By Laksiri Fernando –
Two major sets of issues have merged in interpreting and finding reasons behind the Easter Carnage in Sri Lanka that has led to over 250 dead and nearly 500 injured. First relates to the questions of who were behind and what were their motives. Second mainly in respect of why this carnage could not be avoided, as the Security Alerts were available, and who is responsible administratively and/or politically for this utter dereliction. Regarding the exact death toll, there had been difficulties in counting.
Most unfortunate in finding solutions to these and related questions is the political and/or religious biases expressed in the interpretations given by many authors nationally and internationally.
Who were behind?
Now it is clear that the so far identified 8 suicide bombers out of 9 are Sri Lankan nationals. The main outfit behind the attack is also a Sri Lankan organization called the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ). However, almost from the beginning of the NTJ, they have had allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
When the IS claimed responsibility for the attack, they identified the ‘assailants’ or martyrs in their nicknames as Abu Ubaida, Abul Mukhtar, Abul Khalil, Abul Mukhtar, Abu Hamza, Abul Baraa, Abu Muhammad, and Abu Abdillah.
NTJ’s local leader is identified in Sri Lanka as Moulvi Zaharan Hashim, extremist religious preacher, coming from Kattankudy in Batticaloa. According to the IS statement, he is the person as Abu Ubaida who has attacked the Shangri-La hotel and now dead. However, it is unlikely that the IS would allow its local leader to sacrifice himself. The possibility is that ether he is on the run or new leaders have taken over the operations.
The NTJ was apparently founded in 2014, Zaharan Hashim playing a major or the leading role. This was after the attacks on Muslims in Aluthgama in June 2014, apparently led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Therefore as an extremist preacher, Hashim had found many follows to his cause, preaching through the social media. Kattankudy is also the place where nearly 150 Muslims were massacred in a Mosque by the LTTE in August 1990.
The above are pointers to some of the reasons for the local radicalization of Muslim youth in recent decades, although not at all a justification for the inflicted carnage. It is possible that more educated and more resourceful youth became part of an underground organization with allegiance to the IS in recent times. The government did not heed to the previous warnings. Some went to Syria and died. Some returned and went underground.
What were the motives?
It is difficult to find rational motives for terrorism, whether it is left-wing (past JVP), ethnonationalist (LTTE), or religious (NTJ). However the religious terrorism appears to be the most extreme of the above three. The BBS also borders on the last category. Terrorism or the Easter Carnage cannot be explained through the ‘frustration-aggression theory’ or the ‘relative deprivation principles,’ because causes or the motives are not mainly objective, but subjective. The motives or justifications are largely within the minds of the terrorists.
After the carnage, the IS announced “O Crusaders, this bloody day (21/4) is our reward to you.”
This shows an international motive going beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. This is why many writers at the beginning were finding it difficult to understand the circumstances of attacking the Catholic congregations, apart from tourists in hotels. It is significant the use of the word ‘Crusaders.’ It is also significant the day symbolized as 21/4 reminiscent of 9/11.
The ideology of the NTJ or the particular terrorists had primarily come from the Islamic State and not specifically within Sri Lanka. There are several organizations in the name of ‘Thowheed Jamath’ even internationally and there is an organization even in Australia. These are diverse organizations, the name roughly translated as ‘monotheist organization.’ Many of them are radical or agitational organizations and the Australian Thowheed Jamath recently organized a protest rally in Melbourne against what they called ‘Muslim genocide’ in China. The main slogan was to demand an independent state for what they called ‘East Turkestan’ in Xinjiang.
The ideology of the NTJ could be traced in general to Salafi beliefs what the Zaharan Hashim has been advocating now for a long period. He apparently conducted these Quran classes as M.T.M. Zahran. Many of the attendees were young boys and teenagers.
Salafi is a Sunni revivalist movement with political overtones from the beginning in Egypt in the 19th century. Major hallmarks are of Anti-Western or Anti-imperialist characteristics. As a revivalist movement, it is religious and sober, but in its political expressions, it has always been militant and Jihadist.
The IS ideology has from the beginning been based on Salafi beliefs of ‘one god, one religion, one leader and one state.’
If the security intelligence had carefully followed the NTJ, its social media, the movements of the leader/s and the ideology behind, it would not have been difficult to identify the dangers of the movement well before irrupting it into the present carnage. Admittedly, it is also easy to said than done.
Even otherwise, if the discovery of a huge amount of explosives and apparently a training camp in January 2019 was followed up properly, many relevant discoveries which are being discovered today, could have been uncovered. Before that in December 2018, there were incidents of defamation and vandalization of Buddha statues and Christian images by the followers of the NTJ in some areas.
Protecting the Muslim community, their places of worship and their rights in Sri Lanka is one thing. The prevention of terrorism and the eradication of extremism including hate speech and action are completely different matters, even necessary for the protection of the Muslim community in general.
The failure of the national security intelligence has compounded by the lackadicicle attitude taken by the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Police when clear intelligence warnings with details were conveyed from India in early April. Even before, when moderate Muslim community leaders (not political ones!) alerted the police about extremist advocacy, no action had been taken with all knowledge about the people involved.
The information that came from India during the first week of April had very clearly warned about the planned ‘suicide attacks’ by the NTJ and its leader Mohamod Zaharan ( alias Zaharan Hashim). The Indian intelligence had obtained the information from an arrested IS member in Tamil Nadu who had apparently trained some suicide cadres in Sri Lanka. Therefore, the link between the IS and the NTJ was very clear not just in ideology but in operational terms. This was not a simple matter or a joke to ignore.
The National Intelligence Service had given other names and their details apparently from their own files and information (detailed/different names, telephone numbers, addresses and even in some cases, ID numbers). However, the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Police had taken them lightly.
Why the suspects were not arrested? Why didn’t their places of residence were not searched? Was it because these hierarchies were planning to celebrate the Sinhala New Year in grand style in coming weeks? Thus, were they busy with their families and friends not attending to official duties?
Who was (ir)responsible?
Apparently on the advice of the IGP, the DIG Special Security Range has sent a Memo to the Security Divisions of the Ministers, Diplomats, Judiciary and the Retired Presidents alerting the possible attacks. The purpose apparently had been to protect those hierarchies. To that extent the Police and the Ministry of Defence had been responsible and duty minded!
The Secretary of Defence must have given the information to the President’s Security Division by himself. However, the President has denied the knowledge of such information although he is the Minister of Defence and of the Police. President was away in India and Singapore on a private visit from 16 April, and returned back only at midnight from Singapore after the carnage in the morning of 21 April, the Easter Sunday.
The Prime Minister has also claimed that he was not given the Memo or information. However his Security Division apparently knew the Security Alert to protect him. Doesn’t he and other Ministers communicate with the personal security personnel on a day to day basis on security matters? If not, it is strange in a terribly insecure country like Sri Lanka, although the civil war ended ten years back in May 2009.
At least two Ministers have boastfully revealed that they knew about the Security Alert and one even Tweeted the Security Memo to the whole world. Strangely, it was not marked ‘Confidential.’ The latter Minister even boasted that he first came to know about the possible Church attack in Colombo from his hospitalized father in a private hospital.
Being a faithful Catholic, he prevented himself going to the targeted Church. But he didn’t try to prevent the ordinary churchgoers getting killed by passing the information to the Church-leaders, or getting the security to protect the Church. He is not an ordinary Minister, but a Cabinet one. He is also the one who first initiated the partisan political interpretations, Prime Minister vs the President, about security lapses, now vociferously taken up by the opposition members in Parliament.
The other Minister is the one who is in charge of National Reconciliation. It is not clear how many other Cabinet Ministers and past Presidents knew about the possible attacks, but didn’t do anything to prevent the situation.
There were clear information in the Security Alert from India that Catholic Churches would be the main targets. The Catholic community apparently wonders whether the security to them was neglected because they are Catholics in this divided society?
It appears that the Government was ‘Sleep Walking’ on security matters that led to the Easter Carnage at least of that magnitude.
Many of the root causes are not national, but within the religiously polarized ‘international community.’ The possible link between the Christchurch Massacre (15 March) in New Zealand and the Easter Carnage (21 April) in Sri Lanka is not a figment of imagination, but within the intelligence information received from India through the IS operative in custody. Obviously, preparations for many suicide attacks were in the offing before the Christchurch Massacre. But the targets possibly have changed after that incident.
Therefore objectively speaking, there are many sides to the Easter Carnage in Sri Lanka that the Western or the Christian countries also should take into account. The pacification of extremism on the Islamic side might not be easy through religious/ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka alone, unless similar or more fundamental efforts are taken internationally.
Inside the country, affected Catholic communities should be compensated and given counselling as necessary. The Muslim community should be protected from all possible backlashes. There are already unfortunate pressures for the ordinary Muslims, women and their children. Security can be an immediate priority without going into the extremes. There can be suicide bombers still on the run.