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Lanka attacks: S Asian nations must join hands against terror

This cooperation must extend beyond counterterrorism efforts and fight all kinds of religious radicalisation

analysis Updated: Apr 23, 2019 18:13 IST
SD Muni
SD Muni
Teachers hold candles as they pray for the victims of Sri Lanka's serial bomb blasts, Ahmedabad, April 22, 2019(REUTERS)

Ten years after winning a decisive war against terror, Sri Lanka is under attack by terrorists once again. The attack has indeed been devastating, reminding Sri Lanka of its horror of Tamil Tigers’ attack on its Trade Centre tower and airport. But there were no Tamil Tiger signatures, though suicide terrorism was involved, on the serial bombing in Colombo and other places on April 21. These attacks are a class by themselves, in their organisation and precision. Hotels and churches were attacked in eight blasts, killing more than 300 and injuring nearly 500 people. The possibility of further attacks are not ruled out. Intelligence alerts were sounded on April 11, but they were not heeded seriously.

One of the hotels under attack was in the close vicinity of the Indian high commission building as well as Temple Trees, the official residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This suggests that such important targets were also on the terrorists’ antennas. More than two dozen arrests have been made. Sri Lanka has been put under emergency regulations.

A little-known Islamic extremist group, National Towheeth Jama’ath, has been officially named to have been behind the attacks. This group comprises Syria returnees and was held responsible for vandalising Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. It was in conflict with the radical nationalist Sinhala Buddhist group, Bodhi Baal Sena, who had been campaigning against the Rohingyas. However, on Tuesday, Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility. The group’s Amaq News sent a tweet citing a ‘security source’ as saying the attacks were the work of “fighters of the Islamic State.” Interpol has joined the investigation to help identify potential international connections, with attention also focused on a second extremist group known as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.

It is, however, intriguing that the targets in this serial bombing have not been Sinhala Buddhists. They are the Christian community and foreign tourists living in five star hotels. This points a finger towards the attempts of the terrorists to send a message to the West that Islamic radicals are alive and kicking. This is perhaps an answer to the pressure on the IS in Syria and elsewhere.

The US is extracting an assurance from the Taliban in Afghanistan in the process of working out its own exit and a peace process, that the Taliban will not provide shelter and support either to al-Qaeda or IS extremists. A vague assurance has already been extended by the Taliban in the last Doha round talks to the US representative, Zalmey Khalilzad, that it will try its best in this respect.

The IS links for the Sri Lankan terror are strongly evident. It is possibly trying to state that the US’s efforts to root it out will not succeed. The Sri Lankan blasts also suggest that the Islamic State has developed its base in south Asia. It may be recalled here that more than a couple of years back, the IS had announced opening a South Asia chapter. The Rohingya exodus from Myanmar must have provided new recruits to this chapter. There have also been repeated reports of Maldives feeding the IS and Maldives has diverse and multiple financial and political linkages in Sri Lanka.

The country’s failure in responding to the intelligence alerts against possible terrorist attacks speaks poorly of Sri Lanka’s law and order preparedness. This could be due to political confusion and differences within the Sri Lankan ruling coalition, especially between the president and the prime minister. Lapses on the part of Sri Lanka’s defence establishment, which is directly under the control of president Sirisena, have been publicly criticised by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. It is time that such political differences and confusion, if any, may be addressed keeping in view the possibility of more such terrorist attacks. Sri Lanka has the principal responsibility to be fully prepared to confront the new challenge of terrorism.

The international community has solidly stood by Sri Lanka in this hour of crisis. India has come forward to extend all possible help. In fact, the April 11 security alert had been shared by India to the Sri Lankan security establishment. This includes China, though it was a bit late.

Shangri-La, one of the hotels attacked, had been built only recently by the Chinese in Colombo. One hopes that this attack will prompt China to think seriously on Islamic terrorists of south Asia, and not compromise on them for political exigencies of friendship with countries like Pakistan.

The Sri Lankan development prepares a solid ground for countries like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Maldives to work together more extensively and effectively to counter terrorism in the region. This cooperation must extend beyond counterterrorism efforts and include fight against Islamic and all other religious radicalisation.

SD Muni is Professor Emeritus, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 23, 2019 17:40 IST