On Easter Sunday morning, seven suicide bombers carried out the most lethal terrorist attack in South Asia. They detonated high explosives at three churches in three Sri Lankan cities and at three luxury hotels in the capital Colombo, killing at least 320 and wounding hundreds more.
Although most of the evidence so far falls on a local Muslim extremist group, National Thowfeek Jamaath, the Islamic State group, via the Telegram account of its official news organ Amaq, took credit Tuesday for the attack. IS said it was retaliation for mass shootings that killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand mosques on March 15.
There is only limited evidence as yet to support the claim made by IS. On Tuesday, IS media linked individual bombers to the attacks in Sri Lanka. That day, photographs of the bombers posing before the group’s black flag and a brief video of them pledging bai'at (an oath of loyalty) to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi circulated online.
But it seems highly unlikely that a major and very complex terrorist plot involving so many people, was pulled together in a month’s time. This had been in the works for months, and the Christchurch shootings were simply an aggravating factor.
The rise and radicalization of National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ) in Sri Lanka has ties to South and Southeast Asia, and serves as an important lesson in radicalization. We need to understand it as Islamic State adopts a new model of global insurgency, having lost its caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
One of the most important factors in the radicalization of Islamist terrorist organizations is their belief in Fard Ayn, their religious obligation to come to the defense of their religion and fellow believers. Islamic State will continue to graft onto groups with seemingly parochial agendas, directing them to broaden their targeting.
The NTJ emerged in a response to an outbreak of anti-Muslim pogroms across the island in 2014.
Sri Lanka has always had its share of Sinhalese ultra-nationalists coupled with Buddhist extremists. Indeed, chauvinism by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority and discriminatory policies were the cause of the Tamil Tiger revolt.
These groups played a major role in supporting the government in its 26-year-long war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in May 2009. The Sinhalese ultra-nationalists and Buddhist extremists often demanded revenge for Tiger attacks. This often led to human rights abuses against the ethnic Tamil community in the country’s north and east.
In 2013, Buddhist nationalists, who no longer had the Tamil Tigers as their boogeyman, turned their sights on Muslims. This happened as Islamic State was spreading across Syria and Iraq, seemingly unstoppable. So Muslims emerged as a greater threat in the narrative of Buddhist extremists.
Extremists groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (the Buddhist Power Force) began targeting Muslim communities. Three people were killed and 78 injured were wounded in the June 2014 pogrom.
This prompted counter-attacks by Muslims, especially when Sri Lankan police, at best failed to protect them, and at worse turned a blind eye to the attacks. The years spanning 2014-2018 saw constant pogroms and counter-pogroms. Fairly small scale, but in all of them, people were killed or injured, and property was destroyed.
It is also important to understand that Bodu Bala Sana and other Sinhalese extremists had modeled themselves on the 969 Movement in Myanmar, where the radical Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu encouraged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state, as well as other Muslim communities across the country. Shared Pali-languages and deeply entrenched Theravada Buddhism has always leant itself to deep educational and monastic ties between the two countries.
The 969 movement’s attacks, of course, led to the rise of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. It was founded to defend the Rohingya community, which led to the Myanmar government and army’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. Today, some one million Rohingya are sheltering in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar’s genocidal campaign has gone largely unpunished.
In Sri Lanka, the NTJ was founded in 2015 or 2016 as a breakaway from a similarly named local Islamic group in order to defend the Muslim community from more attacks. That is to say, in its mind it was waging defensive jihad.
The radicalization of NTJ
This prompts another question: How did a group that was established ostensibly to defend its community from sectarian attacks from ultra Buddhist radicals, go on to attack churches and other soft targets through acts that resembled the work of transnational jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and IS? How do we explain the quick evolution to targeting non-Buddhist subjects?
First, you have to understand the community. Muslims comprise about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. Most have peacefully coexisted with the state and other religions, especially after 1990 when the Tamil Tigers expelled more than 100,000 people from territory that they controlled. And unlike the Tamil community, which tended to see no space for themselves within Sinhalese-dominated politics and society, the majority of Muslims were active members of multi-denominational and ethnic society.
Yet Sri Lanka has a growing and very insular Salafi community, which has become increasingly amenable to the propaganda and narrative of the jihadist community, and which self-identified by creating in and out groups.
By 2016, Sri Lankan security officials stated in parliament that some 32 people had traveled to Syria to join IS. By 2018, the number was thought to be 50. In the grand scheme of things, this is a small number, but they played a role in radicalizing their colleagues back home via social media.
Security officials were clear that these individuals were not poor or dispossessed people. They hailed from solidly middle-class and, in a few instances, upper-class families. Years ago, psychologist Marc Sageman referred to al-Qaeda as a bourgeois phenomenon.
Second, the Sri Lankan Muslim constituency was really concerned that, for all its efforts, the NTJ was not adequately defending their interests using current tactics.
Extremist organizations in any culture are vanguards, out front in their communities. They engage in what is termed the self-fulfilling prophecy, trying to provoke heavy-handed responses by government security forces. In turn, this leads to their broader acceptance in the eyes of a more moderate public constituency.
There is clear evidence that NTJ was doing this.
A member of the group and alleged suicide bomber Zahran Hashim began to publish pro-Islamic State postings on his Facebook page in 2017 evidence of a new strategic direction.
In June 2017, the U.S. government had proscribed a Pakistani IS member for trying to recruit Sri Lankans.
By December 2018, its founder had been arrested at least once for defacing Buddhist statues and inciting violence. Sinhalese Buddhist extremists had been calling for his arrest, threatening more violence if the government did not comply.
By January 2019, the group had clearly crossed a line. Authorities recovered some 100 kilos of military-grade explosives and detonators hidden in a national park in the northeast of the country. While some officials hoped to pin the violence on remnants of the Tamil Tigers emerging from the ashes, it was clear to some officials that this was a new threat.
Third, we need to look at the role of returning foreign fighters.
At the time of writing, the Sri Lankan government had claimed that many among dozens of people arrested after Sunday’s attacks were either returnees from Syria, or had some connection to IS militants in Iraq and Syria. Even if this is overstated, there is a clear influence by foreign fighters on the course of the group’s evolution.
Fourth, there is most likely some degree of exogenous support.
To date, one foreigner, a Syrian, has been detained by the Sri Lankan authorities in the aftermath of the Easter attacks. It appears unlikely that a group that until recently had only been able to engage in low-level sectarian violence could mastermind such a complex operation, including the construction of 10 large IEDs, without some foreign assistance.
Fifth, we have to understand that the rapid radicalization of the movement occurred as Islamic State was losing its caliphate, shifting its strategy to pursuing a global insurgency model, searching for new fronts, beyond the establishment of the Islamic State in East Asia, and other locales.
The events in Christchurch may have played a part in the final target selection, but this plot was long in the works. It was clear that the group had shifted its attack to the “far enemy.”
Unlike al-Qaeda, which tends to micromanage attacks and has recently eschewed attacks on houses of worship, Islamic State is happy to simply inspire and tends to take credit for operations later, even if there was only a tangential connection.
The Holey Artisan Bakery model
National Thowfeek Jamaath is really a case of slow-boil radicalization, like what we saw in Bangladesh’s deadliest terrorist attack to date, the overnight siege of the Holey Artisan Bakery café in Dhaka in July 2016.
As how it evolved in the café attack, three things came together in Sri Lanka: A small locally oriented group was already engaged in a defensive jihad; Its capabilities, technical expertise, and manpower were sufficient – often due to returning foreign fighters or external support; and there appeared to be a nudge or encouragement from foreign influence, such as the call to start a new front in a global insurgency.
As a result of this broadened targeting, NTJ has become part of something larger, a global struggle, no longer parochial, while provoking a heavy-handed government response, which serves their aims of broadening recruitment and the radicalization of their constituency.
As IS continues to try to expand the battle field, with new fronts, whether in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, or in countries in Southeast Asia, governments must do everything they can to quell local sectarian conflicts.
It is a matter of when, not if, groups like IS offer aid and support, grafting onto local movements.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.