The near simultaneous bomb blasts that ripped through the three cities of Negombo, Colombo and Batticaloa on 21 April 2019 (Easter Sunday) in Sri Lanka have claimed 290 lives till now. Most of the victims are Sri Lankan Christians, though the dead also include a number of other nationalities. No one has claimed responsibility but the Sri Lankan authorities suspect it to be the work of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a little known local Islamist group whose only claim to fame so far has been the vandalisation of Buddhist statues in 2018. A total of seven suicide bombers targeted six sites which included three churches and three luxury hotels. Two more blasts occurred when following up on leads, the security forces raided two neighbourhoods and three police officials were killed in the explosions. For a country which had borne the brunt of a vicious civil war between the Hindu Tamil dominated Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) and the Sinhalese Buddhist government from 1983 to 2009, the ensuing decade was that of relative peace. There was no reason to suspect unleashing of violence on such a scale in the country.
This paper aims to analyse the major motivations of various actors who might have had an interest in creating unrest in Sri Lanka. Since the investigations are ongoing, the following will be in the speculative realm and will focus only on the intent.
There are four actors who might benefit from the unrest and instability in the country that may emerge after these explosions. Though, with a state of emergency being declared and a nationwide ban on major social media networks to prevent propagation of ‘fake news’, the government is doing everything in its powers to prevent the same.
Islamic State. The most likely suspect for this attack seems to be the Islamic State (IS), either directly or through an affiliate. Large scale bombing attacks, liberal employment of suicide bombers, targeting of religious minorities and upscale neighbourhoods is a modus operandi (MO) of the IS, especially in South Asia. The attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan Thana in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 01 July 2016 bore a number of similarities to this attack. In both cases, the attackers were locals and targeted upscale neighbourhoods. In the case of Bangladesh, Gulshan Thana houses a number of foreign embassies. IS also has a knack of creating hostilities between various sects and using local contextual opportunities to assert its form of religious control over the area. The progenitor of IS or Daesh, Abu Musab al Zarqawi used violence against Sunnis in Iraq, a sect which he belonged to, to provoke violence against the Shias. He was counting on reprisal attacks by Shias against the Sunnis and knowing that post Saddam, the Shia majority was gunning for vindictiveness against the Sunnis, he just facilitated it. He positioned himself as the savior of the Sunnis and The result was a literal tearing up of the Iraqi society and the beginning of a brutal civil war that threatened to divide the country permanently. This was also where the seeds of IS were sown and nurtured. IS also took advantage of the deteriorating civil situation in Syria and sent a team to exploit the anger that had been building up against Bashar al Assad’s policies.
The blasts in Sri Lanka have been aimed at the Christian minority, a theme very common in most of IS publications and audio-video material as well as its social media campaigns. The vision of an Islamic army marching against the Crusaders forms the backdrop of most of IS propaganda and their terminal aim. These attacks also aim to create a rift between the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the various minorities. IS must now be counting on the possible reprisals against the Muslim minority and position itself as a viable alternative for radicalising this community. Around 36 Sri Lankans had answered the clarion call of IS and had gone to Syria to fight for the caliphate during its heydays. In fact, the first Sri Lankan to be killed in an airstrike in Syria was Abhu Shuraih Sailani, so the precedent exists. Also, with the loss of real estate in Syria and Iraq, IS has hardly any territorial footprint in the Middle East and Central and South Asia apart from its brand name. ISKP, which is a motley group of disgruntled ex-jihadis from Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan faces determined resistance from the Afghan Taliban and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in Afghanistan.
The prospects of civil war in Libya, which Daesh had already prepared during its stint as a working state, will help stabilise its foundations and also provide training and materiel to would-be recruits. IS is also attempting to expand its presence in sub Saharan Africa. With the establishment of three wilayats, namely Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) and Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda (ISISSKTU), IS has quite a stronghold in the region. The recent attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) has been connected to a growing presence of IS in the war torn country. IS has been trying to counter AQ in Africa too, a continuation of its fight in the greater Middle East. AQ affiliates such as al Shabaab and Al Qeada in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are in direct contention with IS in major regions of the world for steering the narrative for the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Bombing in Sri Lanka, combined with moderate successes in Bangladesh and attempts inside India through the Indian Mujahideen (IM) may give IS a serious foothold in South Asia, a direct chance to counter AQ and revive its dream caliphate.
Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) may be considered another frontrunner in the list of the possible suspects involved in the Sri Lankan serial blasts. The organisation was formed at a time when the AQ franchise was losing its sheen in the face of IS aggression and its rapid taking over of territory. Its formation was announced by Ayman al Zawahiri in Sep 2014, and it conducted an audacious attack on the Pakistan Naval dockyard in Karachi, when a group of Pakistan Navy (PN) officers and sailor allied to AQ attempted to hijack PNS Zulfiqar, a sophisticated frigate. The aim was to take the vessel out to sea and attack Indian naval ships and USS Supply.
Over the last five years, AQIS has conducted a number of attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh and tried to make inroads into India through Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind (AguH) headed by Zakir Musa. However, with a number of its leaders either killed or arrested, it has had a hard time maintaining its networks in South Asia. It relies heavily on alliances with groups such as Lashkar e Tayyaba (LeT), Lashkar e Jhangvi (LeJ), Ansar ul Bangla Team (ABT) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Sri Lanka may be the opening AQ was looking at, given the simmering tensions between the Muslim minority and the gradually militaristic Buddhist sects trying to foist a certain identity over the country. The MO of the group does not include targeting civilians, a deliberate attempt to distance itself from the more murderous IS. There is also a high possibility of a renegade or an independent faction within AQ responsible for these attacks.
Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, ISI has a lot to gain from the Sri Lankan attacks. Two of the major advantages seem likely. The bombing attack provides ISI with a ‘demonstrator’, of its ability to coopt local radical groups to carry out mass attacks against civilians, something that was visible during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks minus the hostage taking. After all, one of the suicide bombers Zahran Hashim had visited Pakistan in 2018. As of now, there is a tenuous connection between him and ISI but with further investigation, facts will become clearer.
This seems to take care of two problems: one it provides ISI with another base to launch attacks against India and radicalise Muslims in the southern Indian states of Kerala, Tamilnadu and Karnataka. There exists a precedent for a number of potential IS recruits going to Syria from these states to fight for IS. The long Indian coastline can always be taken advantage of. Secondly, ISI may have tried to incite hostilities between India and Sri Lanka by framing a group with similar sounding names. The Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jama’ath (TNTJ) has denied any links with the attacks. ISI may have been trying to fan rumours and fake news using the various social media tools at its disposal and its most potent media manipulation organisation, the Inter Services Public Relations Directorate.
The biggest giveaway of ISI’s involvement till now have been media reports of Indian agencies providing adequate warning and pinpoint actionable intelligence to Sri Lankan authorities about the likelihood of serial blasts and a possible attack on the Indian High Commission, and frequent warnings about growing radicalisation within the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. There are reports of LeT operatives visiting Sri Lanka to select members for training in their camps, and finances being funneled through one of LeT’s multiple front organisations, in this case the Idara Khidmat e Khalq (IKK). India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), while interrogating a Sri Lankan national in Tamil Nadu for reconnaissance of foreign missions in southern states and the nuclear power plant in Kalpakkam, had learnt about the radicalisation program being undertaken by Pakistan. The aim was to bring unemployed Muslim youth into the folds of NTJ. However, the Sri Lankan administration’s deft handling of this issue has put a stop on the fake news machinery. The second and not so visible advantage for ISI is that Sri Lanka may provide a future refuge for groups such as LeT in case of things become too hot for them in face of international sanctions or Pakistan may want credible deniability. The Muslim dominated eastern region of Sri Lanka is an ideal place for this purpose.
NTJ. Sri Lankan authorities have blamed NTJ for the serial blasts. The group which splintered from the bigger Sri Lankan Thoweeth Jama’ath (SLTJ) has a history of vandalism. Abdul Razik, secretary of SLTJ was arrested in 2016 for various charges bordering on causing religious hatred. An unverified newspaper report mentions the arrest due in part to pressure by a radical Buddhist organisation which had threatened mass violence. It was involved in incidents of destruction of Buddhist statues in Dec 2018. One of its preachers, Zahran Hashim had posted a number of videos on his Youtube channel, styling himself as the Sri Lankan version of Anwar al Awlaki, and trying to radicalise youth online. Leaders of NTJ were prosecuted in 2017 for making derogatory remarks against Buddha in a video and deliberately hurting the sentiments of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population. Post the end of civil war in 2009 with LTTE, there has been a resurgence of militant Buddhist mentality within the Sinhalese majority population. The derogatory remarks and vandalism may have been a pushback by members of the Muslim minority community. However, to graduate from speeches and minor acts of violence to coordinated mass bombings requires preparation, reconnaissance, and massive logistics arrangements. This would take us back to the previously mentioned three organisations. While members of NTJ may have acted as mules for the attacks, the sophistication of the attacks points to a much larger and possibly multinational organisation.
At the time of time of writing this paper, IS has claimed responsibility for the Sri Lankan attacks. However, as evidenced from the past, IS may also be trying to project its brand name on to a totally different battlefield, in the process creating the notion of an overarching Islamic organisation and signaling its resurgence in South Asia, a place where it has struggled to gain a foothold. With the arrest of a Syrian, it may just be possible that IS was involved atleast in the planning and logistics stage. AQ, though also a terrorist organisation may not have perpetrated the attacks as it does not believe in killing civilians in a random fashion, and no Muslims at all. Though three of the blasts occurred in churches, three also targeted luxury hostels where it would have been impossible for AQ to confirm if any Muslim was killed or not. ISI seems to have the strongest intent and capability to conduct the attacks and intelligence inputs point to the same direction.