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Day after Easter blasts, challenge for Sri Lanka is to prevent existing fissures from destabilising country

It’s one of the strangest things to happen in recent times. An island state once ravaged by decades of internecine insurgency and terrorism, is hit by a series of explosions against churches at a time when the Christian community was celebrating the revival of Jesus Christ, and the glory of life. Another set of explosions hit three top line hotels in Colombo.

As of now, 290 people have died. Clearly, the perpetrators are highly organised. Apart from the orchestration of the attack, reports indicate that some seven suicide bombers were also involved. More evidence of a certain strategic foresight is evident since they managed to even engineer blasts against a group of police officers investigating a suspect house. This is not a bunch which leaves anything to chance and it smacks of professionalism in the art of killing.

 Day after Easter blasts, challenge for Sri Lanka is to prevent existing fissures from destabilising country

Relatives weep near the coffin of a victim of Easter Sunday bombing at St Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka. AP

As of now, there is little clarity evidence as to who is responsible. First, no one has claimed this — which in itself is strange. Groups like the Islamic State are known to claim attacks whether they did it or not, with sometimes two or three factions staking their claim to fame in a carnage.

Second, among the dead are Indian, British, American and Chinese to name a few. No clues there.

The third lead is somewhat promising since it seems to be backed by some early warning. Fingers are pointing at a little know Islamist terrorist group the National Thowtheeth Jama’ath, which is probably linked or the same as the Tawheed Jamaat operating in the country for some time.

This suspicion has its basis from the fact that the police chief had received word of possible attacks against churches some time ago from a "foreign intelligence source”. That source clearly has a strong interest in the safety of the island nation, and a very strong electronic and human intelligence capability. It also seems to have an interest in keeping the Indian High Commission safe.

Little is known about the Sri Lankan Tawheed Jamaat. It came to notice when it was linked to the vandalisation of Buddhist statues after a particularly bad season of hate against the island's Muslims. The Aluthgama and Beruwala riots of 2014 which rendered thousands of Muslims homeless could be called a defining point in the island's history. Video grabs showing saffron clad monks leading the attacks. Liberal Sri Lankans decried the fact that even such evidence did not push the government to acting against extreme right wing organisations such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). These attacks led in turn to verbal attacks from the Tawheed Jamaat’s Secretary Abdul Razik. The latter, together with his associates, however, soon apologised for the vandalisation in court. The hard line monk was arrested there and the matter seemed to end.

The linkages of the Tawheed Jamaat itself remained uncertain, with one school of thought linking it directly to the similarly named outfit in Tamil Nadu, seen as a group of ex-SIMI activists, against all Sufi practices that characterise the average Muslim, particularly in South India. The fact that much of Sri Lanka’s troubles on any front have had a linkage in Tamil Nadu is an unfortunate fact of its history.

By 2018 however, a series of reports seemed to indicate that Sri Lankan nationals were increasingly being recruited into the Islamic State. Among these included an incident when a nephew of a Cabinet minister was accused of plotting to kill Australian legislators in New South Wales, though he was later acquitted. Another report this time quoting the justice minister of the country, noted that some 32 youth from “well educated and elite” families in Sri Lanka had joined the Islamic State.

In a more recent incident, authorities recovered a huge explosive cache that was said to belong to what police called an “Islamic State Chapter”. But here’s the catch. That haul was said to be aimed at Buddhist temples in Anuradhapura. In fact, there’s no real reason why the so called Islamic State factions should target Christians, though they may well target westerners, and perhaps even the Indian High Commission.

As of now, the government seems to have settled for the Tawheed Jamaat as the culprit. But this group has so far shown no evidence of such horrific capabilities, which includes sourcing explosives, training suicide bombers, and the electronics and sheer logistics involved in such a huge attack. If it is, it's undoubtedly got significant not to say huge support from outside the country. The networks that sustained Tamil insurgency have transformed into criminal networks. But even these function on ethnic lines. It would take a very foolish mafia group to lend support to such an attack, since retribution would be certain. A far more organised group with owned networks may be involved. The Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliates come to mind.

There are some who see the possibility of a BBS plot to cause communal tensions in the state. The BBS and others like it including the Sinhala Ravaya, Sinhale, and Mahason Balaya are rabidly anti-Muslim, but are also against Christian minorities.

It's worth remembering that just weeks ago, there was an attack on a Methodist church in Anuradhapura. Though the scale of the attacks smacks of an Islamic State module or assistance, it is well worth remembering that Sri Lanka has spawned many of the new trends in terrorism. Suicide bombing was begun by the Tamil Tigers, and there is no ruling out that another group may use the same methods for different reasons.

The Easter attacks are likely to strain the already tenuous relationship between President Sirisena – who has done nothing to protect minorities – and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Political instability is the worst possible outcome at this point in time and probably what the perpetrators want.

Hopefully however, it is the Sri Lankans — Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians — who will lead the way towards refusing to be divided and weakened. There are already stray reports of attacks against mosques. An Islamic State or any other module, whether from inside the country or out, will only feed on existing fissures. The best counter terrorism model is to simply refuse to follow that path. That’s up to the Sri Lankans. It always has been.

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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2019 23:28:33 IST