The Sri Lanka Attacks and the Threat Within
Mayuri Mukherjee

The Easter Sunday carnage in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people1 last month caught many by surprise2. The island nation had been enjoying a period of relative peace and stability since the civil war came to an end with the crushing defeat of the Tamil Tigers a decade ago3. Few had expected an obscure terror group that had no history of large-scale violence to launch a successful tri-city suicide bombing campaign. Moreover, social tensions in Sri Lanka had traditionally played out along ethnic lines, primarily between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, but not along religious cleavages4. And yet on April 21, members of the National Thowheed Jamath (TNJ), an Islamist group espousing Salafi-jihadi ideology, specifically attacked Christians and Western-tourists.

On April 23, the Islamic State (IS) officially took responsibility for the bloodbath and also released a video of the TNJ’s eight Sri Lankan bombers pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s chief5. This again was least expected. Sri Lanka had hardly been on the radar as an IS hotspot. Only a small number of 32 nationals from among Sri Lanka’s two million Muslims, had been radicalised enough to travel to join the IS in Syria. In contrast, neighbouring Maldives with a much smaller population of 4, 00,000 had sent as many as 200 fighters to the IS, according to a Soufan Center report6. And yet it was in Sri Lanka that the IS managed to carry out one of its biggest, most spectacular attacks outside of its base in Iraq and Syria.

One explanation for this is that even though Sri Lanka wasn’t a terror hotspot, it was a soft spot7. As the island nation enjoyed its decade of peace, security became lax and a sense of complacency set it. At the ground level, even the luxury hotels weren’t carrying out bag checks. At the top level, there was a lack of coordination within the security establishment and a bitter rivalry between the country’s top political leaders. The menace of Islamist radicalisation was also not taken seriously even though the Muslim community itself had raised multiple red flags. All these factors explain the government’s failure to foil the attacks in time even though the attackers were known to the law enforcement officials and the government in Colombo had received multiple warnings. However, they do not explain how a small organisation like the NTJ succeeded in pulling off a bombing campaign on this scale.

Initial reports suggested that the NTJ had some direct support from the IS. Yet, as more details emerge about the bombers and their operations, this assertion seems shaky. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks it was widely reported that at least one of the bombers, Abdul Latheef Mohammad Jamil, had travelled to and trained in Syria with IS fighters. However, on May 7, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe informed Parliament that though Jamil intended to travel to Syria and had contact with IS operatives, he only managed to go up to Turkey in 20148. The only person who was active in Syria was Mohamed Ibrahim Abdul Sadiq Haq9, reportedly an aide of the mastermind Zahran Hashim, but he wasn’t one of the bombers.

Sri Lankan investigators also believe that the attacks were self-financed (many of the plotters were wealthy) and locally planned and executed. According to a Wall Street Journal report10, the mastermind had claimed that he was receiving direct instructions from Syria but investigators believe he was exaggerating. The report also said that the men taught themselves how to build bombs from material posted online by the IS. The question then is: how much of their success can be credited to the Islamic State?

With the information available as of now, it seems like the IS’s direct involvement was minimal. It, of course, offered ideological inspiration but there was not much in terms of guidance on the ground - particularly when compared to previous incidents wherein IS operatives actively cultivated sympathisers through the internet and sought to turn them into deadly terror agents, such as in the case of India’s Yazdani brothers11. Instead, the attack shows how the IS is becoming a jihadi franchise. Local groups use the IS brand to grab easy attention at home and pin themselves on the map of global jihad. Meanwhile, the IS core group, which lost its last bit of territory in Syria in March, is happy to get credit for successful terror attacks around the world without having to make any significant investments itself. Herein, it is following the path of Al Qaeda - having failed locally, the IS is now going global.

As IS experts Charlie Winter and Aymen al-Tamimi note12, the Levantine group has been actively changing its identity to that of an international jihadi platform. Since 2017, it has bunched together its 19 ‘wilayats’ or provinces across Syria and Iraq into just two, while disparate groups in Africa, South and South-East Asia who had pledged allegiance to the IS have been promoted to ‘wilayat’ status. In fact, just weeks after the Sri Lanka attack, IS announced two new ‘provinces’ in India and in Pakistan (previously clubbed with Afghanistan in the Khorasan Province). The former was ‘established’, oddly, after an IS-affiliated militant was neutralised in Kashmir, while the latter came after two incidents in Balochistan. Neither indicate the emergence of a new threat, but they are tools to attract new recruits from places where jihadi militant pools already exist.

So, what does all this mean in terms of risk analysis?

First, the IS is nowhere and yet everywhere. The group’s core has been degraded but its depraved ideology continues to inspire jihadists around the world. This means that the IS flag will be seen not just in terror ‘hotspots’ like Yemen or Somalia but also in ‘soft spots’ like Sri Lanka. Indeed, as Scott Stewart notes for Stratfor, Sri Lanka was “the Islamic State’s surprise breakout theatre” 13 this year - much like it was Indonesia (the Surabaya bombings14) in 2018, the Philippines (the siege of Marawi15) in 2017, and Bangladesh (the bombing of Dhaka’s Holey Artisan cafe16) in 2016. In each case, the local authorities were initially taken aback but afterwards clamped down on jihadi elements. Since then, the local terror franchisees have struggled to strike a second time with similar impact.

Second, a transnational threat calls for a transnational response. Even though Colombo failed to act on intelligence reports warning of an IS attack, it is noteworthy that almost all the Sri Lankan suspects were under scrutiny by Indian investigators. Similarly, India has also been working closely with Bangladesh where IS enjoys the allegiance of a rejuvenated Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) 17. The JMB is suspected of being involved in the 2014 Burdwan blasts and the 2018 Bodh Gaya blasts in India. Earlier this year, three IS activists were arrested - two from Bangladesh18 and one from West Bengal’s Nadia district19, all linked to the JMB. This list can go on, but the point to be made is that while IS’s transnational jihadi lure is a challenge, it is still one that can be contained.

End notes
  1. "Sri Lanka blasts: 250 dead in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa - CNN." Accessed May 6, 2019.
  2. "Why no one expected an ISIS attack in Sri Lanka - The Washington Post." Accessed May 6, 2019.
  3. "Death of the Tiger | The New Yorker." Accessed May 6, 2019.
  4. "Sri Lanka's long, tragic history of violence - The Washington Post." Accessed May 6, 2019.
  5. "Islamic State Claims Responsibility for Sri Lanka Bombings - WSJ." Accessed May 6, 2019.
  6. "Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the ... - The Soufan Center." Accessed May 6, 2019.
  7. "Sri Lanka's Perfect Storm of Failure – Foreign Policy." Accessed May 6, 2019.
  8. "Daily Mirror - SL still under threat from global terrorists: Ranil." Accessed May 6, 2019.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. "Not 'Lone Wolves' After All: How ISIS Guides World's Terror Plots From ...." Accessed May 7, 2019.
  12. "The Sri Lanka Bombings Were a Preview of ISIS's Future - The Atlantic." Accessed 17 May. 2019.
  13. "What the Easter Attacks in Sri Lanka Tell Us About the Islamic State." Accessed May 7, 2019.
  14. "The Surabaya Bombings and the Evolution of the Jihadi Threat in ...." Accessed May 7, 2019.
  15. "Philippines: Addressing Islamist Militancy after the Battle for Marawi ...." Accessed May 7, 2019.
  16. "Bangladesh siege: Twenty killed at Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka ...." Accessed May 7, 2019.
  17. "How Bangladesh Became Fertile Ground for al-Qa`ida and the Islamic ...." Accessed May 8, 2019.
  18. "Bihar Police arrested two Bangladeshi nationals - DNA India." Accessed May 8, 2019.
  19. "ATS nabs West Bengal youth with terror links | Pune News - Times of ...." Accessed May 8, 2019.

(Mayuri Mukherjee is an international security analyst and a consultant with the VIF. The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct).

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