By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On April 21, 2019, South Asia witnessed the worst ever terror attack, in terms of fatalities, recorded in the region till date. On Easter Sunday (April 21), Islamist terrorists carried out eight coordinated suicide bomb attacks within a span of six hours (8:45am to 2:45am, SST). The attacks which targeted three Churches and three major hotels across the three main cities – Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa – of Sri Lanka, resulted in fatalities of at least 253 persons, including 250 civilians and three Security Force (SF) personnel. Nine suicide bombers involved in the attacks were also killed, taking the total death toll in the incident to 262. Another 500 persons were injured, including many severely.
Incidents in Sri Lanka after the April 21 attack, prominently, the raid by Sri Lankan SFs’ in Ampara District on April 26-27, 2019, which resulted in the death of 15 persons, mostly terror suspects who were part of the larger module involved in the April 21 attacks, and their family members, clearly indicate that the present threat is far from over.
Preliminary investigations indicate that two little known Sri Lanka-based Islamist terror formations, the National Thawheed Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim in collusion with the global terrorist formation, Islamic State (IS, also Daesh), carried out the attacks.
The previous worst attack in the region was recorded on March 12, 1993, in Mumbai (Maharashtra) in India, when the city was rocked by a series of bomb explosions within a span of two and a half hours (1:30pm to 4:00pm, IST) which had resulted in death of 253 persons. At least 713 persons had sustained injuries in the attack. The Mumbai attacks were masterminded by Dawood Ibrahim, whose D-Company has now established close associations with the Islamist terrorist formations operating out of Pakistan. Dawood Ibrahim is globally one of the most wanted terrorists.
South Asia has for long faced Islamist terrorism and, since 2005, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the region has accounted for at least 71,400 Islamist terrorism-linked fatalities: 24,766 civilians; 8,218 SF personnel; 38,416 militants (data till April 28, 2019). [The data does not include fatalities in Afghanistan as the SATP database on Afghanistan only commences January 1, 2018]. Pakistan accounted for 62,535 such fatalities, followed by India (7,828), Bangladesh (760) and Sri Lanka (277).
1,156 of these fatalities were recorded in 2018 down from 1,683 in 2017. There were a total of 560 such fatalities in 2019. Fatalities in this category have been declining since 2010.
Nevertheless, the attacks in Sri Lanka, and developments in recent pasts in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and the Maldives, demonstrate that threats from this form of terrorism remain as alive, and have the potential to gain significant momentum at any juncture in these countries if there is any slackness on the part of the Government in the policy making and the SFs on ground. The April 21 attacks in Sri Lanka underline the dangers of complacency, as there was ample actionable intelligence available with authorities, but the intelligence and enforcement apparatus failed to act.
Left-Wing Extremism (LWE), which has also afflicted wide areas in the region, has also been on a decline. According to the SATP database, since 2005, the region has accounted for at least 11,654 LWE-linked fatalities (3,757 civilians, 2,532 SF personnel, 5,365 militants, data till April 28, 2019). India accounted for 8,260 such fatalities, followed by Nepal 2,623 Bangladesh 758 and Bhutan, 13.
418 Maoist fatalities were recorded in 2018 up from 348 in 2017. There have already been 102 such fatalities in 2019. Though fatalities in this category have maintained a cyclical trend since 2010 it has never crossed three digits thereafter. There were a total of 1,268 LWE-linked fatalities in 2010. Significantly, the two decade-long Maoist insurgency in Nepal ended with a peace agreement in 2006, removing one of the principal theatres of LWE violence from the conflict map.
In Bangladesh, mounting SF pressure has forced LWEs to stop their violent activities. Indeed, the last incident of killing by LWEs was recorded on December 9, 2013, when suspected LWEs killed a local trader in the Santhia sub-District of Pabna District.
Developments in India, nevertheless, demonstrate that the residual potential of LWE groups is significant. In India, the intermittent and audacious attacks of the recent past clearly indicate that the Maoists still possess the wherewithal, albeit diminishing, to strike at will. Even as the general elections are underway in the country, cadres of the Communist Party of India–Maoist (CPI-Maoist) triggered an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast and subsequently opened fire, targeting the convoy of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Bhima Mandavi, in a forested patch near Nakulnar village under the Kuwakonda tehsil (revenue unit) of Dantewada District in Chhattisgarh’s ailing Bastar Division, on April 9, 2019. Those killed included MLA Mandavi and his three Personal Security Officers (PSOs), as well as the constable-driver.
Total terrorism and insurgency linked fatalities in South Asia (including Islamist and LWE) have dropped from a peak of 29,638 (of which 15,565 were in Sri Lanka alone) in 2009, to just 1,648 in 2018, the lowest fatalities recorded in a year since 2005. There were 2,145 fatalities in 2017. Such fatalities have been in continuous decline since 2010.
At least 614 fatalities, including 329 civilians, 120 SF personnel and 165 Insurgents/terrorists, have been documented across the region in the first quarter of 2019 (data till April 28, 2019). During the corresponding period in 2018, there were 501 such fatalities, including 136 civilians, 131 SF personnel and 243 Insurgents.
The spread of conflict has declined along with its intensity. The SATP Conflict Map for South Asia shows significant areas of the region affected by high intensity conflict (fatalities above 1000) in 2009, while there were no such regions remaining in 2018. By 2018, only two Districts (Mastung and Quetta), both in the Balochistan Province of Pakistan, remained afflicted by low intensity conflict (fatalities between 100 and 1000 per annum). Another 134 districts were affected by ‘other conflict’ (less than 100 fatalities per annum), of which 83 were in India and 41 were in Pakistan.
However, the situation in Afghanistan remains dire. According to partial data compiled by SATP, 3,705 fatalities have already been recorded, including 124 civilians, 394 SF personnel and 3,182 insurgents, in 503 incidents of killing in 2019 (data till April 28). During the corresponding period in 2018, 5,345 fatalities, including 285 civilians, 252 SF personnel and 4,502 insurgents, were recorded in 705 incidents of killing. Through 2018, fatalities totaled 14,581, including 1,076 civilians, 1,526 SF personnel and 11,684 Insurgents, in 1,758 incidents of killing.
Casualties among civilians, the best indicator of the prevailing security scenario in any theatre of conflict, have been rising in Afghanistan since 2014, with the exception of 2017. 2018 registered 3,804 fatalities among civilians, the highest ever recorded by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan UNAMA since 2009 [when UNAMA first began counting civilian fatalities]. The previous high of 3,701 civilian fatalities was recorded in 2014. Fatalities in the civilian category remained under 3,000 for four out of the five years between 2009 and 2013. Civilian fatalities stood at 3,133 in 2011.
Sustained improvement in the security situation across much of South Asia has helped the region grow. According to the latest available World Bank data, the region’s GDP (current USD) had risen to 3.34 trillion in 2017, as against 1.683 trillion in 2009, when fatalities were at peak. Similarly, Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, at USD 1063.85 in 2009, increased to USD 1723.92 in 2017. Life expectancy increased from 64.3 in 2009 to 68.95 in 2017.
Nevertheless, South Asia remains among the most violent region globally. According to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2018,
|South Asia had the highest impact of terrorism on average in 2017, and has had the highest average score on the GTI of any region for the past 16 years. Bhutan was the only country in South Asia not to record a death from terrorism in 2017 and is the only South Asian country to have less than a thousand deaths from terrorism since 2002.|
|As well as accounting for the highest number of total deaths, MENA [Middle east and North Africa], South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa also had the most lethal terrorist attacks on average, with 2.75, 1.85 and 4.35 people killed per attack respectively.|
More worryingly, the GTI 2018 confirmed,
|Many countries in South Asia have seen an increase in terrorist activity from ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Daesh] and its affiliates in the past few years. In Bangladesh, the largest recent terrorist attack occurred in 2016, when an armed assault in Dhaka killed 28 people. ISIL later claimed responsibility for the attack. In 2017, the two deadliest attacks in South Asia were committed by the Khorasan Chapter of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing 93 and 91 persons respectively.|
According to The Soufan Center’s report in 2017, 75 persons from India, 650 persons from Pakistan and 32 persons from Sri Lanka had joined fighting alongside the Islamic State. Specifically, according to the SATP database, a total of 168 Daesh sympathizers/recruits have been arrested and another 74 persons have been detained, counselled and released, in India (data till April 28, 2019), while 98 Indians were believed to have travelled to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to join IS – microscopic numbers in terms of the country’s huge Muslim population. Of the 98 who travelled abroad to join Daesh, 33 are confirmed to have been killed. Further, according to an ICSR report on Women and Minors of Islamic State published in July 2018, at least 200 persons from Maldives and 40 persons from Bangladesh were also among Daesh’s foreign fighters.
Daesh’s involvement in the latest suicide bombings and subsequent incidents in Sri Lanka are a warning to all states across the region. Indeed, the perpetrator groups in Sri Lanka are also believed to have linkages in India. The degree to which the evolution of the National Thawheed Jamaath and the Jamiyathul Milathu Ibrahim (both groups were banned by Sri Lankan Government on April 27, 2019) was hidden away from intelligence and enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka is an index of the potential that could well be developing, or that could develop, in other countries of the region as well. Despite tremendous gains across major theatres of violence across South Asia, states and their agencies need to be far more vigilant, responsive and prepared to meet potentially escalating threats in the near future.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management