The Dark Night Rises

Radical and violent Islamic fundamentalism has made landfall in Sri Lanka. Targeted by the Pakistan-controlled terror axis, the island nation faces upheaval that will pit community against community.

Published: 28th April 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th April 2019 03:38 PM   |  A+A-

Dead bodies of victims lie inside damaged St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo

Dead bodies of victims lie inside damaged St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo (Photo |PTI)

Very few people, even in Sri Lanka, would have heard of Captain Millar. His photograph was once enshrined in the Kantharuban Arivuchcholai orphanage situated in the Sri Lankan jungles until the building was demolished some years ago. On its grounds stood a mini-museum to death, named after suicide bomber Kantharuban, who blew himself up in 1991. However, it is Captain Millar who holds the macabre title of the first suicide bomber of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who rammed an explosive-laden truck into a Sri Lankan army camp in July 1987, killing himself and 40 soldiers.

He was one of the Black Tigers, the suicide unit of the Tamil rebels, who were fighting for a Tamil homeland until the Sri Lankan Army wiped them out in 2009. The Sri Lankan conflict also claimed the lives of over 1,200 Indian soldiers of the ill-advised intervention of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Along with Millar’s were kept photos of 12 other LTTE fighters who committed suicide by swallowing cyanide capsules after they were captured by IPKF in 1987. 

However, in a country where suicide bombing was the norm rather than the exception until a decade ago, the terrible bombings on April 21 brought the nightmare back. Nine Islamic suicide bombers, including a married couple—according to Sri Lankan authorities—killed 359 people in the explosions at churches, luxury hotels and a house that targeted Christian churchgoers and foreigners. Some of the bodies were so mangled that family members couldn’t identify them. In some heart-wrenching scenes, parents tried to identify their children from the tiny shoes strewn around the site of the explosion.

A woman runs for safety with her infant in Colombo

A day after the authorities recognised the Islamic State’s (IS) trademark style in the bombings, the terror organisation released an online video showing the Sri Lankan suicide bombers led by Mohammed Zaharan standing in a circle against a black IS flag, holding hands. They raise their hands together as if pointing at paradise after swearing their loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled, now unseen IS caliph who Western forces believe has been killed in a bombing in Syria. But there is no confirmation. Rita Katz, chief of private international espionage agency Search International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Intelligence Group, said IS media channels were “posting rampantly” about the explosions, praying “may Allah accept the attackers” and had put up infographics on the death toll. 


Global Islamic terror has arrived in Sri Lanka, which has woken up to the nightmare of a well-financed, highly trained jihadi network targeting its population, especially after a large number of Sri Lankan youth went off to Iraq and Syria to become IS fighters. There is no information on how many have returned after the terror outfit was destroyed by NATO and Russian forces. Though eight terrorists are seen in the video, IS claimed the ‘blessed attack’ against the ‘blasphemous holiday’ was carried out by seven men—Abu Obeidah, Abu Baraa, Abu Moukhtar (who bombed the hotels), Abu Hamza, Abu Khalil and Abu Mohammad (who  blew up the churches) and Abu Abdallah, who killed three police officers.

A relative of a blast victim grieves outside a morgue
in Colombo; 

The psycho-profile of Islamic radicalism in Sri Lanka shows an eerie similarity with many Muslim terrorists in the West. Two of the Easter Sunday slaughterers were brothers who belonged to a wealthy family of spice traders. Reports said the family itself was radicalised. When the Special Task Force reached their home, one of the brother’s wives detonated a bomb, killing herself and her two children along with three police commandos. “It was a single terror cell operated by one family,” the investigators said. “They had the cash and the motivation. They operated the cell and it is believed they influenced their extended family.” Many members of this family have been picked up by the police. The heart of evil has a confusing face: CCTV footage showed one of the suicide bombers patting a little girl on the head moments before blowing himself up and killing her, along with hundreds of churchgoers.


The Sri Lanka bombers belonged to National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a radical Salafist Islamic group from Kattankudy—a Muslim majority town in Batticaloa district—and models itself on IS. Very little is known about NTJ’s founder secretary Abdul Razik except that he is from Kattankudy town in eastern Sri Lanka and that the police had arrested him several times for inciting religious unrest. Razik is an advocate of extreme sharia and was condemned even by Muslims for saying that parents of underage Muslim girls should marry them off without their consent.

Indian agencies have identified the leader of NTJ as Mohammed Zaharan, a frustrated online hate-monger aged between the late 30s and early 40s who gave “kill-all-the-infidels sermons” at mosques both in India and Sri Lanka without gaining the reputation he craved as a leading radical cleric. He had many aliases, including Mohammed Cassim, Mohamed Zaharan, Zaharan Hashmi and Zahran Hashim. He was active on YouTube to recruit members for IS; in one of the videos he is standing before an image of the burning World Trade Center towers, exhorting Muslims to “kill nonbelievers.”

The advisory from Priyalal Dassanayake, DIG, Special Security Range, to all concerned security heads read: “INFORMATION OF AN ALLEGED PLAN ATTACK”.1. This refers to the letter from the Ministry of Defense to the Inspector General of Police and further refers to the memo dated 2019.04.09 by the IGP with reference number STAFF05/IGP/PS/OUT/2860/19.2. You are hereby instructed to pay particular attention to the reference made in Page 2-4 of the above under title National Thawhith Jamaan concerning a possible suicide attack being planned in this country by Mohammed Zaharan, leader of the National “Thawhith Jamaan.”3. You should instruct all personnel to pay strict heed to this report and be extra vigilant and cautious of the top officials and residences coming under your purview.


On April 4, Indian and American intelligence had tipped off the Sri Lankan government of multiple suicide attacks planned on its soil by jihadis against Christian and Catholic churches, tourist destinations and hotels. Lanka’s defence ministry promptly informed the police chief (described above) even naming NTJ. On April 11, the police warned the heads of security of the judiciary and diplomatic security division, but no action was taken, resulting in the worst carnage in the island’s history since the 26-year civil war ended.

The note from DIG, Special Security Range, cautioned the government that Mohammed Zaharan, leader of NTJ, was planning the bombings. It read, “Foreign intelligence has informed that Mohammed Cassim Mohamed Zaharan alias Zaharan Hashmi the leader of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath and his followers are planning suicide attacks in this country. The reports noted that these attacks could target Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission in Colombo. (Information received is at Appendix A) Initial investigations into these reports have revealed that the following several people are involved in this regard.” Three years ago, Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, had alerted about NTJ’s radical profile.

“I personally have gone and handed over all the documents three years ago, giving names and details of all these people. They have sat on it. That’s the tragedy,” Ahamed told Bloomberg. The bitter political feud between Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had prevented the premier from attending intelligence briefings. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been named the PM by Sirisena, had resigned last year. Western analysts point out that the insecurity generated by the bombings would bring Rajapaksha, a nationalist strongman, back to power once elections are declared.


Security experts concluded that such a small organisation could not have carried out such coordinated multiple attacks using sophisticated explosives and logistics without outside help. “The IS cadres who have been forced out of Iraq and Syria have now dispersed across the world. Given the relatively laid-back security precautions in Sri Lanka, while other Christian countries across the world are on high alert, Colombo and Batticaloa were chosen for the attack, as retribution for killings on Muslims in New Zealand,” says G Parthasarathy, former diplomat.The longstanding military, political and diplomatic relationship between Sri Lanka and Pakistan is likely to be strained after the Easter Sunday bombings. Zaharan Hashmi was trained in Pakistan in 2018. Hashmi’s speeches, available on YouTube (now taken down), use IS vocabulary inciting Sri Lankan Muslims to attack Buddhists, Hindus and Christians.

Analysts point out that the attacks bore the signature of al-Qaeda and IS, both of which received extensive support and training from Pakistan Army and ISI. Moreover, NTJ’s social media presence is limited. Its hate-spewing YouTube channel gets very few views and its Twitter account has had no posts since March 2018. Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne on April 22, noted that “there was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded”. Significantly, geopolitical pressures and an erratic Sri Lanka have been playing the balancing game with its powerful northern neighbour, India. In the 1940s, Sri Lankan Muslims had supported the formation of Pakistan.

John Kotelawala, who was the Sri Lankan Prime Minister in the 1940s, visited Islamabad to signal his country’s proximity with Pakistan. During the 1971 war, Sri Lanka allowed Pakistan International Airlines to refuel in Colombo after India had closed its airspace. Pakistani civilian and military aircraft made landings at the Katunayake international airport, Colombo, when the war was at its peak even though ironically the Indian Army was guarding vital Sri Lankan installations against communist guerillas. In 2008, the Pakistani military and ISI worked together with Sri Lanka’s Generals against the LTTE, even posting Pak military advisors in Colombo and Pakistan Air Force aircraft striking LTTE positions.

New Zealand-based defence and foreign affairs analyst Rakesh Krishnan noted that Pakistan sold Sri Lanka  $100 million worth of arms. In September 2003, General Mohammed Aziz Khan of the Pakistan Army made a secret trip to Colombo, upsetting India. The Tamil Guardian noted that Khan “had co-ordinated Pakistan’s proxy war against India through various jihadi terrorist organisations” and “played an active role in the clandestine occupation of Indian territory in Kargil”. The Dawn reported that Asif Ali Zardari offered training to Sri Lankan police and intelligence agencies in 2011 when he was the President. 


The bombers’ strategy to attack Christian churches instead of Buddhist shrines and statues have not paid off as a move to insulate the Muslim community from mob vengeance. In spite of the ban on social media, reports of anti-Muslim violence began to trickle in, of mosques being pelted with stones and Muslim-owned shops vandalised. Hundreds of Muslim families have fled religiously composite areas in towns and villages. In 2018, Buddhist mobs urged by monks went on the rampage after a road rage incident in Kandy. Though Islam is over 1,000-year-old in Sri Lanka, Muslims comprise only 9.7 per cent of the population. Most of them are Sunni and Tamil-speaking, which made them government targets during the Civil War.

The beginnings of the strife lie in the religious composition of the country, where after gaining independence in 1948, Sri Lanka's constitution made the government responsible “to protect and foster” Buddhism. Nearly the entire military and security forces are Sinhala Buddhists. Alan Keenan, the International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka specialist, predicted that the Easter Muslim bombings will ignite anti-Muslim violence. The religious composition in Sri Lanka holds the key to the island’s ravaged past of three decades: The Sinhalese, majority of whom are Buddhists, comprise 74.9 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, according to 2012 census.

Hindus, mainly Tamils, are currently 12.60 per cent and 7.4 per cent Christians. Buddhism is the state religion of Sri Lanka. During the civil war between LTTE and the government, Hindu and Christian sympathies lay with the Tamils. But the Muslim Tamil-speaking community has no affinity with ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka, which led to violent confrontations between LTTE and Muslim paramilitaries. In 1990, the Tamil Tigers expelled around 100,000 Muslims from the Northern Province. The suicide attack in the church in Batticaloa, a Tamil-majority town, will be seen as revenge for anti-Tamil violence by Muslims opposed to LTTE. The St. Anthony church in Colombo has a large Tamil congregation. 


Of late, Buddhist monks have been fanning anti-Muslim sentiments in the country. Though Buddhists have attacked Christian churches in the past, Sri Lankan Christians now feel even more insecure since they fear targeted by two communities though they were in solidarity with Sri Lanka’s Muslims. The Easter bombings will empower the Buddhist groups and majority Sinhalese of the real danger of radical Islam in the country. Militant Buddhist monks have encouraged anti-Muslim sentiments in the country in recent years, according to Keenan.

He told the press, “This will be seen as evidence that the fears and warnings of Muslim extremism, that these groups have been saying which previously had no evidence to back them up, are in fact true. Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka have been moderate communities. The beginning of Islamic fundamentalism in the island began with the arrival of da’wa (missionary) from Muslim countries which introduced extreme concepts of political Islam.

They imposed Islamic dress codes that even led to inter-faith clashes. In 2006, radicals attacked a Sufi Mosque. Sri Lankan and international media have reported that over 300 incidents of religious-related violence happened in six years across the country in places such as Dambulla, Anuradhapura, Maligawatta, Aluthgama, Kooragala, Gintota, Ampara, Digana, Kandy and Puttalam mainly between Sinhalese and Muslims that resulted in many deaths. The grisly truth emerging from the charred ruins of churches and buildings is that the decade of peace was just an interregnum. A global enemy has pitched its tent in the verdant island which was once the battlefield of good and evil in the Hindu Puranas. In the new mythology of terror, it will be difficult to tell them apart.

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