Soul-searching in Sri Lanka as ISIS co-opts attack to boost its image

The extremist group is tapping into domestic grievances to preserve its reputation as the world’s preeminent militant force

Mortuary workers stand alongside security forces and a truck freezer filled with victims’ bodies in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 24, 2019. Jack Moore / The National
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The video shows eight tunic-clad men in a circle, their hands held in unison. Chequered headscarves cover seven of their faces. An eighth man stands in the middle, his face on show and machine gun in hand, speaking in Arabic. The men repeat his every word.

That man is Mohammed Zaharan, a Sri Lankan preacher in his 40s and alleged mastermind of Sunday’s Easter massacre in Sri Lanka. Against a backdrop of the ISIS flag, he pledges bayah, or allegiance, to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the elusive and secretive leader of the group. ISIS later released the footage as proof that the coordinated suicide bomb plot that left at least 359 people dead on Sunday was its work.

Due to the scale and sophistication of the attacks, diplomats and top terrorism experts now believe that what was initially attributed to a minor local group known as National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ) had wider, international connections.

The attacks on three churches and four luxury hotels were committed by nine well-educated extremists, including one woman, according to the Sri Lankan government. It is now the deadliest terror attack ever committed in south Asia. The cell, made up of members from across Sri Lanka, wrought a trail of destruction that left the capital, Colombo, on lockdown, the country under a state of emergency and the Sri Lankan people under a three-day nighttime curfew.

"If you look at the scale of the attacks, the level of coordination, it’s not implausible to think there are foreign linkages," the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, told reporters in Colombo on Wednesday. British and American security services have deployed to Colombo to help investigate why the nine bombers escaped detection.

Police have arrested more than 100 suspects in connection with the plot that hit the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels and St Anthony’s Church in Colombo, as well as two more churches in the cities of Negombo and Batticaloa. An attack on a fourth, unnamed hotel failed for reasons unknown.

On Wednesday, security forces carried out a controlled explosion of a suspicious motorscooter parked near the popular Savoy cinema in Colombo. Christian leaders have closed Catholic schools, told priests not to hold mass, called for postponement of weddings and its congregation not to participate in processions.

But officials say the security threat has eased, despite rumours of individuals in possession of explosives remaining at large.

"Now the situation is not bad. We believe we can get it under control in some time,” a Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But the soul-searching in Sri Lanka has begun in earnest and the country is looking for answers. A memo issued by Indian intelligence on April 4 warning that Mr Zaharan and his followers were plotting attacks against Catholic churches went unheeded by Sri Lankan security services. They were in possession of names, addresses and numbers of at least one of the attackers. The revelation has resulted in widespread anger and left the government in turmoil.

President Maithripala Sirisena has asked his police chief and defence minister to step down. Both he and bitter rival Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have been locked in a political battle for months and both deny seeing the memo that warned of suicide bomb attacks. The head of Sri Lanka’s parliament told sitting parliamentarians on Wednesday that top officials had deliberately withheld information. Mr Sirisena's media secretary did not respond to a request for comment.

The premier has been sidelined from intelligence briefings and not invited to meetings of the country’s Security Council, which reports to Mr Sirisena, according to one government minister. On Sunday after the attacks began, the premier called a Security Council meeting but its members refused to turn up. This lack of decisive action may have been a contributing factor to the final death toll.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, at his residence in the Sri Lankan capital, April 24, 2019. Jack Moore / The National
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, at his residence in the Sri Lankan capital. Jack Moore / The National

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo who has urged peaceful coexistence in the aftermath of the attacks, told The National at his residence on Wednesday that authorities had not informed him of the threat. If he had known, he said he would have cancelled all Easter gatherings in the country.

“The health of our people is more important to me than our services. We would not have allowed our people to be massacred like that,” he said. “These people were responsible, who got the information, should have passed it on, but they kept it a secret for a small number of people.”

Others pointed the finger at Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe for the disarray in their relationship that brought the country to a standstill during a protracted political in November.

“I am very mad, I am totally mad,” said A Javid Yusuf, the former Sri Lankan ambassador to Saudi Arabia and senior adviser to the foreign ministry on Islamic affairs. “Irrespective of politics, irrespective of individual differences, this is a matter of life and death. This is something that tragically could have been prevented, and it has failed.”

The cost of the security lapse was clear to see at the main morgue in Colombo, which on Wednesday was relying on a refrigerated freezer truck parked outside due to space constraints.

Inside lay the bodies of eight foreign nationals. Workers transported one dead body, wrapped in a bloodied white sheet, on a forklift. Relatives waited inside to ID their lost ones.

The smell of the morgue in the tropical heat was stomach-churning. Naveendanushka Rathnayake, a 24-year-old who working at the morgue, said the complex has capacity for 23 bodies but was currently holding around 29 separate body parts, which will require DNA testing to identify.

An entrance sign to the morgue in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 24, 2019. Jack Moore / The National
An entrance sign to the morgue in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 24, 2019. Jack Moore / The National

Even in a country that experienced over 25 years of civil war, this kind of violence is shocking and new, with authorities focussed on how an attack inspired or directed by ISIS could take place in a place where the majority Sinhalese live side-by-side with Tamils, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

One answer may lie in ISIS’s lasting ambitions. The surviving leadership of ISIS’s now defeated rump state in Syria is determined to show that the group survives as a global insurgency following the loss of its final territory in Baghouz, Syria, last month, says Amarnath Amarasingam, a Canada-based, Sri Lankan-born senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and preeminent expert on ISIS.

“One of the easiest ways to do this is to piggyback on local groups who have local grievances and local knowledge,” he said. “Local groups or individuals in these groups are invaluable resources for groups like ISIS undergoing a transition period locally.”

The available evidence suggests that there was some contact between the local militants and ISIS central leadership, Mr Amarasingam said, “either online or through relationships developed while some of them were in Syria.”

That is a view shared in Colombo. Sri Lankan officials say local extremists could not have acted alone in committing one of the worst atrocities in modern history.

As its caliphate in Iraq and Syria fell, ISIS has focused on expansion elsewhere. This year alone, it has claimed to have directed or inspired attacks in Congo, the Philippines, Nigeria, Egypt, Somalia, Russia, and Burkina Faso. Now, it appears Sri Lanka is a target for the group.

Leaders in Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, which makes up 9.7 per cent of the population, say they forewarned of the threat.

Ash-Sheikh Arkam, the media secretary of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, an organisation of Muslim scholars based in Colombo, says the organisation alerted authorities in January to extremist videos posted to Facebook and YouTube by Mr Zaharan, who amassed several thousand online followers.

The organisation has been active in countering ISIS, publicly rejecting the group in a 2015 statement. Mr Arkam was similarly dismissive of Mr Zaharan, calling him a “half-cooked” preacher who never graduated as a religious scholar after dropping out of college.

Mr Zaharan, a round-faced zealot and loner cleric from the eastern town of Kattankudy, is now a focus of the attack investigation. He is believed to be the first Sri Lankan Islamist to call for attacks against other religions. “Your army, police and intelligence are all doomed to fail," he said in one video.

He once threatened moderate Muslims at a traditional mosque in Kattankudy with a sword. Mr Arkam says locals there repeatedly made police complaints about the cleric, warnings that went ignored.

“More than 15 times they said this person is extremist, arrest him,” he said.

Mr Zaharan’s whereabouts remain unknown. Authorities are unclear if he was one of the bombers and are working to identify their remains. If alive, he may have fled abroad. Many of his videos were posted from India, one Islamic community member told Agence France-Presse.

New details emerged about some of the bombers in his cell on Wednesday, with Deputy Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene saying that one had studied in Britain and pursued postgraduate education in Australia before returning to Sri Lanka.

"Most of them are well-educated and come from middle, upper-middle class families, so they are financially quite independent and their families are quite stable financially, that is a worrying factor in this," the minister added.

Two of the bombers are believed to be brothers, the sons of a well-to-do spice trader. Their father is in custody. National police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The attack points to the work of a new ISIS “branch”, says Dr Rohan Gunaratna, an authority on Sri Lankan extremism and professor of security studies at RSIS, a Singapore-based school of international affairs. It also suggests ISIS may find fertile ground for new members and would-be attackers in Asia

“Asian expansion is huge because 63 per cent of the world’s Muslim population live in Asia. Asia is a huge base for their recruitment,” he said.

The number of Sri Lankan’s who have travelled to join ISIS remains low. According to an estimate by the Soufan Group, a US-based intelligence consultancy, just 32 Sri Lankans join ISIS in Syria by the end of 2016. The Indian Ocean island of 22 million has produced fewer ISIS recruits than other countries including Norway, Canada, Trinidad and Switzerland.

But the country may be a “soft target” for radical Islamists to expand into and plan attacks in, Mr Gunaratna said: Sri Lanka demobilised much of its security apparatus after it concluded the civil war with the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009. As a result, the Easter bombers were able to operate largely under the radar, he said. “When they discovered this group, it was too late to dismantle.”

Many Sri Lankans are determined though to prevent such extremism from spreading in a country that has embraced multiculturalism since the time of the pre-colonial Sinhala Kings. “They will never get a foothold, because we are too tightly knit,” said Amb Yusuf. “We will stand together.”

A security guard fixes a sign of solidarity from Muslims to the victims on Sundays bomb attacks, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 24, 2019. Jack Moore / The National
A security guard fixes a sign of solidarity from Muslims to the victims on Sundays bomb attacks, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 24, 2019. Jack Moore / The National

The Muslim community has quickly moved to disavow the attackers.

At Colombo’s Kalandharsahib Jummah Mosque, the faithful have raised white flags in memory of the victims. Attacks like Sunday’s are connected to Islam only by name, said Mohammed Ismail, a long-bearded 47-year-old worshipper. “Ninety nine point nine per cent of Muslim people are not like this. Islam is peace.”

How then the bombers were radicalised into violence remains unclear. Mr Zaharan’s hometown experienced a massacre of its own in 1990, when 30 armed men stormed a mosque and killed 147 Muslim men and boys. Muslims have also experienced marginalisation either side of the civil war’s conclusion, and attacks by Buddhist nationalists while security services have focused on pre-empting a return of Tamil separatism.

Religious leaders across the island are now reflecting on the causes of the attack that so brutally shattered a decade of relative peace.

“After 30 years of war, we came out of it, it’s now time for us all to think what went wrong here, and [how] to correct it,” said the cardinal.

With additional reporting by Willy Lowry