Islamic State’s Easter Sunday Attacks in Sri Lanka: Assessing the Government’s Response Two Years On

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 7

(source: licas.news)

Two years ago, on April 21, 2019, eight suicide bombers affiliated with the Islamic State (IS)-linked local jihadist groups National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ) and Jammiyat-ul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI) carried out deadly terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, targeting luxury hotels and Catholic churches. The synchronized attacks on that fateful Easter Sunday killed or injured over 750 people. Responsibility for the coordinated bombings was claimed by IS on April 23, 2019, through official news outlet Amaq News Agency, which released a video showing the attackers led by Zaharan Hasim, pledging allegiance to the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Ada Derana, April 23, 2019).

Two years after this violence, the clamor for decisive action has risen across Sri Lanka. Amid growing dissent against delays in bringing the perpetrators to justice, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assured the nation in this year’s Easter message that he would ensure national security and prevent a recurrence of such terrorism in the country (Ceylon Today, April 3). The most vehement criticism against the government sluggishness has come from the Archbishop of Colombo and head of Sri Lanka’s Catholic church, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who called for a ‘Black Sunday’ protest to express dissent against delays in implementing the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI)’s recommendations (Daily Mirror, March 8). The PCoI was appointed by former President Maithripala Sirisena on September 22, 2019 to investigate the Easter Sunday attacks and empowered the Commission to recommend necessary actions.

The political and religious tensions escalated amid the government’s inability to take decisive action against the groups and individuals named in the PCoI report submitted to the President on February 1, 2021. The PCoI, which was headed by a Supreme Court judge and included five other members, operated for 18 months, and recording the statements of 457 witnesses. The final report that was submitted comprised 472 pages, 215 attachments, and six volumes (Daily News, February 2). Through its investigations into the Easter Sunday violence, the Sri Lankan police have identified nearly 290 suspects.

Easter Sunday Attack Findings and Faultlines

After reviewing the PCOI report, the Minister of Public Security, Sarath Weerasekara, on April 6, 2021 stated that Muhammed Naufer (a.k.a. Naufer Moulavi), who is in custody, was the mastermind of the Easter Sunday Attacks. His co-conspirator was named as Hajj-ul Akbar (Daily News, April 06). [1] Although the PCoI’s report has not been made public, select details have been mentioned in the media through official statements and press releases (President Office [Sri Lanka], March 7). While emphasizing the lack of government prioritization of terrorism and national security issues, the Commission’s report stated there were hundreds of IS supporters in Sri Lanka. The Commission found that Zahran Hashim had volunteered to lead the suicide mission at a meeting on March 27, 2019, at Panadura in Kalutara District of Sri Lanka’s Western Province.

During its investigations, the Commission also found that Zaharan Hashim took inspiration from the leader of IS in Bangladesh, which is locally known as Neo-Jamaat ul-Mujahideen (Neo-JMB), Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury (a.ka. Abu Dujana al-Bengali). Chowdhury was the mastermind of the July 2016 Holey Artisan Café violence in Dhaka (Daily Star, November 28, 2016).

Zahran Hashim, along with his two brothers, Rilwan Hashim and Zainee Hashim, Ibrahim Ilham, Muhammadu Hasthun, Ahmed Muath, Naufer Maulavi, Ahmed Milhan and several others, were directly linked to terrorist activities. Their group held several training camps and seminars between November 2017 and December 2018. The first one was in Thoppur in Trincomalee of Eastern Province, whereas the last one was at Hingula in Mawanella of Sabaragamuwa Province (Ceylon Today, March 23).

Following the April 2019 attacks, the Sri Lankan government had admitted its failure to act on multiple warnings from international intelligence agencies, such as India and the United States. However, the blame game reached a new low with the PCoI report’s findings, which named several officials for criminal negligence. The whole discourse on the Easter Sunday jihadist conspiracy has shifted from targeting existing extremist networks that espouse jihadist ideals to settling political vendettas and encouraging polarization. The shift is apparent with the growing demand for criminal proceedings against political figures, such as former President Maithripala Sirisena, former Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe, and several senior police and intelligence officials, such as former Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera, and former Chief of National Intelligence Sisira Mendia. It is alleged that they were negligent and intentionally overlooked the impending threat of Islamist extremism in the country (Colombo Page, October 15, 2020; News First, February 23).

Instead of taking direct counter-terrorism measures to bring the culprits to justice or initiating a crackdown on Islamist ideologies and networks across the country identified as responsible for the attacks (e.g. Wahhabist and Thowheed groups, IS-inspired groups and individuals, and Sri Lanka Jamaat-e-Islami and its Student Movement, among others), the present government in Sri Lanka is being criticized for making plans to rehabilitate and reintegrate violent extremist elements into society, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). [2] The government has also faced flak for its proposed “anti-Muslim measures,” such as banning the Islamic face veil (burqa) and the closure of over 1,000 Islamic madrasas (seminaries) on the grounds of national security. However, the Rajapaksa administration has asserted that it would implement these measures soon after holding consultations with Muslim groups and leaders and reaching a consensus (The Hindu March 13; The Morning, March 17).

Islamic State’s Persistent Interest in Sri Lanka

While the wounds of the April 2019 Easter Sunday violence are still fresh in Sri Lankans’ minds, police have only arrested several individuals linked with transnational jihadist groups in the intervening months. Most recently, the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) apprehended two individuals from Matale and Kattankudy for allegedly promoting extremist ideologies on social media, fundraising for extremist activities, and justifying the 2019 Easter Sunday violence. One of them is a close associate of Zahran Hashim, and another had been recently deported from the United Arab Emirates (Daily News, March 26).

IS-linked magazines, such as Sawt al-Hind (Voice of Hind), meanwhile, regularly cite the Sri Lanka attacks to attract foot soldiers and incite violence in the region. In Issue 4 of the magazine, for example, IS boasted about how Sri Lankan militants “have ignited the flames of jihad by inflicting the carnage upon the Crusaders” (Sawt al-Hind, No.4, May 2020). The IS media releases often portray the Sri Lankan violence as revenge for the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque violence of March 15, 2019. The magazine’s April 2020 issue (No.3) used similar language of “revenge against Crusaders” and directly linked Easter Sunday violence to the New Zealand attack by saying, “when the Crusaders attacked the Masjid (Mosque) in New Zealand nobody would have thought its retaliation would come from Sri Lanka” ( Sawt al-Hind, No. 3, April 2020).

Although the Sri Lankan government has been sluggish in its approach to dealing with jihadist terrorism, it has promised to take legal action against the perpetrators of the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage. The country’s court will determine the nature of punishments according to the local laws. However, the persisting threat from extremists linked with IS in Sri Lanka can be discerned from the fact that there are hundreds of such elements and networks who were involved in the April 2019 Easter bombings that have not yet been fully identified or neutralized. Perhaps even worse, jihadist propaganda units are still harnessing the coordinated Easter Sunday violence to their advantage.

Animesh Roul is the executive director of the New Delhi-based policy research group Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict. The author acknowledges the support of Government of the Netherlands and the Global Centre on Cooperative Security for an ongoing research project on Transnational Jihadist threat in South Asia. Views expressed in the paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Centre or the Government of the Netherlands.

Notes

[1] For a detailed profile of Naufar Maulvi’s role in the Easter Sunday violence, see: Animesh Roul, “Mentor, Provocateur or Mastermind? Understanding Naufar Moulavi’s Role in Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Attack,” Militant Leadership Monitor, Vol. 12 (1), January 2021.

[2] See: Prevention of Terrorism (De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations No. 01 of 2021, Colombo, March 9, 2021. http://documents.gov.lk/files/egz/2021/3/2218-68_E.pdf