Sheikh Hasina’s de-radicalisation policy a model for South Asia

The deadly series bomb blasts in multiple locations in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday brought home once again the grave threats by religious radicalization to South Asia. Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar’s Arakan province, the Maldives besides Sri Lanka—all have bore the brunt of radicalization over the last so many years.

 The incidents in Sri Lanka has shattered a decade-long calm the island nation has experienced since the stamping out of the terror outfit Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) in military operations in 2009. The ferocity and massive scale and spread of Easter Sunday’s attacks on a single day ranging from Batticola in eastern Sri Lanka to Negombo on the west have surpassed anything witnessed during the three-decade of militancy by the LTTE. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks on churches and five-star hotels and its signature is clear on the incidents.

Anti-terror experts believe the IS has helped a hitherto little-known Sri Lankan home-grown Salafist outfit National Towheeth Jamaath (NTJ) in carrying out the attacks which reflected long-term planning, coordination and resources which would not have been possible without outside assistance in terms of arranging logistics and providing training. Indian security experts believe NTJ is an offshoot of Saudi Arabia-funded Thoheed Jamaath, which is wedded to Wahabi ideology, in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu whose souhernmost tip is just across Sri Lanka and is separated by a narrow stretch of the sea. 

The geographical proximity between Sri Lanka and South India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala, had seen cross-border movement of LTTE cadres and is now witnessing exchanges of Islamic radicals. Indian intelligence agencies have learnt about the presence of jihadists in Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram near Rameshwaam, which is a few nautical miles from Sri Lanka. These jihadists with suspected links to the group that carried out the Sri Lanka attacks on Easter Sunday are believed to be sleeper cells trying to set up bases in southern India including contiguous states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.  

The attacks bring out two main aspects: (1) religious motivation as churches, particularly devotees attending the Easter mass were targeted and (2) hurting a major component of Sri Lanka’s economy—tourism sector—by aiming at luxury hotels and foreign tourists irrespective of their nationalities and religious identities. More importantly, the incidents brought to fore the religious faultlines that have been simmering in Sri Lanka for a long time, particularly since the end of the LTTE. Barring one incident of attack by the LTTE on a church in Mannar in 1980s, the Tamil separatist group had been careful not to target the Catholic church which had been to the Tamil cause. But that had sown the seeds of radicalization among Muslims in eastern Sri Lanka.

It was only after Sri Lankan government’s victory in the military offensive against the LTTE that the trajectory of developments in Sri Lanka took a worrying turn with the radical Buddhist groups of majority Sinhalese, particularly  Bodhi Baal Sena (BBS), turning their wrath on Muslims and Christians who, as per the 2011 census, comprise under ten per cent and just over seven percent of the country’s 21 million population of which Buddhists represent 70 per cent. This only provided added impetus to radicalization among Muslims in that country. Notably, the NTJ was set up just five years ago Kattankudy, a Muslim-majority town in eastern Sri Lanka. 

NTJ founder Zahran Hashim perished while carrying out the suicide attack at Shangri-La hotel with military grade explosives on Easter Sunday. Prior to these attacks, the NTJ has been known largely for defacing Buddhist statues, says B S Prakash, a former Deputy High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka, in a new

spaper article.

Cheran Rudhramoorthy, a Sri Lankan Tamil academic in Canada, writes in a newspaper article that Muslims and their business entities in Sri Lanka have come under increasing attacks since the anti-LTTE operations got over.   

 The dangers posed by the NTJ went beyond Sri Lanka’s border into nearby southern India. If Indian media reports quoting federal intelligence officials are anything to go by, Hashim features in a video in which he is heard asking Muslim youths in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala to establish an Islamic rule in the region. The video was found by India’s counter-terror organization National Investigation Agency (NIA)  in a raid conducted on the premises of six Islamic State suspects in Tamil Nadu in December last year. Hashim, the reports said, had a role in radicalizing these six suspects.

 There are sleeper IS cells in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore and Hashim was reportedly in touch with some IS operatives in Bangladesh. What this clearly underlines is the cross-border implications of the challenges posed by radicalization, much like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) which, according to NIA,  had conspired to overthrow the duly-elected Sheikh Hasina government and establish a Caliphate rule in Bangladesh and extending to some border areas of West Bengal. The similarity of the objective of Hashim and JMB is unmistakable. Several Sri Lankan Muslims who had joined the IS fighting machine in Syria recently returned to their country. 

The Sri Lankan authorities also busted a jihadi training camp and recovered about 100kg of explosives in Puttalam district in January this year. So, you have jihadists eyeing territories to India’s south and south western borders with Sri Lanka and the Maldives and to the eastern frontier with Bangladesh.     

 The bloodbath in Sri Lanka has strong and dangerous implications for the entire South Asia. One has seen the problem of radicalization in the Maldives from where more than 100 Muslim youth had gone to Syria to fight for the IS and the rise of Arakan Salvation Army in Rakhine following the atrocities on Rohingyas in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. One thing is clear: none in South Asia is insulated from the threats of radicalization and terrorism. 

The imperatives of a robust cooperation among governments and security agencies of South Asia could not be overstated now as a terror incident in one country of the region is most likely to have links in another. Such cooperation needs to cover intelligence-sharing about cross-border movement of terrorists and the presence of sleeper cells of terror outfits in their territories, operational issues and tracking of the flow of funds for terrorists.

 It is heartening to see India providing technical and intelligence assistance to Sri Lanka to probe the East Sunday incidents. So are the United States and Morocco. In fact, it was India which was the first to alert Sri Lanka on April 4 about the Easter Sunday attacks. That Lankan authorities failed to act on that alert is a testimony of the dysfunctional government in the island nation wracked by differences between President Mathipala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickrama­singhe.   

Amidst clear signs of the Islamic State’s efforts to expand its footprints in South Asia, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s policies for tackling radicalization outlined soon after the attack on Holey Artisan café in Dhaka in July 2017 can provide a highly useful platform for countries of the region to begin discussing how to cope with the menace. Hasina’s de-radicalization policy has already earned appreciation from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who said it could have important lessons for other countries in South Asia. Hasina’s policies are relevant now perhaps more than ever before. Given the serious and growing problem of use of the social media in radicalizing the youth in South Asia, a conference of top leaders of the region to discuss the issue merits urgent consideration. 

  Pallab Bhattacharya is  a journalist based in India