Unmasking Terrorism in Sri Lanka – In Seven Slides

The origins of terrorism in Sri Lanka, and its links to Pakistan and Tamil Nadu.

Published26 Apr 2019, 04:13 AM IST
Explainers
7 min read
Snapshot

On 21 April 2019, a series of 7-8 blasts hit churches and star hotels around Batticaloa, Colombo and Negombo in Sri Lanka, killing at least 359 people and injuring over 500.

On one hand, the Sri Lankan government admits to a security/intelligence lapse. On the other, the serial blasts are also seen as one of the most meticulously planned, precision terrorist attacks in recent years, next only to 9/11.

The Sri Lankan government has named the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) as the organisation behind the attack, while the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility.

Zohran Hashim, the leader of the NTJ is also suspected to have ties with the IS.
But why the sudden attack on churches, when communal tensions in Sri Lanka have brewed historically only between the Muslim minority and the Buddhist majority? Who are the NTJ? And what is their connection to the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath based in Tamil Nadu?

Read on to know.

Unmasking Terrorism in Sri Lanka – In Seven Slides

  1. 1. Did the SL Govt Know of the Attack?

    Too busy to read? Listen to the report right here.

    The Sri Lankan government had received tip offs from Indian intelligence of an imminent Jihadi attack. The intelligence had also pointed to the NTJ as one of the organisations that could be involved, reported The Times of India.

    A report by The New York Times stated that Indian intelligence officials warned their Sri Lankan counterparts hours before the attack. It was reportedly the last in a series of unheeded alerts, including one 4 April warning and an 11 April intelligence memo that warned of attacks on churches and named the plotters.

    “I must be truthful and admit that there were lapses on the part of defence officials.”
    Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lankan President after the blasts

    The Sri Lankan government then named the National Thowheed Jamath, as the organisation behind the attacks.

    Expand
  2. 2. What is NTJ? Who is Zohran Hashim?

    The NTJ is a hardline Wahabi organisation that splintered away from the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath, which in turn is the Sri Lankan wing of the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath. All three organisations are against the 'Shirk', a term used loosely to mean polytheism, or any ideology that goes against the Wahabi school of thought.

    The Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath's leader Abdul Razik, was arrested in 2016, for inciting hate speech against Buddhists. The SLTJ is, in principle, against the Buddhists, Christians and even other forms of Islam. The NTJ has a more radical stance. Thanks to its most visible leader Zohran Hashim.

    Zohran Hashim is a Sri Lankan cleric from the Batticaloa area. He is said to have carved out the NTJ from the SLTJ, in 2014, in Kattankudy. He has thousands of followers on YouTube and Facebook, where he posts videos in which he expounds Wahabi rhetoric, in Tamil. The NTJ is also linked to a series of cases of vandalism from last December in which Buddhist statues in Mawanella (central Sri Lanka) were damaged.

    In a photo released by the IS (Islamic State) in which it claimed responsibility for the blasts, Zohran Hashim is seen standing with other suicide bombers against the backdrop of the IS flag. His links to the international terrorist organisation are now being probed. He is also suspected to be one among the suicide bombers. But there is no confirmation on this yet.

    “The intelligence sections have reported that there are international terror groups which are behind the local terrorists.”
    Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lankan President

    According to Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, all his videos are uploaded from India.

    Connections to international terror groups would explain how the little-known NTJ could pull off such a precise terror attack.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Sri Lanka-Pakistan Connect

    After the 2004 Tsunami that struck Sri Lanka and Maldives, Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, the 'charity' wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba made its presence felt through disaster relief. It raised its head yet again in 2016, as the Falah-i-Insaniat.

    Sri Lanka and Pakistan have been on the best of terms from the partition era, when the Muslims of Sri Lanka supported the Partition, although they had no role in the matter. During the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, Sri Lanka granted refuelling rights to Pakistan, as India withdrew overflight and landing rights. The Pakistani army and civilian aircraft made 174 landings in the nation between March-April that year, transporting troops and ammunition.

    The Sri Lankan government in turn took the help of Pakistan to wipe out the LTTE through a series of air strikes in 2008.

    The close ties between Sri Lankan security forces and Pakistan military allowed the ISI to develop local contacts. The Lashkar, in the meantime, has continually sought to tap the growing radicalisation of the Muslims in Sri Lanka for global Jihad.

    Thus far, 38 Sri Lankan youths are understood to have joined the IS.

    What is disturbing is that in 2014, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested Thameem Ansari, an Indian Tamil, and Arun Selvarajan, a Sri Lankan, in Chennai, on charges of spying for the ISI.

    These arrests, as well as the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath's influence in Sri Lanka make the threat to South India clear. Specifically, in Tamil Nadu.

    Expand
  4. 4. Why Were Churches Targeted?

    Sri Lanka’s Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said on Tuesday that preliminary investigation had found that the bombings on Sunday were “in retaliation to the attack against Muslims in Christchurch.”

    The minister was referring to the terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which fifty people were killed in two mosques in the area.

    As of yet, the relation between the two attacks is still a theory.

    The dominant religion in Sri Lanka is Buddhism. According to the 2011 census, over 70.2 percent of the population is Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim and 7.4 percent Christian.

    Over the last decade and a half, and especially since 2013, with radical Islam on the rise in the country, an equally radical form of Buddhism has cropped up. For every SLTJ and NTJ, there are Buddhist fringe outfits like the Bodu Bala Sena that openly call for violence against Muslims.

    With tensions already high among both communities, the Christian community of Sri Lanka could be seen as a soft target. In fact, since 1891, the percentage of Christians in the country has declined from 10 percent in 1891 to 7.4 percent (over 3 lakh people) as of 2011.

    If one were to go by reports of involvement of international terror outfits, a Christian target, as opposed to Buddhist or Hindu targets, seems logical, in accordance to precedence.

    Expand
  5. 5. Are TNTJ, SLTJ and NTJ Connected?

    The Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath is in no way involved in the serial blasts in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, all three organisations are linked ideologically, and are offshoots.

    Formed in 2004 by P Jainulabdeen (aka PJ), the TNTJ started off as a non-political religious organisation that preached 'true Islam.' PJ was one of the founders of the political party TN Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK). Along with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK), it acted as a Muslim vote bank during elections. PJ was expelled from the TNTJ in 2018 following a sex scandal.

    The TNTJ's ideology is influenced heavily by the Wahabi ideology that drives the ISIS and other terrorist outfits. In February 2016, the TNTJ held the 'Shirk Eradication Conference' in Trichy. Attended by a crowd of thousands, the speakers called for the destructions of Dargas, idol worship and other forms of Islam that differ from the Wahabi ideology. Just as the members of the NTJ were arrested for vandalising Buddhist statues in December 2018, the SLTJ indulged in hate speech against the Buddhists. Abdul Razik, its leader was later arrested and made to apologise.

    Tamil Nadu-born Wahabi cleric Basith Bukhari's (now based in UAE) ties with Zohran Hashim (NTJ), PJ (TNTJ) and Jawahirulla (MMK) are also well known.

    The TNTJ boasts of a presence in Qatar, UAE, USA, UK, France Australia, and Sri Lanka (SLTJ).

    In 2015, when the SLTJ invited PJ to unveil a Sinhalese Quran, Sri Lankan Muslims vehemently opposed his entry, forcing the government to eventually deny him entry. In his videos, NTJ leader Zohran Hashim speaks of the eradication of the Shirk, destruction of Dargas, and links Jihad to violent cleansing. All of these ideas are in tandem with the ideology of the TNTJ and the SLTJ.

    It is important to note, though, that the views of the TNTJ, SLTJ and the NTJ are exceptions, and not the norm, just as the views of hardline Buddhist organisations are not reflective of the larger Buddhist community.

    Expand
  6. 6. The Perception Problem

    Islam entered Sri Lanka in the 11th century, with traders from Middle East. At the time, the Middle East controlled maritime trade. Many traders and merchants settled in Sri Lanka, married, and converted their wives to Islam.

    Buddhism, which was always the dominant religion, and which experienced a revival in the 19th Century co-existed peacefully with Islam and Christianity, in Sri Lanka.

    Despite the fact that Sri Lanka’s constitution places Buddhism above other religions, in a way giving other communities only a second-class status, the Muslims did not side with the LTTE.

    They faced violence from the LTTE, and were gradually pushed out of a number of areas along the coast, until the outfit finally fell. Radical Islam, that too among fringe groups, has picked up steam only since 2013, thanks to the presence of Lashkar, and the clandestine support of international terrorist groups like the IS.

    Parallelly, the Bodu Bala Sena, Sri Lanka's most active Buddhist extremist group has been blaming Sri Lankan Muslims for the country's fall into immorality. Since 2012, it is also a political party. The riot against Muslims in Kandy in early 2018 was a sign of the growing animosity of the fringe group against Muslims.

    The attack on the churches in Sri Lanka has left the country highly vulnerable to inter-faith tensions that did not exist earlier.

    Expand
  7. 7. Threat of Terrorism in TN

    There are a number of ISIS supporters and Wahabi ideologues in Tamil Nadu's regional language online community. They post photos of ISIS operations to videos of NTJ and TNTJ leaders, and ISIS news updates; Tamil Nadu's police are as yet silent on the growing number of TN Muslims who support or empathise with the terrorist group.

    Since 2016, the MMK, TnMMK and other Muslim political parties have been sidelined during the elections, for allegedly receiving foreign funding from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

    Extremist Wahabis have also infiltrated the Jumma Masjid, Walajah Masjid in Triplicane and the Mount Road Dargah – all Sunni shrines. Property worth Rs 4,500 crore is also gradually being encroached upon by Wahabi extremists. Dargahs in Tamil Nadu, especially in Nagoor, Chennai and Nellore attract large numbers of Hindu devotees. Attempts are now being made to destroy these shrines.

    The arrest and deportation of two Chennai youths from Turkey under suspicion that they intended joining ISIS, the 'Shirk Eradication Conference' of 2015, the arrest of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil spies who work for the ISI, in Chennai, and other such incidents do not bode well for the security of South India.

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    Expand

Did the SL Govt Know of the Attack?

Too busy to read? Listen to the report right here.

The Sri Lankan government had received tip offs from Indian intelligence of an imminent Jihadi attack. The intelligence had also pointed to the NTJ as one of the organisations that could be involved, reported The Times of India.

A report by The New York Times stated that Indian intelligence officials warned their Sri Lankan counterparts hours before the attack. It was reportedly the last in a series of unheeded alerts, including one 4 April warning and an 11 April intelligence memo that warned of attacks on churches and named the plotters.

“I must be truthful and admit that there were lapses on the part of defence officials.”
Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lankan President after the blasts

The Sri Lankan government then named the National Thowheed Jamath, as the organisation behind the attacks.

What is NTJ? Who is Zohran Hashim?

The NTJ is a hardline Wahabi organisation that splintered away from the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath, which in turn is the Sri Lankan wing of the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath. All three organisations are against the 'Shirk', a term used loosely to mean polytheism, or any ideology that goes against the Wahabi school of thought.

The Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath's leader Abdul Razik, was arrested in 2016, for inciting hate speech against Buddhists. The SLTJ is, in principle, against the Buddhists, Christians and even other forms of Islam. The NTJ has a more radical stance. Thanks to its most visible leader Zohran Hashim.

Zohran Hashim is a Sri Lankan cleric from the Batticaloa area. He is said to have carved out the NTJ from the SLTJ, in 2014, in Kattankudy. He has thousands of followers on YouTube and Facebook, where he posts videos in which he expounds Wahabi rhetoric, in Tamil. The NTJ is also linked to a series of cases of vandalism from last December in which Buddhist statues in Mawanella (central Sri Lanka) were damaged.

In a photo released by the IS (Islamic State) in which it claimed responsibility for the blasts, Zohran Hashim is seen standing with other suicide bombers against the backdrop of the IS flag. His links to the international terrorist organisation are now being probed. He is also suspected to be one among the suicide bombers. But there is no confirmation on this yet.

“The intelligence sections have reported that there are international terror groups which are behind the local terrorists.”
Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lankan President

According to Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, all his videos are uploaded from India.

Connections to international terror groups would explain how the little-known NTJ could pull off such a precise terror attack.

The Sri Lanka-Pakistan Connect

After the 2004 Tsunami that struck Sri Lanka and Maldives, Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, the 'charity' wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba made its presence felt through disaster relief. It raised its head yet again in 2016, as the Falah-i-Insaniat.

Sri Lanka and Pakistan have been on the best of terms from the partition era, when the Muslims of Sri Lanka supported the Partition, although they had no role in the matter. During the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, Sri Lanka granted refuelling rights to Pakistan, as India withdrew overflight and landing rights. The Pakistani army and civilian aircraft made 174 landings in the nation between March-April that year, transporting troops and ammunition.

The Sri Lankan government in turn took the help of Pakistan to wipe out the LTTE through a series of air strikes in 2008.

The close ties between Sri Lankan security forces and Pakistan military allowed the ISI to develop local contacts. The Lashkar, in the meantime, has continually sought to tap the growing radicalisation of the Muslims in Sri Lanka for global Jihad.

Thus far, 38 Sri Lankan youths are understood to have joined the IS.

What is disturbing is that in 2014, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested Thameem Ansari, an Indian Tamil, and Arun Selvarajan, a Sri Lankan, in Chennai, on charges of spying for the ISI.

These arrests, as well as the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath's influence in Sri Lanka make the threat to South India clear. Specifically, in Tamil Nadu.

Why Were Churches Targeted?

Sri Lanka’s Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said on Tuesday that preliminary investigation had found that the bombings on Sunday were “in retaliation to the attack against Muslims in Christchurch.”

The minister was referring to the terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which fifty people were killed in two mosques in the area.

As of yet, the relation between the two attacks is still a theory.

The dominant religion in Sri Lanka is Buddhism. According to the 2011 census, over 70.2 percent of the population is Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim and 7.4 percent Christian.

Over the last decade and a half, and especially since 2013, with radical Islam on the rise in the country, an equally radical form of Buddhism has cropped up. For every SLTJ and NTJ, there are Buddhist fringe outfits like the Bodu Bala Sena that openly call for violence against Muslims.

With tensions already high among both communities, the Christian community of Sri Lanka could be seen as a soft target. In fact, since 1891, the percentage of Christians in the country has declined from 10 percent in 1891 to 7.4 percent (over 3 lakh people) as of 2011.

If one were to go by reports of involvement of international terror outfits, a Christian target, as opposed to Buddhist or Hindu targets, seems logical, in accordance to precedence.

Are TNTJ, SLTJ and NTJ Connected?

The Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath is in no way involved in the serial blasts in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, all three organisations are linked ideologically, and are offshoots.

Formed in 2004 by P Jainulabdeen (aka PJ), the TNTJ started off as a non-political religious organisation that preached 'true Islam.' PJ was one of the founders of the political party TN Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK). Along with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK), it acted as a Muslim vote bank during elections. PJ was expelled from the TNTJ in 2018 following a sex scandal.

The TNTJ's ideology is influenced heavily by the Wahabi ideology that drives the ISIS and other terrorist outfits. In February 2016, the TNTJ held the 'Shirk Eradication Conference' in Trichy. Attended by a crowd of thousands, the speakers called for the destructions of Dargas, idol worship and other forms of Islam that differ from the Wahabi ideology. Just as the members of the NTJ were arrested for vandalising Buddhist statues in December 2018, the SLTJ indulged in hate speech against the Buddhists. Abdul Razik, its leader was later arrested and made to apologise.

Tamil Nadu-born Wahabi cleric Basith Bukhari's (now based in UAE) ties with Zohran Hashim (NTJ), PJ (TNTJ) and Jawahirulla (MMK) are also well known.

The TNTJ boasts of a presence in Qatar, UAE, USA, UK, France Australia, and Sri Lanka (SLTJ).

In 2015, when the SLTJ invited PJ to unveil a Sinhalese Quran, Sri Lankan Muslims vehemently opposed his entry, forcing the government to eventually deny him entry. In his videos, NTJ leader Zohran Hashim speaks of the eradication of the Shirk, destruction of Dargas, and links Jihad to violent cleansing. All of these ideas are in tandem with the ideology of the TNTJ and the SLTJ.

It is important to note, though, that the views of the TNTJ, SLTJ and the NTJ are exceptions, and not the norm, just as the views of hardline Buddhist organisations are not reflective of the larger Buddhist community.

The Perception Problem

Islam entered Sri Lanka in the 11th century, with traders from Middle East. At the time, the Middle East controlled maritime trade. Many traders and merchants settled in Sri Lanka, married, and converted their wives to Islam.

Buddhism, which was always the dominant religion, and which experienced a revival in the 19th Century co-existed peacefully with Islam and Christianity, in Sri Lanka.

Despite the fact that Sri Lanka’s constitution places Buddhism above other religions, in a way giving other communities only a second-class status, the Muslims did not side with the LTTE.

They faced violence from the LTTE, and were gradually pushed out of a number of areas along the coast, until the outfit finally fell. Radical Islam, that too among fringe groups, has picked up steam only since 2013, thanks to the presence of Lashkar, and the clandestine support of international terrorist groups like the IS.

Parallelly, the Bodu Bala Sena, Sri Lanka's most active Buddhist extremist group has been blaming Sri Lankan Muslims for the country's fall into immorality. Since 2012, it is also a political party. The riot against Muslims in Kandy in early 2018 was a sign of the growing animosity of the fringe group against Muslims.

The attack on the churches in Sri Lanka has left the country highly vulnerable to inter-faith tensions that did not exist earlier.

Threat of Terrorism in TN

There are a number of ISIS supporters and Wahabi ideologues in Tamil Nadu's regional language online community. They post photos of ISIS operations to videos of NTJ and TNTJ leaders, and ISIS news updates; Tamil Nadu's police are as yet silent on the growing number of TN Muslims who support or empathise with the terrorist group.

Since 2016, the MMK, TnMMK and other Muslim political parties have been sidelined during the elections, for allegedly receiving foreign funding from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Extremist Wahabis have also infiltrated the Jumma Masjid, Walajah Masjid in Triplicane and the Mount Road Dargah – all Sunni shrines. Property worth Rs 4,500 crore is also gradually being encroached upon by Wahabi extremists. Dargahs in Tamil Nadu, especially in Nagoor, Chennai and Nellore attract large numbers of Hindu devotees. Attempts are now being made to destroy these shrines.

The arrest and deportation of two Chennai youths from Turkey under suspicion that they intended joining ISIS, the 'Shirk Eradication Conference' of 2015, the arrest of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil spies who work for the ISI, in Chennai, and other such incidents do not bode well for the security of South India.

We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated.

The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.

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