The coordinated terror attacks on three major churches and three prime hotels in and around Colombo on the morning of Easter Mass – with two more such incidents occurring in the afternoon – all resulting in huge casualties of over 350 dead, including a score of Western foreigners and some 500 injured, is a covert offensive of global significance that is going to set the security agenda for the democratic world in general and for South Asia in particular.
The horrific events of Sri Lanka were designed to create a long-range impact on this entire region. It took little time for strategic observers to attribute the war like act – and its planning and execution – to Islamic radicals owing allegiance to the network of al-Qaeda and ISIS and acting in conjunction with local extremists. A statement has since come from the ISIS claiming that the suicide bombings at Colombo were carried out by the 'fighters of the Islamic State' even as Sri Lanka authorities also confirmed the complicity of the National Tawheeth Jamaat, a radical outfit known to be active in Colombo for some time and having links with Pakistan. A number of suspects have been picked up and investigations are on.
In a broader perspective it seems the Colombo offensive had something to do with the aftermath of current developments in the two theaters of 'war on terror’ – the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt and the Syria-Iraq region. It is significant that large Church congregations and hotels where Western tourists might be housed were targeted, that suicide bombers were used by the planners and that a body of radicalized youth already available on the Sri Lankan soil in the environ of extremism created by the likes of Tawheeth Jamaat facilitated the terrorist operation. The scale of planning, induction of huge amounts of explosives – a hundred unused detonators besides a large pipe bomb were also subsequently recovered – and the likely involvement of forces overseas, give an idea of the enormity of the attacks.
On the face of it, inadequacy of local Intelligence attracted attention particularly because there was reportedly an intelligence warning from India that radicals were planning to attack churches in Colombo. Obviously, the spread of radical Islam in Sri Lanka was underestimated – there might have been some false comfort taken from the demographic distribution of communities. In the context of the Colombo violence the background of the Buddhist-Muslim conflict of the past seems to have fueled the play of radical Islam. According to the Sri Lankan government, the killing of Muslims congregating at the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand by a heavily armed White supremacist and right-wing fanatic in March last acted as the trigger for the Colombo bombings.
The new pressure mounted by the U.S. against ISIS and the al Qaeda-Taliban in the run-up to a withdrawal of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan has driven the Islamic radicals to take on their adversary in other regions. In the geo-politics of South Asia, Pakistan has emerged as the sustainer of Islamic extremism and radical outfits. The al-Qaeda on Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) that came into existence in 2014 operates out of Pakistan with patronage from Pakistan's ISI. There was the hand of ISI in the display of ISIS flags by Islamic militants in the Kashmir valley in recent months. Also, the suicide bomber who killed CRPF Jawans at Pulwama was raised by Jaish-e-Mohammad, a known collaborator of the Taliban. The stated aim of AQIS is to establish Islamic state in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. All of these factors are relevant to an analysis of the Colombo outrage and important for India's planning to deal with the new terror.
The question of a possible rise of network of Islamic radicals in South Asia – with Pakistan providing its anchorage – deserves a serious probe. The 'war on terror' is first and foremost a combat between the Islamic radicals and the U.S.-led West but the supporters of the U.S. in this confrontation as well as the world of idolatrous people are also targeted by the former with the same venomous determination. It seems the radicals are trying to dominate the Muslim world in Asia and Africa in the name of Jehad knowing full well that the call of defense of Islam would get a silent endorsement from the rest of the Islamic world as well.
The ideological baton is always raised by the Ulema and the elite of the community and the common Muslims have historically not been able to resist their sway. It has to be remembered that after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan it is the Pakistan ISI-army combine that had installed the first Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan at Kabul under the leadership of al-Qaeda-Taliban axis in 1996. The ouster of that regime by the U.S. in 2001 laid the groundwork for the 9/11 attack and the retaliatory launch of the 'war on terror' in Afghanistan and Iraq thereafter.
The dastardly terror attacks in Sri Lanka – extremely tragic as they are in terms of the loss of innocent lives in brutal violence – have to be seen in their geo-political dimension as the forerunner of what lies ahead for the democratic world order. The attacks were intended to produce an impact beyond Sri Lanka and put a stamp on the new global confrontation that is building up post-Cold War along what the U.S. scholars called a 'clash of civilizations' after 9/11.
More specifically, the character of the 'war on terror' as something that created faith-based motivation for Islamic militants engaged in a direct confrontation with the U.S.-led West, cannot be ignored. This driving force has something to do also with the historical recall of the first Jehad led by the prominent Ulema of the 19th Century – including Abdul Wahab – that was launched against the Western or Christian encroachment on Muslim lands. Terror attacks occurring in Europe in recent times were all carried out by Islamic radicals indoctrinated in that legacy – a leaflet left behind on the scene by the terrorists after their attack at Brussels in March 2016 had said in as many words that it was a revenge against the Crusades.
The danger in South Asia is that a recalcitrant Pakistan is not prepared to give up on using Islamic militancy as a weapon against its opponents. Kashmir is already being made a battleground for Jehad as Mujahideen are being steadily infiltrated from across the LOC. Many observers have noted that the big-scale terror attack in Colombo would call for a new level of vigilance in the southern states of India against radicalization. Bodies of Islamic radicals have already attracted notice in Kerala and elsewhere in the region.
An added danger in India is that our domestic politics witnessed extreme communal polarization as the minority votes became a central point in the campaign for the general election. In the recent past, an outfit like the Indian Mujahideen, an offshoot of SIMI, had pushed the narrative in a direction that seemed to justify terrorism as an upshot of the communal divide. For India it is extremely important that there should be a united voice within the country as well as in the democratic world outside against faith-based violence being fomented in the name of Jehad.
(The writer is a former director of the Intelligence Bureau.)