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April 21 2019 Sri Lanka Blasts: An Analysis by C3S Strategic Experts

Image courtesy: Hindustan Times

Article No. 15/2019

In the blasts which rocked Colombo, Negombo and Batti in Sri Lanka on April 21 2019, one Indian and at least two Chinese citizens were reportedly those among killed. The tragedy has left shaken not only the island country but also people worldwide, including those in India, who are in solidarity with the victims. At the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S), strategic experts- Prof. V. Suryanarayan, Col. R. Hariharan and Cmde. R. S. Vasan weigh in their views on the Sri Lanka terror attacks. 

Prof. V. Suryanarayan- Former Director, Centre for South and South East Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai, India; President, C3S

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The following response by Prof. V. Suryanarayan is the republication of his essay, “Sri Lanka : Explosions in Colombo: Who could be the Perpetrators?” which appeared in the website of South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), paper number 6529, dated April 21, 2019. Link to SAAG publication:

The explosions that took place in few churches across Sri Lanka as well as two popular hotels in Colombo on Easter Sunday were completely unexpected. The sudden developments came as a shock to Sri Lanka watchers. The Government has not officially reacted so far nor has any organization claimed responsibility. Therefore, I have no clue about government thinking or of the culprits. Given below are my tentative views.

The minorities in Sri Lanka have been treated very badly by majority Sinhalese as well as successive Sinhalese – dominated governments. Sections of Buddhist monks are in the forefront preaching violence against the minorities, especially Christians and the Muslims. It must be added that the Muslims fared no better under LTTE dispensation. They were driven out of Jaffna peninsula by the Tigers when they were in de facto control of the Jaffna peninsula. Majority of them still live in refugee camps in Puttalam.

Compounding the situation had been the increase in the activities of Christian evangelical groups like the Pentescoastal Mission and Seventh Day Adventist Church. Many Tamils and Sinhalese have been lured into Christianity. It is estimated that nearly 15 per cent of the hill country Indian Tamil population has been converted into Christianity. The on-going evangelisation should be a matter of concern for the Buddhist monks though they have not done anything meaningful to counter this evil except indulging in selective attacks on churches.

Who could have been behind the dastardly attacks? I rule out the Sinhalese extremists. While they are capable of mob violence as in July 1983, attacks on selective targets by suicide bombers is not their way of functioning. Is it the work of the Tigers who still have considerable support among Tamil Diaspora? I rule out that possibility also because there is no evidence of any linkages between Tiger remnants and disgruntled Tamil civilian population in Sri Lanka.

My tentative assumption is that it is the handiwork of Muslim extremists with support either from the ISI or Muslim terrorist organisations like Lashkar-e -Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammad or both.  What happened today fits in with their long term objective of destabilizing India. The only part of India which is relatively tranquil is South India. The objective of destabilizing South India can be achieved through Muslim extremists from Sri Lanka, encourage them to develop contacts and linkages with Muslim extremists in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It may be recalled that a former ISI chief was Pakistani High Commissioner in Sri Lanka few years ago. He used to visit the Eastern Province regularly and encouraged the younger elements to have education in the Madrasas in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The Muslims constitute 7 per cent of the total population of Sri Lanka. Though majority of them live in Sinhalese areas there is a concentration of Muslims in the Eastern Province where they constitute roughly one third of the population. In the Eastern Province they speak Tamil whereas in the Sinhalese areas they speak both Tamil and Sinhalese. The Muslims seek their identity in terms of religion and not on the basis of language. Over the years they are getting more and more Islamised, they have started learning Arabic language. Muslim women have taken to Islamic dress and what is more the younger elements who have gone to Madrasas abroad are getting more and more radicalized. My tentative assumption is that the incidents which took place today are the handiwork of these radicalized suicide bombers.

India should be concerned with these developments, because what happens in Sri Lanka will have a profound impact in Tamil Nadu. We are like Siamese twins what afflicts one will affect the other. The need of the hour is for the two governments to work closely and tackle the common problem.

Col. R. Hariharan, VSM- Retired Officer of Intelligence Corps, India; Member, C3S

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It is really tragic that three popular churches and two well-known hotels popular among foreigners have been attacked in Sri Lanka. The attacks on churches were carried when Easter service was on. The blasts in hotels are suspected to be suicide attacks. In all, around 100-120 people are suspected killed and over 250 injured.

I discount Buddhist extremist groups carrying out such organized serial blasts. They’re more anti Muslim rabble rousers. LTTE remnants abroad just do not have the capability.

The serial blasts have the hallmark of IS or Lashkar-e-Taiba. Police are said to suspect it as handiwork of IS. Sri Lanka has only 10% Muslims and majority are Tamil speaking Sufis. But a large number of them are working in Gulf countries are exposed to Jihadi extremists’ propaganda and a few of them had joined al-Qaeda in Osama Bin Laden’s days. Similarly some of them studied in Islamic University in Pakistan with known links to Islamic extremism.

Generally Muslims in Sri Lanka are law abiding and get along well with the Sinhalas and Tamils. However internally they have been having friction with the Saudi-financed spread of Wahabism and Towheed Jamaat movement from Tamil Nadu. In 2015, two Muslims – Mohd. Mosin Nilam Sharfaraz (a. k. a Abu Shurayh al Silani) & Thaukir Ahmed Thajudeen (a. k. a Abu Dhujaana al Silani) from Sri Lanka figured prominently in IS social media sites. Nilam ran a Facebook group ‘Seylan Muslims in Shaam’. He went with a group of 16 family members ostensibly for a pilgrimage but went to Iraq. US troops reported in July 2015 that he was killed in bombing at Raaqa. There are a few others too.

In 2018 Colombo government had said 32 well to do Sri Lanka Muslim families went to Syria to join their husbands. Hence I estimate their number in IS below 50. Now after the defeat of IS all foreign terrorists and families are returning and it is possible they are back in Sri Lanka and this could be their handiwork. However, it would not have been possible without external help. IS in Pakistan has been trying to step up their presence and some inroads made in Jammu and Kashmir. Last year a Sri Lankan Muslim extremist operating in Jammu and Kashmir was identified and killed in Hyderabad. As there is a large traffic between Colombo and all major Indian cities help could have been given from India.

IS has yesterday carried out attacks in Syria and for the first time in DR Congo. They have issued a message of reviving their activity in Jammu and Kashmir. In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has resumed their offensive in Kabul.

Second possibility, Pakistan’s ISI had been using their mission in Colombo to establish contacts with Indian extremists for collecting information and Lashkar to organize their training. This conduit could have been used though officially it would be most irrational for Pakistan to do so in its present low credibility among international community.

I am sure Indian intelligence as well as US and UK agencies would be working with Sri Lanka to get at the root of the attacks. Let’s wait.

Cmde. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)- Director, C3S

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A very sad day for humanity. It is unimaginable that on the day of Resurrection, lives are taken by such cowardly, dastardly acts.

The methodology and the trademark suicide bombing is a giveaway of the perpetrators. As brilliantly analyzed by Col Hariharan, the needle of suspicion is on IS modules. The question still haunts us as to why in Sri Lanka? It is clear that there is an agenda to use Sri Lanka as a launching platform for terrorist attacks in India by using ease of connectivity between the two countries by both sea and air. The radicalization of the youth is a source of great worry and when the Embassy of Pakistan gets involved as proved in the past, we need to be even more careful.  Again as we know, the Pakistani High commissioner a retired Air Cmde (?) was asked to return to Pakistan. Recently NIA with the digital assistance of USA, have chargesheeted a visa counsellor at the Pakistan High Commission in Sri Lanka for recruiting prospective suicide bombers for terrorist attacks against sensitive installations in India(See  this link )

These attacks now in Sri Lanka may not be the handiwork aided by Pakistan, but more from splinter groups of IS and indoctrinated nationals. Premier Ranil has acknowledged that there was specific intelligence provided by India about the possible terrorist attacks.  It is unfortunate that despite this advance timely warning, the terrorists accomplished these heinous acts on a holy day celebrated by the Christians around the world.

There seems to be a ripple effect in far off China. As per first-hand accounts emanating from China, the general security in the country’s airports was seen to be at a higher level.

With the treatment being meted out to the minority Muslims in Xinjiang, and the pent up anger of the Uighur Muslims, China has every reason to be cautious on all fronts whenever such incidents of terrorism are taking place anywhere in the world. Whether this will have any impact on the way China deals with proscribing Masood Azhar in accordance with UN Security resolution 1267 is not clear.

All those innocents who lost their lives to this mindless attack RIP.

As of April 22 2019, another C3S Member shares his views on the Sri Lankan blasts:

Mr. Subramanyam Sridharan- Former Computer Scientist Retired from Leading MNC

A few stand-out facts:

  1. There were seven suicide bombers who carried out six attacks. Two people were involved in the attack at the Shangri-La hotel. One bomber each attacked the Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury hotels and St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, St. Sebastian’s church in the city of Negombo and Zion Church in the city of Batticaloa.

  2. Sri Lankan minister Rajitha Senaratne says National Tawheed Jamaat outfit is suspected to be behind devastating Easter blasts.

  3. Rajitha Senaratne also said that the attacks were carried out with the help of an international network

  4. Rajitha Senaratne also said that all suicide bombers were believed to be Sri Lankan nationals.

  5. A Sri Lankan government investigator, Ariyananda Welianga, said that most attacks were by one bomber, with two at Colombo’s Shangri-La Hotel.

  6. Sri Lanka’s police chief issued a warning on April 11 2019, saying that a “foreign intelligence agency” had reported NTJ was planning attacks on churches and the Indian high commission.

  7. The National Tawheed Jamaat is a Wahhabi organization.

  8. NTJ has earlier been linked to the vandalising of Buddhist statues, nothing more sinister.

These clearly point out to two things. One, non-involvement of any local Buddhist extremist groups. Two, involvement of a very experienced terror organization being behind the attacks as the Sri Lankan Miniser Rajitha Senaratne clearly said because NTJ, being a small-time extremist or fundamentalist outfit, cannot successfully execute such a massive serial blasts involving RDX and suicide bombers.

We have to look at other possibilities. While some Indian, Sri Lankan and several Maldivian nationals took part in ISIS operations in the Levant, they clearly lack(ed) such an organizational structure or ability in explosives as this operation demanded. From all accounts that we have heard of from captured or extradited or returned ISIS terrorists, what stands out is that they took part in jihad as individual fighters. Therefore, we can discount the possibility of them organizing this serial attack of this scale. There is however a high probability that some or all of these suicide bombers were ex-ISIS participants who were sufficiently motivated to blow themselves up.

The next sources of arranging manpower, providing training, planning a large-scale terror operation, supplying military-grade explosives such as RDX used in this attack, funding and managing other logistics etc, can come from only three other countries in our immediate region where Islamic extremism is prevalent. These are Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Of these, we can rule out Indonesia because of two reasons. One, the Indonesian Governments had cracked down on Jemmah Islamiyah, the only major Islamist terrorist group. Two, though the JI has been involved with the Abu Sayyaf terror group of the Philippines, it has not been involved with terrorist incidents in various parts of the world.

This leaves us with only two countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Though there have been several violent incidents within Bangladesh involving such actors as HuJI-B (Harkat-ul-Jihadi-Islami – Bangladesh) or LeT (Bangladesh Chapter) or JMB (Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Banglade, they have been mostly active within Bangladesh or have been used by Pakistani terror tanzeems or the ISI mostly in providing logistical support for attacks against India. Though a massive serial bombing against the Sheikh Hasina government was carried out by local terrorists several years back, they clearly lack experience in organizing such a massive operation in a foreign land.

This leaves us only with Pakistan or with terrorists operating in the Af-Pak region. There are only three terrorist organizations within Pakistan who have the wherewithal, expertise and experience in such massive terror operations. They are Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Among the four terror organizations operating in Af-Pak, namely Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Afghan Taliban or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), we can safely eliminate Afghan Taliban and TTP because their focus is within the Afghanistan or Af-Pak respectively.

The needle of suspicion falls therefore on LeT, JeM, LeJ, IS-K and AQIS. Among these, the LeT has been very subdued of late. The JeM is under surveillance now and it is improbable that the ISI allowed them to conduct such a massive operation so soon after Pulwama and FATF decisions pending soon.

LeJ is a strong suspect for the following reasons. It is a very potent Sunni Deobandi group whose founding members broke away from that ‘Mother of all Pakistani Terror Groups’, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). They have pledged their support to IS-K. They have experience in carrying out massive terror attacks within Pakistan. They have specialized in ‘suicide bombing’ unlike LeT or JeM which believes in fidayeen attacks. Over the years, they have had excellent suicide bomb trainers.

So, we narrow down to IS-K or AQIS. Normally, the IS takes responsibility for its attacks and announces it through its media, Ameq.  We haven’t heard anything so far. This could be because Ameq is now defunct  or they didn’t carry out the attack.

The next group is AQIS. Formed by Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahiri and Asim Umar in September 2014, the outfit is backed by Pakistan Army’s secret service ISI. The current Emir of AQIS is Maulana Asim Umar (from Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh). The LeT & JeM lend support to AQIS under the common ISI rubric. With increased focus on the activities of LeT & JeM, with an Indian at the head of AQIS, it is quite probable that AQIS carried out these attacks under its banner.

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