The need of the hour, after Colombo massacre, is to greatly step up our internal vigilance, strengthen our capacities to combat terrorism in terms of our institutional efficiencies, technical capacities, the quality of manpower, the level of training and so on
he spectre of Islamic terrorism in our region has become more threatening with the horrific terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka. The scale of the terrorist attacks, targeting several churches and hotels at the same time, the careful planning involved, accessing the bomb-making material, and, above all, brain-washing and motivating so many individuals to commit mass murder of innocents in the name of Islam are points of great concern to India as a neighbouring country, and internationally as well.
Mourners attend a mass burial, two days after a series of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, at a cemetery near St Sebastian Church in Negombo on April 23, 2019
According to reports, the Indian High Commission was an intended target and so was an Indian-owned hotel. This means that the perpetrators of the terrorist carnage had indirectly planned an assault on Indian assets in mind too.
It is quite clear that an elaborate attack of this kind has to have external support, not only by way of inspiration but also material support by way of provision of explosive material, know-how for turning it into a useable device and planning as well as training to stage a simultaneous attack without detection. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack and has circulated a photograph of the terrorists involved. A little known, small extremist group, National Thowheeth Jamath, is apparently involved. That the Sri Lankan authorities reportedly received intelligence inputs from India about a potential terrorist threat to churches in Sri Lanka during Easter and failed to act on them adds to the tragedy.
The implications of this massive terrorist attack for India are serious. India cannot be totally immune to the possibility of such an attack whatever the precautions taken, and however alert our agencies are. We have seen how countries like the US, France or the UK, which realise their vulnerabilities and are well organised to monitor such threats have suffered major terrorist attacks. This underlines the essential vulnerability of all societies to the maniacal attacks by Islamic extremists. The Pulwama attack exposed our vulnerability to those determined to kill themselves in the name of Islam, driven by exaggerated self-created narratives of persecution at the hands of the Indian state. That attack occurred in a volatile, violence-prone environment where our armed forces and intelligence services are alert and active on the ground and are combating the terrorist threat on a daily basis. Yet, those who hatched this terrorist conspiracy managed to get access to a large amount of high-grade explosive material undetected by our agencies.
We have to, therefore, draw the right lesson from the mayhem in Sri Lanka because it can be repeated on our soil. The modus operandi may not be the same. Churches may not be attacked but temples can be, and instead of hotels crowded places in cities can be targeted as has happened in the past. The Islamic State may have been defeated on the ground in terms of their physical possession of territory, but the mental territory that engenders this kind of mindless violence has not been conquered, and cannot be conquered easily. In fact, the ideology has spread and taken roots in many parts of the world, even in remote corners in Africa where small Muslim communities have got radicalised and present a threat to the societies they live in.
Closer at home, the Islamic State has supposedly established roots in Afghanistan. While a distinction is being made between the Islamic State and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the argument made that the Taliban, conscious of their Afghan identity are opposed to the Arabic origins of the Islamic State and reaching out to the Taliban will, therefore, help counter the Islamic State operatives, there is the opposite thinking that the Islamic State elements in Afghanistan are merely elements of the Taliban masquerading as such in order to dupe the Americans and others into dealing with them and accommodate them in the power structure in Afghanistan. The point here is that that the kind of ideology that has prompted the massacre of innocents in Sri Lanka is gaining strength in our region and their access to power is being facilitated with the help of Pakistan. Given Pakistan’s unremitting hostility towards India and its policy of using terrorism as an instrument of state policy towards us, the terrorist threat to India will become stronger.
If the developing scenario is that the killing of Muslims anywhere, as happened in New Zealand, is a legitimate reason to stage revenge attacks against Christians anywhere as well places frequented by Westerners who are mostly Christian, India has to be doubly careful. The narrative about various forms of atrocities against Muslim Kashmiris, not to mention incidents of lynching of Muslims in India that is hugely exaggerated by elements in our society in order to denigrate the ruling party and Hindutva in particular without thought to what it is doing to the country’s image abroad, increases our vulnerabilities on the terrorism front.
The government is aware of the broader danger from Islamist organisations with a global agenda of terrorism. In June 2018 the AQIS (Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent) and ISIS-K (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham-Khorasan), an Afghanistan-based affiliate of ISIS were declared unlawful by the government because they were found to be radicalising educated Indian youths for “global jihad” and encouraging terror attacks against Indian interests.
The terror attacks in Sri Lanka raise the level of the terrorist threat in our region as a whole. Bangladesh has already been the victim of murderous terrorist attacks and could be exposed to more. What might be an especially worrying element in the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka and earlier in Bangladesh, the perpetrators are well-educated and belong to middle-class families. They are not economically deprived, ignorant individuals who do not see much of a future for themselves and are therefore vulnerable to exhortations by imams and preachers to perform acts in the name of religion and become martyrs with the assurance of a very rewarding after-life.
According to reports about 100, Sri Lankan Muslims joined the Islamic State. According to available information, 103 persons accused of being ISIS sympathisers have been arrested across 14 states by the National Investigative Agency. Telangana had most arrests per 100,000 Muslim population in the state, followed by Uttarakhand, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Over 100 people from Kerala are suspected to have joined ISIS over the years according to the Kerala police.
The international conspiracy behind the Sri Lankan terrorist attacks could well be a trial run for a similar attack in southern India, especially in Kerala where pockets of Islamist elements exist. The view that the plan could well be to open up a new terrorist front at the opposite end of Kashmir, in southern India, in order to stretch the resources of the Indian state to the maximum extent. This would point to a Pakistan connection where the jihadi forces remain strong under the protection of the Pakistani agencies. All in all, the need of the hour after the Colombo attacks is to greatly step up our internal vigilance, strengthen our capacities to combat terrorism in terms of our institutional efficiencies, technical capacities, the quality of manpower, the level of training and so on. At the same time our cooperation with foreign countries, already growing, has to expand further, particularly as international concerns about Islamic terrorism are getting stronger with the rash of terrorist attacks across the world.
(The writer is a former Foreign Secretary, Govt of India)