Following the deadly bombings in Sri Lanka on 21 April, New Europe’s Federico Grandesso spoke with Siegfried O. Wolf, a regional expert at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum about the attacks.
Reports are blaming National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ) for the Easter terrorist attacks. What, according to you, was the role of NTJ?
Like many local Islamist groups active in South Asia, NTJ also wants to spread the global jihadi movement to Sri Lanka. International terrorist groups are increasingly hijacking local conflicts to extend global Jihad to different parts of the world. The Uighur conflict in China’s western Xinjiang province and the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar are two examples. In both cases, global jihadist organisations seek to instrumentalise domestic issues to broaden their support.
*Note: National Thowfeek Jamaath, or NTJ, is a radical Sri Lankan Islamist group with close ties to ISIS that split with a second hardline Islamist organisation in 2016. Muslims are the third-largest religious group in Sri Lanka, after Buddhists (70%) and Hindus (13%), making up 9% of the country’s population of 22 million people.
How do you see the future of Sri Lanka after the attacks?
The government is in the middle of a very difficult period. For this reason, they chose to adopt a cautious decisive approach. At the same time, they are taking very concrete positions related to emergencies and curfews. They are aware that they will not be able to keep these emergency measures for a long time because it could provoke political unrest. At the end of the year there should be elections, but I don’t think that the country has the capacity to deal with political violence.
In this unstable climate, do you foresee more civil conflicts in the country?
About the possibility of a new civil war, I think that most of the involved groups are tired. Nevertheless, what we have until now is a military solution of the conflict and this we have to keep into our mind.
We don’t have a political solution, which means that the basic factors that brought the outbreak of the civil war are not solved. The political relationship between the Buddhist and the Hindu Tamil minority still demands more federal elements in the political system which still have not been addressed. We have several other issues including the lack of affirmative action for the minorities, which is completely missing in the country. After that, there is a kind of political culture from the past which says that the mainstream political parties tried to gain political capital during the election season at the expense of the minorities.
This has to change in the mindset of the people and I think the current government, in this way, has spent a lot of effort concentrating on national reconciliation. I hope they will able to change people’s minds. This gives me some hope that the country will be able to avoid another outbreak of war, but some challenges remain.
According to reports, we still have to expect more terrorist attacks. This unstable situation could turn into protests and more criticism of the government. Considering the fact that the country was never hit by such a major terrorist attack, the government is doing the right thing for the time being.
After the attacks, which country could establish closer ties to Sri Lanka to help forge a stable relationship with the authorities?
In this context, the natural ally is India, they are facing similar threats. When you hear that Indian intelligence sent warnings to Sri Lanka that something bad might happen you could assume there might be a strong link between Delhi and Colombo.
I think there is still a tremendous lack of trust to cooperate on very sensitive security issues and the reason might be its approach to Islamist groups or that Sri Lanka wanted to please Pakistan or other countries. This terrorist attack will help with the relations between India and Sri Lanka and they might finally overcome the historical mistrust they have with each other.
Other than that, we know that China has a development project and there is a kind of competition right now about who can influence Sri Lanka. I think that the Sri Lankan government has to understand that they have to separate this issue and to watch for closer security relations with India.
This might also go into the direction of taking a tougher stand against Islamic terrorists, this is a weakness, but this is not only a problem of the current government. In the past, it was a problem of the previous government that ignored the issue of the growing Islamic threat in the country.
There is a lot of potential between India and Sri Lanka and I’m pretty sure that China can also ad some expertise in this direction. From an investigative point of view, Interpol, the FBI, and other agencies will give a lot of support to the local national authorities because there were around 40 foreigners who were killed.