Battling terrorism needs a collective approach in South Asia

Published on Jun 25 2019

The Sri Lanka terror attacks on Easter Sunday killed 253 people including local citizens and foreign tourists and responsibility for this dastardly attack carried out by Sri Lankan  suicide bombers has been claimed by the IS (Islamic State) of Iraq-Syria infamy. Viewed in its totality, the Sri Lankan terror attack is comparable to the Mumbai 26/11 (November 2008)  attack,  in that high-end hotels were murderously targeted and preliminary analysis would suggest that 21/4 points to the abiding radical Islamist terror challenge for South Asia.
Investigations are going on in a politically divided Colombo and local police were engaged in gun-battles with terror suspects alleged to have IS links. Clearly the Sri Lankan  21/4 challenge is still unfolding. President Mathripala Srisena confirmed that, according to intelligence agencies, there were as many as 130 to 140 Sri Lankan citizens with “links to the IS” who were still hiding in the island nation.
Apart from the devastating human anguish that it caused and the ethno-religious symbolism of  targeting churches,   there is an element of tragic  political irony for Sri Lanka in the timing of this attack.  On May 19, 2009  the country announced the defeat of the LTTE (Tamil extremists)  and Colombo’s  war on terror.  Then President Mahinda Rajapaksa  delivered  a triumphant  address in  parliament, declaring that his country had been "liberated" from terrorism. Thus in the run up to the 10th anniversary of  the ‘liberation’ from domestic terrorism,  it is doubly tragic for Sri Lanka  to confront the till now concealed  reality  that  the popular tourist destination had been nurturing another virulent Islamic terror group – the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ)  -  that had internalized  the murderous jihadi ideology of the IS.
A distinctive but not unfamiliar pattern in the attack is the fact that many  of the nine Sri Lankan  perpetrators were both affluent and well-educated; three of them were reported to have done their graduate studies in UK and Australia. Two of them, the  Ibrahim brothers – Imsath and Ilham (along with seven other siblings)  belonged to the richest spice trading family of the island and did not fit the template of the ISIS-inspired terrorist.
This profile of the main actors rekindles an old  debate:  why do seemingly well educated young  - in this case  South Asian citizens - often equipped with promising  technical  and  engineering backgrounds take the Islamic terror path ? This pattern has been evidenced in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives over the last decade and Sri Lanka which was considered to be the exception, has alas, joined the list.
One of the causal factors for this kind of suicide-bomber path choice can be linked to a corrosive socio-religious sense of collective persecution  internalized by the young and bitter Muslim citizen – whose alienation  has  been exacerbated in the post 9/11 global security discourse. This  concealed zealotry is often channelized by bigoted Islamic clerics who preach the path of violence and bloodshed against the ‘kafir’ or the infidel – which is almost everyone including fellow Muslims who do not uncritically subscribe to what is referred to as the Sunni-Wahabi-Salafi school of Islam.
The potential terror recruit is drawn into a make-believe world,  where he or she is cast as the lone and valiant savior who must kill to avenge the evil that has befallen the true believer.  A cynically  inflamed  discourse and narrative which emotively typecasts the beleaguered Allah-fearing  Muslim citizen as the eternal victim after 9/11  often leads to an  anomalous role reversal – the ‘victim’ is transformed into the resolute guardian and savior of the faith.
Alas, many young men in South Asia are seduced by the lurid imagery of the joys that await the true ‘jihadi’ in heaven and those familiar with this subject would have seen many videos and audio-tapes with such proselytizing content bordering on pornography  being distributed at the Friday prayers and busy market places. The more recent market-driven permeation of cyber communication (smart phones) and social media has led to a digital drive,   where young Muslims are indoctrinated through new technologies to join the jihadi cause.
After the military defeat of the IS in West Asia, it is evident that the modus has now shifted to one of ‘outsourcing’  and ‘inspiring’ empathetic local Muslim fringe groups through cyber tools to mount terror attacks.  South Asia - including India - is fertile ground for radicalisation and 21/4  the most recent example of this murderous advocacy. A collective approach is imperative – but alas, remains politically elusive.

Source: South Asia Monitor, 29 April 2019,