The scenic island country of Sri Lanka was thrown into turmoil on Easter Day (21 April 2019) last month when eight bomb blasts ripped through multiple cities and locations including three Churches and high end hotels. With a death toll of more than 255 and nearly 500 injured1 it is one of the bloodiest bombings witnessed by the region. The Islamic State has taken credit for the bombings and released a video and photographs claiming ownership of the bombers. While the investigations are in the preliminary stages and the hunt for additional bombers and their accomplices is still on, there are some important lessons for the region that have already emerged.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, emergency was declared while the Sri Lankan security forces swung into action and launched a nationwide hunt for the perpetrator’s accomplices, claiming that two previously little-known local Islamist groups – National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem – whom they suspect had international links were responsible2, with cleric Zahran Hashim as the mastermind. Relatives of the Islamist preacher Zahran Hashim, were infact among the 15 people killed on 26 April when police raided a house in the eastern town of Sainthamaruthu.3 The Islamic State meanwhile released photographs of the alleged bombers with Zahran Hashim and claimed credit for the bombings.
While news of ignored intelligence warnings with specific attack based information having been ignored surfaced and the political divisions between the Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister are being attributed for the lackadaisical response to the intelligence inputs given by India, there are certain other lessons that need to be studied and corrected, if required, in the countries of the region. The region is no stranger to terrorism, with Afghanistan – Pakistan being a hotbed for the same. The specter of terrorism has also raised its head in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia and Maldives, to name a few. In addition most of the countries in the region have had people going out of the country to fight for the Islamic State and thus would have people who have returned or are trying to do so.
The countries in the region thus, in varying numbers, definitely have people who have been indoctrinated by the Islamic State’s Salafist ideology and these same people given the right conditions would certainly be looking at spreading the ideology. The response and reaction to dealing with this menace by the countries of the region has been diverse – from the incredulous / disbelieving and denying any presence of Islamic State in the country, like Sri Lanka’s reaction till the Easter bombings to the muscular approach adopted by the Philippines4.
While the Islamic State of Khorasan(ISK) in Afghanistan, is actually controlling territory, though heavily contested by both the security forces and Taliban, the more dangerous Islamic State affiliates are groups which are invisible and thus below the radar of the intelligence agencies due to their low profile and covert extremist activities. They assume prominence only after carrying out deadly terrorist attacks, like the NTJ in Sri Lanka or the Neo JMB or Jamaat-ul Mujahideen in Bangladesh. Overall it is expected that the threat posed by these groups would increase with return of youth who have fought in Syria and Iraq. Therefore a multipronged strategy is essential to target the Islamic State to avoid their spillover in other countries, including India. The countries of the region, including India, can thus learn some important lessons from the evolving situation in Sri Lanka.
The Islamic State may no longer hold territory physically in Syria & Iraq but its presence in cyberspace and its affiliates worldwide continue to proliferate and grow. The Islamic State has managed to position itself as an ideology rather than simply another terrorist group and its presence in the region seems to be growing. In some countries like Afghanistan and Philippines very openly and in others silently but surely, as is evident from the Easter bombings. It is quite clear that countries cannot adopt an ostrich like approach to the problem of the Islamic State and pretend that it doesn’t exist, because they don’t want it to exist. There is thus a need to address the problem of Islamic State/ religious indoctrination head on, holistically and jointly.
The Islamic State and its affiliates is a transnational group and events are proving that cross border assistance by the groups in terms of training and resources were most likely provided. Indian intelligence agencies deserve kudos for having provided timely and specific intelligence. Thus it is a fact that such intelligence was available in India and the ‘who’ and ‘why’ should be a point to be further investigated5. Similarly other nations in the region need to coordinate with the Lankan investigators to see if any tell tale evidence emerges pointing towards their countries. In fact Islamic State has claimed for the first time, that it has established a “province” in India, called “Wilayah of Hind”6,, though on ground this is likely to be just for propaganda value, but it may help them in attracting more followers. This proclamation is also likely to see from now on, the Islamic State trying to take credit and own the terrorists actions happening in the Valley /country.
The lack of a credible intelligence sharing mechanism between the countries of the region has clearly emerged as one of the strongest lessons of the present tragedy. As per reports despite Indian agencies giving specific inputs about the likely targets and perpetrators the intelligence was not given due importance and not disseminated at the right levels. This could be because it lacked credibility and ignoring it was possible. All this may have been avoided if there was an effective intelligence sharing mechanism in place necessitating it to be dealt in an appropriate manner and level. Is it time to have an organization in the region looking primarily at security issues something like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization? This is necessitated primarily due to the ineffectiveness of the present groupings owing to the Indo – Pak issues. Maybe a new security initiative can be structured by India either keeping Pakistan out or making sure that the rules ensure that the agenda cannot be hijacked by it.
An operation of the magnitude and precision as that of the Lanka bombings required careful planning, coordination, training and most importantly constant indoctrination. All this when translated into time meant that the preparation for an operation of this type would have been carrying on for months, if not over a year, and would definitely have thrown up some indicators. It is a matter of intelligence failure that the Sri Lankan agencies failed to home on to these indicators possibly due to, not taking the menace of indoctrinated zealots seriously and this is something which other countries of the region can ill afford. If Sri Lankan investigations further substantiate the Islamic State link to the National Thowheed Jamath and Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem, two relatively unknown local groups, then the Islamic State seems to be repeating a modus operandi it has used earlier in other countries (The Holey Artisan Bakery incident of 2016 in Bangladesh though the Bangladesh Government claims Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen had no links to the Islamic State.)7.
The Sri Lankan Government’s handling of the situation post the bombings, has been decisive and proactive. While it was clear that dysfunctional political relationship between the President and PM had exacerbated the situation, declaration of emergency, banning of social media, employing the Armed Forces to supplement the police force, getting both the Christian and Muslim community leaders on the same page to deal with the aftermath were all praiseworthy steps which seem to have yielded results and stabilized the situation. In addition a new counter terrorism legislation is being prepared to deal with the facets of international terrorism. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister has gone on record saying that, even though Sri Lankan authorities were aware of Sri Lankan jihadists who had returned from Syria, the country’s laws prevented action being taken. Such loopholes, if existing in other nations, also need to be plugged.
Terrorism comes in many forms and is constantly evolving. Terrorists misusing religion for indoctrination and achieving their goals has been prevalent for decades if not centuries. However with increase in connectivity due to Social Media and its silent overarching reach, it is becoming more and more difficult to detect the ongoing indoctrination and even more difficult to stop it. Nations thus have to empower their security agencies with laws, powers and more importantly political support. Today’s terrorists cannot be fought in isolation since the web/ social media knows no geographical boundaries. Thus it is very essential to have a synergized and collaborative effort with the other countries while dealing with the menace, especially in the region. Maybe it is high time that the region bonds together, atleast to fight the scourge of terrorism and establishes a vibrant and effective multinational grouping in the region specifically looking at security aspects.
1. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/sri-lanka-attacks-death-toll-rises-to-257/articleshow/69141704.cms The Times of India World dated 02 May 2019 acessed on 05 May 2019. 2. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48163237 Sri Lanka attacks: Public urged to surrender swords and knives BBC News 4 May19 acessed on 05 May 2019. 3. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/27/sri-lanka-20-killed-as-police-raid-suspected-bomber-hideout, Sri Lanka bombings: at least 15 killed as police raid suspected hideout,The Gaurdian 27 April 2019, accessed on 06 May 2019. 4. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/09/world/asia/isis-philippines-jolo.html “How ISIS Is Rising in the Philippines as It Dwindles in the Middle East” The New York Times dt 09 March 201, accessed on 10 May 2019. 5. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/after-sri-lanka-blasts-nia-raids-3-places-in-kerala-in-connection-with-isis-module-case-1512181, 28 April 2019 accessed on 10 May 2019. 6. https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/islamic-state-claims-province-in-india-for-first-time-after-clash-in-kashmir/article27102694.ece,Reuters accessed on 12 May 2019. 7. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/07/24/asia-pacific/crime-legal-asia-pacific/eight-extremists-charged-2016-islamic-state-claimed-bangladesh-cafe-attack-left-22-dead/, accessed on 10 May 2019.