Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, and the author of Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.
The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka rank among the deadliest terrorist attacks in modern history, and underscore the metastasizing scourge of Islamist violence in Asia. Radical Islamic groups, some affiliated with larger extremist networks, have been quietly gaining influence in an arc of countries extending from the Maldivian to the Philippine archipelagos, and the threat they pose can no longer be ignored.
Asia – not the Middle East – is the region most afflicted by terrorist violence. Home to the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, it is also host to multiple “terrorist safe havens,” owing to the rise of grassroots radical movements and years of complacency on the part of policy-makers.
With more than 250 people dead, the Sri Lanka bombings were five times deadlier than the March 15 massacre by a white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The death toll is also more than that of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which involved ten Pakistan-based militants in one of the modern world’s longest-ever terrorist sieges.
By targeting international hotels and iconic churches, the Islamists behind the Sri Lankan blasts clearly intended to strike a blow against Sri Lanka’s rapidly increasing tourism industry, a mainstay of the country’s debt-ridden economy.
Although suicide bombings were not uncommon during the country’s 26-year civil war, which pitted the ethnic Sinhalese majority against the minority Tamils, Sri Lanka has not previously experienced co-ordinated violence on this scale or a major attack by Islamist militants.
The civil war ended in 2009, when the Sri Lanka Army brutally crushed the last of the Tamil separatist rebels. But that outcome sowed the seeds of religious conflict between the country’s mainly Buddhist Sinhalese and a Muslim minority that constitutes one-tenth of the population.
Sri Lanka’s Muslim population is largely concentrated in the Eastern Province, where Saudi and other Gulf funding has fuelled the rise of jihadist groups seeking to enforce sharia (Islamic law). The group suspected of carrying out the Easter bombings, the National Thowfeek Jamaath, thrived in this setting. Like the similarly named outfit Sri Lanka Thawheed Jama’ath and the rapidly growing Tamil Nadu Thoweed Jamath in southernmost India, its primary goal is to foment militant Islamic fundamentalism.
We now know that Indian intelligence had tipped off Sri Lankan security agencies about the Easter bombing plot, even identifying its alleged masterminds. Yet, owing to political infighting between Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the latter was kept in the dark. Accordingly, many are now blaming the failure on Mr. Sirisena, who oversees the security agencies.
Although its extremist enclave in Syria and Iraq has crumbled and its leaders are on the run, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the bombings. Like al-Qaeda before it, the Islamic State wants to demonstrate its continued relevance by taking credit for attacks in areas where it has no presence.
Unfortunately, as the Sri Lanka bombings and other attacks in Asia show, the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has only intensified the terrorism challenge, because battle-hardened fighters with the operational training to stage savage attacks are now returning home. The presence of such returnees in Sri Lanka explains how an obscure local group was able to carry out sophisticated, near-simultaneous strikes on three churches and three hotels, using military-grade explosives.
Returnees are present in many other Asian countries as well, from the Philippines and Indonesia to the Maldives and Uzbekistan.
To be sure, official discrimination against Muslims has contributed to Islamists’ increasing influence, particularly in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Thailand’s four southernmost provinces and the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. But so have Saudi-funded madrasas (religious seminaries) and social-media platforms, which facilitate fundraising, recruitment and dissemination of jihadist propaganda. Hence, jihadist violence has also come to threaten predominantly Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Kazakhstan. And in some cases – namely Pakistan – the state itself is abetting violent extremists.
If left unaddressed, this scourge could become the defining crisis of the century for Asian countries. To prevent that outcome, the fount of jihadist extremism – Wahhabi fanaticism – must be cut off. As the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew said, preventing terrorist attacks requires that we eliminate the “queen bees” (the preachers of hatred and violence) who are inspiring the “worker bees” (suicide bombers) to become martyrs. The global war on terror, launched by the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001, is losing steam. Unless it is invigorated and prosecuted to the end, many more innocent lives will be lost.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019