Daesh link to Sri Lanka attacks raises fears of South Asia terror ‘recruits’

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An image grab taken from a press release issued on April 23, 2019 by the Daesh propaganda agency Amaq claims to show eight men it said carried out a string of deadly suicide bomb blasts on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, lined up at an undisclosed location. (AFP)
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Relatives mourn during a burial ceremony of bomb blast victim at a cemetery in Colombo on Wednesday. (AFP)
Updated 25 April 2019

Daesh link to Sri Lanka attacks raises fears of South Asia terror ‘recruits’

  • Investigators believe Daesh worked with an obscure preacher
  • In Sri Lanka, too, Daesh has been recruiting for years, according to Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region

ISLAMABAD: A video that emerged following the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka showed seven black-clad, masked figures led by an eighth man, his face visible, pledging allegiance to Daesh.

That man is thought to be Mohammed Zahran Hashim, a little-known radical preacher from Sri Lanka believed by investigators and experts to have masterminded the terror attacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 wounded.

On Tuesday, the Daesh terror group claimed responsibility for the bombings, and issued threats of future attacks in both Arabic and Tamil. It also released a video of eight bombers allegedly involved in the strikes. 

However, even with Daesh claiming responsibility for the attacks, many questions remain, including whether the bombers were core fighters from the extremist group or members of local outfits who have pledged allegiance to the organization.

The Sri Lankan government has previously said the attacks were the work of a local Islamist group, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), along with another group, Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.

Now investigators are scrambling to determine if Daesh merely encouraged these groups to carry out the bombings or if the attackers included core extremists from the terrorist organization. Whatever the links, the Daesh claim suggests that the terror group remains a threat despite the recapture of its territory in Syria and Iraq. It has also heightened concerns about the organization’s growing influence in South Asia, reflected in the FBI, Interpol and other foreign intelligence services joining the investigation.




A close-up view of Mohammed Zahran Hashim. (AFP)

“Clearly a group as powerful as Daesh won’t go away quickly, and its role in this attack would suggest that it remains perfectly prepared to stage, or help stage, the deadliest attacks imaginable,” Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, told Arab News.

Daesh has built networks in a number of Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Maldives, the Philippines and Indonesia. In Sri Lanka, too, Daesh has been recruiting for years, according to Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region.

“Sri Lanka is the only country in Asia where Daesh has not carried out an attack despite having a network for a considerable amount of time,” he said. Gunaratna said that Daesh had received considerable help from the radical preacher Zahran Hashim, a former member of the NTJ who broke away and created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the Daesh branch in Sri Lanka,” he said.

The ‘main player’

With no history of Islamist extremism in Sri Lanka, NTJ  was the main contender for involvement with Daesh.

A government official who declined to be named said that the NTJ had split into three groups in 2016 since many of its followers disapproved of Hashim’s “extremist ideology.”

Hashim’s increasingly militant views came from his growing “international connections and links with Islamic groups in southern India,” the official said. 

The preacher is believed to have received his early schooling in Kattankudy, his hometown in eastern Sri Lanka. Unconfirmed media reports say he traveled to India to study Islamic theology, but abandoned his studies. Since then, he has reportedly traveled between India and Sri Lanka.

Last year, Hashim came on the radar of intelligence officials after three Buddhist statues were defaced in central Sri Lanka. Interrogation of the young men responsible revealed they were students of Hashim. That investigation also led officers to a large weapons cache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on Sri Lanka’s northwest coast.

Hilmy Ahmed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said Hashim had been turned away by the people and moderate clerics of his native Kattankudy because of his hard-line views. It was then that he turned to YouTube. In the past two years, he gained thousands of followers with impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTube and a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba media.

According to Robert Postings, a researcher, Hashim had been a supporter of the group at least since 2017 when he began posting pro-Daesh propaganda on Facebook. In many of Hashim’s videos, the backdrop shows images of the Twin Towers burning after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Experts with knowledge of the investigations said that Hashim’s faction of the NTJ was almost certainly the “main player” in the Easter attacks.

Given the unprecedented scale, sophistication and coordination of the bombings, and the fact that foreigners were targeted, it was likely that he had worked with support from international “players,” they said.

“It’s hard to imagine that the attacks were purely domestic in nature,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert and fellow at the Pacific Forum. “Most Sri Lankans had not heard about National Thowheed Jamath before,” Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, said.

The group lacked the power to coordinate the attacks, he said. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”

Specter of violence 

Sri Lanka endured several suicide bombings targeting government officials and installations during the decades-long conflict with ethnic Tamil separatists that ended in 2009. Since then, the country has enjoyed relative calm. After a lull in violence for 10 years, the trauma and anger over Sunday’s suicide bombings have been heightened with revelations that top officials failed to order tighter security arrangements despite the threat of violence. “Sri Lanka was an easy target,” Perera said.

Most importantly, those behind the attack were aware of the deep dysfunction within the Sri Lankan government and exploited it, experts said.

According to an April 11 intelligence report seen by Arab News, police had received a tip-off of a possible attack on churches by the NTJ this month. Reuters also reported that Indian intelligence officers contacted their Sri Lankan counterparts two hours before the first attack to warn of a specific threat on churches.

A minister said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had not been told about the warnings and had been shut out of top security meetings because of a feud with President Maithripala Sirisena. 

Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe last year but was forced to reinstate him under pressure from the Supreme Court. Their relationship is said to be fraught.  “The threat of an attack was known well in advance of Sunday, yet didn’t lead to any efforts to preempt it. That suggests you don’t have people communicating with each other at a high level,” said Kugelman.

“This government dysfunction, driven by tensions between the president and prime minister, could be something that the militants sought to exploit. In effect, they knew they would have a greater chance to pull off this horrific act because a hamstrung government wouldn’t be in a position to prevent it.”

The next few weeks will be critical for Sri Lanka as experts fear that festering tensions between Buddhists and Muslims could explode, raising the specter of the country descending into violence. 

Isolated attacks on Muslim-owned property have already been reported in the past three days.

“The government will need to step up and try to bring together a grieving nation that risks becoming more divided,” Kugelman said. “That won’t be an easy task for an administration that is itself deeply divided.”

Dibbert added: “The government needs to conduct a thorough, transparent investigation in order to fully understand what transpired on Easter. A heavy-handed response targeting ethnic or religious minorities would exacerbate tensions and further destabilize the situation.”


How a new social contract could salvage French secularism

Updated 30 November 2020

How a new social contract could salvage French secularism

  • SciencesPo teacher David Djaiz wants France to promote civic friendship and reaffirm French values to combat terrorism
  • Arab News en Francais/YouGov survey found young people are more distrusting of French institutions than their older counterparts

PARIS: Violence inspired by radical Islam has created a growing sense of insecurity, fear and Islamophobia in France, which has only fueled the conflation of Islam and Islamism in the public’s consciousness, an Arab News/YouGov poll of French people of Arab origin has found.

On Oct. 29, three people were killed in a stabbing attack near the Notre-Dame basilica in the southern French city of Nice. It followed the beheading of a French school teacher near Paris on Oct. 16, who had used caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a lesson about freedom of expression.

The attacks have led to a sharpening of rhetoric, both domestically and on the world stage, which has brought France’s core value of secularism under the spotlight and raised the spectre of cultural conflict.

“It is clear that terrorism is also an act of communication. Added to the barbarity of the modus operandi is a desire to accelerate the break up the society in order to start a war of religion by accrediting the thesis that the Republic persecutes its Muslim citizens,” David Djaiz, an essayist and professor at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), told Arab News.

Djaiz believes this is due in part to a mistranslation of French society’s values of secularism. But he is also aware of some deliberate distortions used to serve political ends.

“President Emmanuel Macron spoke of ‘Islamism’ but his words were translated into Arabic using the word ‘Islam,’” Djaiz said, referring to the French president’s remarks in response to the beaheading of teacher Samuel Paty.

As a result, some foreign politicians used these distorted words to sow confusion and to trigger protests and boycotts of French goods, he said.

“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, has used this discourse in a very cynical way to satisfy his own political agenda,” Djaiz said.

The climate this has created in the wake of the Paris and Nice attacks has only served the interests of jihadist terrorism, which seeks to alienate French Muslims from the rest of the society, he added.

The solution may be multi-pronged. Beyond police and judicial operations to break up Islamist networks, Djaiz wants to see France adopt policies to promote civic friendship and the recognition of French values.

“Every child in this country, regardless of his denominational affiliation, must receive a positive education in the values of the republic and the principles that structure it, and first and foremost the principle of secularism,” he said.

This principle of secularism was conceived by the great figures of the Third Republic, among whom were Protestants, Freemasons and non-believers, to allow the peaceful coexistence of all denominational components of French society.

For a long time, this society was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, whose dogma influenced the state. But in a society that was becoming more pluralized and complex, republicans sought to separate church and state and allow a diversity of opinions and beliefs to express themselves peacefully.

“From this point of view, secularism is therefore a principle that must be particularly welcoming to Muslims, because it allows everyone to freely exercise their worship by being protected from the pressures of the group,” said Djaiz. This allows the individual to freely worship or to abandon their faith without consequence.  

“Secularism is not at all a revolver pointed at Islam as the Anglo-Saxon media alleges. On the contrary, secularism helps to protect all religious convictions,” said Djaiz.   

But is secularism actually working in reality? Djaiz believes the problem is a widespread misunderstanding of what it means. “This principle must be explained to young children and this task must be entrusted essentially to teachers and all front-line officials in this country,” he said.

“This pedagogy and explanation work has not been sufficiently done, allowing secularism to be considered as an aggressiveness towards Islam whereas this is totally false,” he said.

“But if we are still debating secularism today, a principle that should have been validated for several decades, it is because the republic indulged itself in laxity and laissez-faire and that the Muslims did not grasp this fight.”

Reaffirming the value of secularism must be made a priority, says Djaiz. To do this, a positive political project promoting the concept of civic friendship is essential.

“This political project must go beyond our particularisms and cannot be limited to the values of the republic,” he said. “We need a project that propels us and tells a new French story that remains largely to be invented.”

The importance of this “new narrative” is clearly spelled out in the findings of the Arab News en Francais/YouGov survey, which has uncovered a generational gap. A majority of young French people of Arab origin are much less enthusiastic about French institutions than their older counterparts.

According to the poll, younger people appear more keen on returning to the roots and origins of their parents and are less inclined to comply with French regulations.

Djaiz believes Muslim scholars and cultural leaders must play their part in undermining the more extreme interpretations of Islam and promoting openness. The views of French Muslims who condemn the protests and boycotts of French goods must also be promoted.

He is optimistic a new social contract can be established that will mend the worrisome rifts opening up in French society.

“We are now on the cusp of very great changes,” he said. “The challenge we are facing today is to establish a kind of new social contract in which every child of the republic will have a place so that no one is tempted by extremist and murderous ideologies.”