The ISIS, or the Islamic State, has eventually claimed responsibility for the multiple terror bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday targeting churches and hotels, killing 359 and injuring about 600 people. The sites hit in the attacks were all frequented by tourists, and at least 42 foreign nationals died in the explosions.
The official ISIS claim went up after the Sri Lankan Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardena announced that these terrorist acts were in response to the Christchurch massacre of March 15, 2019. This is logical, because Sri Lanka was a softer target than New Zealand or Australia. Sri Lanka had earlier announced that it was the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) which was responsible for the attack. However, NTJ is too small an outfit to have executed the simultaneous bombings at multiple locations in such coordinated manner.A In fact, the NTJ as a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka came to notice only last year when it was linked to the vandalizing of Buddhist statues.
There was speculation that since there was no immediate claim by ISIS, the bombings were not their handiwork, but this was misplaced. While Sri Lanka was blaming NTJ, ISIS was releasing photographs of the suicide bombers who carried out the Sri Lanka attacks. These were similar to the Surabaya bombings of three churches in Indonesia on May 13, 2018, that were undertaken by ISIS.
Meanwhile, a radical Sri Lanka-based imam had been releasing threatening messages for Sri Lanka. lham Ibrahim and Inshaf, sons of a wealthy Sri Lankan spice trader, Mohammed Yusuf Ibrahim, were part of the bombings. Both were well-educated and in their late twenties. When police went to search their home, one brother’s wife set off a bomb, killing herself, her two children and three policemen. According to Sri Lankan intelligence, they were at the heart of radical Islamist circles in Sri Lanka and had sent at least 36 recruits to join ISIS in Syria. ISIS has released a video of the suicide attacks.
Ten days before the attacks, Sri Lanka’s police chief, Pujuth Jayasundara, had issued a nationwide alert, warning top officers that suicide bombers planned to target “prominent churches.
“A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo,” said the alert, which was sent to senior police officials. India’s external intelligence agency, R&AW, also warned Colombo, perhaps after monitoring the larger network of Tawhid Jamaat, headquartered in Tamil Nadu, India. Not acting on these inputs was gross failure on behalf of Sri Lankan authorities. But then Indian authorities had hard intelligence two months before the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai but failed to act. Sri Lankan authorities at least have apologized to the nation, which India authorities failed to do.
Just about six per cent population of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhala ethnic groups. ISIS honed in on Sri Lanka as a soft target because of the relative peace post the conflict with LTTE, using the NTJ, which had not yet earned notoriety for major violence and marked it for possible terror attacks of this nature.
Surprisingly, there is no mention of the role of Pakistan as coordinator between the NTJ and ISIS, which is perhaps by design or default. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and ISIS’ links are well established. When the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) returned from Sri Lanka in 1990, Pakistan posted a colonel from ISI as deputy high commissioner in its mission at Colombo. He organized the aOsama Brigade’, comprising Muslim Tamils of northern Sri Lanka, to provide a base for terrorist acts in southern India. But Pakistani mischief did not end there.A
Amir Zubair Siddiqi, posted at Pakistan’s High Commission in Colombo was booked by Tamil Nadu Police in 2012 after they picked up a suspected ISI man to whom Siddiqi had sent money from Colombo. Embarrassed, Pakistan recalled Siddiqi in October 2012, but quietly posted him back to Colombo after one year. Siddiqi’s name came up again after a tip off from Malaysian intelligence enabled the Intelligence Bureau to foil an ISI attempt to attack two foreign consulates in south India. It was Siddiqi who trained Tamil Muslim Zakir Hussain and sent him to India to recruit individuals for terror activities in south India. Zakir Hussain was arrested in 2014 by Tamil Nadu police but later released, and has since fled to Malaysia.A
Pakistan gained the confidence of Sri Lanka by advising and arming Colombo to subjugate the LTTE. In February 2012, a Sri Lankan delegation visited Islamabad on Pakistan’s invitation, to hold secret talks; Pakistan requested expertise to combat Baloch freedom fighters the same way Colombo combated the LTTE.A With the Sri Lanka-China-Pakistan camaraderie, India should expect ISI activities against India to continue from Pakistan’s high commission in Colombo. How Colombo will handle Pakistan-ISIS links detrimental to Sri Lanka will be a complex issue, given Pakistan’s propensity in running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.
So far, Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda in South Asia (AQIS) has been more active in this region. Post the Christchurch terror attacks, Al Qaeda issued a statement saying they would not attack religious places. But ISIS and Pakistan-based terror organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and others have no such inhibitions.
The Easter Sunday attacks are the first major ISIS terror strikes in the island nation. It may not be the last. The tourism industry of Sri Lanka will be affected, which in turn will hit the Sri Lankan economy struggling with a balance of payments crisis with China. As for India, the need to keep its guard up was never more.A
(The author is Distinguished Fellow, United Service Institution of India. The article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor)