Under the nose of a state that took peace for granted, members of two lesser-known radical organizations and sons of a millionaire spice trader conspired to carry out a mass carnage on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, an attack which has now been described as a reaction to the March 2019 attacks on two churches in New Zealand by a white supremacist. These radicals had pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State, identified suicide bombers, assembled suicide vests, and carried out synchronised attacks in multiple locations including churches and hotels with the intent of killing Christians. The attacks left 253 (according to revised estimates by the Sri Lankan authorities) people dead and a nation in shock.
Much of the focus in the aftermath of the attacks has been on the intelligence failure and the phenomenon of expanding radicalism. The wife of a suicide bomber, who herself had pledged baya’ah to the Islamic State, blew herself up, killing her unborn child and three other children, as the police forces raided their home. While investigation in the coming days and months may reveal some of the details of the preparations leading to the attack, whether that will prevent the next attack by Islamist radicals, is a bigger question.
Available profiles of eight of the nine suicide bombers involved in the attack reveal the usual trend that the foot soldiers of the Islamic State have come to be associated with since 2014. Many of them have been educated, a mix of middle-class and wealthy family members, and are highly radicalised who either teamed up or were influenced by the ideologues of the Islamic State to carry out mayhem. Such acts have been perpetrated in many countries in past years, with varying degrees of ‘success’.
The ‘mastermind’ behind the attacks in Sri Lanka, preacher Zahran Hashim, had gone into hiding in 2017, after being accused by the police of causing violence between Muslim groups. One of the two brothers, Inshaf Ibrahim owned Colossus Copper, a manufacturing facility in an industrial estate in Colombo’s east. The factory, investigators believe, was used to assemble the suicide vests used in the attack. Inshaf’s brother Ilham had well known connections to National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a Sri Lankan Islamist group suspected of involvement in planning the attacks. Abdul Lathief Jameel, who failed in his task of carrying out an explosion at Colombo’s Taj Samudra hotel and was killed by an accidental explosion in a small guest house, had studied in the UK and undertaken postgraduate studies in Australia before returning to settle in Sri Lanka. Inshaf’s wife, Fatima Ibrahim, was more than complicit, having taken her life, along with those of her children’s, by exploding her own suicide vest, rather than surrendering.
Unlike the lone terrorist in New Zealand, the Sri Lankan terrorists left no manifesto behind, leaving us to rely on the claims made by the Islamic State as well as the official statements to piece together the reason for the carnage. Several questions, however, still remain unanswered. Would Sri Lanka have been spared had the New Zealand attack not taken place? Do the Sri Lanka attacks underline the phenomenon of ‘expanding radicalism’ that seeks targets in countries where law-enforcement is lax? Were the inputs provided by Indian agencies comprehensive enough for the Sri Lankan authorities to act upon?
Sri Lanka has been on the edge over fears that there could be more bombers who could strike at a time of their choosing. The number of Islamic State suspects in Sri Lanka is estimated to be 130 to 140, of which approximately 76, including a Syrian national, have already been detained. Many of them could be NTJ members or those belonging to the Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI). Information on either the NTJ or the JMI is sketchy. The scale and sophistication in the attacks further point fingers at the involvement of foreign actors and hence, the spectre of a repeat of such attacks either in Sri Lanka or in a neighbouring South Asian country cannot be ruled out. The disintegration of its ‘Caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria has enabled the Islamic State to expand its sphere of attacks further afield.
Notwithstanding what the future holds, the terror attacks in Sri Lanka and New Zealand bare few uncomfortable facts. Terrorists can thrive under the nose of a complacent state, carry out attacks causing mass casualties, and be the cause and/or provide inspiration for a new set of attacks elsewhere. Their ‘success’ will not depend so much on the training that they have undergone but the level of radicalism that they have reached and organising abilities they possess. Since terrorism is a personal choice – bit of an aspirational pedestal to be climbed on by the radicalised – only an alert state can hope to minimise the impact of such attacks. Moreover, the state’s response in the aftermath of the attacks would decidedly determine if it succeeds in uniting the society sought to be communally fractured by the terror attacks.
Abilities to counter terror will have to be developed gradually through a comprehensive policy involving resource investment and cooperation with regional as well as global powers. It is clear that Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE, by means of mostly a conventional war laced with rampant human rights violations, did nothing to augment its capacities to deal with the terrorism of the Islamic State variety. A hard power approach now may further worsen the situation. (IPCS)