Who are the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, the group suspected to have carried out the coordinated terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter?
Not much is known about the NTJ, but it has been on the radar of Sri Lanka’s police since about 2017, when the Sinhalese Buddhist fundamentalist group Bodu Bala Sena — which was formed in 2012 but had appeared to lose steam after the 2015 election defeat of President Mahinda Rajapakse — got second wind and heightened its anti-Muslim campaign. The NTJ, believed to be an extremely radical group, is said to be a breakaway faction of the Sri Lanka Thowheeth Jama’ath.
On December 26, 2018, some statues of the Buddha in Mawanella in the Kegalle district of central Sri Lanka were vandalised by men on motorcycles carrying hammers and other instruments. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged to bring the culprits to book, and the police focussed on the NTJ as the main suspect and arrested seven people.
While searching for two other suspects, police stumbled upon a huge cache of explosives and detonators buried in an 80-acre coconut estate in Wanathawilluwa, Puttalam district, north of Colombo. Some 75 kg of ammonium nitrate and potassium chlorate, and six 20-litre cans of nitric acid were dug up, Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times reported. Stashed in a warehouse in the estate were found a shotgun, an air rifle, two tents, religious publications, and dry rations. Four men were arrested, who police said were affiliated with a “radicalised local group of Muslims”.
But none of this foretold the sophistication of the Easter attacks. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had passed through a learning curve from crude bank robberies and targeted shootings to more sophisticated kinds of terrorism, including inventing the human bomb. But the NTJ, if they indeed carried out Sunday’s attacks, appear to have gone from being motorcycle-borne vandals to A-list fidayeen attackers. This is a surprise — even though Cabinet Minister Rajitha Senaratne said the NTJ had received help from an unnamed “international” terror group.
Thowheeth means the oneness of God, which is the central theme of Islam. In this, Towheeth groups are ideologically similar to the ISIS which has its origins in the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, a group that later became part of al-Qaeda. In 2016, the Sri Lankan government told Parliament that 32 youth from well-to-do families had left the country to join the ISIS. In recent years, that number is said to have increased to further. The specific number is uncertain.
So, does Sri Lanka have an Islamist jihadist problem that has not been widely recognised so far? Is there a broader Muslim-Buddhist conflict in the country?
Sri Lanka’s Muslims make up less than 10% of the country’s 21 million people. An overwhelming 70% of the population is Sinhala-Buddhist. Christians are under 7%, and they are both Tamil and Sinhalese. Hindus are 12.6%, and are almost entirely Tamil.
While there were no instances of Sri Lankan jihadist groups, or individual Sri Lankan jihadists going to join the war in Bosnia or Afghanistan, there were concerns from time to time in the 1990s that Wahhabism was gaining ground in the country, especially in the Batticaloa and Ampara districts of eastern Sri Lanka, which have a significant Muslim population. In the entire Eastern district, which includes Trincomalee, Muslims are one-third of the population — Tamils and Sinhalese too, are a third each in the Eastern province.
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Sri Lankan Muslims speak Tamil, and while they aligned themselves politically with the Tigers at one time, there was a break in relations in 1990, when the LTTE suspected that the Indian Army (which was present in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990 as the Indian Peace Keeping Force) had recruited members of the Muslim community as spies, and that they continued to work for the Sri Lankan armed forces. Overnight, the Tigers evicted some 90,000 Muslims from Jaffna. Many of them settled in refugee camps in Puttalam district, where many live to this day.
A separate Muslim political consciousness arose through the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in that decade. The SLMC articulated a demand for separate Muslim enclaves within a Tamil North-East, but the Tamil political class, pushing for political autonomy in the North-East, did not encourage it. For its part, the LTTE carried out violent attacks on Muslims in Batticaloa’s Kattankudy, killing hundreds in two mosque attacks in the early 1990s.
Soon afterward, new mosques came up in the area that were said to be funded from Saudi Arabia. Arabic words entered the Tamil dialect spoken by Muslims in the East.
However, groups like the Sri Lanka Towheeth Jama’ath and NTJ did not exist until a few years ago.Some observers see causality between the emergence of these groups and the rise of Buddhist fundamentalism in the militaristic atmosphere and triumphalism of post-war Sri Lanka. The unresolved post-war issues have added to the sharpening of Buddhist majoritarian consciousness. It was almost as if Buddhist extremists were looking for another “enemy” to take the place of Tamils, who they believed had been subjugated entirely with the defeat of the LTTE. This has led to at least one serious anti-Muslim incident every year since 2013. Last year, serious clashes erupted in March, fuelled by rumours on social media. That was the first time Sri Lanka reimposed Emergency regulations after lifting them at the end of the war.
If there is a Muslim-Buddhist problem in the country, why was the Christian minority targeted? What signals were being sent, and to whom?
This is where finding causality in local motives for Sunday’s attacks comes up short. The attack on Christians, who are an even smaller minority than Muslims, does not square up as a fallout of the Buddhist-Muslim tensions. Targeting churches on Easter seemed designed to attract maximum international attention, as was the targeting of five-star hotels, frequented by high-end international tourists, diplomats, professionals and wealthy Sri Lankans. All the hotels were hosting a customary and popular Easter brunch at the time of the attacks.
How does Islamist extremism in Sri Lanka sit with similar impulses in the wider Indian Ocean region, specifically the Maldives?
The Maldives has been a country of greater concern than Sri Lanka where Islamist radicalism is concerned. More than 200 Maldivian youth were believed to have joined the ISIS by the end of December 2015. Present estimates are not available, but the numbers have gone up. Considering that Maldives has a population of only 4,50,000, this is a huge number. The atolls have long been a playground for preachers of radical Islam, encouraged under the Gayoom dictatorship.
What are the takeaways for India from this situation with regard to jihadist extremism in the Indian Ocean region?
Domestically, India has been sanguine about its own multicultural success story, which has prevented radical Islamist ideologies from taking root. There have been fewer than 100 ISIS recruits from India. But the rise of militant Hindutva, the attacks on Muslims, and the gradual political marginalisation of the Indian Muslim population have been flagged by experts as potential flashpoints.
Strategically, the destabilisation, for whatever reason, of Sri Lanka, a country that India counts as a close friend and ally despite the problems arising from competing Chinese interests, undermines India’s interests in the Indian Ocean region.
Is there any link between the blasts and the political instability in Sri Lanka?
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said “prior information” existed about terrorist attacks being imminent in the country, but he was not kept in the loop. It is clear that the dysfunction at the highest levels of government, between the Prime Minister and President Maithripala Sirisena, prevented a studied and serious response to the intelligence inputs that Sri Lanka received from India, on the basis of which the Sri Lanka police sent out a nationwide alert warning of attacks on the Indian High Commission and churches across the country.