Long arm of terrorism reaches Sri Lanka: Officials believe powerful, global terrorists helped suicide bombers

Long arm of terrorism reaches Sri Lanka: Officials believe powerful, global terrorists helped suicide bombers
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — For years it has been feared that the overthrow of the Islamic State (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq would see the deadly extremists and their ideology rise in other vulnerable countries.

The bombing of Christian churches in Sri Lanka as well as luxury hotels may well be the fruition of such fears.

An obscure local Islamist extremist group carried out the serial blasts that killed at least 310 people on Easter Sunday, a government minister said Monday, but international groups were behind it.

“There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded,” said Rajitha Senaratne, the Sri Lankan health minister.

The office of Sri Lanka’s president said that intelligence indicates that “international organizations were behind these acts of local terrorists.”

A local extremist group called the National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ) — which roughly translates as the National Monotheism Organization — was blamed for the bombings.

The fringe organization was known previously only for anti-Buddhist vandalism but appears to have morphed into a well-trained, heavily-armed group that carried out coordinated attacks.

Thowheeth Jamaath, which a Sri Lankan security official characterized as a shell for the Islamic State, has been active in Kattankudy, an area in the eastern part of the country and home to a large Muslim population. It is believed the group is mainly comprised of young people.

The sophisticated nature of the multi-pronged assault and the targeting of Christians and Westerners have now raised the possibility the group could have joined forces with global terrorist networks such as ISIL or al-Qaida on the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

The Indians had reportedly become aware of the NTJ as a fertile recruitment ground for ISIL, said sources in Delhi, although only a few dozen radicalized Sri Lankans are believed to have joined ISIL in the Middle East, compared with hundreds from the nearby Maldives.

One working hypothesis in Delhi is that the NTJ may have hooked up with returning insurgents from Iraq and Syria. The prospect of attempts by former Asian ISIL fighters coming home to set up a regional terror hub has long been a fear among security experts. A well-placed security source said the NTJ were believed to have been inspired by ISIL jihadist attacks.

Analysts have predicted the “localization” of terrorism, where seemingly insignificant groups are inspired by or merge with powerful global networks, could be the future of jihad in Asia.

“The reality is that inevitably this group has links outside,” said Madhav Nalapat, a professor of geopolitics at India’s Manipal University. “My assessment is that the motivation, the masterminds, are outside the country.

“I think their aim is global, it’s not in Sri Lanka. Wherever they can get a soft spot they hit because they need recruits all the time and the only way that they can get recruits is by doing these kinds of spectacular activities.

“This is essentially a recruiting tool for them.”

Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, told The New York Times, “These attacks appear to be quite different and look as if they came right out of the ISIL, al-Qaida, global militant jihadi playbook, as these are attacks fomenting religious hatred by attacking multiple churches on a high religious holiday.”

She said the aim of NTJ was to spread the global jihadi movement to Sri Lanka and to create hatred, fear and divisions in society.

“It is not about a separatist movement. It is about religion and punishing,” she told The Times.

Sri Lankan security personnel inspect the debris of a car after it exploded when police tried to defuse a bomb near St. Anthony’s Shrinein Colombo on April 22, 2019, a day after the series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.

ISIL made no claim of responsibility for Sunday’s blasts, but its supporters praised the attacks online. The U.S.-based SITE intelligence group, which monitors online jihadi activities, said ISIL channels were “posting rampantly” about the explosions and praying “may Allah accept” the dead bombers.

An ISIL-supporting Indonesian Instagram account had issued a further chilling warning alongside videos of the Sri Lankan bombings, reported SITE, with a message stating “the Bloody days in your church has begun.”

Three years ago, Geopolitical Monitor, an international intelligence publication, said Sri Lanka was ripe for being infiltrated by the Islamic State. The security forces were concentrating on preventing the rise of Tamil extremists and ignoring other dangers.

“Given the gradual but steady growth of radicalization in Sri Lanka and more importantly the emergence of the Islamic State in Sri Lanka, this could pose a serious threat to the security of Sri Lanka,” said Geopolitical Monitor in 2016 following the publication of a U.S. government report on terrorism in the region.

“Continued marginalization of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has produced a conducive environment for extremist elements to breed. These extremist elements could exploit the fault lines within the Muslim community and use the situation akin to how the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar was used to foment and create extremist groups elsewhere in the region. This situation could ideally present the jihadist groups such as the Islamic State with a window of opportunity to plant their foot print in the Sri Lankan soil.”

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