The Middle East comes to Sri Lanka

The Middle East comes to Sri Lanka
© Carl Court/Getty Images

No one who has been paying attention to the rise of jihadist terrorism in Sri Lanka was surprised by the Easter Sunday suicide bombings. The Middle East has come to this Asian island nation.  Or, as Samuel Huntington might put it, Islam’s “bloody borders” are moving eastward.

In last year’s Country Reports on Terrorism, the State Department asserted that in Sri Lanka “there were no terrorist attacks in 2017.” Unfortunately for the country that a decade ago achieved perhaps the greatest victory against terrorists in the history of terrorism, 2018 was a very different year. Violent, offensive jihad is on the rise in Sri Lanka, and 2019 is turning out to be even worse.

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For over 30 years, Sri Lanka was plagued with violence from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE became so large that it had its own navy and air force, wore uniforms and became what French scholar Xavier Raufer called part of the “grey area phenomenon” — a category between clandestine terror organization and nation state.

When Majinda Rajapaska was elected president of Sri Lanka in 2005 and made his brother Gotabhaya the country’s defense minister, they reversed a decades-long policy of addressing grievances and negotiating with the LTTE. Subsequently, Sri Lanka waged a war so effective that the Tamil Tigers now exists only in memories and a few websites.

But today Sri Lanka has a jihad problem. The Islamist threat grew quickly and has spread rapidly, beginning in 2016 when ISIS propaganda videos claimed that Sri Lankan medical doctors were treating jihad fighters in Raqqa. In 2016, Sri Lanka’s justice minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told parliament that 32 “well-educated and elite” Muslims from Sri Lanka had joined ISIS to fight in Syria.

This year started out with an Islamic State training camp discovered and disrupted before the plot to destroy numerous Buddhist monuments in the city of Anuradhapura could be carried out.  Now the jihadists in Sri Lanka are turning their attention to Christians and tourists.

The Easter Sunday attack was a “multiple event” operation — eight explosions claiming over 300 lives at Christian churches and tourist hotels within a 30-minute span. A sophisticated plot such as this is well beyond the means of the group credited with the attack, calling itself the National Thowheed Jamaath. Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Tajitha Senaratnean acknowledged the existence of an “international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”  ISIS propagandists have been celebrating and taking credit for the attacks, even naming the suicide bombers as Sri Lankan jihadists.

This international network is abetted by the many Sri Lankan jihadists who returned home after the physical disruption of ISIS beginning in 2016. As Sri Lankan journalist Shwe Kalaung put it, “By 2017, scores of known Sri Lankan ISIS fighters had returned from Syria.”

Another part of the international network enabling Sri Lanka’s terrorism problem is its growing illegal drug trade. In the South Columbo region of Dehiwala, where Sri Lanka’s largest concentration of Muslims resides, a major drug trafficker named Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar reportedly has set up a distribution hub that has brought record-breaking quantities of heroin into the country. Dawood, as he is commonly called, was designated by the U.S. Department of Treasury a terrorist supporter in 2003.

In 2018, authorities seized 736 kilograms of Dawood’s heroin, according to Sri Lankan police.  Writing in The Afternoon Voice, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury describes Dawood’s D-Company cartel beginning with opium produced in Afghanistan, overseen by the Taliban.  From there, logistics and transportation are arranged through Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), which protects Dawood’s home base in the city of Karachi.

Distribution of the drugs throughout the “Golden Horseshoe Caliphate” nations (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka) is accomplished through consignment, including Islamic gangs that “have become so powerful in Sri Lanka that they are creating an underground army,” according to Choudhury. A portion of the profits are distributed, per ISI orders, to jihadists groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-e-Islami and others.

The nexus of illegal drugs, arms and jihadist ideology foretells more violence in Sri Lanka — unless it can stem the flow of all three. After its success in destroying the ethno-nationalist LTTE organization, the nation needs to turn its attention to the new Middle East-style Islamist terrorism that has woven itself into the fabric of society. Already, many are urging government restraint and warning of an impending anti-Muslim backlash. These forces will be difficult to resist.

A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Follow on Twitter @MEForum.