By Kalinga Seneviratne
A 22-year-old Sri Lankan law graduate became the first Islamic suicide terrorist a year ago in the predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka. He detonated an explosive-filled rucksack amid a crowd of Easter Sunday worshipers at a Catholic Church in the seaside town of Negombo, close to the country’s international airport.
The explosion on April 21, 2019, at 8.25 am (local time) killed more than 50 people and wounded scores more. Within the next hour, multiple coordinated suicide attacks ripped through churches and tourist hotels, that killed over 250 people and injured another 500.
According to knowledgeable sources, suicide bombers came mainly from a wealthy Muslim spice-trader family, and they belong to a little-known homegrown Islamist group, National Thawheed Jamath (NJJ).
Dr Rohan Gooneratne, the well-known Singapore-based Sri Lankan terrorism expert, argued in a recent BBC program on the topic that these attacks confirmed that the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has branched into Asia and it is expanding, radicalising Muslim youth across the region. The ISIS in Syria reportedly trained at least two of the suicide bombers.
Indian intelligence had provided prior warning of such an attack to the then Sri Lankan government led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe. Still, they did not take it seriously, puzzling most Sri Lankans and prompting many conspiracy theories.
Some members of the then opposition suspected a US plan to create mayhem in the country to pave the way for US “peacekeeping” forces to be sent to the island. Reportedly, at the time of the attack, Wickremasinghe was secretly negotiating with the US a SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), which would allow American forces establish a base in Sri Lanka under the pretext of securing Indian Ocean trade routes from possible terrorist attacks.
Three weeks after the bombing, there were attacks on Muslim businesses by so-called ‘Buddhist extremists’ – who are usually thugs (sometimes wearing yellow robes) – paid to create conflicts. Politicians from all sides are said to be involved in these activities. However, concerted appeals by leading Buddhist monks and Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith averted such attacks. Many of them openly argued that foreign agents want Sri Lanka to become a “failed state” to send in their armies. Most Sri Lankans understood such a threat to their sovereignty.
Though less than 10 per cent of the population, the Muslim community is mostly a wealthy community that has done well in business – thanks to the patronage of Sinhala Buddhists. But, after the attacks, there has been a concerted campaign to boycott Muslim companies and develop Sinhalese business ventures.
Dr Ranga Jayasuriya, a senior research fellow at the Institute of National Security Sri Lanka, refers to warnings ignored by the then government in a column published by the Daily Mirror. Marking the first anniversary of the Easter bombing, he noted: “These were the looming evidence of a much larger plot by Islamic extremism. However, the local intelligence and security apparatus were reluctant to follow up, proactively.
“That reluctance should not be interpreted as sabotage. It was a result of years of politicisation of intelligence. Yahapalana (Sirisena government) which heavily relied on minority parties, was not keen to upset the apple cart. It also distrusted the intelligence agencies and their top brass for being wilful accessories of the previous Rajapaksa regime.”
Before the bombing, there were other indications of a looming Islamic terror threat in Sri Lanka. In December 2018, such as the vandalisation of several Buddha statues in north-central Sri Lanka. A tip-off by a local Muslim led to the police raiding a Muslim property where they found 100 kg of explosives buried in a coconut grove.
In March 2019, an intruder shot at the 37-year old Razak Taslim, while he was asleep at home, and paralysed him. He had tipped off the police. After the bombing, a crying Taslim told his wife “I did warn them”.
Within 24 hours of the bombings, security forces were able to catch over 50 suspects with detonators, explosives, swords and even military uniforms hidden in their properties – some in mosques. They found vehicles registered in the name of the suicide bombers’ wealthy family members. And some investigations linked them to an influential Muslim member of Cabinet (who was also in the Cabinet of the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa).
When pressure mounted in the country for him to be sacked, all nine Muslim ministers and deputy ministers resigned. This political stunt further infuriated the non-Muslim majority in the country. They were suspected of siding with the terrorists instead of contributing to their arrests.
The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government was voted into power in January 2015 on the back of an “Arab Spring” style foreign-funded NGO campaign accusing the pro-China Rajapaksa government of human rights violations and corruption.
In September 2015, the new government even co-sponsored a resolution – along with the US and EU – at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva to set up a special court, probably comprising foreign judges, to try Sri Lankan armed forces personnel for war crimes. This infuriated much of the Sinhala Buddhist majority that sees their armed forces as heroes for liberating the country from the 30-year terror reign of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
After co-sponsoring the resolution and obeying to UNHRC dictates, the government went about dismantling the security apparatus that was put in place by the Rajapaksa regime under the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. At the time of the Easter Sunday bombing, many of those intelligence officers were behind bars under war crimes charges.
Large sections of the people in Sri Lanka believe it is these actions that made the country an unprotected target for Islamic terror groups that want to expand in Asia. Dr Gooneratne made this point very clear in the recent BBC program.
“The appeasing policy adopted and the attitude that the minorities ruled, and the majority are insignificant did not help matters for it encouraged all sorts of destabilising objectives to descend and commence their agendas across Sri Lanka,” argues social critic Shenali Waduge. “They did so knowing the leaders and their stooges were looking the other way and officials were also indirectly told to do the same. The crimes of omissions that took place from 2015 are testimony.”
It is such sentiments that were triggered by the Easter Sunday bombings that propelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the presidency in the November 2019 election with the Sinhalese voters giving him a thumping majority. His primary campaign theme was national security and strengthening the country’s defence capabilities – especially in intelligence gathering.
Speaking on the anniversary of the bombing, police media spokesman Jaliya Senaratne said that government had added three more squads to investigation teams and arrested 197 suspects recently. Among them are a brother of the former powerful Cabinet minister and a Muslim lawyer.
New Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a statement marking the anniversary that Sri Lanka is no stranger to suicide bombings having experienced it for 30 years. But this one was different because the government of the day had precise intelligence provided (by India) and did not act. “This attack could easily have been prevented,” he said.
Cardinal Malcolm has recently expressed unhappiness at the slow progress of the investigations. Before the advent of the COVID-19 crisis, he was reported to have threatened to bring his followers to the street in protest.
Meanwhile, according to reports across the country, moderate Muslims are trying to build bridges with Buddhists during the current health crisis. Near the area where Buddhist statues were vandalised in 2018, a small Muslim community is now caring for the monks in a temple near their village giving them food.
According to the National Peace Council’s Jehan Perera, wealthy Muslim businesses are supporting those who are suffering most as a consequence of the curfew. They have joined humanitarian relief efforts with almost all mosques around the country, distributing provisions and dry rations to needy families in their areas without differences of race or religion.
“This indicates that the Muslim community is economically empowered to offer such assistance and also that they are making a special effort to reach out to the larger community,” he notes.
Yet, there have been some Muslim political leaders who have claimed discrimination and victimisation, especially after the Rajapaksa’s came back to power. In essence, one such issue is the Sri Lankan population’s opposition to the public display of the “Arab Dress” of some Muslim women. Wearing it was banned in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.
“While the liberal literati fret about restrictions on Burka, the growth of popularity of this signature dress of Salafi Jihad is a measure of domestic Islamic radicalisation,” argues Dr Jayasuriya. “Traditional Sri Lankan Islam was displaced. Imported Wahabbism and Salafism replaced it.”
In the past couple of decades, affluent sections of the Muslim community have contributed to an increase in the number of Muslim international schools. These tend to segregate Muslim children from the rest of the population, which is another cause of concern for the broader community.
“Many observers have raised concerns over unregulated Islamic Madrassas, which in most countries became breeding grounds of radicalisation. However, in Sri Lanka, a bigger concern should be Muslim International schools, which exercise an extreme notion of gender segregation, promote Burka and Niqab as a dress code and teach an excessively religious curriculum,” argues Dr Jayasuriya.
“Those are pivotal drivers of radicalisation. Ideological radicalisation and nonviolent extremism are a precursor to its violent manifestation.”
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