Road to Colombo's Carnage
Islam, Christianity and Colonialism collided with greed in the Indian Ocean, creating an ideological storm that is far from spent. Islam arrived on the island around 9CE, and local monarchs encouraged the traders to marry into the community. But the arrival of European powers in 1505 gave rise to the anti-Muslim hostility
Like the magnificent palaces, temples, and shrines that stud tourism brochures, hate also has a venerable lineage in Sri Lanka. Islam arrived on the island, historians say, around 9CE, carried there by traders from the Persian Gulf, seeking spices and silk. The arrival of European powers in 1505 crippled the community. The Portuguese pushed local monarchs to limit the Muslims’ share of Indian Ocean trade. The Dutch, in turn, refused to allow Muslim merchants to reside inside the Fort and Pettah merchant district of Colombo.
In 1802, though the Muslims found allies in the newly-arrived British. Keppetipola Disawe’s rebellion of 1817-18 against British rule in Kandy was resisted by the Muslims — a sign of the politicisation of religious identity. Élite Muslims, from the late 1800s, began wearing the fez, and all-enveloping veils for women made their first appearance. The Zahira College, founded in 1892, played an important role in propagating a new Arabised-Muslim identity, sundered from the wider Sri Lankan milieu.
Late on the evening of May 28, 1915, the police turned back a Buddhist procession passing a mosque on Castle Hill Street in Kandy, where worshippers had litigated against the use of musical instruments. Large-scale violence followed. Anagarika Dharmapala, the highly regarded Buddhist revivalist, responded by casting the Muslims as “an alien people (who) by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews”. This climate of communal tension led the Muslim community to wall itself off. The Tablighi Jamaat, a neo-fundamentalist proselytising movement, began to grow roots among a new generation of Muslims in the early years of this century, driven in part by the wash of cash coming in from West Asia-based religious organisations.
Four weeks before Easter, one Sunday morning in March 1764, the alarm rang out at the spice-trading fortress at Dharmapatnam. “Two Moors, having entered the Portuguese church there while they were at Mass, cut down one Lizardo Evan, who died immediately, and wounded several others, without known provocation,” a colonial civil servant recorded. “The bodies of the above Moors were immediately ordered to be thrown into the sea so that they may not be worshipped as saints as is the practice by their cast(e) of all those who murder a Christian.”
Two-and-a-half centuries after that suicide attack, among many that took place during the time, some “known provocations” have been held to make sense of the grim carnage in Colombo: political Islam, the Islamic State, communal conflict. But, behind the slaughter is also a little-known story of spice, gold and blood that stretches back centuries. In this great arc—from the trading ports of Gujarat to the Malabar Coast, down to Sri Lanka, Maldives and across the Indian Ocean to Aceh and the Philippines—Islam, Christianity and colonialism collided with greed, creating an ideological storm that is far from spent.
For Indians, it’s particularly important to understand the story. India’s intelligence and police services have long believed that the next major attack would emanate from government-backed jihadist groups in Pakistan. Now, however, independent jihadist groups perched around the Indian Ocean rim — many of them hostile to the Pakistani state — have demonstrated the intention, and capability, to usher in a new age of terror.
Fathers and sons
Till Easter Sunday morning, Mohammed Yusuf Ibrahim was among Sri Lanka’s most respected spice traders. From his offices on Old Moor Street, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cloves made their way across the world. A leading figure in the Left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party, Ibrahim counted minister for industry and commerce Rishath Bathiudeen among his friends along with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Then, his oldest sons — 33-year-old Inshaf Ahmed Ibrahim and 31-year-old Ilham Ahmed Ibrahim — left the family’s luxury home in Dematagoda and blew themselves up at the Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury hotels.
Fatima, Inshaf’s wife, blew herself up with her unborn child and three young sons when the police raided the third storey of the family mansion, Indian intelligence sources have told Firstpost. Three police personnel were also killed in the explosion. Fatima is believed to be present amid a group of veiled suicide bombers whose images were released by the jihadist organisation on Tuesday night, swearing allegiance to Islamic State, intelligence sources say. She is standing on the right of the frame, next to her husband. Her brother-in-law too is in the picture.
“My brother-in-law is a psychopath,” Fatima’s brother Ashkhan Alawdeen said. “He deserves to be punished in hell.”
Investigators believe it was at Inshaf’s Colossus Copper, a manufacturing facility in an industrial estate east of Colombo, that suicide vests were fabricated. The bolts and screws that filled the devices came from the factory.
From Ismail Ibrahim, the family’s youngest son — a fugitive from the police — investigators also hope to gather information on training camps run for the Easter attackers at a remote compound in Wanathawilluwa. Early this year, the police seized stockpiles of explosives, detonators and ammunition from the compound for bombing Buddhist monuments in the city of Anuradhapura.
Led by Zahran Hashim, a small-time cleric, Ismail and other men trained at Wanathawilluwa played a role in attacks late last year to destroy Buddhist shrines and Church crosses, sources close to the investigation say. In March, they assassinated Mohamed Razzak Taslim, secretary to highways minister Kabir Hashim, an outspoken critic of Islamists.
Founded as a franchise of the Tamil Nadu Tawhid Jamaat (TNTJ), Hashim’s Islamist-leaning political group used its model of social-welfare activities — blood-donation camps and protests against liquor and films alleged to be offensive to Islam — as a model. Even though Hashim’s polemic became increasingly pro-Islamic State, he was seen simply as a publicity-hungry small-time politician on the make.
What tipped Hashmi from being a neo-fundamentalist to a terrorist will emerge slowly, but this we know: his journey traversed ground covered by many others across the region over the centuries.
Tides of hate
“Know then that there are two kinds of unbelievers,” wrote the cleric and historian Zainuddin Makhdoom in 1583. The kind that dwelt in their own countries had to be subjected to jihad, but this was an obligation for the entire Islamic nation, not individual Muslims, the cleric wrote. There was another kind of unbeliever, too, he went on, who invaded Muslim territories. “Engaging in war in such circumstances is the responsibility of every able-bodied individual adult Muslim,” Makhdoom argued.
In his masterwork the Tuhfat al-Mujahideen, Makhdoom chronicled the wars between the Portuguese and the Indian ocean Muslims that raged from 1498-1593. Portugal had treated Muslims with savagery, destroying their trade, killing men, “kidnapping Muslim women and raping them in custody to produce Christian children”, Makhdoom wrote.
Like the magnificent palaces, temples, and shrines that stud tourism brochures, hate also has a venerable lineage in Sri Lanka. Islam arrived on the island, historians say, around 9CE, carried there by traders from the Persian Gulf, seeking spices and silk.
The arrival of European powers in 1505 crippled the community. The Portuguese pushed local monarchs to limit the Muslims’ share of Indian Ocean trade. The Dutch, in turn, refused to allow Muslim merchants to reside inside the Fort and Pettah merchant district of Colombo.
Profit underpinned colonial anti-Muslim hostility. Even in 1499, Vasco da Gama knew that a hundred-weight of pepper, sold in Venice for eighty ducats, could be bought at Calicut for three ducats only. But,the troubled relationship of European Christianity with Islam fed and fuelled imperial tyranny.
In 1802, though the Muslims found allies in the newly-arrived British. Keppetipola Disawe’s rebellion of 1817-18 against British rule in Kandy was resisted by the Muslims—a sign of the politicisation of religious identity. Élite Muslims, from the late 1800s, began wearing the fez, and all-enveloping veils for women made their first appearance. The Zahira College, founded in 1892, played an important role in propagating a new Arabised-Muslim identity, sundered from the wider Sri Lankan milieu.
Late on the evening of May 28, 1915, the police turned back a Buddhist procession passing a mosque on Castle Hill Street in Kandy, where worshippers had litigated against the use of musical instruments. Large-scale violence followed. Anagarika Dharmapala, the highly regarded Buddhist revivalist, responded by casting the Muslims as “an alien people (who) by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews”.
This climate of communal tension led the Muslim community to wall itself off. The Tablighi Jamaat, a neo-fundamentalist proselytising movement, began to grow roots among a new generation of Muslims in the early years of this century, driven in part by the wash of cash coming in from West Asia-based religious organisations.
In 2005, anthropologist Victor de Munck noted that young Muslims had begun to reject syncretic traditions and practices and embrace neo-fundamentalism instead.
Ever since, Muslim-Sinhala tensions has flared periodically with Sinhala chauvinist Bodu Bala Sena playing an increasingly aggressively role. In 2014, tension exploded in the towns of Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga following an attack on the monk Ayagama Samitha. “After today, if a single marakkalaya (derogatory term for Muslim) or some other paraya (outcast) touches a single Sinhalese, it will be their end,” the Sena leader Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara proclaimed at a rally. The violence escalated in 2018 after a bizarre video surfaced showing show a Muslim restaurant owner, held hostage by a mob, confessing to mixing birth-control pills in the food.
“Muslims are self-alienating from the mainstream society,” Ameer Ali, a prominent Sri Lankan Islamic scholar, said last year. He could have added that the sword of hate cuts both ways: each attack deepens their exclusion and isolation, too.
The call to war
Framed by thick, black spectacles, protected from the cold by a monkey-cap and a scraggly beard, the young men staring out of the magazine page could have been one of the legions of graduate students loitering outside New Delhi’s universities on a winter afternoon. “May Allah accept Abu Shurayh and have mercy on him and all those who gave their life, wealth and time for the cause of Allah, whose actions continue to inspire and awaken the Muslim nation,” read the text next to the photograph.
Mohammad Muhsin Nilam, as his friends knew Abu Shurayh, was killed in an air strike on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital, in the months before his obituary appeared in the terrorist group’s house magazine in November 2015. His story is key to understanding the networks thought to be responsible for the weekend’s carnage in Colombo.
Educated in sharia law at Islamabad’s International Islamic University, an institution where Osama bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam once taught, Nilam had encountered neo-fundamentalist Islam with the Tablighi Jamaat.
In 2011, when Nilam returned home to Werellagama, in Sri Lanka’s Kandy district, the region had begun to witness growing Sinhala-Muslim tensions. Nilam first worked as a part-time Urdu instructor at Colombo University, and then became principal of a school in Galewala. In his spare time, he began to play a key role in Zahran’s group.
Then, in 2014, he took leave, telling school administrators he was going on a pilgrimage with his six children, pregnant wife, and ageing parents. Instead, the police found, the family caught a flight to Turkey and disappeared across the border into Syria.
In a post on his Facebook page, Nilam superimposed these words on the visage of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Ibrahim Awad al-Badri: “We will kill every man, woman, child, Shia, Sunni, Zoroastrians, Kurds, Christians”. Nilam wasn’t the only Sri Lankan fighting with the Islamic State. At least 36 people, including Nilam’s friend, Thauqeer Ahmed Thajudeen, are confirmed to have joined the Islamic State. The numbers could be as high as 100.
Early in this decade, Colombo’s Islamic seminaries emerged as a crucible for new Islamist currents, sympathetic to the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda—a process helped by the country’s relatively liberal visa regime that allowed Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Maldivians to meet with ease.
Abdul Rashid, the Islamist preacher who in 2016 led a group of 18 Kerala residents, three of them children, and two pregnant women, to live with the Islamic State in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar, was expelled from the al-Quma seminary in Colombo because of his speeches advocating violent jihadist actions. Even though India’s National Investigation Agency flagged Zahran’s circle as a security concern after that case, Sri Lankan authorities showed no interest in mounting surveillance on the group.
Kunjali Marakkar, or so a Malabar Coast legend goes, left his own wedding to rescue an innocent girl kidnapped by the Portuguese. He fought bravely, and succeeded in liberating the girl, but was cut down in the process. His limbs, severed by Portuguese swords, washed up on the shore—and at each place they landed, great miracles occurred, evidence of the great power of martyrdom.
Islamic communities across the Indian Ocean have similar myths: “to die as a martyr is nothing”, goes one song from Aceh, in Indonesia, “it is like being tickled until we fall”. “Then comes a heavenly princess/If the heavenly princess were visible/everyone would go and fight the Dutch.”
The men who killed, and died, on Easter Sunday, had seen the princess. Zahran and other spice coast jihadists are, in their own imagination, inheritors of this tradition. Blood, the work of the scholar Stephen Dale teaches us, defined what he calls an “Islamic Frontier”, the site of the great historic collision between the faith and its adversaries. This border was drawn, yet again, on Easter Sunday.
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