WASHINGTON – Two terrorist groups – one small and obscure, the other sizable and well-known – are at the center of the Sri Lankan attacks that killed more than 300 people on Easter Sunday.
"I have been very suspicious about everything we’ve heard about this attack thus far. It doesn’t add up whatsoever," said C. Christine Fair, an expert on South Asian political and military affairs and a professor at Georgetown University.
Here’s what we know about who carried out the gruesome attacks, which targeted Catholic churches and high-end hotels in a series of suicide bombings that killed 321 people across Sri Lanka:
Little-known 'fringe' group in the spotlight
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Sri Lanka's Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said seven members of a radical Muslim group called the National Thowfeek Jamaath were behind the attacks. But he also said they likely had support from a larger international network.
Sajid Farid Shapoo, a former terrorism investigator who served in India’s military and police force, said the group formed three or four years ago but never attracted much attention – until now.
“It was kind of a low-key radical Muslim group” that mainly targeted Buddhism, said Shapoo, now a research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit organization focused on global security issues. Before Sunday’s attacks, he said the group was known mostly for “fiery” anti-Buddhist speeches and some vandalism against Buddhist statues.
“It was kind of a fringe group,” Shapoo said.
But he noted that some Muslims in Sri Lanka had flagged the group to authorities, fearful of its extremist views and teachings.
“Targeting the non-Muslim community is something they encourage – they say you have to kill them in the name of religion,” Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told Bloomberg News on Monday. “I personally have gone and handed over all the documents three years ago, giving names and details of all these people. They have sat on it. That’s the tragedy.”
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Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, said the group’s name – also spelled “Tawhid Jamaat” – means “Unity of God,” a phrase often emphasized by extremists who believe, among other things, that having democratically elected leaders is a form of having false gods.
“Tawhid Jamaat follows militant jihadi beliefs where suicide bombers believe they are going to paradise when dying to kill, and that they earn other rewards” for martyrdom, Speckhard said. “They also believe that they have an obligation to establish an Islamic State, live under shariah law and fight jihad until the Islamic State rules the world.”
Some experts questioned whether such a small, low-profile group – with no documented history of violence – could have carried out such a sophisticated and deadly strike. And the Sri Lankan government did not publicly outline its evidence against the National Thowfeek Jamaath.
"Are we really supposed to believe the NTJ went from spray painting Buddhist shrines to coordinated suicide attacks against Christians?" Fair said.
It would make more sense for that group to attack Buddhists, not Christians, she said, because of the existing animosity between the two communities in Sri Lanka. She also said the Sri Lankan government has a political incentive to vilify Muslims, because it plays into domestic sentiment against them.
Speckhard and others said it’s clear that the Sri Lankan group was at least inspired by the Islamic State terrorist group, if not directly assisted by that militant terrorist organization.
Enter ISIS as possible perpetrator
On Tuesday, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, said its “fighters” had carried out the attacks.
In a statement on its propaganda site, ISIS said the attack specifically targeted Christians and foreigners from countries involved in fighting the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq. That suggests it may have been a reprisal for the U.S-led military operation that has led to the defeat of ISIS in Syria.
In an official ISIS communique, the group named seven of the attackers and released other details, lending some credence to its claim, according to Rita Katz, executive director and founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist groups.
“The detail given in #ISIS’ communique (attackers’ names, where each of them attacked) shows that the group had a hand in the attack—the degree to which still remains to be seen,” Katz said in a Twitter post on Tuesday.
Katz said it’s not clear why ISIS waited until two days after the attack to announce its role. But she and other terrorism experts noted that the Sri Lanka bombings bore the hallmarks of other ISIS attacks.
“International jihadist organizations routinely team up with local actors – whether radicalized individuals or small groups – to conduct terrorist attacks,” Bobby Ghosh, a Bloomberg opinion editor, wrote in an analysis of the Sri Lanka tragedy. “The targets –hotels and churches – are familiar, too.”
Husain Haqqani, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, and later as ambassador to the U.S., noted ISIS has carried out numerous other attacks timed to Easter Sunday celebrations – in Egypt, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Haqqani discounted the suggestion, made by Sri Lanka’s defense minister on Tuesday, that Sunday’s attacks were done in retaliation for the March 15 shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. In that incident, a self-described white supremacist, 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant, killed 50 people and wounded dozens in an attack on Muslims during Friday prayers.
“There’s no way you can plan for something of this magnitude and arrange for all the explosives to be in place” in the five weeks between the two events, said Haqqani, who is now a director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank. "Within Sri Lanka, it’s not easy to get these kinds of explosives," meaning they probably had to be procured elsewhere and transported to the country, he said.
Why Sri Lanka?
Ghosh and others said Sri Lanka is a perplexing location for such an attack. The country does not have a history of bitter religious tensions, particularly between Muslims and Christians.
Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country; Muslims make up about 10% of the population, while Catholics comprise about 6% of Sri Lankans. Most of the religious friction has been between Buddhists and Muslims.
In 2018, a band of Buddhist extremists lit Muslim homes and businesses on fire in an incident that ended with two Muslims dead and a government-imposed a state of emergency. Some in the Buddhist community had accused Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam, according to media reports at the time.
But Shapoo and others said that Islamic radicalism propagated by ISIS has spread to Sri Lanka in recent years.
In a January 2019 report, the Soufan Center noted that ISIS and al-Qaeda viewed South Asia as prime territory for spreading its propaganda and recruiting new fighters. In 2016, Sri Lanka’s justice minister said 32 Sri Lankan Muslims had traveled to Syria to join ISIS.
With the defeat of ISIS in Syria, some of those fighters may have now returned to Sri Lanka – or at least infiltrated Muslim communities with their online propaganda, experts said.
“ISIS and al Qaeda have spread their virulent poison over the world,” said Speckhard. “ISIS was able to motivate over 40,000 foreign fighters to come live under and fight for its Caliphate,” she added, “so it’s no surprise that the world over small groups of Muslims adopt these extremist beliefs as well.”
Fair agreed and said the world should be prepared for more of these attacks that seem to come out of the blue.
"Now that ISIS has lost its caliphate" in Syria, she said, "this is where it’s money is going to be."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sri Lanka bombings: ISIS and local terrorists at work, but much still murky about attack