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Rohan Gunaratna on the Roots of Sri Lanka’s Deadly Easter Sunday Attacks

The counterterrorism expert and author of “Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre: Lessons for the International Community” explains how religious extremism manifested in Sri Lanka’s deadliest terror attack.

On April 21, 2019 – Easter Sunday – a coordinated series of bombings ripped through Sri Lanka, targeting churches and luxury hotels. Over 260 people were killed, making it the deadliest terrorist attack ever suffered by Sri Lanka. The attack has continued to resonate in Sri Lankan society and politics, as the public demands to untangle questions of responsibility: Why was the attack not prevented, and what can be done to stop the next one?

To understand the context behind the bombings, The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi interviewed Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, a professor of security studies at the Nanyang Technological University who founded Singapore’s International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. Based on his interviews with terrorists and extremists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Indonesia, Philippines and elsewhere, Gunaratna has author a dozen books including his most recent work, “Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre: Lessons for the International Community” published by Penguin-Random House. 

In this email interview, Gunaratna explained the rise of Islamic extremism in Sri Lanka in general, as well as the motivations for this particular attack. He also analyzed the operational failures on the part of the government. “Soon after the end of the war, Sri Lanka experienced an exacerbation of ethnocentric politics that gave rise to a spectrum of ethnoreligious groups,” he said. That created a trend of “radicalization and reciprocal radicalization,” which successive governments seemed uninterested in tackling.

Ultimately, Gunaratna argued, “The Easter Sunday attack took place because Sri Lankan politicians compromised national interests for personal gain.”

The growth of Wahhabism has been a key factor in Islamic extremism around the world. How has this trend played out in Sri Lanka?

Religious violence is a global phenomenon. All faiths – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Sikhism – have been misinterpreted to spread hate and conduct attacks. The teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its breakaway factions, its Asian version Jamaat-e-Islami, as well as Salafi Wahhabism radicalized Muslims and eventually separated Muslims from non-Muslims. Many countries have criminalized these politico-religious organizations and ideologies, banned their literature and books, blocked their online sites, and rehabilitated their preachers. 

The worst act of international terrorism after 9/11, the Easter Sunday massacre in Sri Lanka did not manifest overnight. The Easter Sunday attack was the culmination of Muslim radicalization over three decades in Sri Lanka. Both Sri Lankan political leaders and Muslim religious leaders neglected their responsibility to protect the religious space, a sacred treasure infiltrated and influenced by political radicals and religious fanatics. [Even before the Easter attacks] 11 incidents, including attacking local and traditional Muslims, breaking statues, shooting government informants, and running terrorist training camps, were organized and conducted by leaders and members of Salafi Wahhabism and Jamaat-e-Islami. 

Islamization and Arabization in Sri Lanka was funded by Middle Eastern governments, especially by their religious and educational institutions that gave scholarships to study in Medina. The geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran empowered these ideologies and doctrines. Funded by charities, religious fanatics spread these narratives under the guise of spreading “pure” or “pristine Islam.” 

After [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman came to power, he has taken decisive steps to remove hateful content from the school textbooks. Saudi Arabia, where Salafi Wahhabism originated, has imprisoned and started to rehabilitate radical and violent clerics. As such, the ideological and operational threat is moving from the core in the Middle East to the periphery in Asia, Africa, and the Western world. 

The countries to which these vicious doctrines spread from Saudi Arabia in the past, such as Sri Lanka, have not been successful in dismantling the Salafi Wahhabi mosques, madrassahs and their institutions. Similarly, the religious authorities have neglected their responsibility to monitor the activities of these institutions and re-educate their clerics on the need to promote moderation, toleration and coexistence.

You make the point that Islamic extremism was growing alongside, and even in concert with, Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka. How have groups like the BBS contributed to the overall environment of religious extremism in the country?

Until the Easter Sunday attack, Sri Lankan Islam was considered idyllic. Islam evolved in Sri Lanka side by side with Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism. After Sri Lanka transformed into an open economy in 1977, Sri Lankan Muslims went to work and study in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf. Muslims were culturally Sri Lankan until then. Gradually, the peaceful Islam was supplanted by political Islam. 

A tiny segment of the Muslims started to developed a distinct identity, asking for their own schools, demanded halal food and embraced Gulf dress codes. A segment of Muslim women started to mimic Gulf culture, wear the black Abaya and even cover their face, and men started to grow long beards and wear the thobe. The most extreme Muslims did not want to associate with non-Muslims and did not want Muslims or their charities to support non-Muslims. Eventually nearly 500 Arab and other foreign preachers arrived in Sri Lanka and radicalized a segment of the Sri Lankan Muslims. 

In response to this shift, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, ultra-nationalism, and extremism emerged. Of a dozen groups formed, the most vocal and visible was Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Soon after the end of the war, Sri Lanka experienced an exacerbation of ethnocentric politics that gave rise to a spectrum of ethnoreligious groups. 

At times, the lack of political will to counter both Sinhala Buddhist and Muslim extremist groups created a further divide and polarization of communities. Even in some cases, as seen with the Digana, Dharga, and Ampara anti-Muslim riots, Sinhala Buddhist groups such as BBS, Sinhale and Mahason Balakaya were able to operate with impunity. There have also been biases within successive governments in countering Sinhala Buddhist extremism that created the conditions for Islamism and Muslim extremism to thrive. Ethnocentric political decisions such as the [forced] cremation of COVID-19 dead affected the Muslim population. These decisions are seen as a catalyst for disrupting the cordial relationship between the Sinhalese and Muslims. 

Although the BBS leader Ven Gnanasara was imprisoned, successive governments failed to ban his group, the BBS and similar groups. As a government, Sri Lanka could have done more to fight the rising tide against Muslims. For instance, government should have neither permitted the Myanmarese anti-Rohingya Buddhist monk Wirathu nor the Indian hate preacher Zakir Naik to visit Sri Lanka. These developments led to radicalization and reciprocal radicalization. 

Irrespective of faith, government and religious bodies should take firm action not only against deviant monks, Muslim clerics, and clergy of any denomination but seize their assets. Every year, the government should review and ban religious groups and designate personalities engaged in activities prejudicial to social harmony. 

In an operational sense, how did Islamic State affiliates evolve in Sri Lanka? How did these groups recruit members and grow their ranks?

The ideological foundation of al-Qaida, Islamic State, and other threat groups can be traced back to Salafi Wahhabism’s doctrine of Al Wala Wal Bara or “loyalty to Muslims and hatred to non Muslims.” I have posted a video of Zahran Hashim, the leader of the Easter Sunday attackers referring to Al Wala Wal Bara as his foundational ideology. 

Although the term al Wala (loyalty to Muslims) and separately Wal Bara (disavowal of Muslims) exist separately in the Quran, the phrase “Al Wala Wal Bara” as a collective does not exist either in the Quran or the Hadith. Unfortunately, Muslim religious leaders including in Sri Lanka have not adequately countered this misinterpretation of the Quran that is driving the contemporary wave of exclusivism, extremism, violence, and terrorism. For instance, immediately before pledging allegiance to [Islamic State leader] Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, Zahran says that he is conducting a “heroic martyrdom operation” to please Allah. Ideally they should do a point-by-point rebuttal of these deviations from mainstream Islam. 

Those indoctrinated and radicalized by the politico-religious ideology of Salafi Wahhabism and Jamaat-e-Islami mount attacks in two phases. First, they attack local and traditional Muslims, especially Sufis, who place humanity above religion. In the case of Sri Lanka, Salafi Wahhabis attacked nearly 5,000 homes, businesses, shrines, and graveyards. Second, they attack non-Muslims considered infidels or kafir. In the case of Sri Lanka, they attacked Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist images. 

After denying that religious extremism has spread in their community, a segment of Muslim religious, political and community leaders neglected their responsibility in three areas. First, stopping Salafi Wahhabism, Jamaat-e-Islami, and other foreign ideologies from taking root in Sri Lanka. They have not unequivocally stated that these are foreign ideologies that will harm the cordial relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. Even after the government banned Salafi Wahhabi groups following the Easter Sunday attack, a few Muslim leaders campaigned to delist those groups. 

Second, Muslim leaders, by failing to work with successive governments to monitor, identify, and dismantle the [radical] mosques, madrassahs, and other institutions, ignored deviant ideologies and doctrines. Unless the religious space is tightly regulated, these deviant teachings and preachings will sooner or later harm cordial intra-Muslim and inter-faith relations. 

Third, Muslim leaders, especially theological leaders, need to re-educate their clerics on the need to promote moderation, toleration, and coexistence. As most of the Islamic State Sri Lanka Branch leaders of the Easter Sunday massacre were clerics, the religious authorities in Sri Lanka should conduct courses and accredit clerics to practice Sri Lankan Islam or Islam contextualized to Sri Lanka. 

It’s been widely reported that the Sri Lanka government had advance notice that an attack was in the works, but failed to stop the Easter bombings. What was behind this failure? Was this a case of operational shortcomings, or were there – as shockingly alleged in a British documentary – political motives?

The Easter Sunday attack took place because Sri Lankan politicians compromised national interests for personal gain. The political leaders did not act decisively against Muslim exclusivism and extremism as the Muslim vote is important for them to remain in power. It is the politicians that failed to preempt the attack by failing to instruct the law enforcement authorities to disrupt and dismantle the terrorist and extremist infrastructure as well as prevent the attack by failing to guide the religious authorities to regulate the religious space.

The Easter Sunday attack was not an intelligence failure but an operational failure. An operational failure means failure to act based on intelligence. On Muslim community radicalization, Islamic State (ISIS), and Zahran Hashim, the Sri Lankan intelligence community produced 337 reports from January 2015 to April 21, 2019, the day of the Easter massacre. Political leaders neglected intelligence reports that explained the threat in great detail. Some bureaucrats who wish to please the politicians did not instruct them to act. 

Even today, some members of the political opposition have created a conspiracy theory that the Easter attack was orchestrated by the Indian intelligence service, Research and Analysis Wing. It was India that provided sound and timely intelligence of the Easter attack. Similarly, the Channel Four documentary on Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday attack falsely alleged that Sri Lankan intelligence was behind the attack, but they have failed to provide a single piece of evidence to substantiate a claim by a bogus asylum seeker. 

In this age of denial of truth and fake news, as soon as an attack happens governments should keep both the stakeholders and the public informed. As public opinion is key, it is too late to wait for the investigations to be completed and the perpetrators charged and prosecuted. 

After the 9/11 attack, the Easter Sunday attack is one of the most investigated attacks. In addition to inquiries and investigations by three fact-finding bodies and three specialist divisions of the Sri Lankan police, INTERPOL, the Australian Federal Police, and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations have interviewed the suspects and scrutinized the recoveries including their phones, laptops and other electronic devices. 

To write “Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre: Lessons for the International Community,” I conducted interviews over a period of one year with the rank and file of the Islamic State, Sri Lanka Branch, as well as Hadiya, widow of Zahran Hashim, the leader; Noufer, chief ideologue and deputy leader; and Milhan, head of the military wing. In addition to speaking to the investigators, I reviewed both the open source and classified reporting pertaining to Muslim community radicalization, ISIS, and Zahran Hashim including the 337 intelligence reports.

In the four years since the attack, Sri Lanka has been subsumed in various other crises: first the COVID-19 pandemic, then a debt default and economic crisis, followed by political instability that saw a new president and prime minister installed. Amid these other competing priorities, has Sri Lanka’s government made any progress in addressing the gaps that allowed the 2019 attacks to succeed?

If Sri Lanka learns the right lessons of the Easter massacre, the country will come out stronger and better. Fortunately, the Sri Lankan intelligence community is helmed by Major General Suresh Salley, an honest and a highly experienced national security practitioner. Furthermore, the second tier of the intelligence community is staffed by dedicated Muslim officers with significant expertise on Muslim radicalization. 

Unfortunately, the Easter Sunday attack is exploited by the political opposition, NGOs and a segment of the church. Rather than waste time, the visionary leaders of the Sri Lankan government and the political opposition should work together to develop a bipartisan approach to national security. Likewise, the NGOs, church and others should work with Muslim bodies – ACJU, DMRCA and Waqf Board – to reverse radicalization by starting rehabilitation. 

All around Sri Lanka, Muslim religious extremism is a persistent threat: to the north, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu; to the west, in Maldives; and to the east, in Indonesia and Philippines,. For instance, luxury hotels and churches in Indonesia and a cathedral in the Philippines, suffered from attacks by al-Qaida and Islamic State affiliates. The Easter attack is not an exception to the global trend of religious fanatics attacking churches and hotels. 

After the return of the Taliban-al-Qaida alliance to Afghanistan, religious extremism remains a formidable threat to Asia. To ensure that religious extremism is kept at bay, there should be constant and consistent efforts to contain and isolate religious exclusivism that leads to extremism, violence, and eventually to terrorism. There should be policies and persistent efforts to integrate Muslims into the Sri Lankan political, economic and social mainstream.  

As a mark of respect to those who perished and survived on Easter Sunday, the Muslim leaders should work with government to control and regulate the religious space. Rather than wait for government to act, Muslim religious leaders should initiate interfaith programs and projects including to create harmony centers to guide the community. Otherwise, the next generation too will witness similar attacks that will inevitably lead to Islamophobia, including anti-Muslim riots. 

To this date, the government and its Muslim partner institutions have not taken decisive action to implement the recommendations of the three fact finding bodies, which includes countering virulent ideologies, banning foreign preachers, restricting access to extremist sites and controlling radical books. On the contrary, driven by political considerations, at the request of a few Muslim leaders, government has delisted Salafi Wahhabi organizations banned after Easter attack. 

More broadly, what can Sri Lanka do to tamp down the growth of religious extremism of all types – and prevent further terrorist violence?

Securing a nation-state from terrorist violence is multifaceted and requires a partnership between government and community. Terrorism is a unique form of violence where the perpetrator attacks civilians to drive terror and fear. The targeting of civilians or the manifestation of terrorism is the result of a prolonged process of religious politicization and radicalization. In that cycle, suspicion leads to prejudice, prejudice to resentment, resentment to hate, hate to anger, anger to incitement, incitement to violence, and violence to terrorism. 

The state responding to terrorism or violence itself is ineffective. Before the end product of terrorism and violence, the threat is manifested as ideological extremism and exclusivism. While the primary responsibility for addressing terrorism and violence is with the government, the primary responsibility for addressing extremism and exclusivism is with the religious and civil partners, including the school and the family. Governments working with their religious and civil partners should address each stage of the threat, starting with exclusivism before it evolves into extremism. In addition to leadership at all levels to engage and empower government and community partners, mitigating the threat requires enacting far reaching legislation, creating robust structures and establishing evolving capabilities. 

First, the Sri Lankan president should establish a Presidential Council of Religious Leaders where the leaders or their deputy leaders meet every month to resolve religious disputes that could lead to violence. 

Second, the Sri Lankan police should create a separate division to monitor hate speech, especially incitement to violence, and take prompt action. 

Third, Sri Lanka should enact legislation to promote ethnic and religious harmony and protect the population from online falsehoods and manipulations, as well as a national security act, an intelligence act, and a counterterrorism act. 

Fourth, after assessing the levels of radicalization, Sri Lanka should commence rehabilitation of those arrested and released after Easter Sunday attack. 

Fifth, Sri Lanka should proscribe ideologies and their institutions. 

Sixth, to promote moderation, toleration, and coexistence, every province should have a harmony committee, every district, a harmony center, every university, a university harmony center, and every school, a harmony club. 

Seventh, appoint ambassadors of peace and champions of harmony and develop interfaith programs and projects in every mosque, temple, Kovil and church. 

Seventh, train and certify religious clerics, especially in other religions, and accredit them. 

Eighth, hold religious leaders and clergy responsible for securing the religious space and make them accountable. 

Ninth, monitor those arrested and released after Easter Sunday attack. 

Tenth, teach comparative religion or religious knowledge at school so that all faiths will be respected. 

The contemporary origins of violence and terrorism can be traced back to ideologies of exclusivism and extremism that reached Sri Lanka from the Gulf and the subcontinent. Almost all the violent and terrorist attacks by misguided Muslims can be traced back to either Salafi Wahhabism and Jamaat-e-Islami. Although a few Salafi Wahhabi organizations and Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing have been banned, several Salafi Wahhabi organizations and Jamaat-e-Islami’s main organization are still radicalizing and recruiting [in Sri Lanka]. After they are banned, their institutions should be dismantled, their rank and file rehabilitated and reintegrated after their thinking is mainstreamed, and they should be monitored. 

The very first step is to raise public awareness and specialist understanding within the government that virulent ideologies sooner or later crystalize into violence and terror. Both the return of the Taliban-al-Qaida alliance to Afghanistan and instability in Pakistan present a threat to the South Asian region and beyond. Currently, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is using regional grievances to appeal to the Muslims that are faced with marginalization and persecution. ISKP identified Zahran as one of its knights and paid tribute to Zahran in its propaganda magazine, which is an attempt to inspire more lone wolf attacks and Islamic State-inspired networks. In the backdrop of internal and external challenges, building a unified Sri Lankan identity is the need of the hour to counter this riding tide of religious extremism.

Source: The Diplomat