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Sri Lanka Easter bombings show Daesh has become global menace

May 01,2019 - Last updated at May 01,2019

One of the reasons the Sri Lankan authorities failed preempt and prevent a Daesh-inspired massacre of Christians on Easter Sunday may have been that both victims and Muslim attackers belong to minorities.

In November 2016, the country's justice minister claimed 32 Sri Lankans from four families had joined Daesh. Since then, some of these recruits have, reportedly, returned home. Three years ago, his claim was dismissed as politically motivated as he had ties to anti-Muslim Buddhist figures, and is racist.

Racism was involved because most Sri Lankan Muslims, 9.7 per cent of the population and called "Moors", are seen as a separate ethnic group from the 70.2 per cent majority Sinhalese Buddhists. Christians who account for 7.4 per cent and Hindus, the largest minority at 12.6 per cent, are both Sinhala and Tamil. Christians who have converted recently from Buddhist or Hindu backgrounds often suffer discrimination from those communities.

Militant Buddhists have from time to time attacked Protestant Christian evangelicals, as they are newcomers seeking converts. Catholics, the vast majority of the country's Christians, trace their roots to conversions by Portuguese, Dutch and Irish missionaries from the 16th century onwards, although there was a Christian chapel for Persian visitors in the ancient Christian capital as early as the fifth century. Muslims have also had a long history in Sri Lanka as Arab merchants traded with that country from the seventh and eighth centuries.

The Easter massacre targeted two multi-ethnic Catholic churches in the capital and a Tamil Evangelical church in the eastern town of Batticaloa. The assault was all too clearly against Sri Lankan Christianity. Before this carefully coordinated operation, there had been no major problems between Muslims and Christians in that country. Radical Buddhist groups had struck both communities.

During Sri Lanka's civil conflict, 1983-2009, secular, separatist Tamil Tigers did not attack Christian targets because many of the militant group's leaders were Christians. Instead, Tamil Tigers hit Sinhala Buddhists and drove Muslims from their land in the north, where the militants sought to establish their state. Although the war ended a decade ago, key issues have not been resolved, including land seized from Muslims and the fate of some 12,000 disappeared. Buddhist anti-Muslim hate speech has risen during this period.

In 2016, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka warned the authorities about increasing intra-Muslim violence, involving attacks on Sufis by the National Thowheed Jamath, (NTJ), headed by Zahran Hashim, who created a breakaway extremist faction after the majority in the NTJ was reluctant to follow his lead. When in 2017 Muslim civilians called for Zahran's detention, he went underground. 

While the extremists attracted attention by vandalising Buddhist statues in the centre of the country, there was no serious crack-down. This should have been seen as a warning that worse could follow. No one apparently equated Hashim with Daesh.

Early last month, India's police uncovered a detailed conspiracy for coordinated NTJ attacks on Sri Lankan churches and the Indian embassy in Colombo. The investigation was taken over by Indian intelligence, which informed in writing the Sri Lankan police of the targets, the time frame and the identities and locations of six of the suicide bombers. The first warning arrived in Colombo on April 4, 17 days before the attacks. A second warning followed and a third was sent hours before the operation unfolded.

Resurgent Tamil Tigers were initially blamed for the Easter slaughter. Once it became clear that Hashim's followers were responsible, politicians and commentators argued they had help from external Daesh experts in suicide bombings. This was not necessarily true because the bombers were largely educated middle class people who were quite capable of assembling bombs, placing them in backpacks and ensuring bombers reached their targets at the same time. Such an operation was not, as they say, "rocket science".

It may be significant that when referring to the Sri Lankans who joined Daesh in Syria or Iraq, the country’s justice ministry mentioned family groups. Families have clearly played a key role in the Easter bombings.

Two of the suicide bombers were sons of Muhammad Yusuf Ibrahim, a wealthy, well-connected spice merchant. Following the bombings, the pregnant wife of one son detonated explosives during a police raid at the family home, killing herself, her children and three officers.

Zahran Hashim also made his campaign a family matter: Two brothers and related women and children were killed during a shoot-out with police at a village near his base. There may be a business connection between the Ibrahims and Hashim, as his father was also spice merchant in the family's predominantly Muslim hometown of Kattankudy.

Hashim had been harassing and terrorising Sufis for years, and more recently circulated hate-filled sermons on social media without interference from the authorities. He also defaced statues of the Buddha and radicalised youth unhindered.

The revelation that educated, middle class young men can amass large caches of explosives, detonation caps, weapons and Daesh banners in order to commit mass murder reveals that independent groups can emerge, prepare operations and inflict huge suffering. All that these groups need is a leader, social media inspiration and dedication. This is what makes them globally dangerous and nearly impossible to trace if they maintain strict security and secrecy.

The reappearance on Monday of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the founder of Daesh, in a video is certain to reenergise Daesh. He claimed the Sri Lanka bombings were carried out in revenge for the deaths of his followers in the Syrian town of Baghouz who were defending the last scrap of territory held by the cult. The video also enabled Baghdadi to reclaim the leadership of the cult which, the Sri Lankan Easter bombings have shown, has become a global menace.

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