By Shamila Chaudhary
June 5, 2019
Arab traders in the seventh century A.D. travelled by sea to present-day Sri Lanka seeking spices and goods to sell along the oceanic Silk Road. Like other South Asian countries engaged in commerce with the Arab world, Sri Lanka over time became home to a small Muslim community tracing its ethnic and religious roots back to the Middle East. Throughout the country’s history, this community, though religiously distinct, kept cordial relations with other faith groups and avoided the sectarianism plaguing South Asia’s other Muslim communities—until now.
Today, ISIS stands ready to take advantage of growing fissures in Sri Lankan Muslim identity—and as the aftermath of the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka shows, neither the country’s leaders nor the international community is prepared to do something about it. Meanwhile, communal backlash against the Muslim community grows amid worsening political tensions. This week, all nine of the country’s Muslim ministers and two Muslim provincial governors resigned under pressure from Athuraliye Rathana, a prominent Buddhist monk and presidential adviser, who accused them of having links to the Easter attack militants.
After the September 11 attacks, the United States created new policies and tools of warfare to fight Islamic fundamentalism around the world. But Sri Lanka didn’t fall into that new theatre of war, limiting the extent to which it could benefit and learn from American efforts to dismantle the public and private support networks for terrorism. For example, post-9/11 U.S. counterterrorism policies shaped important new global financial-tracking systems at the United Nations; supported critical revisions to counterterrorism laws and judicial reforms in Pakistan; and implemented de-radicalization initiatives across Europe that empowered governments to take a closer look at how terrorism could take root in countries. And while certain policies, such as the use of drones and the rendition program, proved limited in their long-term utility in fighting terrorism, the overall American effort to engage the international community on terrorism made everyone a lot smarter about real and potential threats.
Sri Lanka remained largely an afterthought in the U.S. war on terrorism, perhaps because American policymakers did not believe the country to have a serious Islamic radicalization problem. Outside of a small Department of Defence–administered program providing counterterrorism training for Sri Lankan defence and security officials since 2001, American investments in Sri Lankan stability have been dominated by a singular focus on the ethnic conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil citizens and the aftermath of a 27-year-long civil war between the two groups.
Rightly, the United States prioritized its foreign assistance to support the integration of Tamils marginalized by the civil war into the economic and political mainstream. But new communal tensions involving Sri Lankan Muslims and hard-line Sinhalese Buddhist groups portend serious consequences for the country’s already fragile ethnic relations, as a key strategy of ISIS is to exploit and manipulate such divisions.
While we know that ISIS inspired the Easter Day attackers, we don’t know the exact political demands or grievances that compelled them to violence. We do know that the attacks occur in parallel to a growing sense of isolation among Sri Lankan Muslims. Simultaneously, Sri Lankan leaders worry that religious identity now supersedes the ethnic cohesion they once observed in Sri Lanka’s faith communities. ISIS is ready to take advantage of such dynamics, and experiencing losses in Syria and Iraq, it has already expanded its strategy and reach outside of the Middle East into new theatres of war like Afghanistan, the United States, and now Sri Lanka. The return of South Asians who travelled to the Middle East to fight alongside ISIS has also triggered concern among regional governments that returnees will attempt to further the ISIS cause at home, a concern amplified by access to online networks promoting radical Islamic content.
Sri Lanka lacks the legal basis to confront the growing ISIS threat. The country’s counterterrorism law, currently known as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, is designed to prosecute internal threats rather than foreign ones. And, as some advocacy groups state, the law exists to silence political opponents of the government. No doubt a by-product of the government’s civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the act does not address what happens to Sri Lankans who join foreign terrorist groups or advance foreign militant causes. As Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said after the Easter attacks, “We have no laws which enable us to take into custody people who join foreign terrorist groups. We can take those who are, who belong to terrorist groups operating in Sri Lanka.” A new version of the law titled the Counterterrorism Act has been introduced to address the bias against Tamils, but it has yet to pass and does not respond to threats posed by ISIS or other foreign groups.
Ironically, political infighting between Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena prevented the government from taking action on intelligence shared by the Indians that alluded to the Easter attacks. The country’s domestic politics, moored to repeated bouts of constitutional crises and competition between inept leaders, are designed to deal with threats from within—not from the outside. Furthermore, there are other internal risks involved with pursuing stronger counterterrorism policies, especially in partnership with Sri Lankan military and law enforcement. Doing so could aggravate open wounds related to civil war and unresolved post-conflict questions, such as the role of the military in Sri Lankan society.
Fighting ISIS in Sri Lanka will be determined by how effectively the country’s political factions and institutions can find common ground on the issue of terrorism, but the international community also has a role to play. For the United States in particular, the Easter attacks present an opportunity to rethink the levels and focus of its foreign assistance to the country. Even though Sri Lanka is the third-largest recipient of U.S. assistance in South Asia, its levels are dwarfed by those of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have received the lion’s share of U.S. funding since 2001.
Finally, the reach and appeal of ISIS in Sri Lanka point to a parallel need to expand focus of U.S. strategy in Sri Lanka, which largely remains centered on stabilizing communities affected by the civil war. Instead, Sri Lanka’s internal security environment should be viewed within the broader context of U.S. national security interests in South Asia, which have to do with ensuring the region is not used as a staging ground for foreign terrorist organizations.
To be clear, the ways the United States has pursued those interests need adjustment. The use of drones, electronic surveillance, and financial assets control may have succeeded in tactical accomplishments, such as taking out leadership targets for al-Qaeda and affiliates. But they failed to sufficiently address the root problems of terrorism, and threats persist. If left untethered to a broader national-security strategy, any American efforts to fight ISIS in Sri Lanka may simply repeat the missteps and failures of the global war on terrorism.
Shamila Chaudhary is senior adviser to the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and is a senior South Asia fellow at New America.