THE USUAL SUSPECTS ?:
May 07, 2019 By Akshat Upadhyay
The near simultaneous bomb
blasts that ripped through the three cities of Negombo, Colombo and
Batticaloa on 21 April 2019 (Easter Sunday) in Sri Lanka have
claimed 290 lives till now . Most of the victims are Sri Lankan
Christians, though the dead also include a number of other
nationalities . No one has claimed responsibility but the Sri Lankan
authorities suspect it to be the work of the National Thowheeth
Jama’ath (NTJ) , a little known local Islamist group whose only
claim to fame so far has been the vandalisation of Buddhist statues
in 2018 . A total of seven suicide bombers targeted six sites which
included three churches and three luxury hotels . Two more blasts
occurred when following up on leads, the security forces raided two
neighbourhoods and three police officials were killed in the
explosions . For a country which had borne the brunt of a vicious
civil war between the Hindu Tamil dominated Liberation of Tamil
Tigers Eelam (LTTE) and the Sinhalese Buddhist government from 1983
to 2009, the ensuing decade was that of relative peace. There was no
reason to suspect unleashing of violence on such a scale in the
1. Edition.cnn.com. (2019). Sri Lanka attack death
toll rises to 290: Live updates. [online] Available at:
[Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
3. Pant, A. (2019). National Thowheed Jamath: The Group Blamed For Sri Lanka Serial Blasts. [online] NDTV.com. Available at: https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/sri-lanka-blasts-national-thowheed-jamath-njt-group-blamed-for-sri-lanka-serial-blasts-2026988 [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
4. BBC News. (2019). What is the National Thowheed Jamath?. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48012694 [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
5. NewsComAu. (2019). Sri Lankan bomber ‘studied in Australia’. [online] Available at: https://www.news.com.au/world/asia/easter-sunday-massacre-sri-lankan-terrorists-had-international-help/news-story/f6d9d11d18d331b9a3876de5e3fe07fe [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
6. The Independent. (2019). Eighth explosion kills police officers in Sri Lanka as death toll from Easter Sunday bomb attacks rises to more than 200. [online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/sri-lanka-blast-news-latest-bombing-death-toll-attack-colombo-a8879796.html [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
|There are four actors who might benefit from the unrest and instability in the country that may emerge after these explosions. Though, with a state of emergency being declared and a nationwide ban on major social media networks to prevent propagation of ‘fake news’, the government is doing everything in its powers to prevent the same.|
Islamic State. The
most likely suspect for this attack seems to be the Islamic State
(IS), either directly or through an affiliate. Large scale bombing
attacks, liberal employment of suicide bombers, targeting of
religious minorities and upscale neighbourhoods is a modus operandi
(MO) of the IS, especially in South Asia. The attack on the Holey
Artisan Bakery in Gulshan Thana in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 01 July 2016
bore a number of similarities to this attack . In both cases, the
attackers were locals and targeted upscale neighbourhoods. In the
case of Bangladesh, Gulshan Thana houses a number of foreign
embassies. IS also has a knack of creating hostilities between
various sects and using local contextual opportunities to assert its
form of religious control over the area. The progenitor of IS or
Daesh, Abu Musab al Zarqawi used violence against Sunnis in Iraq, a
sect which he belonged to, to provoke violence against the Shias. He
was counting on reprisal attacks by Shias against the Sunnis and
knowing that post Saddam, the Shia majority was gunning for
vindictiveness against the Sunnis, he just facilitated it . He
positioned himself as the savior of the Sunnis and The result was a
literal tearing up of the Iraqi society and the beginning of a
brutal civil war that threatened to divide the country permanently.
This was also where the seeds of IS were sown and nurtured. IS also
took advantage of the deteriorating civil situation in Syria and
sent a team to exploit the anger that had been building up against
Bashar al Assad’s policies .
The blasts in Sri Lanka have been aimed at the Christian minority, a theme very common in most of IS publications and audio-video material as well as its social media campaigns. The vision of an Islamic army marching against the Crusaders forms the backdrop of most of IS propaganda and their terminal aim . These attacks also aim to create a rift between the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the various minorities. IS must now be
7. The Economic Times. (2019).
Holey Artisan Bakery: Latest News & Videos, Photos about Holey
Artisan Bakery | The Economic Times. [online] Available at:
[Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
9. Warrick, J. (2015). Black flags. Penguin Random House.
10. McCants, W. (2016). Apocalypse delayed. [Blog] Markaz (Brookings Institution). Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2016/10/17/apocalypse-delayed/ [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
counting on the possible
reprisals against the Muslim minority and position itself as a
viable alternative for radicalising this community. Around 36 Sri
Lankans had answered the clarion call of IS and had gone to Syria to
fight for the caliphate during its heydays. In fact, the first Sri
Lankan to be killed in an airstrike in Syria was Abhu Shuraih
Sailani, so the precedent exists . Also, with the loss of real
estate in Syria and Iraq, IS has hardly any territorial footprint in
the Middle East and Central and South Asia apart from its brand
name. ISKP, which is a motley group of disgruntled ex-jihadis from
Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan faces determined resistance from the
Afghan Taliban and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in
11. Nazir, M. (2016). Daesh in
South Asia. Journal of Current Affairs, [online] 1(1), pp.1-17.
[Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
Sri Lanka, combined with
moderate successes in Bangladesh and attempts inside India through
the Indian Mujahideen (IM) may give IS a serious foothold in South
Asia, a direct chance to counter AQ and revive its dream caliphate.
15. Asia, A. (2019). Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS): The Nucleus of Jihad in South Asia - The Soufan Center. [online] The Soufan Center. Available at: https://thesoufancenter.org/research/al-qaeda-in-the-indian-subcontinent-aqis-the-nucleus-of-jihad-in-south-asia/ [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
16. Thesoufancenter.org. (2019). [online] Available at: https://thesoufancenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Al-Qaeda-in-the-Indian-Subcontinent-AQIS.pdf [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
This seems to take care of two
problems: one it provides ISI with another base to launch attacks
against India and radicalise Muslims in the southern Indian states
of Kerala, Tamilnadu and Karnataka. There exists a precedent for a
number of potential IS recruits going to Syria from these states to
fight for IS. The long Indian coastline can always be taken
advantage of. Secondly, ISI may have tried to incite hostilities
between India and Sri Lanka by framing a group with similar sounding
names. The Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jama'ath (TNTJ) has denied any links
with the attacks. ISI may have been trying to fan rumours and fake
news using the various social media tools at its disposal and its
most potent media manipulation organisation, the Inter Services
Public Relations Directorate.
17. BBC News. (2019). What is the National Thowheed Jamath?. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48012694 [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].
making derogatory remarks
against Buddha in a video and deliberately hurting the sentiments of
the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population. Post the end of civil
war in 2009 with LTTE, there has been a resurgence of militant
Buddhist mentality within the Sinhalese majority population. The
derogatory remarks and vandalism may have been a pushback by members
of the Muslim minority community. However, to graduate from speeches
and minor acts of violence to coordinated mass bombings requires
preparation, reconnaissance, and massive logistics arrangements.
This would take us back to the previously mentioned three
organisations. While members of NTJ may have acted as mules for the
attacks, the sophistication of the attacks points to a much larger
and possibly multinational organisation.