In a tweet about his article “Terrorism on the Teardrop Island: Understanding the Easter 2019 Attacks in Sri Lanka,” Amarnath Amarasingam says he’s taking “a deep dive into everything we know so far about the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka” and that he’s providing “new details” along the way. After plumbing the depths of that “deep dive,” I have these comments.
Jihad in South Asia
- “The Sri Lanka attacks may be early evidence that the Islamic State is taking an important and renewed interest in South Asia, following losses in Syria and Iraq.”
- “With respect to what the Sri Lanka attacks may reveal about the Islamic State’s strategy going forward, two factors are important. First, the author has been asked many times since the attack why the Islamic State would go out of its way to target a small island like Sri Lanka. This is largely the wrong question. As has been seen in Dhaka, Quetta, and other places that have experienced recent attacks, it is not so much that the Islamic State is targeting these countries as it is accepting allegiances by local groups who want to bridge localized grievances with a more transnational brand. As such, it is not that the Islamic State targeted Sri Lanka, but that groups like the NTJ are aligning their cause with international terrorist groups.”
Far from foreshadowing a renewed Islamist State interest in the subcontinent, the Sri Lanka attacks are pointers to the progression of both the Islamist State and Al Qaeda presences in the area. Both groups have been competing for recruitment since 2015.
According to the Soufan Center, a New York based group that monitors global security threats, the Sri Lanka bombings bore all the “hallmarks” of “attacks by other Salafi-jihadist groups, particularly those where local groups receive foreign support.” A report released by the Center in January said Al Qaeda and Islamic State wanted to recruit followers in South Asia and that their propaganda “highlighted injustices against Muslims in Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka.”
While the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the SL attacks, al Qaeda’s growing presence in the area bears scrutiny. On July 13, 2017, Katherine Zimmerman a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee warned that al Qaeda was a ‘persistent threat,” that “US strategy is setting the stage for al Qaeda to lead the Salafi-jihadi movement,” and that “Al Qaeda’s objectives remain “to unify the umma, Muslim community, in a struggle to destroy current Muslim societies and build in their stead what al Qaeda considers to be true Islamic polities and eventually, a caliphate.”
The Hudson Institute’s Husain Haqqani notes that jihad on the Indian subcontinent was prophesied in Islamist texts with several versions of Hadith predicting the invasion of India – also called “the great battle of India” – and referred to as the Ghazwa-e-Hind Hadith.
In recent times, there’s been a revival of the Ghazwa-e-Hind prophecy by several groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an offshoot of the Taliban. The militant Islamist group Jamaat ul Ahrar maintains that Hind at the time of the Prophet Muhammad referred to a very large area that includes the entire modern-day South Asia, including Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. The group has vowed that its jihad “will not stop till Pakistan is conquered but we will keep fighting until entire Hind is under the Sharia of Allah…”
In Sept 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri (al-Qaeda leader) announced the formation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and said the group plans to raise the flag of jihad in the whole region and warned that Ghazwa-e-Hind has only just begun.
Amarasingam introduces the piece as being “based on a thorough mining of open-source and media reports on the attack as well as several interviews with religious leaders and activists in the affected areas…”
Well, yes, there’s thorough mining of published sources, but few primary sources. An unnamed “community activist” from Kattankudy and one “Riyaz” are sourced several times.
The information about 56 people being arrested taken from an internal CID report dated May 7, 2019 (which Amarasingam apparently received from a local journalist) was already outdated since 70 suspects had been arrested by April 26. And the morsel about Mohamed Ibrahim Naufer “thought to have been appointed to succeed the leader of the group who perished during the suicide attack” was also stale by that date since it was mentioned by local news outlets on May 1.
Where’s the why?
Amarasingam rehashes known published information regarding the timeline of the attacks and details about the attackers with almost no discussion on why – the ideology. The article contains a cursory mention of Salafism and nothing of Wahabism. This might be in keeping with US guidelines since the piece appears in the online magazine published by West Point’s CTC – (Combating Terrorism Center). The Pentagon refers to the enemy America has been fighting for 15 years as “violent extremist organizations” and singles out al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS), but does not mention Salafist or Wahabist ideology.
Important to note in this context: on May 9 local news outlets and (on May 11) Reuters reported that Sri Lankan authorities had arrested a Saudi-educated scholar for suspected ties with Zahran Hashim, “throwing a spotlight on the rising influence of Salafi-Wahabi Islam on the island’s Muslims.” Mohamed Aliyar, 60, was identified as the founder of the Centre for Islamic Guidance (CIG), which boasts a mosque, a religious school and a library in Zahran’s hometown of Kattankudy. Authorities said he had close contact and financial dealings with Zahran and that Aliyar was “involved” with training the Easter Sunday suicide bombers in Hambantota. Reuters quoted two Muslim community sources in Kattankudy as saying that Aliyar’s hardline views were partly shaped by ultra-conservative Salafi-Wahabi texts that he picked up at the CIG’s library around 2-3 years ago.
Tracing the “Tawheed Movement” in Sri Lanka, Amarasingam quotes “Riyaz” a member of the Ceylon Tawheed Jamaat: “Riyaz spoke eloquently in Tamil about the history of the Tawheed Jamaat movement in Sri Lanka and the way in which the various organizations under the tawheed/tawhid (oneness, in Islam) label sought to unify Muslims in Sri Lanka and re-educate worshippers on the foundations of the faith.”
The writer doesn’t tell us, likely because he didn’t ask, what Riyaz meant by “re-educat[ing] worshippers on the foundations of faith.” Is that faith as in belief (iman) which at its very elementary level distinguishes a true Muslim from a non-believer (kafir), or is that a reference to Salafist revivalism (Islam of the first three generations) and does it include Uluhiyyah – coupling belief with action? Important because therein lies the basis for the politicization of tawheed. Osama bin Laden (post- 9/11) was quoted as explaining that his view of tawhid mandated a conflict with America. “Distancing oneself from a tyrant is not just an optional action, but rather it is one of the two pillars of tawhid and iman that cannot be established in the absence of either.”
And on July 4, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (leader of the Islamic State) giving his Friday sermon at the Mosul Grand Mosque confirmed the revival of the Caliphate with the following: “Today the nations of kufr [disbelief] in the West are terrified. Today the flags of Satan and his party have fallen. Today the flag of tawhid rises with its people.”
Amarasingam does not tie Zahran’s jihad to the Wahabi/tawhid ideologies and falls back instead on vague and sanitized (US-approved) nomenclature, calling it “the Radicalization of Zahran Hashim: viz, “One of the pivotal events that precipitated Zahran Hashim’s radicalization to violence, happened on March 10, 2017, in direct response to the community backlash he began to receive after his public pro-Islamic State preaching.” He goes on to mention the violence that erupted that day at a pre-arranged public meeting where Zahran was expected to debate Sufi Moulavi Abdul Rauf near the Badhriyyah mosque, but showed up with an entourage armed with swords, rods, and petrol bombs. Several NTJ members including his father and brother were arrested, but Zahran managed to escape with another brother. The episode resulted in his banishment from the NTJ by other members of the NTJ who were becoming worried about Zahran’s “pro-Islamic State stance” and the violence he was arousing.
Explaining away Zahran’s jihadism in terms of a “pro-Islamic State stance” – as if it’s a place and ideology out there — does little to reduce the glaring blind spots in our knowledge and understanding of Salafi/Wahabi jihadism in the Sri Lankan context. The most obvious start to filling that vacuum is considering the source or the tenets that inspire jihadist soteriology.
In a very incisive article, Ahmet Yayla of Georgetown University theorizes that both al-Qaeda and ISIS share the same root, Salafist jihadism, and that the world, particularly Muslim communities, must counter that ideology to ensure a complete and long-term defeat of terrorism: “ISIS and al-Qaeda appropriate foundational texts of al-Wahhab, including The Book of Monotheism (Kitab at-Tawhid), in their curriculum, in their Sharia (ideological) training in military camps, online training and the school systems they control.”
“Note that al-Qaeda, a group defeated militarily years ago, its founder executed, swelled into a larger and more effective umbrella organization chiefly because the world failed to address its seductive ideology.”
Yayla adds that several ISIS defectors he interviewed specifically told him how al-Wahhab’s Kitab al-Tawhid was the chief and most important part of their training.
The “Sinhala- Buddhist” trope
Says Amarasingam: “Before delving into the terrorist network itself, though, it is important to briefly unpack the history of anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka and the broader context of ethno-religious relations that formed the backdrop to the attack and that will inevitably color what happens next on the island.”
- “Muslims would once again become victims to another [Sinhala-Buddhist] nationalism.”
- “… attacks against the Muslim community by the BBS escalated in subsequent years and peaked around two events in 2014 and 2018. These events, interviews conducted by the author suggest, were important in radicalizing some young men in the country.”
There’s a history of shameful anti-Muslim violence and it is often unpacked, rolled out, and slathered (mostly) by foreign media. However, such reports on communal violence by Sinhala Buddhists are rarely balanced with probes on Muslim provocations. In the 1990’s, long before the rise of BBS, there were reports in the Sinhala Divaina newspaper documenting the amassing of arms in some Muslim communities and the incursion of Muslim extremist groups.
Neglecting this type of evidence, Amarasingam holds BBS responsible for the radicalization of “some young men” based on his own interviews. But he does concede that the Easter Day attacks are not “in line with historical ethno-religious faultlines on the island.” In plain English: this time around it can’t be pinned on the usual suspects. Seems he’s trotting it out because one simply must use every opportunity to demonize Sinhala Buddhists.
What will “inevitably color what happens next on the island” is the ongoing failure of Sri Lankan authorities (and terrorism “experts”) to grasp the ideologies that nurture and drive Muslim “radicalization.”
Hassina Leelarathna is a Malay Sri Lankan and thus a Muslim, but not a “Muslim Moor” in its contextualized ethnic sense in island interactions (see Roberts 2019 on this point). She was a journalist in Sri Lanka before migrating to USA and now resides in Los Angeles. She keeps in touch with her homeland.
SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY by Editor, Thuppahi
Amarasingam, Amarnath 2019 “Jihad on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka: The Killers and Their Pathways,” 30 May 2019, https://thuppahis.com/2019/05/30/jihad-on-easter-sunday-in-sri-lanka-the-killers-and-their-pathways/
BBC 2019 “A Patriotic Muslim Sri Lankan … now permanently disabled – shot by the Zahran Hashim Cell,” 31 May 2019, https://thuppahis.com/2019/05/31/a-patriotic-muslim-sri-lankan-now-permanently-disabled-shot-by-the-zahran-hashim-cell/
Cook, David 2006 Understanding Jihad, University of California Press.
Jemaah Islamiyah n. d. https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/jemaah-islamiyah-ji
Leelarathna, Hassina 2011 “Alexa Schulz’s ‘Tropical Amsterdam’,” 30 May 2011, https://thuppahis.com/2011/05/30/alexa-schulzs-tropical-amsterdam/
Roberts, Michael 2019 “Slippages: Where ‘Muslim’ is An Ethnic Label as well as a Religious Typification,” 3 May 2018, https://thuppahis.com/2019/05/03/slippages-where-muslim-is-an-ethnic-label-as-well-as-a-religious-typification/
Wood, Graeme 2015 “What ISIS really wants?” The Atlantic, March 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/
Yalman, Nur 2017 “Wahhabi Ideology is the Root of Islamic Extremism,” 8 October 2017, https://thuppahis.com/2017/10/08/wahhabi-ideology-is-the-root-of-islamic-extremism/