New challenges of global terrorism

 In G Parthasarathy, HomePageTopics, India & Regions, International & Transnational Affairs, International Security, National Security, SriLanka, Terrorism

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G Parthasarathy                                                                                                  May 23, 2019/Opinion

The people of Sri Lanka have shown courage, wisdom and resilience in recovering from the traumatic effects of the country’s brutal ethnic conflict between 1983 and 2010. An estimated 47,000 Tamil civilians, 27,000 LTTE members, 50,000 Sinhala civilians, 23,790 Sri Lankan soldiers and 1,500 members of the Indian Peace Keeping Force laid down their lives, during the conflict.

he Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, however, did not affect the lives of “Indian Tamils” in Southern Sri Lanka, whose ancestors had migrated, as plantation workers, during British rule. There have, however, been recent incidents of religious tensions between the Sinhala Buddhist clergy and radicalised elements in the Muslim minority. Sri Lanka’s relatively small Christian minority, which is peaceful and relatively affluent, had steered clear of getting drawn into any ethnic conflict.

In these circumstances, the world was shocked to learn that in the midst of holy Easter Sunday church services on April 21, churches in Colombo, Negombo and even the eastern port of Tamil dominated Batticaloa, were hit by bomb explosions.

Three hotels housing a large number of western tourists in Colombo were also targeted. As many as 253 innocent people perished in the carnage.

The “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) soon claimed responsibility for the attack, contradicting President Trump’s claims that the terrorist outfit had been “100 per cent” crushed in Syria. It soon emerged that the mastermind behind the blasts was a rabidly fundamentalist Sri Lankan Tamil, Maulvi Mohammad Zahran Hashim, who was from the town of Kathankudy, in Sri Lanka’s Tamil dominated eastern province.

Indian intelligence agencies had provided timely warnings to the Sri Lankan Government about an impending terrorist strike by the ISIS. These warnings were not seriously taken note of by the Sri Lanka Government. It is, however, imperative that India keeps in touch discreetly with the Sri Lankan Government. We are evidently seeing the beginnings of long-term internal and regional problems and challenges, as ISIS members disperse and regroup, after being ousted from Iraq and Syria, like Al Qaeda and the Taliban did, after American militarily intervention in Afghanistan.

As the ISIS targets in Sri Lanka were the country’s peaceful Christian community and western (Christian) tourists, the bomb attacks sent ripples across the West, as the attacks came soon after the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand, during their Sunday prayers.

Radicalisation drive

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, which has done well economically in the Island, has lived in peace with both Buddhist Sinhalas and Hindu Tamils. Recent studies, however, indicate that some years before the bombings, sections of Tamil Muslims from the eastern province were getting radicalised in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries.

Zahran Hashim was one of those so influenced by radical Islamist practices and beliefs. Cutting across ethnic differences, Hashim made common cause with Sinhala Muslims, including two sons of a Muslim business tycoon in Colombo, who had been deeply influenced by the ISIS. Both the sons died in suicide bomb blasts, even as the wife of another bomber detonated explosives in a suicide bombing the same day, resulting in the deaths of three police personnel.

The Sri Lanka bomb blasts were thus executed by young radicalised Sri Lankan Muslims, cutting across the ethnic divide. Moreover, there are now signs that an estimated 75-100 Indian Muslims, who were with the ISIS in Syria, have dispersed and chosen escape routes, including through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hashim has also reportedly established close institutional links with a counterpart group in Coimbatore and with people in other parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

There are now indications that after being forced out of Iraq and Syria, ISIS fighters have now dispersed across Asia, Africa and even to parts of Europe. While the Osama bin Laden-led Al Qaeda made it clear that its struggle was against “Jews and Crusaders,” the ISIS targets all non-Muslims, as was evident from its brutal killings of Indians in Iraq. Moreover, the Al Qaeda operated primarily out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, apart from select Arab countries. Al Qaeda’s leadership was predominantly Arab. It had very few members from other parts of the world.

The ISIS poses a much more serious challenge to India than the Al Qaeda ever did, primarily because it has recruited its fighters from countries across Europe, Asia and Africa. President George Bush praised India because not a single Indian joined or backed Al Qaeda. But, things are different with ISIS, which regards India as a part of the “Islamic State of Khorasan”. Over 100 Indians are estimated to have joined the ISIS.

Extending its reach

The reach of ISIS across India is evident from its links with extremists in Kashmir, apart from those established in the recent past, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Radicalisation in our southern States poses new and serious security challenges. ISIS also acknowledges its links with associates, across India’s maritime frontiers in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia, Maldives, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It also has a growing presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

India will also have to take note of the distinct possibility of ISIS attempting to take advantage of tensions arising out of the Rohingya refugee crisis. A senior Myanmar official recently revealed that even as ISIS was losing influence in Iraq and Syria, its supporters were moving into Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where Rohingyas reside. Many Rohingya refugees, now in Bangladesh, could well make common cause with ISIS and with members of Pakistani backed militant outfits like the Jamat-ul-Mujahideen, to destabilise the situation along the common borders of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Pakistan has had an abiding interest in destabilising the Sheikh Hasina-led Government in Bangladesh.

Apart from having to deal with continuing Pakistan sponsored terrorism, India will now also have to keep a watch on challenges that would likely arise from the ISIS, with its emerging presence in the southern States. Like in Sri Lanka, ISIS activities could target selected sections of the population in India, while seeking to radicalise them. They will pose a challenge to internal security in India. Finally, Pakistan could be expected to use the challenges posed by ISIS, to absolve itself of responsibility on actions of its trained jihadis, on Indian soil and in Bangladesh. These issues will hopefully receive careful attention after the general elections.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan. He is a Trustee and Visiting Distinguished fellow of TPF.

This article was published earlier in The Hindu: BusinessLine.

Image Credit-Getty through Vox.

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