Strategic dimensions of Sri Lanka Jihadi attacks - I
by R Hariharan on 25 Aug 2019 2 Comments

Gruesome serial suicide attacks by local radical Islamic outfit, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), targeting three churches and three luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019 in Sri Lanka, killing 258 people and injuring over 500, has left the country in disarray. People were shocked when they came to know that the government failed to prevent the attacks though Sri Lanka had received information from India 12 days in advance about terrorist plans to carry out the attack on Easter Day.


In a video released a week after the attacks, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, elusive chief of the Islamic State (IS), claimed responsibility for the Sri Lanka serial blasts.[1] The IS video said that it was a “small part of the response prepared by the Islamic State” in retaliation for the loss of Baguz, the last IS stronghold in Syria.[2] The IS also released a video showing seven men said to be the NTJ bombers, swearing allegiance to the terrorist organisation. Only the face of Zahran Hashim, the NTJ leader, was not covered in the video.


President Donald Trump, speaking to American troops in February 2019 in Alaska, had said the IS was 100% percent defeated.[3] Abu Bakr’s video seems to remind everyone that the IS might be down but not out. As Brookings Blog ‘Order from Chaos’ says, though the Caliphate was gone, “the Islamic State is not… As thousands of its surviving fighters disperse, the group has gone underground – for now”.[4]


According to a report of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at Kings College, London, in July 2018, 41,490 people including 32,809 men, 4,761 women and 4,640 children from 80 countries were affiliated to IS. This probably included 39 people from Sri Lanka, 69 from Maldives and about 150 from India earlier reported to have had joined the IS. After the defeat of IS, around 31,000 foreigners were in the process of returning to their countries.[5]    


The ICSR researchers had found that at least 7,366 foreigners affiliated with IS had travelled back to their own countries, including 256 women and up to 1,180 children. By June 2018, 3,906 had returned to countries in the Middle East and North Africa, 1,765 to Western Europe, 784 to Eastern Europe, 338 to Central Asia, 308 to South-Eastern Asia, 156 to Southern Asia, 97 to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand and 12 to Sub-Saharan Africa.[6] South Asian cadres returning home would presumably include Sri Lankans as well, though the government does not appear to have kept track of their return.


According to the UN Security Council’s 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee report which sanctioned the ISIS South Asia Branch on May 14, 2019 for its links with al-Qaeda and involvement in several deadly attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan that killed over 150 people, the ISIS South Asia Branch was formed in 2015. It is also known as the IS in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan ISIL-K, the ISIL Khorasan, and Islamic State’s Khorasan Province and the South Asian Chapter of ISIL.[7]


According to a research study of Pakistan Institute of Conflict and Security Studies in October 2018, quoted by Pakistan Today, the ‘Wilayat-e-Hind’ (WeH), a new chapter of the IS, “promoting its extremist ideology”, was attracting educated youth in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.[8] The study says Indian citizens, especially from Kerala State, found IS more attractive than any other group and at least 54 people from the state announced joining the IS during the past three years [2016-18]. “Those who have joined the WeH are well educated and most of them are engineers, doctors and MBA degree holders. Indians are mostly joining the Khorasan chapter of Daesh than the core group in Syria or Iraq” it added. The IS group’s website “Amaq” announced the establishment of ‘Wilayat al-Hind’ (IS province in India) after security forces killed IS commander Abu Nader al-Kashmiri in Amshipora area in Shopian in J&K on May 10, 2019.[9]


According to a report of the Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism, which specializes in analyzing IS activities, earlier IS referred to its franchise in J&K as ‘Islamic State in Jammu Kashmir’ or ISJK, but for the first time IS appears to have casually announced a province in India dubbed WeH. The report said in April 2019 the IS had revealed the name of a new branch in Central Africa, after an attack in Democratic Republic Congo. Similarly, in another recent video, IS Chief Abu Bakr was seen reading a file titled Wilayat Turkiye (Turkey Province).[10]


Despite these reports, there is widespread scepticism about the possibility of IS spreading in South Asia, including India. Sufi Islam, the more tolerant and popular face of the religion, is well established among Muslims of the region. They had been resisting the spread of the IS brand of Salafist ideology.[11]


However, the strong presence of Taliban and its armed cadres of Al Qaeda and its clones for three decades in parts of Af-Pak region show the limitations of moderate Islam in stopping the spread of Islamic radicalism. In fact, Salafists have been providing inspiration to perpetuate jihadi extremists, not only in Af-Pak region, but also in India, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka and beyond, even in Southeast Asia.


Moreover, the IS has proved its ideological commitment is more than other Jihadi organisations. Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow-Foreign Policy, Centre for Middle East Policy, says “ISIS draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations. They may not agree with ISIS’s interpretation of the caliphate, but the notion of a caliphate - the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition - is a powerful one, even among more secular-minded Muslims”.[12]


The IS’ strong commitment to its Salafist belief makes it not only a great survivor even in adversity, but also the most dangerous among Jihadi terror groups. As Shadi Hamid says, “In this most basic sense, religion - rather than what one might call ideology - matters. ISIS fighters are not only willing to die in a blaze of religious ecstasy; they welcome it, believing that they will be granted direct entry into heaven. It doesn’t particularly matter if this sounds absurd to most people. It’s what they believe”.[13]


It seems the Easter Day attack in Sri Lanka is part of the IS new tactic in action. According to a Reuters report of May 2019 analyzing IS’ new guerilla tactic, the IS has claimed more operations in Nigeria and “dozens of similar attacks” in recent weeks in Afghanistan, Niger, Somalia, Egypt, Pakistan, Chechnya and Sri Lanka.[14] The report adds that in many cases the group published pictures of arms and equipment said to have been collected from soldiers.


Analysis of reports of activities of suspected sympathisers and members of IS chapters and affiliates in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka has shown extensive use of social media to ideologically inspire small number of educated local Muslims, particularly from Kerala State, to join its fold even after IS defeat in Iraq and Syria. According to a June 3, 2019 media report, Rashid Abdullah, head of the Kerala IS module in Afghanistan was killed during bombing by the US forces.[15]   


The IS role in the suicide attacks raises a few questions:

Sri Lanka has not fully recovered from three decades of fighting Tamil separatist insurgency that ended a decade ago. In its aftermath, the island nation is mired in political and economic instability. It is struggling to revamp its structural framework to make it more democratic and accountable to all sections of people. In this murky environment of ethnic, religious and linguistic aberrations, how can Sri Lanka successfully handle IS terrorist threat? Will the IS threat to Sri Lanka impact South Asia and IOR and the international security environment?


Transformation of Islamic radicalism


Sri Lanka’s investigations after the blast have followed two streams: investigation by law enforcement agencies and the parliamentary select committee (PSC) deliberations and a smaller presidential inquiry to look at systemic failure and individual accountability for the failure. Both lines of investigation have unraveled socio-political aberrations that encouraged, if not condoned, the evolution of NTJ as a hate spouting radical Islamic outfit and its transformation into an IS clone. It has also revealed the strong influence of radical Thowheed ideology between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka on the one hand and the role of IS sympathisers in India and other countries in transforming NTJ into an active IS-inspired outfit.


The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent Meera Srinivasan’s detailed report on the month-long investigations by Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) into the Easter Day attacks, presents interesting details on how the network of Jihadi extremists was formed and ultimately carried out the attacks.[16]   


In all, nine extremists including a woman in the age group of 20 to 30 were involved. They belonged to the NTJ and the less ‘formal’ Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI) which mostly operated through social media. Apparently they were mentored by Zahran Hashim (33), a radical preacher, belonging to Kattankudy in Batticaloa district of Eastern province. He was attracted to the creed of Thowheed - meaning “oneness of God” - monotheism which is central to Islam and decries praying at the tomb of Islamic saints (dargah) which is common among Sufis, the more tolerant majority among Muslims in Sri Lanka.


The Hindu article reveals details of international IS linkages of some of the suicide bombers. Typical is the case of Abdul Latheef Jameel Mohammed, one of the suicide bombers killed in the attack. The ‘normal’ youngster pursued aeronautical engineering at Kingston University in London (2006-07) and later went to Melbourne to pursue post-graduation. He left Australia in 2013 and probably made a failed attempt to go to Syria as he could go only up to Turkey. In 2014, he “returned to Sri Lanka a different man”, according to his sister quoted in the media. In Australia, the police had noted Jameel’s terrorist leanings based on evidence linking him to the well-known Australian IS recruiter Neil Prakash.[17] However, others believe Jameel was radicalized in the UK where he met Anjem Choudary, the radical Islamist preacher and UN listed IS terrorist, convicted in Britain for inviting support for the IS.


Investigations have revealed that P. Jainul Abideen (popularly known as PJ), a powerful Tamil Nadu fundamentalist preacher, was instrumental in influencing Zahran and helping the spread of the Thowheed movement in Sri Lanka. Initially PJ was associated with the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TNMMK), a politico-religious organisation formed in 1995. However, he fell out with the TNMMK due to political and radical theological   differences and formed the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ) in 2004. Since then TNTJ had been propagating the Thowheed creed through preaching, social work and disaster relief. 


Jainul Abideen’s preaching influenced not only Zahran Hashim but also two Sri Lankan Muslims, Abdhur Razik and Rasmin. They formed the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ) in 2005. However, local Muslims in Sri Lanka found Abideen’s fundamentalist views unacceptable and pressurised Sri Lanka government to deport him when he came to preach in Sri Lanka. Moderate elements among Thowheed followers broke away to form Ceylon Thowheed Jamath (CTJ). Again in 2015, when the SLTJ invited Abideen to preach in Sri Lanka, powerful members of the Muslim community, fearing his presence in the island would disturb intra-Muslim and inter-religious harmony, asked the government to cancel his visa. This would indicate the links between the Thowheed organizations in the two countries were going on for over a decade. 


Three years ago, moderate sections of Sri Lanka Muslims had raised alarm with Sri Lanka intelligence agencies about Zahran’s extremist activities. A report in Nikkei Asian Review quoted Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, “All his [Zahran’s] YouTube videos of hate speech were uploaded in India” from a base he had either in Chennai or Bangalore.[18]  


According to Abdul Razik, a leader of the moderate CTJ, during 2018 Zahran Hashim, “has been openly calling for the killing of non-Muslims.” He added that they had asked the intelligence agencies to take down the Facebook page of Zahran “because he was polluting the minds of Sri Lankan Muslims.” The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the central body of the country’s clerics, had also alerted Sri Lanka’s security establishment of the activities of Hashim and his acolytes. But intelligence agencies said it was “better to allow him to have the page so that the authorities could keep an eye on what he was doing.”


The testimony of Moulavi KRM Sahlan, Secretary of the Al Haj Abdul Jawad Alim Waliyullah Trust, before the PSC, laid bare the activities of Zahran.[19] He said his organisation had submitted a written complaint to the President’s office when Zahran called upon Muslims to kill people of other faiths in a public speech on March 27, 2017: “we had submitted CDs containing these speeches and warned that there could be a disaster if Zahran was allowed to continue in that manner”. Copies of the same complaint was sent to the PM’s office, the offices of ministers of law and order, justice and state defence minister as well as the Attorney General’s Department and the Director, TID.  


According to Sahlan, Zahran published a monthly magazine called Towheed from 2013 attacking Sufis, calling them not true Muslims. He said, “in 2016 and 2017, we lodged 11 complaints with the Kattankudy police station against Zahran’s group”. In 2015, in response to Sufi complaints, Maj. Gen. Lal Perera summoned Zahran and warned him to refrain from attacking other religious groups. But the NTJ continued to attack Sufis.  


The reason for laxity shown by the administration in taking strong action against Zahran could be his group’s work in support of Maithripala Sirisena and against Mahinda Rajapaksa during the 2015 presidential election, as stated in Sahlan’s PSC testimony. Apparently complaints about Zahran were treated by the police in a routine manner. This is evident from the statement of officer in charge of Kattankudy. He said when Zahran’s brother, Rilwan, was injured while testing a bomb in March 2018, he was taken to Colombo National Hospital and treated for his injuries. He lost sight in one eye and a few fingers in the accident. Neither anyone checked him on his eight hour journey to Colombo nor the doctor’s treating him made a report to the police.[20]


It is surprising that Zahran Hashim carried out all these activities in spite of many Muslim organisations like the ACJU and prominent Muslim political leaders like Azath Sally warning the security agencies about the NTJ leaders’ activities. In fact, the chief of national intelligence, Sisira Mendis, told the PSC that Zahran’s arrest when he was reported for hate speech could have averted the attacks. “He had come to the attention of authorities before the attacks. Police could have at least detained him for questioning when there were reports against him”.


Former head of the TID Nalaka Silva in his testimony before the PSC said the TID had obtained an open warrant from the Colombo court as well as a blue notice from the Interpol in July 2018 to apprehend Zahran. After anti-Muslim riots in Digana in 2018, there was a surge in Zahran’s social media activity and “we saw he was moving from extremism to violent extremism”. He had begun to endorse the activities of IS and was promoting IS videos through his Facebook and websites.[21]


The National Investigation Agency (NIA) in India had been keeping an eye on suspected IS followers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala for some time.[22] Their follow up action upon information from Sri Lanka about social media links of NTJ chief Zahran with IS sympathisers in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, led to the arrest of Mohammed Azharudeen, said to be the mastermind of the IS Tamil Nadu module, on June 12, 2019. He was a Facebook friend of Zahran.[23] Sri Lanka police arrested five Sri Lankans including Mohammad Milhan, one of the NTJ suspects who fled to Dubai after the blast, and brought them back to Colombo.[24] Similarly, five Sri Lankans with suspected IS links have been brought back to Sri Lanka from Saudi Arabia.


In follow up action, Kattankudy police have arrested 60 youth “trained” by Zahran Hashim. According to the police, the youth were taken on a free tour ostensibly to hear a “moulavi” (in this case Zahran Hashim) who welcomed them at a hideout in Hambantota town and preached his extreme Islamic philosophy. Two persons, Milhan, and an army veteran Mohideen, taught the group how to use handguns and behead people in two days. They were also shown IS training videos.[25] In the training camp, the youth were not allowed to speak to each other. However, at the end of the training they were assigned a nickname by which to identify each other, apparently to ensure secrecy.


According to a report in Ceylon Today, seven months ago, Zahran had purchased a 25-acre property for Rs five million close to the remote town of Rithihenna, for constructing a training camp. Police searched the area and recovered 25 sticks of gelignite, some cans of ammonium nitrate, an agricultural fertilizer used in making improvised explosive devices.[26]


Thus security investigations have revealed a few things clearly regarding the Easter Sunday attacks:

The NTJ leader Zahran Hashim was attracted to Thowheed radicalism propagated by Tamil Nadu Thowheed preacher Jainul Abideen. Over a decade long association with like-minded people reinforced his beliefs and provided the ideological moorings for transformation to IS extremism.


Zahran’s links with IS sympathisers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala enabled him to use social media, particularly YouTube, to propagate his doctrine of hate, attract and motivate his followers.


Using the social media, Zahran was able to attract educated young people, who were influenced by the IS recruiters abroad, to join him. 


Moderate Muslim leaders were alarmed at the growing influence of Zahran, as his anti-Buddhist activities was disturbing ethnic peace; they complained to the authorities to shut him up. But influential Muslim politicians did not hesitate to use him to political advantage during elections.  


Police and intelligence agencies had treated complaints against Zahran in a routine manner, presumably because his group had supported President Sirisena during the presidential election in 2015.


(To be concluded…)


Notes & References

1)      The term Islamic State used in this article refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State in Levant (ISIL) and Daesh in Arabic

2)    Abu Bakr al Baghdadi news, Al Jazeera,



5)     International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation report, July 18, 2018

6)    How many IS foreign fighters are left in Iraq and Syria

7)     ‘ISIS’ South Asia Branch comes under UN radar; sanctioned’, May 16, 2019, One India web news

8)    Pakistan and India under new IS threat: Wilayat-e-Hind study  

9)    IS establishes Wilayat al-Hind after clashes in Kashmir. Iraq News, May 11, 2019  

10) IS establishes Wilayat al-Hind after clashes in Kashmir. Iraq News, May 11, 2019  

11)  Bhopinder Singh, ‘Baloney of ISIS Province’ June 7, 2019, The Statesman  

12) Shadi Hamid, ‘The Root of the Islamic State’s Appeal’ October 31, 2014

13) Shadi Hamid, ‘The Root of the Islamic State’s Appeal’ October 31, 2014

14) Instructions from headquarters: Islamic State’s new guerrilla manual, May 24, 2019, Reuters

15) ‘Kerala ISIS module head killed in Afghanistan’ June 3, 2019

16) Meera Srinivasan, ‘The inside story  of the 9 suicide bombers behind Sri Lanka’s savage Easter attacks’, 25 May 2019 The Hindu

17) Neil Christopher Prakash (known as Abu Khaled al-Cambodi in the IS) whose Australian citizenship was revoked in December 2018 for his role as an active member of the IS. Member. In March 2019, Prakash was convicted in a Turkish court of membership in a terrorist organisation. He is serving a six year sentence in prison. ‘Neil Prakash: Australian Jihadist stripped of citizenship’

18) Marwaan Macan-Markar, ‘Sri Lanka’s radicalized Muslims have long ties to Islamic State’ April 24, 2019, Nikkei Asian Review

19) When Zahran publicly called upon Muslims to kill people of other faiths’ June 18, 2019  

20)           ‘Rich brothers recruited via Facebook to fund Sri Lanka attacks, cops say,’ CBS News, May 3, 2019

21) Chandani Kirinde ‘Former TID Head reveals Zahran had both open warrant and Interpol blue notice’ May 5, 2019 Daily FT

22)           NIA searches at 3 places in Kerala as part of probe into ISIS module, April 28, 2019, Economic Times

23)            ‘NIA arrest alleged mastermind of Easter Sunday bombings’ June 13, 2019  

24)           ‘Easter Sunday attack: Five arrested in Dubai brought back to SL’, June 14, 2019 Daily News

25)            Sulochana Ramiah, ‘Zaharan gave assault training to youth’ 19 May 2019, Ceylon Today

26)           ‘Zaharan’s planned training camp in Rithithenna’ 26 May 2019, Ceylon Today,  


Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987- 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, South Asia Analysis Group and International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute, Chennai. 

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