Event ReportsPublished on May 08, 2019
There is a serious terror threat posed by ISIS fighters returning to their home countries after losing the Syria expedition. While it was important to trace the routes taken by these foreign fighters — both in and out of Syria — one needn’t go to Syria to become radicalised through the ISIS ideology.
With Easter blasts, fear of terrorism back in Sri Lanka

“The meticulous planning and coordination with which the bomb blasts were carried out suggests a global terror link to the Sri Lankan blasts on Easter Sunday,” said Col. R. Hariharan of ex-Military Intelligence who was part of the IPKF operations in the island nation. He was initiating a panel discussion organised by Observer Research Foundation in Chennai on 27 April 2019. Titled ‘Sri Lanka: Easter Day Blasts,’ a three-speaker panel discussed the challenges and impact of the blasts on Sri Lanka’s security, economy and politics.

Outlining the major security concerns highlighted by the bombings, Col. Hariharan said: “Unless the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) had developed close links with jihadi terrorist groups, it would neither have the resources nor the capability to carry out such attacks.” According to him, “the NTJ is a small radical Islamic outfit which came into prominence last year after its leader gained notoriety by preaching blasphemy against Buddhism and defacing Buddhist statues.” It did not have the capability to carry out multiple coordinated attacks of the type seen on Easter Sunday, without external help and training, he said.

Virulent ideology

Additionally, reports that concluded the suicide-bombers used TATP, chemically known as triacetone triperoxide, led Col. Hariharan to believe that there was a strong link between the Easter bombings and the ISIS. Explosive material from previous ISIS attacks such as the Maalbeek Metro bombing in Brussels (2016), the Paris attacks on the Bataclan Theatre and the Stade de France (2018), as well as the Manchester Arena bombing (2017) were identified as TATP. As he pointed out, TATP cannot be detected by standard bomb-sensing equipment. Hence, it is being used by many terror outfits, including the ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah, he added.

Several terrorism analysts and intelligence professionals around the world have been referring to the threat posed by ISIS fighters returning to their home countries after losing the Syria expedition. While it was important to trace the routes taken by these foreign fighters, both in and out of Syria, Col. Hariharan argued that one needn’t go to Syria to become radicalised through the ISIS ideology.

In this regard, “ISIS ideology is really very virulent,” remarked Col. Hariharan. “While ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq may have been cleared, the ideology is spreading.” In conclusion, Col. Hariharan said: “Analysing the Sri Lankan blasts, particularly the Shangri La hotel-attack, it appears that the ISIS is becoming more decentralised than we in the strategic community would like to think.”

Impact on the economy

Somi Hazari, trade & business analyst, explored the economic impact of the Easter Day blasts. Although the country’s Central Bank Governor, Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, has said that it is far too early to quantify the economic impact from the attacks — it appears to have affected investment confidence and tourist sentiment, creating an atmosphere of fear and panic, Hazari said.

The tourism sector is likely to be the most affected given that it makes up five percent of the country’s GDP, Hazari assessed. Several analysts have downgraded Sri Lanka’s growth forecast. Capital Economics (macroeconomic research consultancy) downgraded its forecast from 3.2 percent previously to one percent.

Hazari went on to explain that in a small island nation such as Sri Lanka, different sectors are closely linked. Therefore, while the tourism sector will be the most affected, its spill-over impact will be felt in the food and beverage sector too. Similarly, the net cancellation due to travel advisories being issued by the US and the UK will see a fall-out on insurance policies, he pointed out.

The Sri Lankan economy has been affected by the instability prior to the blasts caused by the political turmoil in October 2018, Hazari recalled. Investor-sentiment took a big hit as a result of this 51-day political crisis and the Sri Lankan rupee dropped due to heavy outflow of foreign funds. The impact of the current situation is yet to be seen but Hazari believed that the rupee would depreciate, adversely affecting the balance of payments situation further. In any case, Sri Lanka was known to ‘spend more than they earn,’ he noted.

In conclusion, Hazari said: “Given that Sri Lanka has just come out of a dark period of bloodshed and civil war, it is important for India, as the larger neighbour, to really consider its options on how to help Sri Lanka as the Government there tries to restore a sense of normalcy and to inject growth into to its economy.” He pointed out that the EU had offered a substantial GSP package, allowing Sri Lankan ceramics and crockery to enter the EU with very little duty. “We in India have to look very carefully at how to help Sri Lanka with quotas, perhaps a 25 percent value addition instead of 35 percent,” he suggested.

Lack of coordination

Speaking on the internal politics, especially the recent political wrangling between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which might have contributed to security lapses, N. Sathiya Moorthy, Director, ORF-Chennai, began by saying: “There is a visible lack of coordination. Bad blood between the President and the Prime Minister, and the chaos it has engendered, may partly explain the intelligence failure.”

Moorthy stressed that at this point in time there remained more questions than answers, such as: “Who trained the perpetrators in bomb-making, where and how? What were the motivating factors? Was it the ‘Islamic State' brand of radicalisation, for reasons known and unknown, or local alienation caused by a series of episodes involving two other major ethnicities, namely, the Sinhala-Buddhist majority and the Sri Lankan Tamils, or both?”

According to media reports coming out of Sri Lanka, Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Punith Jayasundara is believed to have previously sent out a nation-wide alert on the possibility of a local Muslim radical group, National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), planning attacks on Easter Sunday, based on ‘foreign intelligence alert’ — later identified as Indian agencies. Why then was no precautionary action taken? Post-blasts, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the head of the Catholic Church in the country, went on record to say that they would have cancelled all Easter masses if they had been given advance alert.

Moorthy explained: “The question then arises if the political and bureaucratic administration were brought into the loop.. What kind of action was initiated, and at what levels? If nothing else, it was customary even otherwise for a security-conscious nation like Sri Lanka a decade after the LTTE’s exit to have done immediate background-checks on the NCJ offices and office-bearers, to see what they were up to.”

The speaker, however, cautioned that, “though it is tempting to jump to conclusions however considered they may be, any claim should be vetted by the Sri Lankan security agencies for independent confirmation.” It is also equally important for other nations to be cognisant of the fact that Sri Lanka has only just started recovering from the shock of terrorism since May 2009 when the ethnic war ended, he emphasised.

While admitting it may be too early to say, Moorthy postulated that the political opposition under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is likely to start levelling charges of political irresponsibility against the incumbent Government and its divided leadership(s). “There may now be a new constituency, or an existing one reaffirming their LTTE era faith that only the Rajapaksas can handle terrorism effectively. However, it can boomerang, if pressed too far and too early.” He further added that independent of politics and political parties, the fear of terrorism was back in Sri Lanka.

This report was prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.

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