Global jihad comes to Sri Lanka and Asia
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- Jamathei Milathu Ibrahim Jamathei Milathu Ibrahim is a Sri Lankan jihadist group implicated in...[+]
- National Thowheeth Jamaath National Thowheeth Jama'ath is a Sri Lankan jihadist group implicated in...[+]
Affected Countries: sri-lanka;
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, in which seven suicide bombers in six locations in three cities shattered ten years of peace on the island nation. Since the government defeated a bloody 26-year-long insurgency led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009, Sri Lanka has sought to recapture its reputation as a tourist paradise, better known for its lush forests and sparkling beaches than for terrorist attacks. The country now faces a new and different kind of threat: global jihadists allied with local Islamist malcontents.
Though violence in Sri Lanka may feel familiar — the LTTE allegedly invented the suicide vest in the 1980s — Sunday’s bombings are in fact unprecedented. The attacks on churches and high-end hotels that killed at least 320 people, 39 of them foreigners, mark a violent introduction for Sri Lanka to global jihadism. This is also the first time that Christians in Sri Lanka have come under attack for their faith. Minority Tamils (mostly Hindu) and the majority Sinhalese (mostly Buddhist) fought the civil war along ethnic lines. Christians in Sri Lanka — primarily Catholics and Anglicans — straddle the ethnic divide. The country’s small but influential Christian minority (7.4% of the population) includes prominent members from both ethnic groups. About 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist.
The Islamic State’s ability to recruit and deploy local Islamists in Sri Lanka, as well as the deliberate selection of targets that would garner global attention, brings to mind the 2016 attack on Dhaka’s Holey Bakery. In that attack, seven Bangladeshis killed 20 hostages, including 18 foreigners at an upscale restaurant.
Soon after Sunday’s attacks, the terrorism expert Amarnath Amarasingam, among others, pointed out that, it was likely “not just a local-born and -bred Muslim organization that planned and carried out this operation.” Until now, National Thowheed Jamaath, the local group whose members carried out the bombings, was best known for defacing Buddha statues and pressing local Muslim women to don the burqa. In both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the conflict in Syria has given Islamists who flocked to the cause access to global networks and bomb-making skills that have multiplied their capacity for mayhem manifold.
Over the past two decades, fundamentalist strains of Islam have taken root in Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority, which accounts for 9.7% of the population. In the well-appointed living rooms of the country’s elite, it’s not uncommon to hear complaints about how the all-enveloping black burqa, a garment alien to the laid-back form of Islam traditionally associated with the island, has become a common sight. It’s only the most visible sign of hardening religious attitudes.
Among the Buddhist majority, the rise of the hardline Bodu Bala Sena mirrors a similar development in Myanmar, with which Sri Lanka shares close religious ties. Like their counterparts in Myanmar, some Sri Lankan Buddhist monks view Islam as a mortal threat to their religion and culture. In recent years, they have called for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses, a tactic also followed in Myanmar. Last year, Sinhalese Buddhist mobs burned Muslim businesses in the central district of Kandy after a Sinhalese truck driver was fatally wounded by a group of Muslim men in what may have been an act of road rage.
What should we expect? In the short term, Sri Lanka will crack down on local Islamists as its security agencies attempt to unravel the Easter attacks plot. In the longer term, Colombo will need to shift its instinctive focus on Tamil ethnic separatism to the more pressing threat from global jihadists allied with local Islamists. Don’t be surprised if voters, frustrated by a feuding government that failed to act on intelligence warnings from India, turn to former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa’s family for leadership in troubled times.
For the region more broadly — especially for India and Bangladesh — the Sri Lanka attacks come as a warning. Islamic State may have lost its caliphate, but it has not lost its capacity to exploit local divisions and launch massive terrorist attacks aimed at capturing global attention.