Terror in Sri Lanka and the Islamic Factor

The terrorist acts in Sri Lanka which claimed the lives of more than 300 people, turned out to be a complete surprise for police authorities and the security services of the island state. The civil war in Sri Lanka ended 10 years ago; the warring parties were divided ethnically, rather than along religious lines, and attacks on places of worship were relatively rare. The two most well-known examples of churches being seriously damaged happened during the bombing of the alleged headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam by the Sri Lanka Air Force.

However, the Easter Sunday attacks seemed to be directed against the Christian community, which constitutes only about 7% of the island’s population. In addition, hotels were attacked where tourists stayed, and one of the bombs was disarmed near the airport. Contrary to the established practice, no one has yet taken responsibility for the explosions – at least at the time of this writing.

In Sri Lanka there are enough radical forces that, theoretically, could organise movements on religious grounds. The most active, in this sense, is the Buddhist community, which accounts for about 70% of the island’s population. The most prominent among the Buddhist extremist groups is the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which advocates the transformation of Sri Lanka into a fully Buddhist island and is supported by radical elements among the Sinhalese community. BBS has repeatedly organised attacks on Muslim and Christian religious buildings and structures as well as pogroms in Muslim quarters. However, both the BBS and groups that are allied with it were primarily focused on the fight against Muslims; Christians were always a secondary target for them. Second, they are rather closely connected with a certain segment of the Sri Lankan elites and are fairly well controlled. Third, the Buddhist extremists never used such tactics or suicide bombers, in principle.

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The events in Sri Lanka today have shocked many around the world. An Easter day attack on three churches and an equal number of hotels, in such coordinated fashion, sounds surreal, even bizarre. Latest reports say over 200 people are dead and over 500 injured. It suggests the attacks were planned in meticulous fashion to inflict maximum damage. While no organization has stepped forward to take responsibility, there is speculation that this might be the handiwork of either Tamil fringe-groups or the Islamic State (Daesh)*, says Abhijit Singh, the Head of the Maritime Policy Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.
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It is equally unlikely that Hindus from the local Siva Senai organization are behind the attacks, as they rely on the support of the Tamil community. This organisation was established in October 2016 to protect Tamil Hinduism, and to prevent their conversion to Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. The Lankan Siva Senai is a purely peaceful organisation, which has so far been known only to have launched protest demonstrations. Moreover, in recent years the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), closely connected with Siva Senai, had begun negotiations with BBS to conclude a kind of agreement on cooperation to fight the Muslim threat throughout South Asia.

The Muslim community of Sri Lanka accounts for about 10% of the population. Traditionally, its members are involved in trade; during the civil wars and political conflicts that shook Sri Lanka, Muslims never represented a significant aggressive force and mostly behaved as victims, preferring to either flee or pay off belligerents. However, in recent years, radical groups, both local and branches of well-known foreign groups, are becoming increasingly influential among the nation’s Muslims. One of them is National Tawhid Jamaat, also known as Sri Lanka Tawhid Jamaat or Jamaat al-Tawhid al-Watania, a division of the large Tawhid Jamaat network with headquarters in Tamil Nadu, which has offices in the United States, UK, Australia, France and the Gulf states. Tawhid Jamaat proselytises (mainly among the Tamil community), fights for “pure Islam” and actively promotes the construction of mosques. However, Tawhid Jamaat, as well as any of the local radical Islamic groups, also had not been spotted before in any terrorist attacks.

Therefore, we can assume that there is an external force behind the attacks – either  ISIS or some other radical Islamist group like Al-Qaeda. The terrorist acts themselves are reminiscent of those that the ISIS militants and suicide bombers organised abroad: they clearly were professionally prepared. It is possible that the radicalised cells of Tawhid Jamaat became the breeding ground for the activities of the ISIS and Al-Qaida emissaries.

At the same time, the real performers most likely were young local Muslims who wanted to take revenge for the persecution of Muslims by Buddhists (for example, the wave of anti-Muslim pogroms in 2014). In the attack on Christian churches, there is a certain attempt to minimise the consequences for the local Muslim community. Not Buddhist, but Christian churches were chosen as targets, which should reduce the surge in anti-Islamic sentiment on the island. In an event, it is obvious that in the near future the Islamic community will suffer hard times, because the Buddhist radical organizations got an extra reason to attack the Sri Lankans who profess Islam.

The terrorist attacks will obviously cause serious damage to the economy of Sri Lanka: not only because they scare tourists away, (an important sector of the national economy), but also because they force foreign companies to think twice about the safety of their staff working on the island. In addition, they will increase tension in the already-difficult domestic political situation in the country: in December 2019 presidential elections are set to be held in Sri Lanka. The Islamic factor in the past constantly played an important role in the election campaign, and there is no doubt that the Muslim card will be played this time – the only question is what political forces will use it more effectively.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.