The Easter Sunday terror attacks in Sri Lanka—for which the Islamic State terror outfit claimed responsibility—have brought to the fore three main disturbing developments that have serious security implications for the entire South Asian region: first, the IS poses an ever-greater threat to the region; second, its relatively new modus operandi is the adoption of the franchise model by helping local outfits to carry out spectacular attacks; and third, radicalisation. All the three trends call for an urgent joint response from all countries of the region with a holistic approach, involving security agencies and civil societies, which will address not only the operational requirements but also the reasons that provide a breeding ground for radicalisation. Each country working only in silos is not sufficient.
It will be naïve to view the incidents in Sri Lanka as just a one-off event within the country’s territorial limits. Because the linkages of the suicide bombers involved in the Easter Sunday attacks, including National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) founder Zahran Hashim, extend to India. According to Indian security agencies, Hashim had been to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in 2017 and 2018 and radicalised a section of the youth in the state and the neighbouring Kerala. The agencies said that there had been a movement of Islamic outfit leaders of NTJ of Sri Lanka across the Palk Strait that divides the island nation and India, and an interaction between the Lankan outfit and Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamaath though the latter denied it in the last few years.
The role of Tamil Nadu Thowheed outfits in propagating its brand of radical Islam is being probed by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA). The influence of the IS and the Tamil Nadu group on NTJ Sri Lanka could not be ruled out as most of the Muslims in that country were believed to be pursuing a moderate version of Islam for years.
According to the NIA, one of the IS suspects recently nabbed in the Palakkad district of India’s Kerala state confessed to have been inspired by speeches of Hashim and controversial Indian Islamic preacher Zakir Naik. NIA officials say Hashim radicalised many youths in different parts of south India and might have been in touch with the IS sleeper modules there. It is pertinent to recall that India’s tipping off Sri Lanka about the Easter Sunday attacks was prompted by the findings of the NIA in the Coimbatore town of Tamil Nadu in December 18. Add to this what had happened across Bangladesh-West Bengal boundary. After the blast in a house in Burdwan in West Bengal in October 2014, the NIA filed a charge sheet against the accused belonging to Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh operatives and their Indian collaborators, saying the aim of the terror group was to set up a Caliphate rule involving parts of West Bengal close to the border. All this threatens to revive the spectre of the IS and its adopted local outfits across vast swathes of South Asia covering India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka may not have had a history of radical Islam but is certainly not insulated from the IS influence like many other countries in South Asia including India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Maldives. According to anti-terror experts, dozens of people from South Asian countries were reported to have gone to Syria to fight for the IS. It is suspected that many such fighters of the IS have returned to their respective countries after its last holdout in Syria fell in March this year. The IS saw its defeat coming in Syria and Iraq since the end of 2014 and had already begun focusing on other territories, particularly in Asian countries where relations between communities have been sensitive, to spread its version of Islam.
In South Asia, the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and its fall-out in Bangladesh, the rise of fundamentalism in the Maldives under the five-year rule of Abdulla Yameen from 2013-2018, the sometime aggressive majoritarianism in India and Bangladesh have given rise to radicalisation of youths. The emergence of Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) should be a cause for concern in Bangladesh. Myanmar stands at the crossroads between South Asia and South East Asia, and it must be involved and made to see that it should be part of the solution and not the problem.
It is high time South Asian countries tackled the problem of security and radicalisation in a coordinated manner under the aegis of the multilateral cooperative framework of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), which, in its October 2017 Summit in Goa, India, identified counter-terror and counter-radicalisation as a key pillar of security cooperation among them. After that summit, national security chiefs of the BIMSTEC member-countries had met twice in 2018 to come out with a plan of action. Some of the South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh have their separate national plans to counter radicalisation, and President Ibrahim Solih’s government in the Maldives has also vowed to go for sweeping economic reforms as part of efforts to cope with the problem of youths being lured by the IS.
These countries can learn from each other’s ideas and experiences in this area. One crucial component of such cooperation would be mutual trust among the governments of this region. A fine example of such trust is reflected in the security cooperation existing between Dhaka and New Delhi for the last decade. India, the US and Morocco have provided assistance to Sri Lanka to probe the Easter Sunday incidents at separate bilateral levels. This can be supplemented and ramped up considerably by efforts at the regional level.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.