ISI Footprints Behind Deadly Sri Lankan Blasts

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Easter Sunday was bloody for Sri Lanka. The civil war ravaged nation was just limping back to normalcy with tourism and infrastructure investments pouring in and it seemed like a silver lining was around the corner. The deadly virus of fundamental Islamic terror struck in the heart of the country with a series of 8 well-coordinated bomb blasts in churches and luxury hotels. Churches were targeted for religious reasons and luxury hotels for the foreign tourists. The Indian High Commission in Colombo was also a target. The blasts have claimed the life of 310 people so far with over 500 injured. Over 34 foreign nationals including high profile individuals have lost their lives. Due to the mix of foreign nationalities and churches targeted, the attacks have received international coverage.

The Sri Lankan government has held a local Islamic extremist group by the name of National Thowheed Jamath responsible for the attack while clearly mentioning that it has received international support to carry out ops of this scale. Over 30 local Muslims have been arrested with a Syrian national called for questioning. Interestingly, NTJ has claimed no responsibility for the attack. ISIS has now claimed responsibility after 48 hours stating “Perpetrators of attack that targeted citizens of [anti-ISIS] coalition countries & Christians in Sri Lanka before yesterday were Islamic State fighters” without presenting any proof to support its claim.

The Indian government had shared information about the impending attacks with Sri Lanka which included targets, the group responsible for carrying out the attacks and the members involved. It had also indicated the dates on which the blasts were to take place. Despite this, no credible action was undertaken by the local government authorities in what is clearly a huge intelligence failure.

We live in the age of social media. Propaganda is an important tool for terror organizations to recruit foot soldiers as well as gain resources. NJT has been known to the Sri Lankan authorities for a while now as a fringe group that usually targets Buddha statues worshipped by the majority Sinhalese. NJT was formed in 2014 in Katankudy, a Muslim dominated town in eastern Sri Lanka and has been demanding Sharia Law. Of Sri Lanka’s 22 million strong population; Muslims make up only 10% with Buddhists being the majority at 70%, Christians 8% and Hindus 13%. Thus, logically NJT should have gone after the Buddhist population but chose to attack the Christians, another minority sect instead. NJT is also largely restricted in operation and has exhibited no signs of capability to carry out such a well-planned operation.

Let us pause for a moment and think. If a local terror group that operated largely under the radar managed to be successful in one of the bloodiest bomb blasts in Sri Lanka in recent times, would it not be making a song and dance of it? Would this not be the best time to advertise its success to gain more recruits, followers and funding? Instead what we get is eerie silence. This clearly indicates that NJT is at best an outsourced operation by a larger player who currently prefers to stay in the shadows.

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Background

NJT preaches the superiority of Islam over other faiths and is a highly racist and fundamental group. NJT is against any national reconciliation and thus an effective tool to keep regional and sectarian conflicts live. The leader of NJT Mohammed Zaharan or Mohammed Cassim’s Facebook page regularly commends ISIS ideology and posts hate speeches against all the non-believers of Islam. NJT splintered off the Sri Lankan Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ) which now claims to have no links with it. SLTJ works directly with Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ). Ceylon Thowheed Jamath is another group that splintered off SLTJ.

TNTJ was founded in 2004 in Tamil Nadu, India claims to be a non-political organization that preaches true Islam and operates as a social organization with approx. 300,000 members. However, its tacit cooperation with Indian political parties for electoral support in exchange for furthering its agenda is indicative of its true intentions. TNTJ has courted Tamil Nadu’s local political party DMK as well as national party Indian National Congress during the 2009 and 2014 elections. It has chapters in Sri Lanka, Qatar, UAE, France, Britain, Australia and the United States. Professor Oivind Fuglerud, the author of War and Peace in Sri Lanka has mentioned that the Thowheed Jamath movement has roots in Saudi Arabia in the 40s though it may have taken birth in its current avatar now. The fact that NJT practices the extreme version of Islam, Salafi Islam or Wahhabism clearly indicates complete intolerance for other faiths or co-existence that can only be achieved with the complete imposition of Sharia Law and the elimination of non-believers or a stage where the non-believers become subservient.

However, NJT is a very small, local group and such groups usually attack local symbols to raise their profile. The nature and type of attacks clearly indicate that while NJT may share the ISIS ideology with Muslims in Sri Lanka getting rapidly indoctrinated over the last decade, it would be impossible for NJT to carry out these attacks independently.

ISI Entry

The brutal civil war in Sri Lanka under LTTE left the country ravaged. Development was poor and unemployment, inflation inevitable. This situation was perfect for Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency ISI to exploit for their fellow suffering Muslim brethren. Religious extremism was already growing in Southeast Asia and attacks on Muslims in Myanmar, Afghanistan acted as a catalyst for extremist groups to operate.  We have explained in our 2016 book “The New Global Order” how terror groups are actually a business model and like all businesses need vertical and horizontal expansion to grow. Thus, it is common for global terror groups to target countries with small Muslim populations and exploit local Faultlines or appeal via a religious duty to increase their power. In post-war Sri Lanka, ISI found both. In addition, the increasing Chinese penetration that benefitted Sri Lanka’s ruling Sinhalese made radicalism easy.

Sri Lanka and Maldives has always been the playground of ISI. One of the suicide bombers and the leader of NJT Zaharan visited Pakistan thrice in 2018.  Historically, the average Sri Lankan Muslim finds much more in common with Pakistan than India and this approach has been exploited by ISI well. In fact, during the 1971 Bangladesh crisis, instead of siding with the suffering Muslims in East Pakistan, Sri Lanka sided with Pakistan granting refuelling facilities as well as landing rights.

The Pakistani-Sri Lankan bonhomie continued and in 2008, Pakistan sold weapons worth $100 million to Sri Lanka to counter LTTE. Pakistani pilots participated in air strikes against LTTE and ISI gained a strategic entry to help the government crush LTTE. The ISI had been trying to gain entry in Sri Lanka for a long time but LTTE’s ruthless grip prevented any new players. The networks ISI built to crush LTTE became very useful to build its proxies that would later carry out the process of radicalizing the local Muslims to ensure “the loyalty of Muslims should only be for the nation ruled by Muslims”.

ISI has always used a combination of military and charity organizations to evade crackdowns. Its primary proxy in the Indian Subcontinent Lashkar-e-Taiba is one of the largest and most active militant organizations in South Asia whose primary objective is the creation of a Muslim South Asia and a holy war against India, Israel and the United States. It is banned by India, US, UK, EU, Russia and Australia. The unanimous view among India, the West, France and leading security experts globally is that LeT enjoys the complete protection of Pakistan’s ISI. LeT’s political and charitable arm is Jamat Ud Dawa (JuD) which has remained largely unbanned due to its charitable activities.

Hafeez Mohammed Sayyed, the chief of JuD has now actively entered Pakistani politics. With the aim of furthering its political agenda and to gain international legitimacy, JuD has now increased its charitable activities especially in post natural calamities areas. The LeT/JuD combine runs schools and religious seminaries, a network of hospitals, orphanages, charity centres along with thousands of administrative and fund collection centres which it leverages in these ravaged zones. To circumvent international pressures, JuD has reorganized itself under many umbrella conglomerates e.g. the Tehrik-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool (THR-Movement for Defending the Honor of the Prophet), Tehrik-e-Tahafuz Qibla Awal (TTQA) and Al-Anfal Trust. To evade government proscription and international scrutiny, JuD has also established many charity fronts e.g. Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq (IKK) and Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF).

IKK was also sent to Maldives in 2012 to help out post the tsunami and the strong Islamic radicalization and fundamental takeover that has taken place later both politically and ideologically is evident for all to see. In 2015, Sri Lankan authorities had also expressed their concerns about IKK trying to set up a base in the country after many attempts by ISI to operate against India from Sri Lanka were exposed. In 2014, a Sri Lankan national Zakir Hussein was arrested from Kandy, hours before the bomb blast in Tamil Nadu and admitted to spying for ISI at the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo along with recruiting more youths for further attacks. The diplomat recruiting him Aamir Zubair Siddiqui had been involved in anti-India operations for long and was sent back to Pakistan after he and another ISI agent Thameem Ansari from Sri Lanka were caught. This is just one of the many instances that have been well documented.

ISI has also been using IKK in Sri Lanka as a proxy to radicalize unemployed youth and target already radicalised Muslims and sympathizers to join NTJ to further its interest which has further been confirmed by the Sri Lankan government. Indian intelligence has also reported that when NTJ was radicalizing youth in Sri Lanka; many local Islamic clerics fronting for ISI were also recruiting youth for ISIS. In 2016 the Sri Lankan government reported that 32 Muslims from elite families had left to join ISIS in Syria. From the above, it is easy to understand the modus operandi of ISI; some recruits are taken in their home-grown terror organizations while others are sent to global conflict zones to gain vital combat experience.

In 2017, ISIS launched their chapter in India’s Jammu and Kashmir called ISJK. The timing of the launch is interesting as the group was attempting to gain a foothold in an area where Pakistani proxies rule at a time when ISIS was fighting for survival. The presence of ISIS flags in Jammu & Kashmir started gaining momentum via propaganda even though Indian intelligence announced that, “ISIS was not really present in the region and most of the pictures and videos uploaded with ISIS flags by youths were those of self-proclamation and no specific connection had surfaced between ISIS and militants belonging to the Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir”.

Interestingly, in 2018 when Asif Nazir Dar or Abu Anwar al-Kashmiri, the third amir (chief) of ISJK was killed after Eisa Fazli and Dawood Ahmad Sofi in Jammu & Kashmir and given a funeral wrapped in the ISIS black flag; the United Jihad Council accused ISJK of “creating confusion”. Prior to his self-proclamation with ISJK, Fazli was associated with both Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Hizbul Mujahideen and later with Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen (TuM). In 2017, a video surfaced claiming he had joined Zakir Musa’s Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGuH) affiliated to the Al Qaeda. Musa was a former Hizbul commander who split from the organisation and pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. With the collapse of ISIS, we are witnessing a global trend of return of these now hardened fighters who are ready to fight for their cause and have the capacity and understanding to plan attacks of scale. Hence while ISIS may claim responsibility for the attacks in a show of strength, to believe that this is their handiwork is flogging a dead horse.

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a press briefing on April 23 has stated that the bombing attacks could be in retaliation to the Christchurch attacks and could also be connected to Daesh. Now, let us think for a moment. If the attacks were retaliation to the New Zealand attacks, it means that the attackers had less than a month to plan blasts of such magnitude and sophistication. Two groups come to mind in such a case; the first is Al Qaeda and the second ISIS. Al Qaeda has already come out and said they will not attack any churches so that rules them out.

Now we come to ISIS. ISIS undoubtedly has the capability to carry out such an attack but their silence in taking responsibility for almost 48 hours is baffling. While there have been instances in the past when they have delayed taking responsibility, it has never exceeded 24 hours. Further, ISIS has a history of claiming responsibility for attacks they have not carried out as well as attacks that have been inspired by them; such as attacks by those who support their ideology, attacks by those who have formerly fought for them.

Now that it is also obvious that NTJ lacks the means to carry out such an operation by itself considering the logistics, resources, skills and sophistication involved it is but natural that outside influences have played the primary role in orchestrating these attacks. Also, ISIS statement of “Perpetrators of attack that targeted citizens of [anti-ISIS] coalition countries & Christians in Sri Lanka before yesterday were Islamic State fighters” makes no sense because Sri Lanka was not a part of the coalition forces in the War against Terror and nor did Sri Lankan Christians play any role whatsoever.

Thus though the attacks have undoubtedly been inspired by ISIS, its ideology, its mode of operation but the shadow masters here are ISI as a careful analysis of their past actions will reveal. ISI has been abetting the radicalisation of Muslims in Sri Lanka which has become a catchment area for international terror organisation like ISIS. An eerie pattern is visible across the subcontinent where ISI and its Jihadi networks are radicalising Muslim youth across India, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh that offer plausible deniability of being an ISI sponsored attack. The gravity and scale of attacks in Sri Lanka point to a larger design to destabilise the Indian neighbourhood and greater involvement of foreign actors. ISI is playing the game of chaos.

Now that we have analysed whom, let’s come to why. Sri Lanka’s strategic location has made it a victim of geopolitics. The IOR will become one of the most militarized regions in the world and Indian dominance here is not acceptable to many global players. USA has been pursuing India as a strategic ally in the Indo-Pacific to contain China and maintain the democratic model with freedom of navigation of the Indo-Pacific. China has been trying to encircle India from all sides to open multiple security flashpoints to curtail India’s growth and its interests and its colony Pakistan’s interests align in IOR to target India.

Finally, there’s Israel which has gained significantly from empowering Sri Lanka’s strong opposition party under Mahendra Rajapakse. Rajapakse government was very close to China and Israel and shared no leanings towards India. Thus, the current favourable government in Sri Lanka towards India is not in Israel’s interests especially after India has been able to manage the environment in Maldives after an uneasy start. However, there is no doubt that these terror attacks will bring about a strong cry for vengeance in Sri Lanka against the Muslims empowering Rajapakse and his supporting extremist Buddhist actors. Either way, there will be bloodshed and a security nightmare for the next Indian government which has its task cut out.

Notes:

  • National Towheeth Jamaath, the group suspected to be behind Sri Lanka blasts: All you need to know https://indianexpress.com/article/what-is/sri-lanka-blasts-what-do-we-know-about-national-towheeth-jamaath-5688789/
  • Sri Lanka Easter blasts: Similarly sounding names, but different organisations https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lanka-easter-blasts-sri-lanka-towheeth-jamaath-dissociates-itself-from-national-thowheed-jamaath-tamil-nadu-thowheed-jamath-denies-links/article26914131.ece
  • The Islamist group that the authorities believe was behind the terror will have roots from Saudi Arabia. The marginal group in Sri Lanka has probably received support from abroad by Svein Vestrum Olsson https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=no&u=https://www.nrk.no/urix/dette-er-gruppen-som-mistenkes-for-sri-lanka-terroren-1.14523601&prev=search
  • Sri Lanka’s Faustian bargain with Pakistan: Exit LTTE, enter ISI: Not surprisingly, the Easter blasts that killed hundreds in Sri Lanka have revealed a Pakistani connection by Rakesh Krishnan https://www.businesstoday.in/opinion/columns/sri-lanka-faustian-bargain-with-pakistan-exit-ltte-enter-isi/story/339389.html
  • Pakistan Violence Versus Stability by Anthony H Cordesman CSIS, 2011 https://www.scribd.com/doc/70694522/Pakistan-Violence-Versus-Stability
  • Clipping the Wings of Lashkar-e Taiba and its Charity Front Jamaat-ud Dawa of Pakistan by Animesh Roul; Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict https://www.sspconline.org/opinion/Clipping_WingsLashkarTaiba_JuD27062014%20
  • Khidmat-e-Khalq- ISI’s charity wing raises its ugly head in Sri Lanka by Vicky Nanjappa https://www.oneindia.com/india/khidmat-e-khalq-isi-charity-wing-raises-its-ugly-head-in-sri-lanka-2243501.html
  • Sri Lanka says 32 ‘elite’ Muslims have joined Islamic State in Syria by Shihar Aneez https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-sri-lanka/sri-lanka-says-32-elite-muslims-have-joined-islamic-state-in-syria-idUSKBN13D1EE
  • India had told Sri Lanka of Inter-Services Intelligence radicalisation move https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-dna-exclusive-india-had-told-sri-lanka-of-inter-services-intelligence-radicalisation-move-2742313
  • BBS warns Muslim group over anti-Israeli protests in Colombo: Urges Govt not to forget Jewish military support during conflict http://island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=108391
  • Belying police claims, Islamic State shadow lengthens over Kashmir Valley https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/belying-police-claims-islamic-state-shadow-lengthens-over-kashmir-valley/article24956847.ece
  • No link between ISJK and groups operating in Iraq, Syria’ https://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/india/no-link-between-isjk-and-groups-operating-in-iraq-syria/

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