While attention was on the Pulwama terror attack and the subsequent Balakot air strike by India, a series of blasts in the island country of Sri Lanka targeting three churches and two five-star hotels resulting in the death of 253 people came as a shocker. Given the magnitude of the attack, it could easily be categorized as one of the deadliest in South Asia.
The reaction that followed brought to the fore fault lines in the Sri Lankan society, making it a fertile ground for further radicalization. Another striking feature was claiming of responsibility by ISIS. In its mouthpiece, Amaq, ISIS was quoted as saying, “The perpetrators of the attack that targeted nationals of the countries of the coalitions and Christians in Sri Lanka before yesterday are fighters from the Islamic State”. Therefore, ISIS has assumed a central significance in the South Asian terrorism discourse.
Although ISIS has been losing territorial control, its penetration into South Asia shows that in terms of ideology it has managed to find substantial traction, pointing towards the limitation of current counter-terrorism efforts which are focused heavily on targeting terrorists and their infrastructure without much emphasis on confronting the ideological dimensions of the same. It is pertinent to note that the modus operandi of ISIS which entails co-opting local groups and exploiting local tensions to push its agenda poses a herculean challenge for South Asian nation-states where political tensions often have religious undertones. Democratic nation-states like India are more vulnerable to ISIS agendas as monitoring, regulation, and censorship are subject to legal scrutiny.
The mastermind of the Sri Lankan bombings belonged to the Islamist group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ). Until the attack, NTJ was unknown with the exception of a few reports attributing it to incidents of targeting Buddhist temples in Mawanella, Central Sri Lanka. A similar pattern of attack was observed in ISIS attacks executed outside its sphere of territorial control in nation-states like Egypt and Indonesia. In Egyptian cities like Tanta and Alexandria, suicide bombers targeted churches and cathedrals. Similarly, Indonesia in 2018 too witnessed families motivated by ISIS ideologies to carry out church bombings in its second largest city Surabaya.
The involvement of youth from affluent families with exposure to foreign degrees and lifestyle suggests a deeper malaise. It also brings to the fore the “post territorial” dimensions of militant extremism where ideology transcends cartographical limitations. The fact that ISIS ideologies can inspire local youths/groups in far-flung regions like Sri Lanka, Indonesia or the Philippines without any solid base is a textbook case in what Harsh V Pant and Kabir Taneja in their foreign policy article call “franchise terrorism”.
As reported, the attack was an example of how “local groups with local grievances tie-up with the international terrorist group in a symbiotic relationship where the local groups get necessary resources like funding and training while ISIS gets to project its strength and reach”. Another striking observation was the use of regional languages like Tamil other than the usual English and Arabic. It is indicative of the fact that the ISIS recruits are fluent in languages like Tamil which is spoken in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, parts of Kerala and eastern Sri Lanka. National Thoweed Jamath (NTJ) is reportedly ideologically inspired by Tamil Nadu Thoweed Jamath (TNTJ).
TNTJ, which is under the NIA scanner for its linkages to the Sri Lanka bombings, has close links with Saudi Arabia who believes in a puritanical version of Islam and adheres to Wahhabism which doesn’t sanction any syncretic practices like Dargah worship, a common feature in South Asia.
National Investigation Agency’s (NIA) investigations have brought the Sri Lanka bombings’ Tamil Nadu and Kerala connection under the NIA scanner. The Atlantic magazine quotes Colin Clarke, an expert on ISIS and terrorism, as saying, “ISIS specifically targets people with a background in graphic design, production, and media degrees, making southern Indian states and Sri Lanka, with their high literacy rates, fertile ground for recruitment”. The arrest of the handler of pro-Islamic twitter troll “Shami Witness”, a 24-year-old IT executive named Mehdi Masroor Biswas from the Indian city of Bangalore, has caused alarm.
All this highlight the spreading arc of ISIS ideologies through its proxies in regions where it didn’t have any robust physical presence or leadership. Given the pace of digitization, the use of online platforms in spreading radicalized propagandas has become a serious challenge for law enforcement agencies. It is more so in a democratic set-up like India, where regulation, monitoring, and censoring of content by state machinery are often perceived to be in conflict with democratic and constitutional values. Therefore, drawing a fine line is increasingly becoming a challenging task.
The ISIS attack on Sri Lanka is bound to have wider repercussion in the South Asian region in general and in India in particular. It points towards a new wave of terrorism waiting to engulf the relatively stable parts of India such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala and even West Bengal. In fact, days after the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, ISIS has claimed a new province in India which they referred to as “Wilayah of Hind”. Besides, an ISIS-linked terrorist was reported to be killed in an encounter with security forces in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. ISIS has also appointed Abu Muhammed al-Bengali as a new “emir” in Bangladesh. Given the porous border between India and Bangladesh, any deterioration in stability will have direct implications for India.
Although ISIS has been unable to make any significant inroads into India, analysts have pointed towards a worrying trend of “Arabization of Islam” often attributed to Saudi money. TNTJ, which is under the NIA scanner for its linkages to the Sri Lanka bombings, has close links with Saudi Arabia who believes in a puritanical version of Islam and adheres to Wahhabism which doesn’t sanction any syncretic practices like Dargah worship, a common feature in South Asia. TNTJ in its rallies and public gathering had urged Muslims to adopt Islam that was dictated and practiced by Prophet Mohammad. Salafi and Wahabi ideologies have found substantial traction in the educated upper-class Muslim and gained a foothold in South Indian states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore where socio-economic conditions are relatively better. Interestingly, these states have had a long history of Gulf connection and form an important linkage between India and the Arab world.
The onset of hinterland radicalization needs a serious introspection on the part of law enforcement agencies. As renowned geostrategist Brahma Chellaney notes, “US sanctions on Iran financially incentivizes Saudi Arabia which might lead to greater flow in Wahabi funding”. New Delhi and Riyadh should actively cooperate on de-radicalization efforts as there are instances of Indian workers being radicalized abroad. India could gain insights from Saudi’s Sakinah campaign aimed at countering internet radicalization. It is pertinent to note that radical ideologies such as those of ISIS aren’t supported by the larger community as the number of Indian Muslims fleeing to join ISIS is minuscule compared to their population. Even in the case of Sri Lanka, community members had protested against Zahran Hasim’s radical activities. Therefore, “community” could be a vital asset in countering radicalism and subsequent acts of terrorism arising from it. This had been demonstrated by the US Obama administration in 2011 which emphasized on “community network” in countering violent extremism. Indian society in particular places heavy premium on community and social ties and therefore could be extremely efficient in alarming security/law enforcement agencies against any threats.