Sri Lanka is still struggling to get back on its feet after eight suicide bomb attacks killed more than 250 people and shattered the peace that had reigned for a decade since the end of a brutal 30-year civil war in which more than 120,000 people were killed.
To Indians weary of Islamist terror from Pakistan-based groups, the Sri Lanka carnage bears familiar hallmarks. Professor of Security Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang University and global terror expert of Sri Lankan origin, Dr Rohan Gunaratna, tells Padma Rao Sundarji in Colombo about the spread of the Islamic State (IS) in the region and the dangers it poses.
Question (Q) : The suicide attacks on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka in which more than 250 people were killed, have revealed an established network of Islamist extremism in western, central and eastern Sri Lanka. Some years ago, PM Wickremesinghe himself confirmed to this writer in an interview, that 32 affluent Sri Lankans had joined the Islamic State. Though invented in Sri Lanka by the Tamil terror group LTTE which was defeated in 2009, suicide attacks remain the hallmark of Pakistan-based terror groups. Are there any links between the IS-related groups in Sri Lanka and Pakistan?
Answer (A) : The first Sri Lankan foreign terrorist fighter who went to Syria and Iraq was one Mohammed Muhsin Nilam. He was killed in 2015. He was an old boy of Sri Lanka’s elite Trinity College. He went to a madarssa for six months, but preferred a university education. He joined the International Islamic University in Pakistan in September/October 2007 and earned an LLB.
Q : Sri Lankan officials emphasize the good relations between Colombo and Islamabad. But have there been exchanges at other levels too? Did ‘motivational’ speakers from Pakistan travel in and out of Sri Lanka?
A : Extremist preachers from Tamil Nadu influenced the formation of radical groups in Sri Lanka. The influence of the Tamil Nadu Tawheed Jamaath in India has been very damaging to Sri Lanka. As IS is spreading to Asia, it is vital that our governments and the religious authorities meet once a month and start to counter the threat. In the next five years, our countries will be ruined by the spread of IS ideology. Although there are non violent Wahabis and Salafis, the research in the region show that foreign ideologies are detrimental to traditional Islam – Sufism – that Muslims have inherited for centuries. The Wahabi and Salafi models breeds intolerance. With incitement, exclusivism leads to extremism and terrorism.
Q : The terrorists involved in the Easter carnage were affluent. But an operation of this scale also requires logistical outside support. If Saudi Arabian clerics provided the ideology and Gulf returnees received their initiation in radical Islam during their tenures overseas, surely some country with easier passage into Sri Lanka provided the training? Like Pakistan?
A : The IS network in Sri Lanka is not linked to Pakistan but to India and the Middle East. The funding was mostly generated and the training too conducted in Sri Lanka itself. IS built several training camps including in Vanathavilu, Hambanthota, Nuwaraeliya. The technology was mostly from the Internet. The bomb maker was Mohammed Hashtoon, a bright, young Muslim who was radicalized and recruited by (the chief Easter Sunday terrorist ) Zahran Hashim. His wife, Pulasthini Mahendran, was a Tamil Hindu convert to Islam. Both studied together. An autodidact, Hashtoon worked at a pharmacy in Colombo and conducted the most lethal bombing at St Sebastian church in Negombo.
Q : If there was indeed an IS link to the Easter attacks, surely the IS-Khorasan, the terror organization’s ‘South Asia bureau’ in Afghanistan-Pakistan was involved rather than the IS that is in disarray, in faraway Syria?
A : The IS Khorasan was created in 2015 but later, it created four other branches including one for Sri Lanka. In an attempt to rebuild the caliphate, the IS wants to strengthen its provinces. These branches will pose a threat to the entire region. Governments should develop a zero tolerance policy and work together to eliminate the IS threat. IS Sri Lanka had cyber links to most of these branches.
Q : Finally, it is said that SL was picked because of lax security, as a ‘soft target’, etc. Is India the principal target in the long run? Agree or disagree, you can’t rule out Pakistani involvement or tacit support. According to Indian authorities, Pakistani diplomats based in Kathmandu and Colombo, have financed recces of US and Indian installations by terrorists with the intention of targeting them, they have pushed fake Indian currency into India to destabilize it. Surely Sri Lanka is a stepping stone to the larger goal for Islamist terrorists, which is India?
A : About 63% of the world’s Muslim population lives in Asia. Like other Asian Muslims, Indian Muslims are moderate, tolerant and value coexistence. Nonetheless, IS is spreading in the Asian region including in India. The threat is spreading at a rapid pace, especially through cyber. On May 10, 2019, IS branch Wilayah as Hind (the “India province”) claimed that it had used machine guns to clash with Indian security forces in Amshipura village in J&K’s Shopian district. Since November 2017, IS has claimed attacks against Indian security forces in J&K. The creation of dedicated IS entities in countries and sub regions as opposed to large regions, reflects a new strategy by IS. With the global expansion of IS, the group is decentralizing, giving more power to IS branches in countries.
Source : Hindustan Times