If the National Thowheeth Jama’ath is really the source of problem, then its presence in Tamil Nadu needs to be examined carefully. If the ISIS has indeed played a role, then the impact of the ISIS ideology will have to be assessed.
Harsh V Pant
The bomb blasts that shook Sri Lanka on April 21 Easter Sunday shattered the decade-long peace in the island nation, once again bringing to the fore the underlying tensions in the nation’s society and polity. The gruesome bombings were a stark reminder of the nation’s violent past when the 25-year struggle saw more than 70,000 people dead and which ended when Sri Lankan forces finally defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
These carefully co-ordinated and meticulously-planned attacks first targeted busy Easter services at churches in the cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. Then blasts spread through three luxury hotels in the capital city of Colombo: the Shangri La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury. At least 39 foreigners are among those killed in these attacks including at least three Indians, five British citizens, two Turkish nationals and two Chinese citizens.
Clearly Sri Lanka's minority Christian community, accounting for less than 10% of the total population of 21.4 million, was the main target of Sunday's attack. While religious tensions have grown in recent years, with the emergence of radical Islamist groups on the one hand and a surge in ultra-nationalist Buddhism led by the Bodu Bala Sena on the other, Christians had so far not been the targets of violence in Sri Lanka. However, now global narratives are seemingly influencing Sri Lanka’s local conflict.
Stung by these attacks, the Sri Lankan government was forced to take a number of measures so as to project a semblance of order. The President appointed a three-person panel to investigate the bombings even as additional powers have been given to the police and security forces to detain and interrogate people. The government also temporarily blocked social media, including Facebook and Instagram.
The Sri Lankan government finally named a little-known radical Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), for the attacks. Last year, this group was responsible for vandalising Buddhist statues but so far has had no history of carrying out such spectacular attacks. At the moment, it is being speculated that it received support from a global terror network for this attack though the suicide bombers have all been declared to be Sri Lankan citizens.
Given that a well-planned and well-coordinated attack of this complexity could not have been expected without external support, some have pointed that there is a possibility of a likely ISIS connection. There have been reports about the presence of around 100 Sri Lankan fighters in Syria and Iraq, giving some credibility to the ISIS imprint in these attacks.
What is really significant about these attacks is a serious intelligence failure in heeding up the warnings. Ten days before the bombings, Sri Lankan security services were warned that a radical Islamist group was planning suicide attacks against churches, but there was no follow up action. These warnings were repeated even a day back and India was part of this intelligence exchange. There has been a tactical failure in so far as Sri Lanka institutional framework has been found to be wanting at a time of such a grave crisis. In addition, there has also been a larger strategic failure in keeping track of the evolution of the NTJ from a fringe group into such a larger threat, if reports of its involvement are indeed correct.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also made it clear that neither he nor his Cabinet ministers had been informed of the warning, underscoring the power struggle between him and President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the defense minister and to whom nation’s intelligence agencies report.
Tensions between Srisena and Wickremesinghe will now be aggravated as the country now moves closer to elections. The Rajapaksa clan, which is waiting in the ways to Sirisena, will also be back in the reckoning by underlying his family’s credentials in tackling the Tamil insurgency.
Developments in Sri Lanka pose challenge to Indian security. If the NTJ is really the source of problem, then its presence in Tamil Nadu needs to be examined carefully. And if the ISIS has indeed played a role, then the impact of the ISIS ideology despite the decimation of the ISIS, will have to be assessed. India will have to be work more closely with likeminded neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to evolve a pan South Asian approach to this disturbing trend.
Harsh V Pant is director, Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and professor of international relations, King’s College London. Views expressed are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.The Great Diwali Discount!
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