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By Dr S. I. Keethaponcalan
Not many analysts and researchers paid attention to the nexus between Sri Lanka and ISIS until the Easter Sunday Massacre of 2019, where more than 250 people were killed and a large number of people were maimed. Characteristically, a lot has been said, written and published on this subject since the massacre. One of the pieces that has attracted much attention is an interview given by Jonah Blank. It was published with the title “ISIS did not Choose Sri Lanka, but Sri Lankan Group Chose ISIS: RAND.” Nilantha Ilangamuwa conducted the interview. The piece appeared on several newspapers and weblogs and was translated into local languages.
The central theory presented in this interview is miss leading, if not erroneous, and it could also have significant policy and operational implications. Hence, this article aims to highlight the flaws from my perspective.
Jonah Blank works as a researcher and political analyst for the Rand Corporation, which is a nonprofit international think tank funded by the United States government and private donations. According to Nilantha Ilangamuwa, Blank has two significant views about the “Easter Sunday bombings.” They are: (1) “the attack was a result of the political negligence than its accounting as intelligence failure by many parties,” and (2) “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) did not choose Sri Lanka, but the Sri Lankan extremists chose ISIS.”
One could agree or disagree with the first assumption. Was the attack a result of political infighting between the President and the Prime Minister? I believe that the failure to prevent the attack had something to do with the power struggle at the very top level and inefficiency. The attack was a result of radicalization of Zahran Group or the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ). It is possible that there is more than one group in Sri Lanka. However, that is not the problem here. The problem is with the second argument, which seems to have attracted considerable attention in Sri Lanka.
The argument that ISIS did not choose Sri Lanka, but the Sri Lankan group chose ISIS entails several flaws for multiple reasons. Important of them are:
1. It underestimates the significance of South Asia, especially India to ISIS,
2. It overestimates the capacity of the NTJ (and other groups), and
3. It could lead the Sri Lankan law enforcement bodies to complacency and even inaction if believed.
India and South Asia
The idea that ISIS did not choose Sri Lanka and it was the Sri Lankan groups that chose ISIS implies that ISIS has no interest in Sri Lanka. Blank suggests that ISIS just offered “skill-set and training” presumably because the Sri Lankan group wanted them from the global jihadists. This notion completely ignores the significance of South Asia and India to ISIS.
ISIS has expansive ambitions and strives to establish a “global caliphate.” As part of its global agenda, the organization has accelerated its activities in such countries as Egypt, Indonesia, Somalia, and the Philippines. South Asia is a part of the agenda, most likely due to the presence of a sizable Muslim population. In an essay entitled, “The Fall of ISIS and Its Implications for South Asia,” Kabir Taneja claimed that “South Asia’s complex socio-political and socio-cultural narratives remain an open door to ISIS’s marketable fantasy, more than an ideology.”
Deep penetration of ISIS could be identified in, for example, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Reportedly, ISIS has been active in territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The significance of Pakistan cannot be ignored as some talk of Isisization of Pakistan.
India has become an ISIS focal point in the last five years. A map published by ISIS in 2014 included the Western regions of India as a part of its global caliphate. In a symbolic move, ISIS also declared India as one of its provinces (Wilayah of Hind) in 2019. In the recent past, it has also asked its agents in the region to carry out attacks on India. The organization pays particular attention to recruitment in India primarily through social media.
The question is, why would ISIS not have an interest in Sri Lanka when South Asia and India have become a significant part of its plans. Compared to many other states of South Asia, Sri Lanka is an open society. It has a sizable and significant Muslim population and a small group of radicalized Muslim youth.
Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean is a blessing as well as a curse. The location has attracted too many foreign actors, some with ulterior motives. If one wants to infiltrate India, Sri Lanka is an ideal place. This goes to ISIS as well. A recent NDTV report suggested that “15 ISIS terrorists had set off from Sri Lanka to the Lakshadweep islands” of Kerala. This could be an important story in this unfolding saga. I would not be surprised if foreign nationals, including Indians, were trained in the alleged training camp discovered in Kurunegala.
Since the threat from ISIS is too severe, India is keeping a close watch on the ISIS activities in the region. This perhaps led to the intelligence that Sri Lanka was going to be attacked. Indians passed this information on to their Sri Lankan counterparts, who unfortunately ignored the warning. Therefore, one cannot say that ISIS did not choose Sri Lanka. In fact, Blank does not make this assertion with confidence. He only stated, “it appears” that ISIS did not choose Sri Lanka.
Blank’s assertion that ISIS merely extended “skill-set and training” when the Sri Lankan group “chose” or approached ISIS for support, overestimates Zahran Group’s capacity. Initially, it was a small group with radical ideologies and was involved in minor offenses. Some of them were known for vandalism. One cannot expect ISIS, a global institution with universal aspirations, to simply extend support and remain uninterested. The reported sums of money unearthed from suspects were jaw-dropping for a small group like the NTJ. The enormous resources the group possessed do not suggest mere support and training from ISIS.
The critical problem with Blank’s theory is that it could induce complacency and inaction within the law enforcement agencies. In other words, if believed, Blank’s underlying assumption that ISIS has no interest in Sri Lanka could have grave policy, and practical implications. So many suspects have already been arrested throughout the country, and some of the government leaders have been suggesting that the danger has been brought under control. If it is mere local violence, the problem has been nipped in the bud rather quickly.
What if it is more than local violence and an ISIS backed danger is still present? That would mean another catastrophe in Sri Lanka or the region. I presume that Sri Lankan authorities do not know much about ISIS strategies and tactics and they most likely are learning only now. However, senseless unimaginably brutal violence is ISIS’s M.O. Sri Lanka cannot afford another mass killing.
Therefore, Sri Lankans should take the assertion that “ISIS did not
choose Sri Lanka” with a pinch of salt. The likely scenario is that
sensing the presence of radicalized and willing group or groups of
Muslim youth in a strategically significant location, ISIS exploited
them to further its global agenda. The Sri Lankan group became a
vulnerable target of powerful propaganda and recruitment schemes of