Sri Lanka was shaken in a matter of seconds. The perils & ghost of suicide bombings had returned on an Easter morning that made civilized world sit up & take notice.
BY Shankar Kumar & Suneel Koul
The Easter breakfast was cut short by heart rendering cries & gory scenes of human blood & flesh strewn all over the place. Radical Islamic terror had struck in the wee hours, reminiscent of the Lankan Tigers (LTTE) suicide missions of yore. Almost everything bore the stamp of the yesteryear’s suicide attacks witnessed by Lankans at the peak of insurgency that came to an end few years ago with one notable exception. While LTTE would not target churches or religious places, calling their movement secessionist & a fight for ethnic pride, the ISIS backed terror plot was a clear demonstration of anger, animosity & hatred towards Christian worshippers. As the world woke up to this ghastly tragedy, it became known that the perpetrators of such immense inhumanity on the pearl island were a well-known, rich spice merchant’s extended family of upmarket Colombo that included his sons, daughters&daughter in law. The world had known of Osama bin Laden, the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Saudi Arabia to have taken to terror & to have fought for his deep-seated religious beliefs, but we now have a new low of a wealthy family being indoctrinated into religious extremism with no qualms whatsoever about such a tilt or tumult. In Sri Lanka, rising Islamic militancy was the elephant in the room.
These must be disturbing signs for world order that is already besieged by violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan & parts of African continent. While we may claim victory once too often over such radical groups surfacing almost anywhere on the planet earth, we are afraid the battle to cull such propensity for cold blooded extremism is far from over. The answer to the menace lies within the society that should understand it is because they have much to lose that these terrorists are able to influence their constituency and inspire others. According to well-known psychologist Marc Sageman, such adoption of a diametrically opposite mindset is not completely unusual. Having documented some of the most horrific acts committed by al-Qaeda, he refers to terrorism as a middle-class phenomenon. A 2016 Brookings Institution study showed that roughly 70 per cent of global recruits for Islamic State were middle class or wealthier. This is the trend we are seeing now across Asia.
Most of the terror outfits are ideological vanguards, typicallyhigh on suicidal convictions & understanding on issues that justify their violence. They tend to see the state as inherently violent towards their community, unwilling to defend their interests, or holding back the application of sharia law. Terrorists benefit from provoking a heavy-handed response from the state that in turn vindicates them in the eyes of their constituents.But the same groups are also representative of their societies with recruits from across the socio-economic and educational spectrum.
One theory goes that terrorists engage in acts of violence mostly against soft targets out of their profound weakness, that they are able to camouflage under the pseudo machismo & glorified romanticism showered on them after what claim is attaining martyrdom. That is why resorting to asymmetrical violence becomes the natural tactic of such frustrated bigots who know nothing but fanatic beliefs. Maybe that explains our assumption that terrorists are marginalized and dispossessed, and as such they have nothing to lose. In this logic, terrorism is simply a rational choice. But that hypothesis ignores ideological motivation, and the concept of martyrdom, which necessarily entails sacrifice.
It is time the world turned such reasoning on its head. Rather than be surprised that wealthy and educated individuals sacrifice themselves, we need to understand that it is because they have so much to lose; including wealth, class privilege and opportunities, that they are best able to influence their constituency and inspire others to the cause. When sacrifice comes with the rejection of worldly accomplishments or accoutrements, the mission would appear all the more worthy and otherworldly to the perpetrators and their followers.
You may recall that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, studied in the United States, while his nephew who perpetrated the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Centre and later tried to commit multiple plane bombings in the Philippines – studied electrical engineering in Britain. Closer to home, here in Asia, we saw a similar phenomenon. While rank and file members of al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), may have largely been straight out of madrassas, or radicalized while serving prison sentences for petty crime, or had limited options due to their low economic station, much of the leadership and many field commanders were fairly well educated.some of the most radical were educated overseas.
Malaysian national Yaziid Sufaat, who was tasked to lead al-Qaeda’s anthrax programme, received a degree in biochemistry from an American university and served as an officer in the Royal Malaysian Armed Forces. DrAzahari bin Hussin, believed to be behind the 2002 Bali bombing, was a member of the faculty at University Teknologi Malaysia. Therise of Islamic State (IS) has changed some recruitment patterns. While in Indonesia the main process of recruitment is slow, personal and based on similar networks of madrassas and mosques that spawned JI, in Malaysia and Singapore online radicalization and recruitment has broadened membership.In Malaysia, recruitment has been across the socio-economic spectrum, and has included as many members of the professional middle class as the dispossessed or underemployed youth with limited prospects.
Even the 2016 Holey Bakery attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh has similar characteristics to the Sri Lankancell. Several of the young men were from upper-middle-class families, all too familiar with the cafe they would lay siege to and hold hostages in. Several had studied overseas and one was about to be sent to join his brother in Canada before being recruited into the pro-IS Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh. On the one hand we will always see militants reach out to youth. As Abu BakrNaji wrote in “The Management of Savagery”, a treatise for both al-Qaeda and Islamic State; “Capture the rebelliousness of youth, their energy and idealism, and their readiness for self-sacrifice, while fools preach moderation, security and avoidance of risk.”
What Motivates the Rich?
It is not a thing called “Taken in Jest” decision to become a Islamic fanatic. The road to such indoctrination is a high voltage exhortation propaganda encompassing religious texts, scripts, tales of heroism, bravery & martyrdom that extol the virtues out of sacrificing for the furtherance & glory of the religion in the most brazen & convincing manner; that it becomes easier for the recruiters to pick the more affluent, educated & guys making sense into their wings. But the educated, wealthy and upwardly mobile often have other qualities that attract them to terrorist recruiters. They often fit into the surroundings they seek to target, they do not arouse suspicion, and rarely do they have criminal records or have warranted the attention of security forces.Many come from very secular lives and become radicalized quickly, whether because they are seeking a sense of belonging or they are simply indoctrinated by a charismatic figure.
Interestingly the sister of one of the Sri Lankan suicide bombers has recounted that her brother became radicalized while studying in Australia. There, it is believed, he came into contact with one of the country’s top IS suspects, Neil Prakash,, who helped change the trajectory of that man’s life.
Sometimes it is simply a response to an injustice, institutional racism or other things that trigger a newfound desire to come to the defence of their religion.As these young men with everything to lose seek to martyr themselves, the impulse and instinct is also influencing women.One of the nine suicide bombers in Sri Lanka was a pregnant woman, the wife of another suicide bomber, who killed three policemen as they moved in to arrest her.
Bombings Resembled “LTTE” Horror
It was the Tamil Tigers group “LTTE” who were mainly responsible for developing suicide bombings as a terrorist weapon and it was emulated by terrorist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries. The fighters didn’t create the phenomenon of suicide bombing, but they did institutionalize the tactic during their guerrilla warfare against the Sri Lankan government forces from 1983 to 2009.The Tigers, seeking an autonomous state for an ethnic group that makes up about 15% of the population first used suicide tactics in an attack on Sri Lankan army in 1987. That explosion echoed the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon. But according to experts, the Tiger’s frequent attacks thereafter may have marked a turning point, after which suicide attacks became a widespread weapon used by extremists around the globe.
The LTTE are widely credited with mainstreaming the use of the suicide vest as a force multiplier. Not only did it allow for precise targeting, but also instilled an increased sense of horror and terror among the wider population that anyone, man or woman might be the next bomber. Tactically, there appear to be a number of similarities, including the coordinated nature of the attacks, the use of suicide bombers, and quality of bomb-making and targeting of civilians. Just like the LTTE often targeted transport hubs and buses, which often resulted in significant civilian casualties, the current spate of bombings almost replicated the same strategy.
After May 2009, Sri Lanka had not witnessed any terror-related incident on its soil. There was peace in the country and this is what brought complacency among the country’s security establishment. Otherwise, how could police-intelligence set up not act against possible terror attack in the country despite specific intelligence about it? If reports are to be believed India had also alerted Sri Lankan authorities about the possible terror plots and had even pointed to the National ThawheedJammat (NTJ), the outfit which is blamed for carrying out dastardly terrorist attack on churches and hotels, claiming more than 350 lives and injuries to 500 others.
Could the tragedy be Avoided?
Of course, post the gruesome terrorist attack, soul searching has started in the island country with Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and Police Chief PujithJayasundara tendering his resignation. Yet what has startled the world is that the perpetrators belonged to the Tamil-speaking Muslim community with no past records of acrimony with members of Christian community or the majority Sinhala community in the island nation. Muslims account for about 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 23 million population. Of them a majority of them follow the Wahabi sect and others Sufis. However, in that country’s majority and hard-boiled nationalism, everyone other than Sinhala Buddhists are suspected of being anti-national. A severe trust deficit exists based upon years of internal civil war and internecine violence between various faiths and groups. As an island nation under the larger shadow of India, where 190 million Muslims reside, its sectarian tend to be ignored. It is just the kind of situation tailor made for two things; first, a demonstration of international radical extremist capability; second to send home a message that these terror networks exist across the world and mother organisations still control them. That is why the finger of suspicion points to confirmation of the ISIS, which has staked claim for the carnage.
Following its defeat in the West Asia, the ISIS has made efforts towards sustaining itself in third countries or locations. Efforts are on in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Southeast Asia it was the Philippines where it attempted to ride on a surrogate group such as Abu Sayyaf. In the competitive world of international terror, the ISIS perceives a need to continue retaining its current primacy; any leeway given to other major groups such as al Qaeda will see many years of effort in the West Asia wasted. With an intelligence appreciation, placing oneself in the shoes of IS leadership, it is not difficult to determine that with the loss at Marawi in the Philippines, little progress in Af-Pak and the recent losses at Idlib in Syria, the IS was desperate to show case itself. Targeting the Sinhala majority would be counterproductive as the retaliation from radical Sinhala groups such as BoduBala Sena would be intense. Targeting the Tamil community would similarly be counterproductive since the LTTE’s networks may eventually be needed. The Christian community is 9.7 per cent of the population and historically no Christian-Muslim feud exists in the island. That is all the more reason that the chances of retaliation against Muslims would be low.
The ISIS, with its caliphate-like aspirations, would have viewed the killings at Christchurch, New Zealand as just the event to avenge with an act against Christians anywhere on the globe. Easter was the most appropriate time as was the selection of churches and five-star hotels where western tourists would be present in large numbers. The questionable part of this rationale is the short interval since the Christchurch killings — March 15 to April 22. The type of suicide bombings witnessed in Sri Lanka would have called for resource collection, planning, motivation of seven suicide bombers and very careful coordination without even an iota of a leak. Five weeks to plan is far too little time. Christchurch probably only became a justification. The ISIS’s organisational skills are well known. It could be deduced that the operation was in the planning stages already and given greater justification by Christchurch. It is reported that just a year ago, a cache of explosives and ammunition linked to NTJ was found just north of Colombo.
In India, it could well have happened in southern part of the country but the Indian intelligence system is a reasonable dampener for the ISIS. The country’s intelligence apparatus has kept India safe ever since 26/11 with no major targeting outside J&K (excluding Pathankot which too is a military station). If the narrative built above is true, then the ISIS has obviously sneaked in through surrogate returnees who fought its cause in the West Asia. Maldives nearby too has many, Sri Lanka some. India has over a hundred, mostly logistic support personnel — many could be motivated as potential suicide bombers. With the same threat developing in J&K, these are dangerous portents. India and Sri Lanka need intense intelligence cooperation and even more an understanding of social dynamics which contribute to the hard ideologies behind such acts.
But it should be known that the group has pivoted to exploit the resources at hand and the notoriety it has banked as a global brand. With its command-and-control hierarchy in Syria and Iraq seriously degraded, it has become more decentralized, turning to its affiliates further afield to spread its message and mayhem. The Islamic State has always seen the caliphate as a global project, and despite the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has continued to expand abroad.
When the remnants of al-Qaida were driven from Afghanistan in 2002, the group was also forced to become more decentralized, turning to foreign franchises in places like Yemen, Iraq and northern Africa to regenerate. But unlike al-Qaida then, the ISIS already has numerous affiliates around the globe, an influential media ministry and thousands of fighters still underground in the group’s home base in Iraq and Syria. Nonetheless, the Sri Lanka bombings may be a harbinger for a new phase of ISIS attacks and the world needs to find a new roadmap to tackle the menace.