April 21, Easter Sunday 2019: Some Christians dressed in their Sunday’s best and yet some others trying to enjoy their late breakfast in hotels didn’t live to tell the tale of what they saw and experienced. The video footage of the mass murderers only showed how cruel and inhuman they could be. No amount of [...]

Sunday Times 2

The need to identify the enemy within


April 21, Easter Sunday 2019: Some Christians dressed in their Sunday’s best and yet some others trying to enjoy their late breakfast in hotels didn’t live to tell the tale of what they saw and experienced. The video footage of the mass murderers only showed how cruel and inhuman they could be. No amount of reasoning can convince any human being what could motivate a man to resort to terror of that nature.

The trail of terror

Much is being said about how the threat developed and who is responsible. However, to understand the threat, it is important to track the trail of terror and the pattern. This is how the story unfolds.

May 26, 1996: Wahhabis attack a meditation centre of the Tarikatul Mufliheen (TM) in Kattankudy.

October 31, 2004: About 500 Wahhabis, organised as Jihadis, set ablaze the meditation centre again. One Sufi follower is killed and business premises are attacked. Police arrest eight suspects, but release them later. No charges are framed.

Dec 01, 2006:  Wahhabis forcibly exhume the body of Sufi leader “Rah”.

Dec 06, 2006: Wahhabi Thowheed network clerics and supporters incite Jihadis armed with weapons to go on the rampage in Kattankudy.

Dec 13, 2006:  Kattankudy Urban Council (UC), with the persuasion and backing of Wahhabis, tries to dismantle the meditation centre. Three rioters are killed, a police post and vehicle were damaged. Note the involvement of UC is clearly seen. Possibly, the UC was Wahhabi dominated.

Dec 17, 2006: More than 100 houses of Sufism followers destroyed by fire; Wahhabis are the suspects.

2007: A stream of overseas Muslim preachers and activists visit Kattankudy.

2008 – A Sufi festival is prevented by Kattankudy Wahhabis.

2009: Unconfirmed reports state that Muslim homeguards desert with their weapons and join the Thowheed movement.

Feb 2009: The threat spreads with the Wahhabis destroying a mosque at Ukuwela in the Central Province.

May 2009: A mosque is attacked in Thihariya.

July 2009: Two people are killed and 40 injured in Kattankudy, when clashes erupt between Sufis and Wahhabis.

July 2009: A Sufi cleric is killed at Valachchenai in the Eastern Province.

The trail of terror actually, is too long to document, as such, the more recent ones are not being documented.

The phenomenon of fundamentalism and Islamic terror has been there for some time now. With what is known to an ordinary civilian, the politics of religion and the pattern of terror distinctly bring out four important factors:

Division within the Muslim community; polarisation into Orthodox/Sufi and Wahhabis

Evolution and growth of terror

A threat not confined to any particular area in the country

A new leaf and stage in the cycle of terror has just been unleashed

Religion, Ideology and Fundamentalism

The initial reaction to the terror attacks was that they were perpetrated by the ISIS. This was the belief of many, including those at the highest level, as the ISIS was the easiest to think of. So the ISIS is here. Partially true.  Although some say the ISIS claimed responsibility and Zaharan the alleged lead suicide bomber was an ISIS member.

My questions are, whether he was actually a trained ISIS member who engaged in combat? Why did he not live to carry on with the legacy? If he was a suicide bomber, whether he actually fits the profile of an ISIS leader? Because, this is normally not their style. I have read in places that he is an ISIS member. At this point, I tend to think that he is a strong supporter, but not actually a “hero” with combat training and experience. More than the immediate ISIS threat, I further the argument that the larger issue seems to be the threat of Wahhabi ideology or Salafism. This is what has motivated men and women in Sri Lanka to resort to such extremism; of course, with links and support from ISIS, and other terror groups. I will not discuss the origin of Islamic terror. This is history and long gone.

Any religion or belief is extremely difficult to define or explain easily, be it Buddhism, Islam or Christianity.

In the early seventies, many Sri Lankan Muslims, mainly Sufi followers, left for Saudi Arabia for employment or studies. Mostly, they were youths from modest and simple backgrounds. Thus, with their stay, exposure, education and return, the concept of Wahhabism which originated in Saudi Arabia started to gain recognition. The Wahhabis main movement in Sri Lanka, thus, originated as Thowheed or Monotheism and took root in the East. Gradually, the Wahhabis began to consider the Sufis as Kafirs or disbelievers. Some of the aggressive Wahhabi or Salafism sentiments could be summarised as:

Revive Islam worldwide

Reestablish the past Muslim glory

Restore authentic Islam

Advocate a strategy of violent jihad for Islam

Defeat of Western powers that prevent the establishment of an Islamic State

Expand dar-al-Islam (house of Islam)

Living within a just political social order

Sanction fatwa against infidels

Attack the land of infidels

Therefore, the new order of terror based on the former will evolve throughout the world without being confined to the Middle East or West

Give a new explanation and definition to terrorism

Have wide use of social media providing remote but easy accessibility

Include physically alienated youth (by religion)

Comprise fanatics looking to be martyrs

Kill without distinction

Rely on group dynamics like kinship, friendship, worship and discipleship

Want to succeed and be flexible

Baring the octopus

The octopus is a soft bodied species. It has eight limbs and is so venomous that it can kill many human beings. So the threat of Wahhabism, Salafism, Jihadism or whatever you name it, is identical to the features of the octopus. So many measures to control the threat have been brought out by the military, the police, politicians, civilians and journalists. Perhaps, in depth analysis and the situation being addressed rationally is lacking.

The active and passive measures being adopted at present, both by the ground forces and intelligence will not be discussed. However, some counter terrorism features currently being practised in the world are being highlighted.

Eliminate hubs: As we experience now, we are aware that there are little hubs spread all over the country. Although few areas were identified, the hubs are sure to have spread though silent at present. Monitoring telecommunications with modern equipment, analysing tower records, cyber security with flagging ability and surveillance become important in breaking down networks. Since it is not practical for this activity in all areas, vulnerable areas need to be prioritised. These measures breakdown hubs, restrict travel and activity, prevent storage of contraband. Once hubs are neutralised, satellites die a natural death.

Delegitimisation and regulation: This is applicable to organisations, banking systems (already there are about 26 Islamic banks) charities and cultural organisations, dress codes, teaching methods and practices. This prevents recruitment, denies sanctuary and training, while restricting indoctrination.

Intensive penetration: Focusing on friends and relatives of identified Jihadis. This will also identify those who are sympathisers, who normally do funding and propaganda. This could be done with the help of Sufis who have suffered at the hands of the Salafis.

Systematic approach:  A scientific, coordinated and centrally controlled mechanism has to be well documented as is done in more advanced countries. Unlike the LTTE threat, the current threat is common to most countries and some are well experienced and competent in managing the threat. Ad hoc, piecemeal, disjointed political measures may be disastrous.  Muslims: The first line of defence

We see that it was the most affected Sufis who provided information about the growing threat from the late nineties. Although they were not taken seriously for obvious reasons, they knew what they were talking about. There will not be anyone better than a Muslim who would be able to explain the dynamics of religion and terror, as the religious interpretation is so complex and diverse. So obviously, the first line of defence would be the Muslims themselves. Alienating them or branding them as terrorists will be a monumental mistake by the Sinhalese community.  This would be a case of not learning from history. 1983 and beyond is the standing example. We will create the time and space for a hot breeding ground to a fast growing threat.

International support:  The need of the hour

During the last conflict, some of us know the support in general and intelligence in particular, both technical and human, that was shared by our international friends. On the front of global knowledge and information technology which is flooded online, is mostly shared by the international community, be they scholars, writers, analysts, journalists or any other.

Few Sri Lankans have shared any research material on these developments. I personally have only read what Dr Rohan Gunaratne has written in depth. Even today, world leaders are pledging their support to share whatever they have about the threat. On the economic front, it is on record that we will be losing 1.5 billion US dollars on tourism alone. However, those who know and love Sri Lanka are promoting the country even at this moment. So the sad lacuna, of international isolation with wrath and anger will only hurt us. So it’s time to reach out and win them over when they are with us. True, every country will have its own agenda, vis-a-vis others — that is reality, which we need to come to terms with.

Art and culture: Mightier than the gun

Art appeals to the emotions and senses of human beings. Thus, it is not only a strong weapon but a medium to effect change. Art is a variety and range of human activity that can spur the desired change. Although we do not use this medium in our day-to-day professional activity, we definitely use it to relax and reinvigorate. So there is room to see how this weapon can be used for positive engagement.

I saw on TV, Brother Charles talking about this aspect by mentioning the names of Mohideen Baig and Tony Hassan. This is very true, but the reverse has not been visible at all. Many are of the opinion that Sri Lankan Muslims are dull uninteresting people who are anti-social or less social. This is a myth.

Thus, there is the need to reverse this situation through proper use of art and culture. It is difficult but possible. The Muslims need to play a role in directing art and culture targeting the religiously and culturally alienated youth, who might be the suicide bomber of tomorrow. Post 9/11 United States has been able to do it with young men and women. Men and women who were inspired to work across cultures. Challenge the stereotype and broaden the knowledge of the other. Ali Abbasi, Ilhan Omar, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh are just a few to name. This is the clarion call for the youth to change the tide.


As much as the attitude and response of the Cardinal and the flock was commendable, the same was seen from the Muslim and the majority Buddhist community. The All Ceylon Jamaiyythul Ulama has taken a step in the right direction. The lesson to all religious leaders will be to, have the ‘courage of conviction’, to do what is right, be apolitical in approach and attitude. As the ISIS is losing its foothold in places such as Syria, more easy targets emerge in places such as Sri Lanka. Possibly the next level of terrorism could be cyber terror which we have no clue about but the terrorists are very savvy. The struggle continues.

(If I have hurt the feelings of any Muslim by erroneous facts or half-truths, it is much regretted. The purpose was not that.)

 (The writer could be contacted on para.stormsat@gmail.com)


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