It is now customary to find Sinhalese, Tamil and (a few) Muslim co-Liberals perched around watering holes in Colombo and Kandy, with head in hand, drowning their sorrows while mumbling, How Did We Come To This Pass? They wonder, whatever happened to the glorious Peace Dividend politicians promised us, and we believed? And didn’t we lustily cheer LTTE’s slaughter, fantasising that after the organisation’s demise Sinhalese chauvinism will run out of excuses for dodging “peace”?
Several political tributaries merged over the past many decades and swelled into the roaring torrent in which Lankans are floundering. We begin with the most recent one – the emergence and explosive arrival of Militant Islam.
The 21 April 2019 Easter Sunday’s well-coordinated bombings on the western and eastern flanks of the island shook the nation. Within about 48 hours officialdom, security forces and the press almost unanimously concluded that (a) radical Islamists carried out the attacks, (b) the attacks are suicide operations, (c) the Islamists are members of NTJ (National Thowheed Jamath) or its offshoot and an alleged ally, Jamathei Millath Ibrahim (JMI) and (d) that the Sunni IS (Islamic State) remote-controlled the attack using local NTJ/JMI proxies.
Of course there is more to life than what meets the eye or, rather, what is allowed to meet the eye!
Early news reports peddled hackneyed Islamaphobia. The report filed by three journalists – including a Sinhalese – inaleading U.S. newspaper on 23 April sweepingly alleged the NTJ, led by Mohammed Zahran, and JMI together carried out the attacks, although the organizations are not on record claiming responsibility.But the reporters contradicted themselves almost in the next breath. “Many counterterrorism experts”, the report sheepishly admitted, “found it hard to believe that Mr. Zaharan’s [sic] group carried out a half-dozen coordinated bombings with such deadly precision.
That’s not surprising. The virtually unknown NTJ is less than ten years old and it has no track record of armed actions – assassinations, bombings, etc. The JMI was reportedly formed barely a year ago. So, their cadres are still wet behind the ears; the organisations simply cannot have acquired the skill and experience to single-handedly launch the countrywide synchronized attacks on eight locations within a short time between8.30 and 9.45 in the morning.
In fact, the LTTE even at the height of its power never achieved anything comparable!
One of two alleged attackers who booked into the Shangri-La Hotel is reported to have helpfully recorded his true address, which security forces claim led them to his residence in Dematagoda, northern Colombo.
Further evidence of their clumsiness was laid bare in Sainthamaruthu on 26 April. If news reports are accurate, NTJ’s cadres ineptly attracted attention to their “safe house” by rudely shooing away inquisitive villagers. When “the villagers went back to the house a second time…with a government official,” instead of politely inviting them to tea and biscuits and then waving them goodbye, “the suspects opened fire.”
The NTJ cadres in effect gratuitously invited their own destruction.
The subsequent gun battle with the armed forces sealed their fate and the government predictably banned both organisations.
It beggars belief that these rank amateurs could have on their own meticulously planned in secret and almost flawlessly executed the April 21 precisionbombings.
The IS factor
Other observers too came to the same conclusion, that the “theory” NTJ and JMI’s masterminded April 21 is leaking like a sieve. So, the IS (Islamic State) bogey was trotted out. That too fell flat.
The same U.S. newspaper report cheerfully asserted IS “claimed responsibility” but diluted to IS “boasting of the suicide attacks” and fizzled out to there is “no proof that the extremist group did more than provide encouragement”. All this within the space of three paragraphs; President Trump would in all probability have raised a glass to this Fake News!
“After its…military reversals” in Iraq and Syria, he argued, “the IS began to intensify and accelerate terrorist attacks elsewhere” in order “to demonstrate that the movement…possessed a lethal, global reach…by outsourcing deadly missions of violence” to Islamic militant organisations in other countries. And he asserted: “This is what seems to have happened in the case of Sri Lanka too.”
That may be interesting as far as it goes. But why didn’t the IS demonstrate its “global reach” by outsourcing to its South Asian allies – tried and tested, and far more lethal – in Pakistan and Bangladesh? Why speculate it “seems to have happened”in Sri Lanka?
To buttress his claim the journalist rolled out further speculations without a shred of evidence: “the blueprint for the well-coordinated attacks…seems to have been devised by IS strategic planners too. It is believed that Zahran Hashim was the linchpin.”
Those dodgy words, “seems” and “believed”!
The so-called link between the IS and NTJ frayed further. An 18-minute clip with audio and videosurfaced on 24 April. It featured the IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “speaking about…Baghouz, Syria, while praising terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka.” It was repeatedly held out as proof of IS’s involvement. But – and this is crucial – “the statement about Sri Lanka appeared in an audio portion of the video that did not show Baghdadi.” The clip was obviously doctored; for the audio portion “may have been tacked on after he was filmed following the fall of Baghouz.”
While various “theories” of IS – NTJ links were bandied about, the Cabinet Spokesmanand Health Minister, in a 30 April press conference, dropped a bombshell. “Quoting from a confidential intelligence report, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said that both Islamist and Buddhist extremist groups were initially bankrolled by the former government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa” and that “”Thowheed Jamath Secretary Abdul Razik Rafiqudeen was an army intelligence member”.
Clearly the Health Minister’s allegation must be investigated as a matter of urgency. But so far the government has maintained a stony silence!
If the Minister is correct, the hapless NTJ was well and truly penetrated by Sri Lankan intelligence!
The suspended IGP (Inspector General of Police, ethnically Sinhalese) added fuel to the NTJ fire.In a 20-page Fundamental Rights petition he submitted to Supreme Court last week, he stated “by letter dated 08th April 2018, the State Intelligence Service [which reports directly to the President] expressly requested the Petitioner to instruct the DIG, Terrorism Investigation Department to suspend all investigations into extremist Muslim factions associated with known international terrorist organizations operating within the country since such investigations caused prejudice to the secret investigations that were being carried out by the State Intelligence Service” (Clause 48).
If the IGP is to be believed, who then are the actual handlers of NTJ’s alleged suicide bombers? Does this point to April 21 possibly being a “false flag” operation?
If the supposed IS – NTJ link is dubious at best, why have so many reporters bent over backwards to impute credibility to the “theory”? One reason could be their universal predilection to sensationalism, promote moral panic and to boost their flagging reputation.
But there could be a more insidious tendency that resembles Bangladesh’s recent experience. Following the 2016 siege of the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, western powers through their mercenary media hacks whipped up a so-called “link” between the local attackers and the IS.
The politically savvy Prime MinisterSheikh Hasina maneuvered astutely. “Hasina resisted the temptation to go along with the Western view that the Holey Artisan Bakery attack was the handiwork of the international lslamic State and not a local group. She sensed that attempts were being made to link up the massacre with the IS so that the Western agencies could enter the investigation process and infiltrate the Bangladeshi security set up. She therefore doggedly held on to the view that the massacre was a local job.”
Although18 foreigners, including 9 Italians and 7 Japanese perished in the siege, Hasina refused to yield to western pressure.
The story in Colombo is very different. The political class parroted the alleged IS link. Not surprisingly, “US intelligence personnel, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) team” and “Britain’s MI-5 (intelligence) personnel” are reportedly in Sri Lanka to investigate IS involvement in April 21.The president is on record admitting: “We did not invite them. They came on their own.”
Was the IS – NTJ link then magnified beyond all proportions to stampede the country (not its supine Sinhalese political class) into opening doors to further western intelligence penetration?
Is it Muslims vs Christians?
The attacks on churches allegedly by Muslims raised further unsettling questions.
Extremist Sinhalese-Buddhists have accused Christians of unethical conversions and repeatedly attacked them. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) “mapped 320 cases between January 2013 and June 2016, including mob attacks on churches, state-sanctioned church closures, personal attacks, arson, vandalism, intimidation and discrimination,” such asinMinneriya (2009),Meegoda (2013), Hikkaduwa (2014)and Kithu Sevana (2017).
But on 21 April Christians sensibly did not retaliate against Buddhist institutions, which were untouched.
Extremist Sinhalese-Buddhists have unleashed anti-Muslim Pogroms – a publicly sanctionedpurgative attacks against an ethnic or religious group at times leading to or culminating in massacres –for more than a decade, often with the participation of Buddhist monks. More recently, the attacks have apparently been coordinated bythe BBS (Bodu Bala Sena). They ranged from ordering the removal of the Dambulla Mosque (2012),attacks on Muslims in Aluthgama and Beruwela (2014),in Kurunegala (2017),the Amparai ‘Wanda Pethi’ controversy (2018),Digana (2018)and in Kandy (2018).
But on 21 April Muslims sensibly did not retaliate against Buddhist sites!
What’s more, Muslims in the country have no history of conflicts with Christians. So why, as alleged, would the NTJ and JMI suddenly and inexplicably target Christian institutions?
Perhaps pushed to cough up a credible explanation, the State Minister for Defence speculated the co-ordinated blasts against churches were “in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch,”New Zealand on 15 March 2019.
But that country’s Prime Minister refuted the link; and its Deputy Prime Minister rejected it out of hand as a “cheap shot” and “reiterated his government had seen no evidence of a link” and asserted, “expert advice suggested the Sri Lankan bombings would have been planned well before the Christchurch terror attack.” He added contemptuously, “sometimes it pays to … get the facts first before you beat your lips with an opinion…We’re not going to stand here and have our country misused”.
Reporters who gushed about IS’s involvement in April 21 OBSCURED AN IMPORTANT FACT. The churches in Batticaloa and Colombo were attacked during Mass in the Tamil language; so Tamil Christians are the majority of victims.
Why would NTJ target predominantly Tamil Christians? A few colleagues in Colombo speculated weakly the Muslim-Tamil competition over land in some Eastern Province villages could be a reason.
That raised further questions. Why were churches bombed on the opposite side of the island, in the Western Province?
And if, as alleged above, “the blueprint” for 21 April attacks “seems to have been devised by IS strategic planners”, did those Sunni-Arab fundamentalists graciously minimise casualties among Sinhalese Christians – a point underlined by a Catholic priest in Tamil Nadu?
If not, who are the actual schemers?
Suicide warriors do not fall from the sky
Initially there were doubts about suicide operations. At about 10 pm on April 21, and since a forensic examination had not been done,a Senior Supt. of Police announced cautiously, “we suspectthat the bomb in Negombo was a suicide attack”, adding: “We cannot confirmit at this moment whether the others too were suicide attacks.”
The leading U.S. newspaper’s report referred above further revealed the lack of clarity. The report quoted the Prime Minister: that the leader of the NTJ “’[Mohammed] Zaharan (sic) is suspected to be one of the bombers,’ but that forensic identification had not been verified.”
The Online site of a UK newspaper similarly fudged the narrative. On 24 April it suggested “detectives believe” that suicide bombers blew themselves up in hotels; that “it is believed” the bombers blew up explosives-laden backpacks; that “it is believed” they influenced their extended family.
There is a surfeit of beliefs and an agonizing deficit of facts.
During gun battles both in Dematagoda and Sainthamaruthu, police reports alleged the occupants blew themselves up, to be corroborated by forensic analysts.
On 21 May the police announced that DNA tests done by the Government Analyst confirmed the identity of the eight suicide bombers: Muhammad Zahra and Mohammad Ibrahim Ilham (Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo),Mohammad Ibrahim Inshaf (Cinnamon Grand hotel, Colombo), Mohamed Hasthun (St Sebastian Church, Negombo), Ahmed Muaz (St Anthony’s Church, Colombo), Abdul Latif Jameel Mohammed (Guest House, Dehiwala), Mohamed Nasser Mohamed Asad (Christian Zion church, Batticaloa), Mohamed Azzam Mubarak Mohamed (Kingsbury Hotel, Colombo).
The findings are noted.
However, while naturally awaiting the reactions of their immediate families, we have been informed the DNA tests are to be repeated for Mohammed Zahran’s two brothers who blew themselves up in Sainthamarathu, because “four samples [from their bodies] had been spoilt.”
The search for evidence of the Muslim suicide operatives could be interesting. But they, though tragic developments, did not fall from the sky!
Throughout the 1990s and up to the late-2000s, the Sinhalese armed forces trained and armed many Muslim youth who loyally served them as Home Guards to combat the LTTE in the east; and several “Muslims worked in the intelligence arm of the forces and worked mostly under cover”,using their proficiency in the Tamil language to help defeat the LTTE. Simultaneously the Muslim leadership generally cozied up to the Sinhala-Buddhist establishment.
But, after the LTTE was crushed in 2009, extremist Sinhalese-Buddhists reduced large sections of Muslims to little more than political punching bags during the anti-Muslim Pogroms they unleashed in several parts of the countrywith increasing ferocity.
A Muslim politician had poured out his community’s anguish when he wrote to the former President lamenting the 2012 attack on the Dambulla Mosque, and pleaded: “You will agree that Buddhist–Muslim relationship is…built on…sincere understanding and goodwill, time tested by centuries of coexistence. This is the reason why we stood as a buffer against the division of the country in spite of the bulk of us being Tamil speaking. That is why [we] got battered and butchered by the LTTE”.
It was blindingly clear to any intelligent observer that these repeated anti-Muslim Pogroms would very likely – sooner than later – compel Muslim youth to defend themselves, if necessary with arms. This was especially likely given the historical precedence of armed actions set first by the JVP, later by the LTTE.
An obvious historical parallel is the series of anti-Tamil Pogroms – from 1956 and Emergency ’58 to July ’83 Holocaust – that nurtured Tamil militancy and shoved most young militants into the grasping hands of Indian intelligence. Extremist Sinhalese-Buddhists thus invited the three-decade war with the LTTE and opened doors for Indian intervention.
History is repeating itself.
Muslim radicalism was in its infancy in the 1990s. The Wahabi influence seeped through Saudi scholarships to a few Muslim youth. Some Muslim migrant workers returning from West Asia were conduits of Wahabi influences.
But Muslim militancy had remained at best a fringe, non-violent phenomenon.
In fact the ex-DIG (Deputy Inspector General, ethnically Sinhalese) confirmed our assessment during his testimony under oath before the PSC (Parliamentary Select Committee) probing the Easter Attacks. He said investigations of his TID (Terrorist Investigation Division) revealed the NTJ “were not violent extremists at their inception”, He added: “Zahran’s preaching and attitudes took a sharp turn towards violent extremism following Digana attacks against Muslims in 2018 by extremist Sinhala Buddhist mobs” led by a prominent extremist.
Since the NTJ took a “sharp turn towards violent extremism…in 2018” only ONE YEAR before April 21, the organization cannot have the experience and capability to mount the coordinated, cross-island attacks.
Did larger forces within the country, then, plan April 21 and manipulate the amateurish NTJ cadres as basically cannon fodder?
So the NTJ members’ armed but irrational reactions in Dematagoda and Sainthamaruthu are in many ways inescapable consequences.
Extremist Sinhalese-Buddhists are evidently working overtime to breed more Zahrans. They launched further anti-Muslim Pogroms mainly in the western regions of Puttalam, Kurunegala and Gampaha on May 12th, 13thand 14th, TWENTY DAYS AFTER April 21 – clearly not a spontaneous retaliation – while curfew was in force and in full view of security personnel.Video footage, unavailable during the earlier anti-Tamil Pogroms, showed Sinhalese mobs apparently lubricated by Spirits of Life attacking Muslim-owned businesses and mosques
In short, the BBS and its cohorts have nourished Muslim militancy, driven the militants to fall back on Wahabi-inspired armed resistance and pushed open gates for Saudi intervention and IS involvement.
The Payoff Matrix
A very significant fact here is that the Sinhala-Buddhist elite has successfully generated THREE armed challenges to its State – from 1971 to 2019 – by the Sinhalese JVP, Tamil LTTE and now the incipient Muslim NTJ.
Then, is so-called “governance” a pathetic euphemism for that almost terminally dysfunctional Sinhalese elite hopelessly fumbling with a dilapidated State?
We may safely ignore flat-footed assertions of so-called ethnic studies “experts” about April 21 and May Pogrom. Their shallow theories about “identity conflicts” are incapable of fathoming the complexities of Pogroms, in which class contradictions intersect ethnic interests mediated by the State. Their pedestrian exhortations of “love” and “tolerance” towards the “Other” merely mask intellectual vacuity.
We may also dismiss those who desperately explain the recent violence by borrowing the punnakuClash of Civilisation “theory”, which was comprehensively trashed as “The Clash of Ignorance” long ago.
The final question: if, as evident, the NTJ cadres were little more than mere pawns, who planned and made the decisive moves for April 21?
Rather, who stands to gain or, as our long-standing friend from New Delhi’s Indian Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) often quips, “what’s the payoff matrix”?
One may never know. However, there are a few tantalising straws in the wind.
In the New Cold War between the United States and China, is Western powers’ desperation to contain China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka a geo-strategic context for intervention by exploiting the April 21 and IS bogey? 
Within Sri Lanka, calls appear to come from different quarters for a stabilising, “strong” leader in this election year.
Some Liberals are mouthing self-serving gobbledygook – that politics-is-the-art-of-the-possible – and positioning to mine the anticipated authoritariandispensation.
One policy alternative “activist”, for instance, mused:“whilst authoritative leadership may be desired we must make sure that it does not lead to authoritarian leadership and a race back to the future.”Have the semantic jugglery – “authoritative” vs “authoritarian” – and seeming naiveté to don a human mask on authoritarianism been crafted to conceal an unfortunate inclination to collaborate with authoritarian rule?
Fortunately there are many demanding a principled opposition to the slide towards authoritarianism. A reputed sociologist underlined the importance of resisting “autocratic authoritarianism”three weeks before April 21. Another analyst feared, “in the aftermath the Rajapaksa monolith is firmly on a comeback trail…The aftermath promises bleak days ahead.” 
*To be continued …..
“Sri Lanka military “linked to Easter Sunday bombers” (VIDEO). JDSLanka.org, 2/may19.
Ahamed Sarjoon Razick, Nagoor Gafoordeen & Seyed Mohamed Mohamed Mazahir. “Hate Campaigns and Attacks Against the Muslims in Recent Sri Lanka”. European Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2018.
Jagath Gaspar, Interview. IBC, 13/may/19.
“Sri Lanka government orders removal of Dambulla mosque”. BBC, 22/apr/19.
Azath Salley ,“Letter To The President On Demolishing 65 Year Old Dambulla Mosque”. Colombo Telegraph, 7/may/14.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu,“Easter Sunday Savagery: The Unanswered Questions”. Groundviews, 28/apr/19