By Easwaran Rutnam
The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka put the spotlight back on the Islamic State (IS) and its global operations, with attention being drawn to its operations in South Asia.
IS has been known to be fairly active in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has carried out several attacks in those countries. Now, IS seems to have made inroads into Sri Lanka through a local outfit, posing a serious threat to both Sri Lanka and its neighbours.
A global alert is now in place over fears the IS will use local groups to carry out attacks after losing ground in Syria.
India is among the countries where security has been beefed up, with suspects being arrested after the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka.
“I would say the IS indeed poses a direct threat to South Asia, not only in Sri Lanka, but more clearly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ideology does not operate in a vacuum and is inextricably linked to the radicalisation of Muslims in South Asia. Moreover, identity politics play a significant role in the region and have pushed different groups toward political violence,” The Soufan Centre senior fellow and Rand Corp adjunct senior political scientist Colin P. Clarke told The Sunday Morning.
Clarke has studied the Islamic State (IS) very closely. He is also the author of the book “After the Caliphate” in which he cautions that IS could become even more dangerous and challenging for counterterrorism forces, as its splinter groups threaten renewed and heightened violence across the globe.
Indefinite links of IS
“IS is in transition. As I argue in my book ‘After the Caliphate’, IS is moving from centralised to decentralised, and its surviving fighters are dispersing throughout the globe, likely joining affiliate and franchise groups in regions plagued by instability and civil war,” Clarke told The Sunday Morning.
An Israeli political scientist, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism senior research scholar, and Institute for Policy and Strategy senior research fellow Dr. Ely Karmon told The Sunday Morning that it was still not clear if IS was directly involved in the attacks on Sri Lanka.
However, he noted that National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) was known to have had some links with groups in the region, including those in Tamil Nadu.
On 29 April, IS released a rare video in which its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first appearance in nearly five years. In the only audio portion of the video, a short footage depicts the Sri Lanka attackers pledging allegiance to IS and scenes of the aftermath of the attacks.
Al-Baghdadi’s voice said: “You brothers in Sri Lanka have pleased the monotheists by their commando operations that unsettled the crusaders (including some Americans and Europeans) in their Easter celebration to avenge their brothers in Baghuz.” He highlighted the “high number of casualties from among the crusaders”.
“The comment on Sri Lanka is not in the original video. This was added later as audio. So this shows the IS leader was not aware of the attacks and added it only later. We still don’t know if IS was directly involved in these attacks. They may claim responsibility, but since nobody did and since the bombers had pledged support to IS, maybe IS made use of the opportunity and said it was them,” Karmon noted.
Karmon, however, noted that investigators will most likely see who was involved in preparing the bombs for the suicide attacks in Sri Lanka. He said preparing a bomb takes a lot of expertise and this could not have been done by an ordinary man without sufficient training.
“Was there a Sri Lankan expert involved or did IS have a hand in it? This will be a question the authorities will need to find answers to,” Karmon said.
Despite being on the back foot in Syria, IS has managed to collect funds from around the world and some of that money seemed to have reached the bombers in Sri Lanka.
Clarke noted that IS has amassed hundreds of millions of dollars through extortion, smuggling of oil and oil-related products, bank robbery, taxation, and sale of antiques. IS has since invested some of this money in front companies and legal businesses throughout the region in order to continue to have access to money for the foreseeable future.
While there is a call for global superpowers to work together to defeat IS, Clarke said he does not think there is a chance of the US, Russia, and China ever working closely together.
Experts said that only Sri Lanka can be blamed for the Easter Sunday attacks as they ignored advanced warnings.
“There were discoveries and explosives; there were reports that intelligence information had been shared with Sri Lankan authorities, but we did not see much being done about it. I think this was criminal negligence,” Karmon said.
He said that it was now openly known that India had provided some crucial information to Sri Lanka ahead of the attacks, about which nothing was done. He also said that a few Sri Lankans had been known to have travelled to Syria and returned, yet they were not investigated.
Karmon said that the Sri Lankan Christian community was a soft target as they had no issues with the Muslims.
“In the past, the issue has always been between the Buddhists and Muslims. So the Christians never expected this kind of an attack on them,” he said.
The attacks saw several countries alerting their citizens of a threat of more attacks, resulting in most of them leaving the country.
The US, the UK, and Australia were among the countries which advised its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Sri Lanka while family members of employees of some of the diplomatic missions were also urged to leave the country.
Dr Michelle Brooks, an expert in Counter Terrorism said that the Ministry of Defence and Police were not ready to accept that another war could happen.
“However there’s no point now in the blame game. Now it is important that all those facilitating this armed organised violence in Sri Lanka be they politicians or wealth businessmen, be prevented from continuing and be taken into custody. This organised terrorist group is determined and looking at the cache of weapons found they have many more attacks with varied targets planned,” she told The Sunday Morning.
She also said that the activities of the armed forces and CID have been successful in slowing down the terrorists operations.
“This is good and we must build on that. It is likely that they are part of a radicalised Wahabbi group who are inspired by years of following Al Qaeda and are making use of the many manuals published by ISIS on how to terrorise and control massive areas of territory. They are concerned with the symbolism, iconography, statues and religious buildings that are not part of of their own niche area of Islam. Even mosques who are moderate and follow peaceful Islam will be attacked,” she said.
Brooks said that the country needs to be on a war footing and there must be no illusions that there are thousands in Sri Lanka now who follow this niche part of Islamist ideology and it will take the whole nation to put this fire out. (Courtesy The Sunday Morning)