By Kumar David –
Time to rubbish rumour mills and stacks of proliferating shoddy theories – Terror: Motives, links and philosophy
It is clear that the Easter Sunday blasts were the work of domestic Muslim extremists. I have no access to confidential information outside the public domain, but what is available is prolific permitting intelligent analyses. Lanka’s intelligence and security apparatus has been wretched in action and poorly informed of the ‘philosophical-ideological’ mind-set of jihadism. We are better off thinking through for ourselves instead of waiting for the authorities. We have to think it through because while some matters are indisputably clear others are tantalisingly opaque. This is one of the most baffling cases of terrorism in the world in recent years.
These three points are palpable – (NTJ stands for National Thowheed Jamath).
The Easter Sunday attacks are the work of an identified Muslim entity (NTJ).
It is incomprehensible why NTJ or any Lankan Muslim entity should choose Christian targets.
Clashes in recent years have all been between Buddhist extremists and Muslims.
The perplexing portion in this storyline is the triangle of terror with Muslims, Christians and Buddhists at its vertices. This is an aberration if one extrapolates the experience of recent years; Muslims and Christians enjoy cordial relations while Buddhist-Muslim relations have been fraught. Sinhala-Buddhist extremists have a history of intolerance and recent anti-Muslim rioting, fuelled by rumours, was led by these mobs; allegedly the police stood by and let the mobs run free. At a loss in the face of this ahistorical episode we have been offered a jumble of concoctions. Some say Easter is busy so it was an opportunity to inflict maximum damage; but Vesak, Kandy Perehara and prominent poya days are just as enticing. Others have said it was retaliation for the Christchurch Mosque shooting in New Zealand; an implausible claim by a government which has lost the plot and is whistling in the dark? The NTJ which has thus far vandalised Buddha statues is alleged to have switched targets and transmuted into a top-class terrorist outfit. None of this is credible or do they add up.
Some in the diaspora, recalling military-police brutality during the anti-LTTE war, point a finger at the State, but in this instance there is not a shred of evidence to support the claim. What is indisputable is that international warnings were ignored. The SL Mirror website (Dec 2016) goes further: “Intelligence authorities established that during the Rajapaksa regime a secret account in the defence ministry funded Thowheed Jamath, Bodu Bala Sena and other Muslim and Buddhist extremists” This is rubbish; if true, the next government would have delighted in exposing these “secret accounts”.
Another theory refers to drug peddlers, but what on earth do drug-lords gain by putting the state security apparatus on full alert? Some say that Muslim businessmen are in cahoots with politicos; sure for money, how do such cabals benefit from the carnage? Another yarn is that the nation’s security apparatus is in tow with nefarious types – that it was incompetent is not in dispute, but a conspiracy of terror! Why? Bollocks! People don’t think their prattle through, so they churn out baloney.
It is easy to make prima-face absurd allegations but we must refrain from inflaming feelings and be cautious about the Muslim-Christian-Buddhist dimension. At this time of writing no useful information about motives has surfaced. Allegations that stir religious tensions or statements for political advantage by government or opposition must stop. Misconduct and negligence must be probed and punished but now is not the right time; let things subside first. None of the theories I have summarised so far or stacks of others (a plot to overthrow pro-Western Ranil government; Mossad stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment; a conspiracy by India) are plausible. If every pontificated theory is riddled with holes, this begins to look like an abnormal occurrence with a huge subjective element.
Home grown terrorism or global game?
The following are three prima-face reasonable inferences.
In scope, size and precision of execution it exceeds the isolated capability of domestic group.
An attack on this scale could not have been executed without exploiting a foreign connection.
There is no evidence to cast suspicion on any foreign government.
Another triangular enigma! Treat with caution the claim by Islamic State (IS) that its militants carried out the assaults. The claim, more likely, is a macabre after-the-event boast to get credit. After its defeat in Iraq and Syria it is desperate to rebuild its image as a credible fighting force. Usually it claims an attack very soon, publishing pictures of the jihadists on its media portal. In this case it did not provide any details and all but one of the faces in the much delayed photo it did release are covered.
The following is typical of what is being circulated by domestic chauvinist organisations; “What happened yesterday is the tip of an iceberg. The objective is deep rooted with government, diplomatic and foreign connections. The Shangri-La bomber Zahran Hashim featured on YouTube, but investigators are prevented from digging deep. There are sleeper cells ready for the next phase: Buddhist temples all over the country during Vesak. There is no doubt they will target temples to drive fear into Buddhists as they did Christians. Next month Ranil Wickremesinghe will sign the Millennium Challenge Corporation deal with the US; chaos and emergency rule will help him surrender Sri Lankan sovereignty to the US.”
There is not one shred of evidence of Indian, US, Chinese or Timbuctoo government connection, or for that matter involvement of extremist organisations based in these countries. But newspaper and web innuendo are replete with bizarre sagas “Oh it must be this lot, oh it must be that lot”. Indication of any foreign government involvement is nil.
Ideology and eschatology
National Thowheed Jamath, is an ideologically faceless religious extremist sect.
Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ) is a well-known Islamic faith and campaign organisation.
TNTJ has denied any sympathy or connection with ISIS.
The Arabic word tawhid or thowheed (توحيد, தவ்ஹீத் in Tamil) represents the indivisible oneness of Allah. As in Judaism, Islam holds that God is One and a Unity; the word thowheed can be read simply as God; Jamath means Association or Assembly and Thowheed Jamath is best translated as Assembly of God, a name also used by a Christian-Pentecostal evangelical church of US origin. The NTJ is the spawn of a December 2018 split in the older Sri Lanka Tawheed Jamaat (SLTJ) when the latter condemned defacing Buddha statues. The SLTJ itself emerged out of TNTJ which claims to be non-political and devoted to social activities. TNTJ’s community work is well recognised and includes education, preaching Islam, blood donation (it has won ten awards), tsunami and flood relief work, and dengue awareness. Its most notable achievement is a campaign against the dowry system.
However TNTJ’s activities are not entirely non-political as it has led demonstrations opposing ill-treatment of Muslims in India. The most notable is protest against killing of Muslim in Utter Pradesh for selling or eating beef. However TNTJ has never been accused of terrorism or connection to IS. It issued a statement condemning the Easter bombings and dissociated itself from the NTJ. Nor does TNTJ share IS’s Caliphate eschatology or advocate a crusade to make all the world Islamic. Like Christians and other monotheists, however, it does believe that the way to salvation is faith in the “one true God”.
Community service oriented Islamic organisations proliferate in many countries. The huge Muslim Brotherhood organisations of the Middle East were famed for social service long before they hit the political headlines. Indonesia is well known for extensive community service Muslim societies. The SLTJ however is different; its General Secretary Abdul Razik called the Buddha a cannibal and the triple gem pebbles; his video generated an uproar. Razik was arrested in November 2016 and released on bail a month later. SLTJ agreed to apologise but violated the bail conditions by insulting Buddhist monks. Still the SLTJ, it seems, is not a terrorist outfit, just foul mouthed.
The NTJ and its mastermind Zahran Hashim, in truth, are rather mysterious animals. Its website has not been updated for long and little is known of legitimate activities, if any. It lacks the TNTJ’s record of community service nor does its philosophy exhibit a trend to service. Its vision of heavenly denouement (eschatology) could well be a replication of Islamic State’s Caliphate cock-and-bull, but spoken, written or electronic evidence is unavailable. It is depraved, disconnected from reality and from Lanka’s larger Muslim community, though when the gun battle in Kalmunai is factored in, it cannot be called tiny. Its religious zeal mirrors the blinding faith that persuaded Abraham to drag Isaac up Mount Moriah intending to slaughter his son as a sacrifice to the One True God. This fervour motivates the Thowheed faithful to martyr their wives and children to gelignite. Searing intensity of devotional-political passion is its secular heaven, indistinguishable from its godforsaken creed. Somewhere deep in the soul a spiritual ache crosses a modern Styx to touch fingers with the darkest evil; of this Nietzsche wrote, 150 years ago.
We will rise again
It is logical, given the scale, scope and precision of operations, to factor in international training and materials supply; some may be Syria-returned jihadists. Crucially it is also clear on evidence so far that this is not an overseas operation of an international jihadist entity, rather it is home gown but leans on its overseas connections. This is the true elucidation of the conundrum I spoke of previously. Fortunately it also makes it easier to ferret out and pulverise the threat, which can be best accomplished with the help of the mass of the Muslims. Let not Sri Lanka repeat the blunder it made in marginalising the mass of the Tamils decades ago.
Is it possible that Lanka once again is a ‘world leader’? My training as a researcher impels me to hold back from slick theories and sloppy speculation – all of which I have scorned in this essay – until a lot more empirical evidence is gathered. Are we a crucible of innovation of a new spontaneous jihadism? We may well be on the first step of a very steep and new learning curve. Horrific though the events be, to dress the future in sack-cloth and ashes and declare Sri Lanka paradise lost is premature. The scale of a massacre must not be confused with motivation; a train wreck causes carnage but is a one-off event. The Muslim community itself is our first and best line of defence; many Muslim organisations have already risen to the occasion. And there is a flood of international goodwill that Lanka can lean on. The Easter 2019 horror is an anomaly; Lanka will bounce back, it can. Yes, I know that this is not what everyone else is saying; so what, let’s see!