The terrorist attacks that claimed over 290 lives in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa in Sri Lanka Sunday are unusual – in that they signal the rise of a dangerous third party terrorism. The island nation has witnessed just about every form of political violence over the last few decades, but almost all of it within the context of an ethnic conflict between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority that ultimately resulted in a civil war. The Sinhalas won that war 10 years ago, and at great cost.
So, when a series of bombings target worshippers in churches and foreigners in luxury hotels on Easter, the familiar old frame does not fit.
The Tamil Tigers, even if they had somehow re-emerged from their bloody annihilation at the hands of the Sri Lankan armed forces, would not target Christians and foreigners against who they have no grievances. Sinhala Buddhist extremists, some of who dislike Christians, are unlikely to engage in terrorist bombings when coercive majoritarianism is easier and effective.
Something else was certainly afoot.
The targets and method suggested that the perpetrators were international jihadist groups. Sure enough, Sri Lankan authorities have announced that the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a ‘local’ radical Islamist ‘gang’ carried out the attack. If investigations establish that this is indeed true, then we have a highly unusual situation where extremists from one religious minority have attacked members of another, against whom they have relatively little animosity. In fact, both Muslims and Christians, like their Tamil Hindu counterparts, are under pressure from Sinhala Buddhist majoritarians, than with each other. Even if the terrorists were ‘local’, as the Sri Lankan government says, the attacks do not make sense in the context of the island’s domestic politics.
They can only be explained in the context of trans-national jihad: Local Muslim extremists attacked local Christians and foreigners (proxies for ‘Westerners’) against whom they locally had little cause. The terrorists were apparently inspired by the ISIS and a few Sri Lankan Muslims have made their way into the killing fields of Syria, but this is the first serious attack on their Christian compatriots at home.
Not a retaliation to New Zealand attacks
It is tempting to see the Easter bombings as an Islamist retaliation to the killing of Muslims at a Christchurch mosque by a White Christian Right-wing extremist last month. In fact, that is the way it is likely to be remembered in popular discourse. While the NTJ must have seen itself delivering a blow to the Christian West in a grand civilisational war, these attacks would have been planned before Christchurch. The ISIS might well have inspired the NTJ from a distance, but the latter would still need to get its hands on explosives, bomb-making expertise and train the suicide bombers. The scale, sophistication and date of the attacks suggest a longer planning horizon, a bigger conspiracy and a stronger organisation than the ‘gang’ the Sri Lankan authorities currently believe to be at fault.
It is not surprising that the attacks have been condemned by a broad section of the Sri Lankan Muslim community, including religious organisations, political parties and leaders. They have little to do with their cause.
The Thowheed Jama’ath
The NTJ is a hitherto unknown organisation, and might be a terrorist splinter of the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jama’ath (SLTJ), a hardline Islamist organisation that has now condemned the attacks. Even so, the SLTJ cannot escape moral culpability for creating the political environment and public psychology that put some Sri Lankan Muslims on the road to becoming mass murdering suicide bombers. Nor can politicians like Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, whose amoral manipulation of inter-ethnic relations in pursuit of power created incentives for extremists on all sides.
Indeed, some reports suggest that once both the SLTJ and Bodu Bala Sena, a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist group, were financed by the Rajapaksa regime.
The dysfunctional relationship between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe possibly had something to do with the Sri Lankan authorities failing to act despite receiving intelligence inputs from a foreign country (quite likely from India, but could also be Australia or the United States).
The India connect
What concerns us in India is that the SLTJ does have links with an organisation with a similar name and mission in Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Nadu Thowheeth Jama’ath (TNTJ), founded by P. Jainulabdeen, a charismatic preacher, has been stirring up the pot in the southern state, much to the chagrin of mainstream Muslim organisations and political parties.
It combines social service activities like running ambulances with the promotion of a hardline fundamentalist Islam that attacks the traditional faith practiced by Tamil Muslims. The TNTJ has condemned the Easter attacks, but is likely to come under greater scrutiny. Political leaders in the state have the responsibility to ensure that sympathy for Sri Lanka’s Muslims does not cross the line into support for political violence carried out in their name.
Third party terrorism
Like Christchurch, the attacks in Sri Lanka take us into a dark new world of third party terrorism, where terrorists, targets or both might have little to do with the politics of the country where the attacks take place.
It makes risk assessments more difficult and demands greater international intelligence cooperation. It will result in many countries losing their innocence, and having to over-invest in security arrangements to avoid offering soft targets. It will complicate domestic politics even further, exacerbating the polarisation between communities.
The clash of civilisation is playing itself out at the extreme ends of our societies. We’ll have to secure ourselves until everyone realises that pluralism is a much better idea.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.
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