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On Easter Sunday, April 21, eight suicide bombers attacked churches and hotels in three different places in the island state of Sri Lanka—at Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa—killing over 250 persons, including 38 foreigners. Surprisingly, it took Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) more than two days to claim this heinous act of terror through a video, which showed the leader of the attack, Zahran Hashim, leading the pack of seven attackers, pledging their loyalty to ISIS chief, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
Following the bloody attacks, Lankan authorities apprehended over 70 suspects. During the raids, one woman, purportedly wife of one of the attackers blew herself up with her two children in Colombo. At least two explosives in different locations were defused indicating that there could even be more such attacks by the group, which conducted the attacks.
Primary reports revealed that the attacks were masterminded by Zahran Hashim, who hailed from Kattankudy in Batticaloa. He belonged to a rather poor family and had shown radical tendencies in his youth leading to his virtual ostracization from the local Muslim community. He moved out of Kattankudy and reportedly fled to Maldives and stayed there for some time. He might have also travelled to southern India during his sojourn.
Zahran stuck to his radical views and returned to Kattankudy to found a Towhid mosque and started preaching his Salafi version. A good orator, Zahran managed to gather around him few hundred followers and through his social media outreach in Youtube and facebook, he became quite popular among the youth. So much so that some suspects apprehended during a raid on an ISIS module busted in Tamil Nadu by Indian authorities some months ago admitted that they were influenced by his fiery sermons!
Zahran also founded National Towheed Jamaath (NTJ) in 2015, with avowed aim of spreading Salafist Islam. However, the Jamaath split up soon unable to come to terms with Zahran’s radical ideas. The splinter NTJ led by Zahran is being blamed for the attacks now.
Zahran’s group was blamed for vandalising Buddhist statues that resulted in raids by security forces, which led them to a location in Puttalam, in central Sri Lanka in January, where apart from radical literature, they found explosives and detonators. Few people were arrested and released. The incident was ignored. Added to that, there was an intelligence alert from India that the terrorists might be planning to attack Churches during Easter. It’s a pity, that such vital information got stuck in the Sri Lankan power corridors. Lankan complacency, after decimation of LTTE, might have interfered with the state’s preparedness to face such threats.
If Zahran was of humble origins, there were others in the group who were from affluent background. Two of them, Inshaan and Ilham, were sons of a well-known spice trader Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim. Another, Abdul Latif Jamil Mohammed, studied aerospace engineering in UK and Australia. It is believed that Zahran’s brother was also in the suicide team.
The Lankan case clearly demonstrates the threat of radicalisation that has come to haunt the region in recent years. Most countries in South Asia have been vulnerable to this phenomenon that is turning communities against one another. Even if fringe elements are seeking recourse to violence, its impact has been debilitating.
Sri Lanka has witnessed inter-religious disharmony for quite some time. So have other countries. A spectre of hate and fear is visiting the region, making the environment conducive for radical elements to operate in. India, Bangladesh, and even Nepal have seen communities getting radicalised and attacking each other. Maldivian society is developing an ultra-conservative strain too. Afghanistan and Pakistan are witnessing it on daily basis. As states are fiddling with terror as a strategic instrument; these elements are having a free run and getting emboldened to pursue their nefarious agenda. It requires eternal vigilance and prompt action by state agencies to avert disasters that the region witnessed on the Easter Sunday.
Script: Dr.Ashok Behuria, Senior Fellow & Coordinator, South Asian Centre, IDSA