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How did Islamist terrorism take hold in Sri Lanka?

April 22, 2019

How active are Islamist groups in Sri Lanka? Could they have launched multiple, well-coordinated terrorist attacks in different parts of the country without the support of global jihadi organizations?

Relatives of victims react at a police mortuary following bomb blasts in Colombo
Image: Reuters/D. Liyanawatte

The Sri Lankan government said Monday that National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ), a local Islamist extremist group, was behind the deadly bombings on Easter Sunday that killed nearly 300 people.

Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne, who is also a Cabinet member, said the Sri Lankan government was investigating whether NTJ had "international support."

Read more: Sri Lanka bombings: Local Islamists to blame, government says 

"We don't see how only a small organization in this country could do all that," he said. "We are now investigating international support for them, their other links, how they produced suicide bombers here, and how they produced bombs like this."

It was reported on Sunday that Sri Lanka's police chief had issued a warning on April 11, saying that a "foreign intelligence agency" had warned that NTJ was planning attacks on churches and the Indian High Commission.

Sri Lanka map EN

Police also said on Sunday that they had arrested 13 Sri Lankan citizens in connection with the attacks.

Read more: How the Sri Lanka attacks unfolded

What is National Thowfeek Jamaath?

"We don't know much about NTJ, but it looks similar to many other terrorist groups active in South Asia, such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) in Bangladesh. Like the ABT in Bangladesh, it appears that NTJ is also inspired by al-Qaida," Siegfried O. Wolf, a South Asia expert at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum, told DW.

"Its main goal is to spread a jihadist ideology and create fear and hatred. It is also against any kind of national reconciliation and thus works to keep ethnic and religious conflicts alive," he added.

Read more: Bangladesh cafe attack one year on: 'Dhaka continues to downplay jihadist threat'

Ties between Sri Lanka's majority Buddhist community and the Muslim minority have been tense for the past few years.

In March 2018, the Sri Lankan government declared a country-wide state of emergency to suppress communal violence between Muslims and the primarily Buddhist majority Sinhalese on the Indian Ocean island. But analysts say that although Sri Lanka was ravaged by decades of the Tamil separatist insurgency that was crushed militarily in 2009, the country has little history of Islamist violence.

Sri Lanka is a Buddhist-majority country, with just 6% of the population adhering to the Catholic faith. Muslims make up 10% of the total population.

"Local Islamist groups are not very strong in Sri Lanka. But it is also a fact that the government says that most suspects of Sunday's blasts belong to the Muslim community," S. T. Nalini, a Sri Lankan rights activist, told DW.

"Religious extremism is growing throughout South Asia. Sunday's attacks could have been triggered by the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims, not only in Sri Lanka, but also in Myanmar. So extremist Muslim groups and radical Buddhist organizations are active in the region," Nalini added.

Links to global terrorist groups?

But the question remains as to why Sri Lanka's local Islamists choose to target churches and foreigners on Easter, rather than trying to inflict harm on Buddhists?

Analyst Wolf said that like many local Islamist groups active in South Asia, NTJ also wants to spread the global jihadi movement to Sri Lanka.

"International terrorist groups are increasingly hijacking local conflicts to extend global Jihad to different parts of the world. The Uighur conflict in China's western Xinjiang province and the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar are two examples. In both cases, global jihadist organizations seek to instrumentalize local issues to broaden their support," Wolf said.

Read more:

China's Xinjiang Muslims live in fear of disappearing into camps

UN: Attacks in Myanmar's Rakhine state could be 'war crimes'

Analysts say that militant groups like "Islamic State" and al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) are becoming increasingly active in South Asia, with their affiliates also focusing on countries other than Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they are already quite strong.

Wolf said that international terrorist organizations also want to gain international attention and acquire new resources.

"Sri Lanka turned into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the last 10 years with tremendous efforts from the government. Such attacks promise international attention," said Wolf, adding that churches in Sri Lanka are "soft targets" for terrorists.

The Brussels-based scholar said that Sri Lankan militant groups have a long history of linking up with international terror organizations.

"The necessity of generating funds prompted even separatist groups like the Tamil Tigers to seek outside help,"said Wolf.

Simmering tensions

Sunday's attacks have also raised fears of a resurgence of the communal violence that has often plagued Sri Lanka. Police reported late on Sunday that a mosque in the northwest had suffered a petrol-bomb attack and that two Muslim-owned shops in the west were targeted by arsonists.

Top Muslim leaders have condemned the church and hotel attacks, describing them as "dastardly acts" that deserved "maximum punishment."

"On behalf of the Sri Lankan Muslim community, we offer our condolences to the people of Christian faith and extend our hands of friendship in solidarity," said the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, or council of Muslim theologians.

The bombings are a huge setback for Sri Lankan authorities, as they have managed to rein in some of the violence in the country over the last 10 years. The decades of Tamil insurgency in the country's north had killed thousands of people until former president Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist movement in a 2009 military operation.

Read more: Easter Sunday blasts belie Sri Lanka's calm facade

But analyst Wolf said the absence of violence did not mean that Sri Lanka had overcome its serious social and political divisions.

"The ethnic-religious conflict between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority officially ended in 2009, however, the conflict still exists in the country as there hasn't been any political solution to this multi-faceted problem," Wolf said, adding that increasing economic and financial tensions are also mounting due to the implementation of the Chinese Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

"Despite the boom in tourism, unequal development and foreign interventions are also functioning as a catalyst for political conflicts in Sri Lanka," he said.

Read more: Sri Lanka: Will Ranil Wickremesinghe's reappointment end the political crisis?