By M.K. Narayanan
MAY 20, 2019
On Easter Sunday this year, April 21, Sri Lanka witnessed a series of coordinated bomb blasts, killing over 250 people. It was the heaviest toll in Sri Lanka in terms of lives lost since the civil war ended in 2009, thus ending a decade of peace.
The orchestrated attacks, on three churches and three hotels frequented by tourists, were clearly intended to forward a message. The way they were carried out further indicated that the dynamics were global though the perpetrators were locals. The pattern of attacks on the churches was not dissimilar from Islamic State (IS)-mounted attacks on churches in Surabaya in Indonesia in May last year, and in Jolo in the Philippines this January. The IS’s statement soon after the attacks put to rest all speculation. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself was to announce subsequently that the attacks in Sri Lanka were revenge for the fall of the Syrian town of Baghuz, the last IS-ruled village overrun by Syrian forces in March this year.
The question most often asked is why Sri Lanka was chosen by the IS to announce that it was business as usual. A more relevant question might well be why an IS attack of this scale had not been seen in this region previously. South Asia today is a virtual cauldron of radical Islamist extremist activity. From Afghanistan through Pakistan to the Maldives to Bangladesh, radical Islamist extremism is an ever present reality. Both India and Sri Lanka, however, prefer to believe that they are shielded from such tendencies, but this needs a relook.
In the case of Sri Lanka, it is by now evident that officials had turned a blind eye to the fact that areas such as Kattankudy and its environs in the northeast have become hotbeds of Wahhabi-Salafi attitudes and practices. Muslim youth here have been radicalised to such an extent that it should have set alarm bells ringing. The example of Zahran Mohammed Hashim, who founded the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) in 2014 in Kattankudy, and within a couple of years expanded its membership multi-fold, was one index of what was happening. Hashim, who was among the terrorists who carried out the Easter Day bombings and died in the process, had swayed hundreds of impressionable youth with his oratory to support his radical agenda and was able to transform the moderate Islamic landscape to a more radicalised one. From this, it was but a short step to embark on the path of terror.
The advent of the IS occurred at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, at a time when a new breed of terrorists had emerged, inspired by the Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb, and the Palestinian, Abdullah Azzam. Combining this with the practical theology of Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani made for a potent mixture. In addition to this, the IS introduced the concept of a new Caliphate — especially al-Baghdadi’s vision of a Caliphate based on Islamic history. This further ignited the imagination of Muslim youth across the globe and became a powerful magnet to attract volunteers to their cause. Employing the themes of Hijrah and Bay’ah, Sunni Muslims everywhere were urged to migrate to the Islamic Caliphate. At the peak of its power, the IS held territory both in Iraq and Syria, almost equal in size to the United Kingdom.
Islamic State 2.0 remains wedded to this idea of a caliphate, even though the caliphate is no longer in existence. It retains its ability to proselytise over the Internet, making a special virtue of ‘direct-to-home’ jihad. It continues to manage a ‘virtual community’ of fanatical sympathisers who adhere to their doctrine.
IS State 2.0 includes several new variations from the original concept. Returnees from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq appear more inclined to follow tactics employed by other ‘oppressed’ Muslim communities, as for instance the Chechens. In Sri Lanka, a close knit web of family relationships has ensured secrecy and prevented leakage of information, thereby opting for methods of old-time anarchists. Reliance on online propaganda and social media has vastly increased. The IS has also refashioned several of its existing relationships.
Tactics have varied from ‘lone wolf’ attacks that were seen over the past year and more in the West, to coordinated, large-scale simultaneous attacks on multiple targets, as witnessed in Sri Lanka. The real threat that the IS, however, poses is that it is able to convince the Muslim extremist fringe that their time has come. The ‘idea’ is the medium. As the IS morphs into IS 2.0, ‘territorial flexibility’ is being replaced with ‘strategic flexibility’.
Ideas have an enormous impact. Radicalisation, in any event, has less to do with numbers than with the intensity of beliefs. The struggle is not against presumed disparities or injustices meted out to Muslim minorities. Rather, it reflects the quest for a new militant Islamist identity. It has more to do with the internal dynamics of Muslim societies, which across the world appear to be tilting towards radicalist tendencies. Saudi funding and the role of foreign preachers are playing a significant role in this.
Lessons for India
India must heed the lessons of what occurred on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. India is already in the cross hairs of the IS, and the announcement that the IS has created a separate ‘province’ should not be ignored. Some of the claims made may appear exaggerated but the threat posed by IS 2.0 is real.
Links between IS groups in Sri Lanka and India currently stand exposed and they should be cause for concern. The kingpin of the Easter blasts, Hashim, was linked to Jihadis in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He had a corresponding unit in Tamil Nadu. Indian authorities may do well to revisit the September 2018 criminal conspiracy case registered in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, which contained certain over-arching plans by the IS to target Hindus and non-Muslim activists in India. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) during its investigations has since come across links connecting IS units in Kerala and Tamil Nadu with the NTJ in Sri Lanka. These need to be pursued further. Detailed investigation by the NIA is called for to unearth connections of the kind that involved Aadhil Ameez, a Sri Lankan software engineer suspected in the Easter bombings, in India.
The number of Indian returnees from Syria may be small, but each of them would have come back having lost ‘all sense of purpose’. Their memories would only be of relentless artillery barrages, rocket fire and the air strikes that battered IS strongholds into submission. This is bound to nurture feelings of revenge — mainly against the West but extending to other segments as well. The attacks on luxury hotels and churches in Sri Lanka do smack of revenge against so-called atrocities on the IS in their Syrian stronghold.
IS 2.0 is likely to nurture two types: the less informed rabid supporters and a band of highly radical ideologues who can entice Muslim youth to their cause. The path to radicalisation of both segments is through the Internet. Time spent alone online listening to propaganda can produce fanaticism of the most extreme variety. It could promote a binary world view of a conflict between ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’, allowing radical Islamists to set the agenda. Zahran Mohammed Hashim is a striking example of how an individual can sway hundreds of impressionable youth in favour of a cause and not only transform the landscape from moderate Islam to radicalised Islam, but also induces the cadres to embark on terror. It is not so much the NTJ per se as propaganda by erstwhile leaders such as Zahran Hashim, who are the true flag bearers of a new era of radicalist Islam, and of the new brand of terror that they propound.
M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal