Sri Lanka attacks: The family networks Supporting the bombings

Sri Lanka attacks: The family networks Supporting the bombings

For many Sri Lankans, it was a dreadful shock to learn that local Muslims might have been supporting the suicide attacks that killed over 250 people last month. How could a small group have planned such a catastrophic wave of bombings undetected?

The clues were there in mid-January when Sri Lankan authorities stumbled upon 100kg (220lb) of explosives and 100 detonators, concealed in a coconut grove near the Wilpattu national park, which is a remote wilderness in Puttalam district on the west coast of the country.

Authorities were investigating attacks on statues of the Buddha by suspected Islamist radicals elsewhere in the nation. Four guys from a recently formed”radical Muslim group” were detained.

Three weeks later, suspected Islamists blew themselves up in packed churches and hotels in Colombo, Negombo and the eastern city of Batticaloa killing over 250 people, including 40 foreigners.

Sri Lanka attacks

But that arms seizure in the coconut grove wasn’t an isolated incident. It was merely one of several questionable incidents in the months leading up to the bombings that should have rung alarm bells, especially given reports that many Sri Lankans who had joined the Islamic State group in Syria were back home.

It didn’t.

We know the carnage on Easter Sunday occurred despite repeated warnings about possible attacks from intelligence agencies in neighbouring India and the United States.

It was just after the bombing that authorities identified connections between two of those detained in Puttalam in January along with the supposed ringleader of the mass-casualty strikes.

Family circles
Political in-fighting and factionalism moving all of the way to the peak of the Sri Lankan government is part of the reason warnings went unheeded, but complacency regarding the peace in Sri Lanka since the ending of the civil war in 2009 also played a role.

Sporadic anti-Muslim riots because the conclusion of the war between Tamil minority separatists and the government had fomented anger and discontent, but on the face of it had pointed to some co-ordinated attack of this magnitude.

“The Islamists surprised everybody with the deadly bombings and at precisely the exact same time kept the whole operation a secret,” said a former Sri Lankan counter-terrorism operative who was keeping a tab on some of the toxins involved in the Easter Sunday strikes.

It would have required detailed planning, safe homes, a broad network of planners and handlers, experience on bomb-making and significant funding – so how did all this slide up to now under the radar?

Easter Sunday Attack 21st April 2019

Few of these questions are answered, but resources linked to safety agencies, government officials and local Muslim leaders have painted a picture of how, through the years, a few of die-hard radicals and IS sympathisers clandestinely set cells up directly under the noses of the security forces.

Easter Sunday Attack 21st April 2019

Investigators state that certain members of families became radicalised and functioned as units.

“That is the way they maintained their intentions and moves among themselves,” said the counter-terror representative, who requested anonymity to speak publicly, given the significance of ongoing investigations.

Each unit then liaised with other radicalised family groups, forming bigger networks. The supposition goes that data was tightly protected within networks of devotion that transcended ideology. Encrypted social media networks and messaging programs are thought to have facilitated communication and preparation.

“The researchers are now trying to discover how these people communicated and co-ordinated,” the broker added.

“Using families to attain their aim appears to be a part of a new fad among these radicals. We’ve seen how many households were involved in suicide attacks [on a church and a police building] in Indonesia this past year,” stated the former agent.

So far more than 70 people considered to be connected to the radicals are arrested. However, not everyone is convinced the networks are dismantled.

“The key people involved in the attacks and those who made these bombs are still at large… So there are hints that there might be a second wave of attacks,” a senior government official who didn’t want to be identified told me last week.

“According to the concept of traditional terrorism, every suicide bomber requires at least five handlers. If you go by that there are 45 men [for nine bombers] still out there. We’re concerned.”

It is a story at odds with what Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been stating. He recently announced that all suspects linked with the bombings had been murdered or apprehended.

The bombings have put the spotlight on Muslims – the next most important community in Sri Lanka, following the majority Sinhalese and Tamils. Muslims constitute approximately 10% of the nation’s population of 22 million.

Throughout the civil war, Muslims suffered at the hands of the Tamil Tiger rebels. About 75,000 Muslims were expelled from the north from the rebels in 1990. Approximately 150 people were killed in attacks on mosques in the east the exact same year.

Later on, hundreds of Muslims joined the Sri Lankan security forces. They were especially sought after by intelligence agencies as most Muslims are fluent both in Sinhala and Tamil languages. But while the Sri Lankan government was tied up fighting the Tamil ethnic insurgency, an ultra-conservative Islamic movement was quietly establishing a foothold in the Muslim-dominated regions of the east.

“The process began nearly three years ago. The Wahhabi brand of Islam attracted the young and it had financial backing from overseas,” said Mazook Ahamed Lebbe, an official from the Federation of Mosques in the eastern town of Kattankudy.

The beachside city, which has a population of about 47,000, is almost exclusively Muslim. A couple of stores in the centre of town market the Abaya – a full-length black robe worn by some Muslim women. The city is dotted with colourful domes and minarets.

Kattankudy has approximately 60 mosques and more are being assembled. Muslim community leaders say that although most mosques adhere to mainstream and moderate teachings, some preach an ultra-conservative variant of Islam.

One of those brought by the fundamentalist brand was Mohammed Zahran Hashim, a radical preacher from Kattankudy who, the government says, blew himself up in the Shangri-La Hotel on Easter Sunday.

Hashim’s father sent him to a religious school because of his education. But he soon started questioning the teachers, saying they weren’t after”true Islam”. He had been kicked out of the madrassa but continued his religious studies on his own and later began preaching – challenging the established practices of local mosques.

“We disagreed with his views. So we did not let him preach in some of our mosques. He then started his own group,” said Mr Lebbe.

Hashim initially establish a conservative group known as”Darul Athar” and later founded the hard-line National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) around 2014. This is the group that’s been blamed by the Sri Lankan government for the attacks.

Members of the NTJ had been known to authorities for vandalising Buddhist statues and clashing with other Muslim groups. The idea they had the capability to execute the carnage of Easter Sunday left many puzzled.

In its first years, the NTJ was able to secure donations from abroad, especially from the Middle East, India and Malaysia. The money helped the group to construct its own mosque near the shore in Kattankudy. The building has been sealed since the government banned the NTJ in the wake of the attacks.

As a preacher, Hashim drew inspiration from the Wahhabi tradition, whose followers practise a rigorous and austere form of Islam.

But Muslim groups in Kattankudy state he went further and adopted an extremist ideology. The NTJ campaigned against the city’s small community of Sufi Muslims, who follow a mysterious form of the faith.

In 2017 Hashim and NTJ members clashed with a group of Sufi Muslims in an event, together with his followers brandishing swords.

Ten members of the NTJ including the father and the next brother of Hashim were detained. However, Hashim and his brother Rilwan went into hiding. After widespread criticism, the NTJ said it had expelled him, but some Muslim leaders say Hashim remained powerful in the group

While in hiding, he began releasing hate speech videos on social media where he railed against”non-believers”. It seems as if Hashim was able to draw the majority of his family members into his extremist way of thinking and persuaded them to pursue the path of violence.

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