By Zahrah Imtiaz, Rathindra Kuruwita and Nushka Nafeel
Internationally oriented Islamic terrorist groups, like IS and al Qa’ida, often use local and legitimate grievances of Muslim communities across the world, to achieve their grisly global objectives.
They feed on the perceived and real injustices, radicalize sections of the local Muslim communities, which in turn leads to more isolation and suppression and then act as the protectors of these communities.
Opening up new theatres not only allows these groups new sources of recruitment and funding but also permits them to give the impression of continuous expansion. Especially at a time when the ISIS has been defeated militarily in Syria and Iraq, opening up new theatres of operations is more important to the organization than ever.
Historically, most South Asian Muslims have been extremely hesitant to join international jihadist organisations. Despite having a large Muslim population not a single Indian Muslim joined the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets and Afghan administration the Russians backed.
However in the last decade we have seen a number of Indian and Sri Lankan Muslims joining AQ and now ISIS.
The importance of the South Asian theatre for the ISIS was shown by its recent ‘establishment’ of an Indian ‘branch’/ Wilayat or Province. It is increasingly obvious that it is looking at South Asia for recruitment. It would attempt to use tried and tested method of using local and legitimate grievances of Muslims in the region.
The New Threat
Ever since the swift dismantling of the terrorist architecture of National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ), Jamaathe Millaathe Ibrahim (JMI) and potential Willayath As Seylani (WAS) by Sri Lankan military forces within a few days after the Easter Sunday bombings that claimed over 250 lives, many came to believe that communal riots would become Sri Lanka’s main area of vulnerability.
This concern was raised as it became evident that the government had not taken adequate steps to diffuse the tension between communities despite decisive military achievements.
On the other hand, the Muslim leadership squandered the humility shown by Sri Lankan Muslims and the good will created by the assistance provided by ordinary Muslims to weed out the extremists amidst them, by failing to explain the discovery of weapons that were uncovered in several mosques.
Thus the first two weeks that followed the Easter Sunday bombings can be described as an uneasy calm. Despite the expectations of the terrorists as well as certain fringe political groups, the overwhelming majority of the Sinhalese and Tamils refrained from attacking the Muslim community.
The Muslim community also showed great willingness to compromise with regard to the female dress code and their religious schools, and were forthcoming in providing information on suspected extremists among them.
However this uneasy peace had been disturbed since May 5 when unruly mobs used a personal dispute two groups of individuals to launch an attack on the Muslim community.
This was followed by attacks, which commenced on May 12 at Chilaw and spread to the North Western Province and Gampaha Districts until May 14.
These attacks have dismayed the Muslim community who are rapidly losing faith in the State to assure their safety. This in turn creates a number of issues for the future security landscape of the country.
Sri Lanka already has a bitter experience of what happens when a community loses faith in the State to assure their safety and given that internationally oriented Islamic terrorist groups, like IS and al Qa’ida, have often exploited local and legitimate grievances of Muslims to accomplish their grandiose and grisly dreams, ensuring the safety of the Muslim community and addressing their legitimate grievances must be the prime concern of the government.
Internationally oriented Islamic terrorist groups, like IS and al Qa’ida, have often been adapt at exploiting local, particular, long-standing grievances of diverse, Muslim social groups. They have been using the grievances of Muslims, often marginalization and prosecution in countries to infiltrate various theatres and co-opt them in their struggle to establish a broader pan-Islamic Caliphate sought by these groups (although they may not have ever fully existed in a historical sense) for the last few decades.
This phenomenon had been widely discussed by Australian counter insurgency expert and senior advisor to David Petraeus, David Kilcullen. In his book The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, he talks about an encounter with two Arabs, pretending to be students in West Java in Indonesia, who had infiltrated local communities, in December 1996.
At that time, before internet and social media, these Arabs, who hardly spoke Indonesian, were working on remnants of Dar’ul Islam who felt that their political and religious freedoms have been suppressed by the secular Indonesian administration.
Given that social media can spread messages – audio, visual and textual – of various injustices faced by Muslims across the world almost instantaneously, internationally oriented Islamic terrorist groups can easily identify countries where Muslims are facing issues and use the legitimate and local concerns of these harassed communities to gain recruits, channel funding and mobilize Jihadists from across the world.
ISIS Online Chatter
Within 24 hours after the attacks on Muslims began in North West Sri Lanka on May 12, several analysts stumbled upon messages on pro ISIS chat rooms about these attacks. Most of these messages attempted to convince Sri Lankan Muslims that the State will not take steps to stop attacks on them by ‘Sinhalese and Christians’ and warned them that unless they defend themselves immediately, they will suffer like the Muslims in Myanmar.
The unrest in Arakan, in Myanmar and the plight of the Rohingya had received a lot of attention among Sri Lankan Muslims and reminding them of the attacks suffered by the Rohingya is an attempt to encourage them into violence.
Creating hatred and violence among ethnicities and between religious communities have been tried and tested methods of insurgent groups with an ethnic or religious agenda. Creating animosity between communities and isolating their target community from the mainstream ensures that extremists can assume the role of the defenders of the community. This in turn allows ISIS affiliated groups to obtain funding and recruits from among Sri Lankan Muslim communities, especially from areas where they had been having issues with neighbouring communities for decades.
Non Muslims’ Fears
For weeks since the Easter Sunday attacks, ordinary Muslims had been feeling the heat of suspicion and fear among the non-Muslims. Every person in the country with a Muslim name whether he/she follows the religion or not, was considered a terrorist or in most situations pointed out as a supporter by the majority community– regardless of fact or fiction. Many even expected ordinary Muslims to step up and do the work of the government by apprehending extremists within the Muslim community.
There have been continuous posting on social media instigated racism. Calls to boycott of Muslim businesses have appeared. This is in keeping to the pattern of previous religious clashes since 1915, where economic interests were an underlying cause for religious clashes. It eventually culminated in the attacks we witnessed from May 12 to 14.
On May 13 the country watched in dismay as thousands of men gathered in the towns of; Hettipola, Panduwasnuwara, Kobeigane, Nikaweratiya, Kuliyapitiya, Bingiriya, Dummalasuriya, Rasnayakapura, Mirigama in the North Western Province in a matter of hours; pouring in, in buses, motorbikes and three-wheelers to destroy Muslim residences, shops and mosques.
The attacks by these organized groups resulted in the death of M.M.S. Ameer (43) from Kottaramulla and the destruction of around 500 buildings including some religious centres.
Attacks in Kottaramulla had taken place after police, acting on a tip off, had discovered a consignment of swords, knives and mobile phones hidden in the Hamilton Canal behind the Tummodera mosque. Thereafter, it is reported that irate residents from Nattandiya and Tummodera, stormed the areas and pelted stones at the mosque and damaged shops in the area- even though the Police had declared a curfew in the area.
In Minuwangoda town, a group of 2000 men stormed the town and set ablaze 60 shops. Overal,l the police reported that 60 persons were arrested out of which 33 were remanded and the attackers were identified.
In the aftermath of the attacks, a video released showed Muslim and Sinhalese men and women in tears as their town lay in ashes.
Interestingly the social media sphere also saw a burst of messages from Muslims being vocal about what was going on but also trying to answer many of the doubts that had filled the minds of the majority community.
The shock of the clashes had woken up many people as messages of not wanting to repeat 1983 July flooded in. Many have also started to question the political nature of these attacks as certain politicians were seen on the ground during the attacks.
More importantly, this once again brings us to the failure of the State to act in times of chaos.
Role Of The State
If the country is to come out of this situation, the State must fulfil its primary obligation. And that is the protection of all its people regardless of ethnic background or religion.
As Sri Lanka continues to be embroiled in chaos even a month after the Easter Sunday attacks, it has become apparent that the government needs to take a better look at its security strategy or the lack of it.
If the government was observant, it would have seen that it was only a matter of time before the vitriol online would be used for political mileage on the ground.
And yet when trouble started this week, the government was caught off guard with no proper response mechanism to stop the mobs.
Could this situation have been controlled if the State had been more proactive or dealt more firmly and fairly in ensuring law and order? What went wrong?
What Went Wrong
Firstly, we have seen very little political leadership at the top taking charge of the situation since the Easter Sunday attacks.
Ven. Mawarale Bhaddiya Thero speaking at a ‘Jathika Maga’ event on Tuesday (14) evening said that it had become customary to see the President, Prime Minister and ministers complaining and ‘crying’ about the situation on hand. “If those in charge just cry about it, who are we? To whom do we turn to?”, he asked the audience.
And it is this precise sentiment that is being echoed across society, as the people see no leader emerge from the government ranks to ‘take charge’.
This spills into the second issue of the Government not taking hold of the narrative of what is going on. In this vacuum we see various foreign and local forces manipulating what the people need to do and think at this moment. Hence the creation of more confusion and mistrust among various communities in the country.
Former Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara who is allegedly being accused of bailing out suspects in Monday’s (13) incident in Bingiriya addressed a press conference the next day. Interestingly, he noted that many Sinhalese in the villages in Kurunegala were extremely suspicious of their Muslims neighbours. He stressed that they believed that there were allegations that the Security Forces had not checked these Muslim villages adequately. The Islamic ritual of waking up early to fast and staying up late at night to pray during Ramadan too, he said, was being looked at in a suspicious manner.
“They fear that they are meeting and staying up to plan attacks”, said the former Minister. And it is these suspicions and fears that can be manipulated in times of riots.
Thus the Government needs to make its communication strategy into a fine art, right now. It has to strongly communicate the information at hand; let people know what is going on, about the steps that are being taken to return things to normal, explain the nature of violent extremism and have local religious leaders and community representatives regularly meet to discuss issues on the ground.
Justice Must Be Seen
In addition to this, the State must also act fast and firm when there are signs that scuffles could break into something bigger. Acting impartially in times of riots is crucial for the people to have faith in the State and the law enforcement agencies in the country.
During Monday’s events in the North Western Province, we heard several reports of security personnel turning a blind eye to what was going on or simply being unable to control the mob.
There were also reports of incidents occurring right next to police and army officers. Further, given that the suspects were released on bail that very day, gives the wrong message to the people.
Civilian support and collaboration is vital in defeating terrorism. Often people tend to think that support of a community to a terrorist group or the State is predetermined by social cleavages.
But as Stathis N. Kalyvas discusses in his 2006 masterpiece ‘The Logic of Violence in Civil War’: “Initial preference structures are affected by the war: preferences and identities may be redefined in the course of the war, in response to the dynamics of the war–especially in response to violence,” and that “full civilian collaboration certainly depends on the provision of selective material and non-material benefits. In this sense, the key to defeating an opponent in a civil war is to control access to the civilian population–and, hence, deny one’s opponent access to civilians”.
As things stand, it’s obvious that most Sri Lankan Muslims are against Jihadists, and so far, they have not responded to attacks on their properties with reciprocal violence. Thus, it should not be difficult for the State to thwart attempts by the ISIS to infiltrate the Muslim community if it has the vision and a plan.
However the repeated attacks on their communities by mobs, that increasingly seem to be organized and managed, is a sure way of opening the community to external actors who cherish violence and destruction.
The government must thus quell other actors, such as mobs that devastated the North-Western Province, which are challenging the state’s monopoly on violence and win over the Muslim community by addressing their legitimate grievances and preventing infiltration by better intelligence gathering and the usage of gathered information.
(Zahrah Imtiaz, M.Sc. (Sydney), B.Sc. (Sydney), is a Journalist by profession, 2018 Asia Journalism Fellow and a Research Associate at the Point Pedro Institute of Development, Sri Lanka. [email protected] .Rathindra Kuruwita is a journalist and researcher based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has an MSc in Security Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore and was a fellow at Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawaii.[email protected] , Nushka Nafeel is a Journalist by profession and has five years of experience in the field. She is also a Research Associate at the Point Pedro Institute of Development, Sri Lanka. (HND in Journalism and media management -SLFI and HND in International Relations- BCIS) [email protected]