeting its national communities for doing the bare minimum to protect the national interest. Unlike Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China did not obligate themselves to appeasing Islamic radicals and international public opinion, enabling them to take more effective action against Muslim extremism. India, on its part, has seen both phases under two different kinds of government.

Sri Lankan Politics and the Burden of Appeasement

Much like in India, Muslim appeasement is an important factor in Lankan politics as well, with Muslims constituting nearly 10% of the population. The current government led by Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister with Mathripala Sirisena as the President, is known for minority appeasement, in contrast to the previous nationalist government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is credited for effective actions preventing sectarianism. Yet, despite the nationalist image of Rajapaksa, his party too, at one time, depended heavily on Muslims for votes and was endorsed by Saudi Arabia. But his later endorsement of Sena – though not openly – shows that winds were blowing differently.

Yet, the unfortunate part of Sri Lankan politics is that all three political parties – whose leaders are Sirisena, Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe – have practiced Muslim appeasement to nurture their vote-bank, at some point or the other, regardless of Rajapaksa’s relatively more nationalist identity.

Even in the case of the present terror attacks, it is pertinent to note that the government did not take any action despite repeated intelligence warnings from India. India had given the warnings in great detail, including supplying some of the names and addresses of potential suspects, and on the morning of the attack itself as well, India had intimated Sri Lanka. Besides India, Muslim sub-groups in conflict with Sunnis had also warned the authorities this time as well as in the past about Muslim radicalism, yet no action was taken.

Sri Lanka police chief had intimated the government officials about India’s warnings. These warnings were known to the security council of Sri Lanka, which is under charge of President Sirisena, yet the President claims ignorance. The reason for lack of action against Islamic radicals despite being forewarned, lies not only in the ongoing political crisis in the country – between the Prime Minister and the President –  since 2018, but also on the Muslim appeasement factor in Lankan politics.

Damagingly, after recovering a huge cache of arms and ammunition few months ago on 80 acres of farmland, in the eastern province, it is not possible that the Lankan authorities could not have fathomed that something was brewing in the Muslim community – yet, only four people were arrested and two were released and no action was taken against Islamic radicalism or against NTJ, with the police downplaying the discovery. The lack of action reflects not the failure of Lankan intelligence, but the state of political will, despite being faced with repeated evidence – the clear unwillingness of Lankan politicians to confront the Muslim radicals and avert disaster, for the fear of losing their 10% vote bank, since Muslims vote uniformly as a group.

This counterproductive thinking was also reflected in a major blunder committed by the Lankan government – shutting down an intelligence operations center in the eastern province. About 40 officers engaged in the center were relocated to various government welfare departments. The Lankan government shut the center because of alleged human rights abuses perpetrated by Sri Lankan operatives against the local Muslims there. Had the center not been closed, the present attack could easily have been intercepted and averted.

Not only this, but the government of the day also opened inquiries against the Lankan officers for alleged human rights abuses during the civil war, as a part of their process of ‘reconciliation’ with the Tamils. Such measures have only served to demoralize the military services community in Lanka and send out a message to external enemies, like jihadists, that easy attacks could be launched on the country without any fear of reprisal. What the present secular government in Sri Lanka has been doing is akin to the government of the day persecuting its own armed forces, by giving into to an international witch-hunt in the name of democracy and human rights.

This is mind boggling. To draw an analogy, imagine what would happen if the Indian government decides to go after its own armed forces in Kashmir on the pretext of human rights abuses and begins shutting down intelligence cells in Kashmir, for abusing the locals. India would be done for. We have faced something like this before, when the previous governments adopted a soft stand towards Kashmiri terrorists – far from containing terrorism or ‘reconciling’ the Kashmiris, it further emboldened the terrorists to launch attacks like 26/11 in India, knowing fully well that they need not fear any reprisals against the Muslim community under the then Congress government. In fact, all ten 26/11 terrorists were wearing the sacred Hindu red thread on their wrists, to make it look like a case of ‘Hindu terrorism’ plot buttressed by the then UPA government – their plans failed after Kasab was caught and his Pakistani identity revealed as proof.

They would think twice before doing something like this under a nationalist government, knowing that the majoritarian reaction against the Muslims would be immense, and Modi already has a proven track record of implementing his tough words against Islamic extremism, since 2002.

Thus, what Sri Lanka is doing today is much like what UPA did between 2006-2013 – persecuting majority communities and tying the hands of the armed forces in the name of human rights. All the while, such weak regimes were taken advantage of by terrorists and ridiculed by the international community.

The Threat to India

The rise of a distinctive and decisive brand of Islamic terrorism in Sri Lanka from the previous indecisive and localized Muslim-Buddhist conflicts poses a major and direct threat to India, on several counts:

First, the Muslim question in India mirrors the Muslim question in Sri Lanka. The politics of appeasement of which Muslims are the main beneficiary is common to certain political parties in both the countries. These commonalities create further cementing points between Muslim networks in both the countries. These Muslim commonalities have emerged across South Asia, to India’s detriment. In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the fleeing of Rohingya Muslims and the refusal of Sri Lanka and India to grant them refugee, have further reinforced the sense of Muslim ‘victimhood’.

The menace of Islamic extremism has spread like wildfire, and is stinging Hindus and Buddhists of South Asia, alike. While Pakistan is the biggest sponsor of terrorism to India, rest of the Muslim South and South-east Asian countries are getting rapidly radicalized as well. This includes Indonesia and Malaysia. Maldives currently shelters the largest number of ISIS fighters in the world, thanks to the legacy of the erstwhile government of Abdulla Yameen.

Unlike other terrorist outfits, ISIS does not need to make too many efforts to secure allegiance – it just gobbles up or includes within itself various radical Islamist outfits operating in different parts of the world.

When ISIS, after facing a push back in Iraq and Syria since 2015, decided to expand to South and South-east Asia, it adopted this method. This is what ISIS did in Philippines when it took Malawi under siege about 2 years back – it simply included a local Islamist outfit, Abu Sayyef, within its ranks and established its foothold. Similarly, in Afghanistan, in Nangarhar province, it literally established its provincial centre for South Asia, gobbling up entire units of Taliban within itself. In India, it is mostly its logistics and secondary support network that operates – especially from states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

It has launched attacks in South Asia, but none as massive in scale as the Sri Lanka attacks. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, it has routinely attacked Shia and Hazara minorities. In Philippines, it literally controlled the Malawi region and widely desecrated the Churches, and, in Bangladesh it is most famous for the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery attack. After the Bangladesh attack, Sheikh Hasina, through a complete security overhaul, literally wiped out the ISIS networks in the country.

It has not launched any attack in India so far. But its logistics networks are active here and as far back as 2015-16, certain areas of Kashmir saw the open unfurling of ISIS flags. India’s intelligence agencies have strengthened considerably since 26/11 and it is not easy now for outfits like ISIS to target India. But the dream of conquering the ‘Hind’ has been reiterated by ISIS for long. India is the crown of this region.

Besides these South Asian countries, Islamic terror networks are spread everywhere in the region – for instance, the Rohingya in Myanmar and Uighur Muslims in China. Any such network is fodder for ISIS, where the only criterion is to extinguish the existence of non-Muslims. Thus, not the Middle-east, but India’s backyard is becoming the hub of Islamic terrorism.

Second, India-based radical and extremist Muslim organizations play a major role in ‘exchanges’ with Sri Lanka at a religious level. India-based outfits like Thablighi Jamaat and Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jaamath are active among Sri Lanka’s Muslims. India-born Zakir Naik, who fled to Malaysia, is a regional celebrity among Muslims of both Sri Lanka and India, as well as other South Asian Muslims. In the wake of the recent attacks in Sri Lanka, even the National Investigative Agency (NIA) in India cracked down on Indian Muslims based in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, who had been following the main mastermind of the attack, Hashmi. Hashmi had even spent a few months in India and had planned the foiled attack on Indian High Commission in Colombo.

In general, this easy and effortless religious exchange between radical Muslims across both countries poses a threat to India’s security, making the southern states an easy target for a Sri Lanka type terror attack.

Third, over the last few years, an attempts has been made to make Sri Lanka a base by Pakistan-based terror outfits, like LeT, to try to launch attacks on India. Such potential attacks were averted by India’s intelligence agencies in the past. Indian intelligence agencies further discovered that Pak-based terror outfits had, in the past, taken some Sri Lankan intelligence operatives into confidence to use the territory of Lanka, but their plans were thwarted by Indian intelligence networks, whose spread in the South Asian region has become more detailed and effective over the years.

Currently, Sri Lankans such as Zakir Hussein and Arun Selvarajan are facing imprisonment in India for acting as espionage agents at the behest of Pakistani intelligence officers based in Colombo (Viswanathan, 2016). It also came to light, recently, that a few months ago, a Pakistan-based diplomat in Colombo had attempted to engineer terrorist attacks on the US and Israeli embassies in New Delhi, thus, once again making the uncomfortable Pakistan-Sri Lanka connection clear.

Thus, for India, it is crucial that a friendly government stays in power in Colombo. More than that, regardless of whichever government comes to power in Colombo in the October 2019 elections, India needs to maintain good relations with it. Here, the ‘China factor’ becomes pertinent. India soured its relations with the previous nationalist government of Rajapaksa mainly by disapproving the leasing of the Hambantota port by Sri Lanka to China and because of Lanka’s increasing closeness to China under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) banner. In contrast, the current Lankan government, led by Wickremesinghe, has appealed to India since it is spurning China and attempting to open doors to India, Japan, US and Australia.

This short-term calculative geopolitical outlook may not be the best way to adopt, for India. India has natural cultural synergies with the nationalist Rajapaksa regime – especially a nationalist India under Modi – if it could successfully dilute Pakistan’s machinations with Rajapaksa. The proof of this lies in the fact that the nationalist Bodu Bala Sena, covertly patronized by the Rajapaksa regime, had reached out to India’s RSS in 2014, due to their common outlook towards Islamic terrorism. The Sena engaged in high level talks with the RSS and with Buddhist Indian organizations, besides Myanmar’s Buddhist movement, to create a “Buddhist-Hindu peace zone” in the region, to contain Islamic terrorism and forced conversions.

Thus, India cannot let the ‘China factor’ and the perceived threat of Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region spoil its bigger war against terrorism.

While India has better relations with the current ‘secular’ regime in Lanka, in reality, as we have seen, this regime has largely turned out to be toothless and dysfunctional. This does not bode well for the fight against Islamic terrorism in South Asia. India would do well to unite with like-minded regimes, like Rajapaksa’s (if he comes to power in 2019), Myanmar and China, to counter terrorism in the region. US, Japan and Australia – which, as the symbolic ‘West’, had relentlessly sought global persecution of Rajapaksa for human rights abuses in the civil war and condemned them for post-2010 attacks on Muslims – will be of little help here.

Bibliography

Viswanathan, B. (2016, July 12). Geopolitical Monitor. Retrieved from

https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/islamic-state-in-sri-lanka/

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