Scourage of Global HIRABAH
| Col. Bipin Pathak - 12 May 2019

Scourage of Global HIRABAH

By COL BIPIN PATHAK (RETD), MILITARY INTELLIGENCE

The well-coordinated blasts of 21 April 2019 in Sri Lanka which had religious overtones including detonation by suicide bombers resulted in deaths of more than 253 innocent citizens and injuries to more than 450.  The targets were the churches as it was Easter with maximum attendance and the hotel industry with the aim of creating mayhem and anarchy. Prima facie this wanton killing seems to have signatures of global hirabah / terrorism.  This act of violence is a watershed in the history of Sri Lanka post the civil war which culminated in 2009. The island nation was slowly moving towards economic recovery which now may get stalled as their primary source of income through tourism may temporarily decline as a consequence of travel advisories being issued by many countries.

Intelligence

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did acknowledge that intelligence about the bombings had been received in advance. The intelligence had indicated to any methods such as suicide attack, weapon attack or truck attack. The original warning is most likely to have come from Australia that has kept watch on the rise of radicalism and extremism in this region. Sri Lanka's police chief Pujith Jayasundara had issued an intelligence alert for such an attempt including prominent churches. Inputs even named six individuals as likely suicide bombers, including Hashim.  Subsequent investigations can only indicate the reason for lackadaisical approach by the Lankan law and order agencies.

Plausible Theories

Emergent influence of Wahabi Islam among Sri Lankan Muslims and the proliferation of mosques constructed with finances from Saudi Arabia has resulted in the Muslims being alienated. They are also seen as having strong connections with powerful and wealthy Islamic countries, which can one day enslave the Sinhalese. In the years, since the end of Sri Lanka's civil war, there has been some sporadic violence, with members of the majority Buddhist Sinhala community attacking mosques and Muslim-owned properties. The anti-Muslim riots that rocked several towns in central Sri Lanka in the first week of March 2018 had witnessed scores of Muslim businesses being burnt /damaged. 24 mosques were attacked, four of which were gutted, shattering the minority community’s faith in the government. The govt had to declare Emergency for restoring normalcy. This act could be attributed to past animosity, fissures and the latent sentiments for revenge.

In March 2019, 49 innocents worshippers were killed and 20 seriously injured in a mass shootings at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Footage of the massacre was streamed live online and a manifesto laced with white supremacist references was published just before the shootings unfolded. The reprisal of this shooting could also be a resultant factor for the Easter killings. The studied silence of most Islamic countries is a pointer in that direction.

The complex nature of China’s investment at Hambantota Port is quite difficult to comprehend. Last year,  the Chinese increased the interest rate from 1-2% floating to 6.3%. This has resulted in undercurrents of dissent within a large segment of Lankans and rumours are afloat that Sri Lanka may reconsider the terms and references of Chinese investments as it is certainly to end in a debt trap. From 2010 till 2015, when Rajapaksa was in power, Chinese pumped in $4.8 billion worth of loans into building the Hambantota port, a new airport, a coal-fired power plant and highways. The country's debt is 77% of its GDP. Is it possible for China through their puppets indulged in such an act which will affect the main tourism industry, a money spinner for Sri Lanka. As the island nation will have a shortfall and unable to repay, the Lankans will have no alternative but to follow the Chinese diktats which are likely to have strategic implications for India and thereby silence any voice of dissent against the Chinese influence.

Creating a civil war like situation in Sri Lanka ,forcing them to increase the defence budget which has reduced since the elimination of LTTE and in turn China provides them military hardware  and thereby succeed in their strategy to establish a foot print in Indian Ocean Region.The United States and Japan,  are working on modernising and developing the key port of Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s eastern sea board as an economic hub to counter the growing Chinese footprint in the island nation strategically located in the Indian Ocean, likely to elicit Chinese discontent.

If we recall even before Pulwama attack, a high powered Chinese delegation had visited Pakistan, even prior to it, before any major incident Chinese personals have visited Pakistan.Is it possible that Pakistan or militant outfits are mere links whereas the main protagonist, China, plays its narrative without leaving any signatures of involvement. It's very difficult to trace the Dragon connection as their footprints are well covered. Even in Kashmir, there are numerous isolated dots linked to Chinese but no coherent picture emerges.

Initial evidence pointed to the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), a relatively unknown radical Islamist group said to have formed in Kattankudy, a Muslim-dominated town in eastern Sri Lanka, in 2014.It has no history of mass fatality attacks. The outfit had come to notice last year when it was linked to the vandalization of Buddhist statues. The suicide bomber at the Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo has been identified as an extremist Imam and preacher called Moulvi Zahran Hashim, founder of this outfit. The group has publicly supported ISIS. The Easter attack had all the hallmarks of the barbaric Islamic State group, executed meticulously and without mercy. The carnage that unfolded in Sri Lanka has taken the world to new depths of depravity.

Some radicalized Muslims travelled from Sri Lanka to Syria to fight in that country's civil war. In 2016, the justice minister of Sri Lanka had stated that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims from well-educated and elite families had joined IS in Syria.

The recent loss of its last bastion makes it even more likely that foreign fighters from countries such as Sri Lanka may now be returning home. India too needs to monitor activities of Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ), a non-political Islamic organization based in Tamil Nadu and founded in 2004 for ruling out any linkages with NTJ of Sri Lanka and ISIS. 

The militant outfit NTJ has punctured the myth that Christians can’t be victims of religious persecution which earlier had been confined to the Middle East and Pakistan, exclusively by ISIS.

Since LTTE's decimation, the ISI had been trying to get a foothold in Sri Lanka which they have succeeded and the bonhomie is quite visible. The ISI has used the terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba and its charitable wing, the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, as proxies

to radicalise Sri Lankan Muslims. This primarily has been done to encircle and penetrate India , as  it aspires to exploit the island nation to access south India for establishing terror networks and for recruitment of cadres. In the Easter blast case , some rogue ISI operatives at the behest of terror groups could have planned and initiated this diabolical act as a retaliation of the white supremacists recent mayhem and also as a warning to Sinhalese Buddhists on their capability to target if they continue to torment the resident Muslims.

Sri Lanka’s politics has been in turmoil  due to conflict between the President , PM and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.  President is in favour of early elections and this incident could create a divide and benefit both President Sirisena and Rajapaksa. The ruling coalition government, which came to power following the January 2015 presidential election, remains unstable and its two major factions are at loggerheads over running the government. This factor too can be coopted in the realm of plausible theories.

Past Incidents

Such violence on one of the holiest days of the Christians has had occurred in past years too. In 2012, Boko Haram militants indulged in a shooting spree in Nigerian churches which left 38 people dead. In Easter season 2015, an attack on the University of Garissa in Kenya targeting Christian students left 148 people dead.

On 27 March 2016, Easter Sunday, at least 75 people were killed and over 340 injured in a suicide bombing that hit the main entrance of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, one of the largest parks in Lahore, Pakistan. The attack targeted Christians who were celebrating  Easter. 

In Nov 2018, two buses carrying Coptic Christians were ambushed in Eqypt, killing seven of the pilgrims and injuring 19. The Islamic State in Egypt claimed responsibility for the attack. A May 2017 ambush on the road to the monastery left 28 people dead.

On 21 April, after the mayhem in Sri Lanka, terrorist incidents were also reported in Mali, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, showing the global reach of extremist organizations, many of them linked to ISIS.

Way Forward

Post  Mumbai attack, India came up with measures to deal with the new threat. The National Investigation Agency was created to investigate terrorism issues, four National Security Guard (NSG) hubs were set up for a rapid response to attacks. An amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was created to provide for the arrest and interrogation of terrorism suspects. The Sri Lankan govt should also consider the  Indian approach and devise a similar strategy as applicable to their environment.

The biggest problem in counter-terrorism has been the country’s police system. The civil police are the first line of defence against terrorism and often the first responder. The police forces are under-resourced and lack the organisation, leadership, and culture to play an effective role. The average police stations often lacks even the most basic of infrastructure, the administration would have to consider upgrading the police forces and creating SWAT teams to deal with such strikes.

Sri Lanka has a long history of fighting terrorism. It was generally fighting against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist movement that was largely defeated in 2009, this experience has given them the ability and capability to ruthlessly eliminate any danger that affects the identity of the nation. Soon, the migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan may be evicted and the locals involved will be neutralised so as to prevent a spread of radicalism

Epilogue

Such acts of violence are initiated for either revenge or for publicity including show of strength and their capability to create maximum terror for maximum effect. As these threats endanger public spaces, they have serious implications on the citizens' psyches causing substantial stress symptoms , economy and pattern of future voting. The public infrastructure are the front lines against these kind of attacks. Wreaking devastation in dense, urban areas has long been the modus operandi of terrorists. Their tactics are constantly undergoing metamorphosis by evolving new methods of destruction such as  vehicles which  have now become the new weapon of choice and many cities world over  have experienced the trauma and the consequences.

The free run to the ISI could trigger birth of  more Islamic terror groups like the National Thowheeth Jamaath which could send the country into another cycle of violence  thus affecting their vibrant economy , investments and peace.

Radicalization is caused by perceived injustice through discrimination, corruption and excesses  by security forces. It provides a channel for giving an outlet for grievances. Therefore, for effective intervention to restrain radicalization , the government has to consider the process of radicalization rather than the  ideology or religion as the radicalized people are looking for an identity and sense of purpose. De-radicalization is a major component of counter-terrorism and should be holistic and comprehensive. Governments and civil society should employ multiple preventive mechanisms instead of focusing on military and security approaches . In many countries community-based initiatives have shown results. The Indian sub continent too should endeavour to implement programmes which can freeze further radicalization.

The harmony between various communities has been breached and the Muslims will certainly feel alienated in a country dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists. Fate of migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan seems uncertain as they may have to face the govt’s and the public wrath due to the footprints of Islamic terror and the involvement of local radicalised youths.

The nature of the serial attack and the equipment used would probably have required months of preparation, planning, coordination, deep penetration including target reconnaissance, recruiting of the suicide bombers, obtaining military grade explosives, safe houses, bomb-making workshops and local support. In all likelihood, 80 to 100 locals with foreign assistance would have been involved in handling such a wide range of serial attacks. This could have taken at least three months of planning and financing and may have started with the visit of Zahran Hashim to Pakistan in 2018.

Inquiries in the ensuing days would focus on the perpetrators and their modus operandi to launch such a devastating attack. The wound of past pain are still fresh in Sri Lanka and having made tremendous economic progress in a short timeframe, it cannot dream of reverting into the sectarian violence that affected a generation, nor can the plague of terrorism be allowed to raise itself, otherwise the accomplishment of the past decade will be lost. This wind of change in Sri Lanka, the perpetrators envy and will endeavour to offset the Lankan gains. The inimical elements at no cost should be allowed to triumph.

Image Credit – Al Arabia / The National / Vox

(Col Bipin Pathak (Retd), Indian Military Intelligence, can be contacted at bipin146184@yahoo.com)

Disclaimer: The opinion expressed in this article is the personal opinion of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Indian Observer Post and Indian Observer Post does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. 

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