Re-emergence of ISIS and the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday Terror Attacks

Souravie Ghimiray
June 22, 2019
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The terror attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday that killed over 300 people and injured more than 500 in three Churches and three hotels has once again showed the ideological spread of the Islamic State (ISIS). While the ISIS claimed the responsibility for the attacks, it was carried out by a small local militant group called National Thowfeek Jamaath that paid allegiance to ISIS. The loss of territories by ISIS in Syria has undermined their ideology to a great extent but not yet completely destroyed it. In fact, it has now diverted to regions where security apparatus is not very strong.

The Thowfeek Jamaath a small group would not have gotten its capabilities to carry such attacks without the backing by a larger international entity. The timings of the involvement of the ISIS in the attack is not found and only speculations persist that in the last territorial defeat ISIS must have intervened to carry out attacks in Sri Lanka. The killing of minority in Sri Lanka has been a part of the bloody history of the country. During the civil war, the LTTE killed the Hindus and Christian by entering the churches and Hindu temples. The Tamil tigers killed dozens of Buddhist monks. In the 1990s they killed Muslims by entering mosques who were supposed to be collaborators with the government.

Islamic extremism in Sri Lanka has not been a common phenomenon but there have been instances where Muslims have been marginalised. Since 2012, there has been a fear of spread of fundamentalist Wahabhi/salafi Islam in the country. Extremist Buddhist groups like Bal Bodhu Sena (BSS) engage in fearmongering propaganda to isolate Muslim community and have carried out several attacks on mosques. The rise of Buddhist militancy has made the situation worse for the Muslims. Moreover, the legacy of violence by the Civil war lives in the minds of people. A place which is already susceptible to violence and instability generally gives opportunity for extremism to thrive. Adding to the problem is  the Sri Lankan security establishment which is discordant and is often characterised by feuds making it dysfunctional.

Additionally, the terrorism related laws are outdated in Sri Lanka. While many countries passed new legislation to curb its population from joining the ISIS especially after 2014 when ISIS declared a caliphate, Sri Lanka does not have any such legislation to deal with foreign fighters. The group had built a training camp in the eastern part of the country before the attacks took place which should have been brought down by the government in advance.

The penetration of ISIS in Sri Lanka is also reminiscent of the fact that the countries in South Asia have not been effective in controlling extremism. The part of the problem facing Sri Lanka is the radical groups and Buddhist nationalist groups that seem to target the minority groups which has the capacity to increase extremism. The Muslim community in Sri Lanka has traditionally been enterprising and are known to have businesses.  According to the government records, some Sri Lankans belonging to elite and educated families have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the ISIS. As ISIS has now lost its territories it has started to use its returning fighters to launch attacks in places all round the globe. The links with ISIS and the group that carried out the attack reveals Sri Lankan society has become vulnerable and has become a fertile ground for indoctrination.

The weaknesses of the government and the intelligence failure allowed the attacks to take place, and were the result of the lax authorities in Sri Lanka that ignored the warnings from the foreign intelligence before the attacks. It was not a coincidence that ISIS chose Sri Lanka for the next round of attacks, it is aware of the security situation and lack of strong governmental institutions. The attacks would have been averted if the government would have acted on time. In South Asia the number of deaths occurring due to terrorism in 2017 was the second highest just next to Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This shows that terrorism is one of the major threats in South Asia, it may have the potential for increase in the terror related violence if not curbed by the government authorities in the region. The Easter Sunday attack is a lesson for other countries in the region and should be alerted before such attacks occur in future.

*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***