The Jihadist Networks in Sri Lanka: Thoughts

Michael Roberts

Amarnath Amarasingam has unearthed a considerable body of new detail on the fervent Islamic jihadists who launched the Easter Sunday attacks; while a BBC team has recovered fascinating detail on one of the cells in Mawanella in the course of a story about a Muslim activist of moderate disposition who took them on … and is now paralysed because of a murderous retaliation.[1] Both articles highlight the interventions of moderate Muslims and the information they served up to the Sri Lankan government agencies in the last 3-4 years – information that was not acted upon (a) because there was no centralized chain of command in the intelligence set-up and (b) because of multiple instances of horrendous ineptitude at the top.

While Amarasingam’s study seems exhaustive, he has not consulted three articles[2] by Ameer Ali in the accessible web site Colombo Telegraph nor other articles in Thuppahi which would have enabled further embellishments. Though long resident in Australia, Ameer Ali is from the Eastern Province and clearly has had access to sources within that central arena – a region which spawned the Zahran Hashim network that carried out the suicide attacks.

Yes, suicide attacks. That is central – becoming a bomb seeking the obliteration of a valued target is an indelible mark of total commitment, a commitment that became suicidal defence when one of their hideouts in Sammanthurai was discovered and when one of their middle class homes in Dematagoda was visited by the police.[3]

Fervency. Zealousness. This outstanding feature of Zahran Hashim and his network derived from the inflow of Wahhabi thinking into Sri Lanka from the last two decades of the 20th century. Amarasingam has not discerned this process and his work implies a shorter time span. He also goes for a target popular in both the West and among Leftist ideologues: he marks the impetus provided by disputes with Buddhist extremists in the 2010’s. This is where his survey is damaged by his failure to look at Ameer Ali’s research and his neglect of radicalizing trends of the long duree in the Islamic world with specific attention to Wahhabism.

Ameer Ali highlights the emergence of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress under MAM Ashraff in 1986 as one signifier of this process of religious radicalization — with the SLMC and the All-Ceylon Jumiyyahul Islam that supervised the mosques serving as the major associational motors for this process. The outcome was not only an amazing proliferation of mosques. There was the “Arabization of dress,” the proliferation of new designs with scriptural messages and acclamations of good sermons by shouts of “Allahu Akbar” rather than clapping.

Minor signals you think. On the contrary: these were (are) illustrations of Wahhabism on the forward march, securing greater commitment and serving to expand its reach, while deepening the depth of commitment among those Sunni Muslims who embrace the appeal. In this body of thought the outer person must inform the inner person…. and vice versa.

When I visited my old haunts in Peradeniya University in 1988 and again in 1991, I was struck by the number of Muslim students on the campus –both female and male.  The males were clearly marked out by their attire in Muslim sarongs in style and form. I still have a picture-memory of that scenario – one that marked a sharp contrast with the male student landscape I had experienced from the 1950s to the 1970s.

About 15 years later, when I began to delve into the ideology driving the Tamil Tigers and more particularly their spectacular use of suicide strikes, a short stint at the National University in Singapore led me to study the emergence of the Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. A few of these radicals in the JI had joined the mujahedin in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet Union and others had experience in the Taliban of the 1990s.

One of the immediate puzzles in my head, then in the early 2000s, was a simple question: how is it that one had not seen a similar development in Sri Lanka among youthful Muslim men during the 1990s and 2000s? I had no answer then and have no answer yet. It is an issue that should be addressed by specialists in the course of the present investigations into the impact of the recent jihadist currents.

A central theme into my researches on the LTTE commitment to their cause was the concept of “sacrificial devotion.” This concept sidesteps the condemnatory and conservative state-focused concept of “terrorism.” It is meant to encourage a more dispassionate unraveling of the thinking that supports such fervour within a body of people.

As a further step towards a clinical process of investigation, I also moved into comparative research on (A) the commitments demonstrated by the Japanese during World War II—that is the devotion to cause among the kamikaze pilots;[4] (B) the Palestinian suicide attacks; (C) the Al-Qaeda  philosophy and (D) instances of suicidal political protest in  public spaces.[5] Securing a University grant in Australia, I even organised a Workshop in Adelaide in 2007 focused on the theme “Sacrificial Devotion.”[6]

Apart from the benefits gained by discussing the topic with such specialists as Riaz Hassan, Shyam Tekwani, Clive Williams, Daya Somasundaram and others, this line of research meant a significant degree of reading into the pursuit of jihad by Islamic zealots and thus the books by such scholars as Peter Bergin, David Cook, Roxanne Euben and others. This resulted in the acquisition of some understanding of Wahhabi inclinations and fervour. It also meant a reading of the Al Qaida operation known as “9/11” (and the rejection of the conspiracy theories argued by some Western writers and some of my friends[7]).

Moving tangentially, the reference to the LTTE should encourage us to step back and examine (A) the frightening conditions in the Eastern Province in the 1980s arising from the murderous infighting between different Tamil militant groups as they sought supremacy for the pursuit of the Tamil cause and (B) attend to the massacre of 266 Muslims in two different mosques in Kattankudy and Eravur by the LTTE in August 1990.[8]

Amarasingam’s reference to these acts of carnage in 1990 is timely. It leads to the thought that the murderous pursuit of their cause in the eastern regions of Sri Lanka by the Tigers (and other Tamil militants) promoted a tendency to work on the same lines among young Muslims drawn to their community interests[9] – community interests understood now in the twenty first century within the raging debates within Islam that pitted Sunni faithful versus Sufi on the one hand and, on the other, those attracted by the Wahhabi currents of thought against the pre-existing Sunni orthodoxies within their Muslim communities. I am directed here by a dictum that I postulated in mid-2014 when I drew attention to the emergence of ISIS in the Middle East: namely, that “fratricidal militant fission sparks dedication, skill and organisational power.”[10]

Sacrificial Devotion in Wahhabi Ideological Currents

My studies in sacrificial devotion in general and the researches directed towards understanding such movements as Al Qaeda have therefore informed my reaction to the recent explosion of suicidal zealotry by the Zahran Hashim network in Sri Lanka. Once some of the initial news reports had sunk in, my immediate focus was (A) on the choice of targets: viz., Catholic churches and top-drawer hotels, and (B) the day selected for the work of killing, viz., Easter Sunday. There had been little friction between the Catholic peoples (Sinhala, Tamil, Burgher et cetera) in the island and the Muslims, whereas there has been a history of localised conflicts between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims.

Given my previous research interests, the immediate answer spelt “Salafi/Wahhabi” thinking. Within the present international setting, to my knowledge the Wahhabi crescent rested clearly and prominently with ISIS rather than the Taliban or Al Qaeda. In 2014 I had devoted several articles from specialists within my Thuppahi site on the emergence of ISIS and its adoption of the symbolic hat of “Caliphate.”[11] So, the date of the attacks and the choice of targets in Sri Lanka pointed to ISIS inspiration.

True ISIS has been in decline in territorial terms in the Middle East in recent years, but its ideology is still in place and its symbolic leadership remains potent for Islamic internationalists opposed to the West.[12]  So, to my mind Easter Sunday and the Catholic churches spelt “the Papacy and Christendom” as target. Add five-star hotels with Western visitors and you had “the West” as the natural concomitant of this combination. That set of arguments is spelt out in an article presented in Thuppahi on the 14th May which is entitled “The Clash of Civilisations and Hate at the Heart of 21/4 in Sri Lanka.”

The articles from the BBC and Amarasingam do not lead me to jettison this thesis. On the contrary they add grist to that mill. As one illustration, take the views of the two brothers in Mawanella who desecrated a Buddha statue recently: they had preached that Sri Lanka “is the land of Allah, and no-one else can be worshipped… Non-Muslims have to convert or pay jizya (an Islamic tax)” …. (BBC 2019). This is Wahhabi zealotry – staunch feelings coming from the streams of thought emanating from such ardent missionaries as Sayyid Qutb, Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden and al-Baghdadi.

***  ***


Amarasingam, Amarnath 2019 Jihad on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka: The Killers and Their Pathways,” 30 May  2019,

Ameer Ali, ACL 2019a The Transformation of Muslim Politics in Sri Lanka and the Growth of Wahhabism from the 1980s,”  2019 May 5,

Ameer Ali, ACL 2019b “How Extremisms have fed off Each Other in Sri Lanka, 1950s-to-2019 …. and still proceeding,” 6 May 2019,

Ameer Ali, ACL 2019c “Kattankudy needs New Leadership,” 13 May 2019,

BBC 2019 “A Patriotic Muslim Sri Lankan … now permanently disabled – shot by the Zahran Hashim Cell,” 31 May 2019,

Bergen, Peter I. 2001 Holy War Inc. Inside the World of Osama bin Laden, New York, The Free Press.

Cook, David 2006 Understanding Jihad, University of California Press.

Cook, David 2015 ‘Jihad’, ‘Martyrdom Operations’, and Mohammed Atta’s Injunction in the “last Night’, before 9/11,12 May 2015,

De Munck, Victor 2005 “Islamic orthodoxy and Sufism in Sri Lanka,” January 2005, Anthropos: International Review of Anthropology and Linguistics, Bd. 100, H. 2. (2005), pp. 401-414 … ……..

Cook, David 2016  “ISIS: An Apocalyptic Salafi-jihadi Movement and its Off-shoot,” 21 February 2016,

Dupont, Alan 2014 “ISIS as Fascist and Totalitarian,” 29 September 2014,

Euben, Roxanne L. 2003 Enemy in the Mirror, Princeton University Press.

Izzadeen, Ameen and Abdullah Shahnawaz 2019 The Emergence of Salafi Jihadists in the Kattankudy Locality in the Eastern Province,” Sunday Times,  and also in

Izzadeen,  Ameen 2015 “The Mysterious Background of the Monster ISIS,” 20 March 2015,

Leelarathna, Hassina 2019 “Diving into Amarasingam’s ‘Terrorism on the Teardrop Island’,”4 June 2019,

NY Times 1990 “Tamils kill 110 Muslims at two Sri Lankan Mosques,” 5 August 1990,

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2002 Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms, University of Chicago Press.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2006 Kamikaze Diaries. Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, University of Chicago Press.

Parameswaran. S. 2010 “Pain of 1990 Muslim ‘massacre’ lingers in Sri Lanka,” 12 August 2010,

Roberts, Michael 1996. “Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 30, no. 2: 245–272.

Roberts, Michael 2005. “Saivite Symbols, Sacrifice, and Tamil Tiger Rites.” Social Analysis 49, no. 1: 67–93.

Roberts, Michael 2006. “Pragmatic Action and Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of Commemoration.” Social Analysis 50, no. 1: 73–102.

Roberts, Michael 2007 “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’ in Sri Lanka.” Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics. Working Paper No. 32, November 2007. South Asia Institute, Department of Political Science, University of Heidelberg.

Roberts, Michael 2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30, no. 10: 857–887.

Roberts, Michael 2007  “Sacrificial Devotion: A Focus on Selfless Zeal,”

Roberts, Michael 2008 “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics.’” Anthropology Today 24, no. 3: 22–23.

Roberts, Michael 2014  “Where In-fighting generates Fervour & Power: ISIS Today, LTTE yesterday,” 21 July 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2019 “Slippages: Where ‘Muslim’ is An Ethnic Label as well as a Religious Typification,”  3 May 2018,

Roberts, Michael 2019  “The Clash of Civilisations and Hate at the Heart of 21/4 in Sri Lanka,” 14 May 2019,

Yalman, Nur  2017 “Wahhabi Ideology is the Root of Islamic Extremism,” 8 October 2017,


[1] See Amarasingam 2019 and BBC 2019.

[2] See two of them in Thuppahi – Ameer Ali 2019a and 2019b.Ffor the third, see Ameer Ali 2019c and pursue further contributions in the Colombo Telegraph site.

[3] See Izzadeen & Shahnawaz 2019; DBS Meyaraj 2019 and

[4] I was particularly informed and enthralled by Ohnuki-Tierney’s work on the kamikaze (2003 and 2006) and was assisted by several communications with her.

[5] On the last topic, see my article “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30, no. 10: 857–887.

[6] See  and especially my article “Sacrificial Devotion: A Focus on Selfless Zeal,” =

[7] When email debates proliferated after the Easter Sunday attacks and I happened to refer to the influence of Al Qaida ideological inputs on the lines seen in Mohammed Atta’s injunction to his suicidal collective, three intelligent friends of mine demurred —  quite independently and forcefully – and alluded to a conspiracy theory attributing the 9/11 attacks to US state agencies seeking to set up a suitable climate for their Middle Eastern operations. These challenges and the issues they embrace will be taken up my me as a Thuppahi man when the present sturm und drang gives me time for this enterprise.

[8] The death toll is taken from Amarasingam 1990. Also see BBC 2010 and NY Times 1990.

[9] A question arises immediately: if Muslims in the eastern reaches were activated towards zealotry and/or Wahhabi thought as a result, why did that not generate sharper conflict with the Tamils and Hindus of the east? My speculative answer is that the LTTE under Karuna was too strong to combat full-frontal and that the Muslims leaned towards assisting the GOSL forces. Note that in the Mavil Aru area they resisted LLTTE commands in late 2006 and did not countenance the attempt to use their peoples as defensive shield.

[10] See Roberts, “Where In-fighting generates Fervour & Power: ISIS Today, LTTE Yesterday,” 21 July 2014,

[11] See Roberts 2014; Dupont 2014; Cook 2015 and Izzadeen 2015.

[12] Hassina Leelarathna has indicated — just yesterday – that both the Islamist State and Al Qaeda ….. have been competing for recruitment [in the Indian subcontinent] since 2015” (see her article in Thuppahi in 2019).






Filed under accountability, arab regimes, atrocities, authoritarian regimes, Buddhism, communal relations, conspiracies, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, Islamic fundamentalism, jihad, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, martyrdom, Muslims in Lanka, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, Sri Lankan scoiety, suicide bombing, Taliban, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, vengeance, violence of language, world events & processes

2 responses to “The Jihadist Networks in Sri Lanka: Thoughts

  1. Saudi funding has been vital in propogating Wahhabism across the world

  2. rohan jeewan

    Just look at posts by certain individuals on facebook, many covertly post in private profiles . Shenali waduge, but lead very seemingly just and harmonious lifes outwardly. These are lawyers in gov banks and so called social workers in NGOs . these are the real culprits of our society, who cultivate racism.

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