Sri Lankan authorities Monday blamed a little-known Islamist group called National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ) for a series of coordinated attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels across the country that killed 290 and injured about 500 others.
NTJ has not claimed responsibility for the eight bombings, but Sri Lankan officials say the main blasts Sunday were carried out by seven suicide bombers of the group, with possible outside help of which authorities have not released details pending an ongoing investigation.
Who is NTJ?
NTJ is believed to have started at least three years ago in eastern Sri Lanka as an offshoot of Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ), another Islamist group known for its extremist ideology and the indoctrination of children.
SLTJ has attempted to attract conservative Muslims in Sri Lanka for years by speaking out about Buddhist hard-liners and opposing the country’s reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act.
SLTJ’s leader, Abdul Razik, was arrested in November 2016 on charges of inciting religious extremism and hate speech during a protest in the majority-Muslim suburb of Maligawatte.
Very little is known about NTJ’s membership, but its size is likely modest compared to SLTJ, according to Michael Kugelman, deputy director for South Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center.
Kugelman said the group’s main activities in the past months have consisted of targeting Buddhist statues as the country’s Buddhists feuded with Muslims. If NTJ was behind Sunday’s attacks on Christians and foreigners, it would seem to indicate the group wants to expand further, experts say.
“A broader goal of this shadowy group may be to instill terror — just like al-Qaida and ISIS — the groups that NJT appears to model itself on,” Kugelman told VOA.
In March 2017, local media reported NTJ was involved in a clash in the predominantly Muslim Karrankudt region, which resulted in three injuries.
During anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka last year, the NTJ used social media to highlight discrimination against Muslims in the country, such as setting up Buddhist symbols in the northeast where no Buddhists lived.
Kugelman said the coordinated attacks Sunday, with their success in inflicting heavy casualties, show likely connections to a larger terrorist organization.
“These connections are likely international, not domestic. I don’t know of any internal group in Sri Lanka that would have the capacity to pull off an attack like the one we saw on Sunday. So, there must have been help from elsewhere in South Asia or beyond,” he said.
Seven suicide attacks
Sri Lankan Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said at a press conference Monday that all seven bombers wore explosive suicide vests. He said they were Sri Lankan citizens with memberships in NTJ, and likely received outside support.
“We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” Senaratne told reporters. “There must be a wider international network behind it.”
Experts say NTJ was likely inspired by Islamic State, which has unleashed deadly attacks in the past against churches and popular tourist destinations in different countries.
Experts warn that many Sri Lankans who left to fight in Syria will likely return home and join groups like NTJ.
It is unclear how many Sri Lankans have joined the Syrian war over the years, but officials in 2016 said at least 32 citizens were known to have joined IS.
In 2015, IS news agency Amaq released a video — confirmed by Sri Lankan local news — that claimed a Sri Lankan NTJ member called Abu Shuraih Sailani was killed during an airstrike in Syria.
Al-Qaida or Islamic State?
Bruce Hoffman, senior counterterrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA the Easter attacks resemble IS actions more than attacks conducted by al-Qaida.
“I think there is less reason to say that it’s al-Qaida than ISIS,” Hoffman said, using an acronym for the militant group. “Al-Qaida, to my knowledge, has not attacked churches — at least not recently — whereas ISIS has engaged in attacks against Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and many other places.”
Hoffman said NTJ and other Islamists are likely able to recruit members by exploiting the anger of the Muslim minority, which has found itself isolated by the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
“They have generally been the subject of complete exclusion, and their grievances have never really been addressed for at least two decades,” Hoffman said. “The seeds of discontent, disenfranchisement and alienation run very deep, and may have made certain extremist members of the Muslim community suitable to malign outside influences.”
Sri Lanka has a population of about 21 million, with Tamil-speaking Muslims making up about 9.7%. From 1983 to 2009, the country’s Tamil and Sinhalese communities were engaged in civil war. (VOA)
Sri Lanka said on Wednesday hardline Buddhist groups were likely to blame for a wave of anti-Muslim riots that swept the island this week in apparent retaliation for Easter bombings by Islamist militants.
The April 21 attacks, claimed by Islamic State, targeted churches and hotels, killing more than 250 people and fueling fears of a backlash against the nation’s minority Muslims.
In the anti-Muslim unrest that started Sunday, mobs moved through towns in Sri Lanka’s northwest, ransacking mosques, burning Korans and attacking shops with petrol bombs, residents said.
Authorities have arrested some 78 suspected rioters, including three described as Sinhala Buddhist extremists who had been investigated for similar actions in the town in Kandy district last year.
“These are organized attacks on Muslim business houses and premises,” Navin Dissanayake, minister of plantation industries, said during a government news conference about the security situation.
Asked who was organizing the attacks, Dissanayake said: “I think these organizations that Amith Weerasinghe, Dan Priyasad, and Namal Kumara [are heading],” referring to the three Buddhist extremists arrested on Tuesday.
Local media reported on Wednesday that Priyasad was released on bail on Wednesday while Weerasinghe was remanded until May 28. The status of Kumara was not clear.
A police spokesperson was not immediately available for comment on the arrests.
Muslims make up nearly 10% of Sri Lanka’s population of 22 million, which is predominantly Buddhist. The Indian Ocean island was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government. The government stamped out the rebellion about 10 years ago.
In recent years, Buddhist hardliners, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force” have stoked hostility against Muslims, saying Middle Eastern influence has turned the community more conservative and insular.
In the same press conference, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, minister of public administration, said the group behind the attacks had political aims.
“This group is trying to tarnish the government’s image and show the government is unable to handle the situation,” he said, without naming the organization.
Authorities said the island was calm again, with no anti-Muslim violence reported on Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s army said it was investigating a video posted on social media that showed a man wearing what appears to be an army uniform walking away seconds before an anti-Muslim mob attacked a building this week.
In the video, the man stands outside the building and then leaves. Seconds later, about two dozen people, including young men wearing motorbike helmets, run over and throw stones at the building.
Reuters could not independently verify the video. “The attention of the army has been drawn to a video clip where a person dressed in uniform similar to that of the army was watching while a group of violent saboteurs were in action in the general area of Thunmodara,” the army said in a statement announcing the investigation.
Two residents of Thunmodara, a town to the northeast of the capital Colombo, told Reuters that a mosque and some Muslim-owned shops were attacked.
In over a dozen interviews in the hard-hit Kurunegala district northeast of Colombo, Muslims said attacks took place despite the presence of security forces.
One police source who declined to be identified told Reuters they did not have enough officers to handle the rioters. Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera on Tuesday rejected allegations that police had stood by. (VOA)