Greg Sheridan, in Weekend Australian, 27/28 April 2019, where the title is “Eternal vigilance is the price of keeping Islamist terror at bay”…. with highlighting emphasis added by The Editor
India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, tried for two years to tell its Sri Lankan colleagues they faced a growing threat of Islamist terrorism. But the Colombo authorities weren’t interested. If there was any threat, they believed it came from the remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But the Tamil Tiger threat ended 10 years ago.
We don’t have a problem with our Muslims, the Sri Lankans insisted. By and large they were right about their Muslims. But out of maybe two million Sri Lankan Muslims, there was a problem with at least a couple of hundred, of whom a dozen or so became hard-boiled terrorists. Nine became suicide bombers, 10 if you count the bomb that one suspect detonated as police approached her home. That was more than enough. A Muslim man prays while perched on the roof of a mosque to spot possible hostile people during Friday prayers in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 26. Picture: AP
The Sri Lankan government has revised the death toll from the Easter Sunday suicide bombings down to 253, with about 60 suspects arrested. The tragic and terrible bombings still stand as one of the largest terror atrocities in history, and outside a war zone the largest since the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001.
The attacks tell us a lot about Sri Lanka, terrorism in South Asia, the capacities of Islamic State, jihadist ideology and the likely shape of global jihadist terrorism to come. They also indirectly tell us something about Saudi Arabia, the role of returning foreign fighters, and even al-Qa’ida. The bombings don’t tell us anything profound and terrible about Sri Lankan society, just as the 9/11 attacks didn’t tell us anything profound and terrible about US society. Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority has not had roiling disadvantage or alienation.
Sri Lankan terrorists did contribute serious innovations in the gruesome arts of terror, but these were the Tamil Tigers, who, though with a Hindu base, were notionally a secular nationalist movement. It is, incidentally, one of the great triumphs of Islamist jihadist ideology that it has transformed almost every nationalist and territorial movement involving a Muslim population into a theocratic, religio-terror movement.
The Tamil Tigers pioneered suicide bombers. They also pioneered the use of women for this task. They pioneered the use of child terrorists. And long before the Islamic State caliphate, the Tigers established a terror mini-state on the Jaffna peninsula. They not only terrorised their own people there but established a civil administration with an army, a small navy and an air force. They held that territory for a long time and jihadists studied them.
Some of the Muslim Sri Lankan terrorists had travelled to Syria to support Islamic State. Maybe 40,000 foreign fighters went to Syria. Maybe half of them were killed. A lot have returned across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Some returned disillusioned, but many of the men, and some of the women, came back not only fired with ideological fervour but also with explosives and weapons training.
The terror situation across South Asia is decidedly mixed. Sri Lanka has perhaps the highest living standard in South Asia and the least reason for Muslim alienation. But returning jihadists and online exploitation of incidents such as the March 15 massacre by a white supremacist in Christchurch, New Zealand, helped turn some of the local Muslims into terrorists.
Most Sri Lankan Muslims reject this utterly and indeed Muslim community leaders had warned the authorities about the emergence of small groups of Islamist extremists. But in recent years Saudi Arabia has pumped money into the Sri Lankan Islamic community. The Saudis now are officially and solidly genuine enemies of terrorism. But their extreme theocratic Wahhabist ideology includes several features that help its followers make an easy passage from Wahhabism to terrorism.
First, it promotes a cosmology in which Islam is the age-old and continuing victim of Western and especially Christian and Jewish attack. Second, it promotes a view of religion that says it is the task of all good Muslims to produce an overtly Islamic political order. Third, it supports an extreme, draconian and harsh version of Islam. And fourth, it explicitly rejects democracy and justifies state coercion in religious matters.
None of this requires support for terrorism. But if you embrace all this you have gone 70 per cent of the way with the al-Qa’ida and Islamic State and broader jihadist ideology. Jihadists typically do not reject Wahhabism but argue that it has not gone far enough.
When Alexander Downer was foreign minister he had an extremely robust debate with the Saudis about the money they send into Australia. He wasn’t entirely successful in limiting or even getting visibility on all that money. But at least he tried.
Most Asian Islam is traditionally much milder than Arab Islam. But Saudi money, the internet, global television and the increasing number of Asian Muslims who work or study in the Gulf is Arabising the identity of Asian Islam.
Across South Asia the picture is complex and contradictory. In the Maldives a high number of people went to fight with Islamic State. Bangladesh has seen serious Islamist terror. Sri Lanka had not until Sunday. Pakistan is a unique mess, with the state supporting some Islamists as proxies against India and Afghanistan, yet itself being attacked by other Islamists.
The astonishing success is India. It has the third largest population of Muslims — more than 170 million — in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan, and the third largest population of Shia Muslims, after Iran and Iraq. Despite its recent economic growth, India is still a poor country and there are lots of disgruntled Muslims. But more Muslims went from Australia to fight for al-Qa’ida and Islamic State than went from India. That’s incredible.
India has three distinctive characteristics that work together in its favour. One, it is a secular democracy in which Muslims have influence and have at times occupied the highest posts. Two, its Muslim population has been well established for centuries. It is neither an immigrant nor a new and marginal population. And it is very diverse among the regions, with strong regional identities. The most alienated Muslims in India are in Kashmir. The spasmodic insurgency there is directly supported and manipulated by Pakistan. But the striking thing is how little support Muslim Kashmiri separatists get from other Indian Muslims.
The third feature of Indian Islam that helps is its distinctive religious and ideological identity. Much of it was influenced by the softer Sufi tradition and by long intermingling with Hinduism. There is a syncretic quality to it.
However, these three factors do not guarantee future harmony. They are challenged by three countervailing dynamics. One, India’s national government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is pushing an explicitly Hindu national identity that could well provoke alienation among the Muslim minority. Two, all the factors that are Arabising Islamic identity across the rest of Asia are having their effect in India too. And three, India’s intelligence services are excellent but small and its police forces very small.
So while India has been a spectacular success, with most terrorist incidents there run from outside, as the 2008 Mumbai attacks were run from Pakistan, future success is not remotely guaranteed.
The Sri Lanka attacks also serve as a huge propaganda success for Islamic State. It has lost the last sliver of its territory from the old caliphate but it is not at all on its last legs. Not only did it make a strong statement claiming responsibility for the Sri Lanka attacks, it released a video featuring the attack’s leader and masked men pledging allegiance to the group. It also put out a sophisticated statement in Tamil. This is not a movement on the brink of extinction.
US President Donald Trump in recent months has been much given to hailing the defeat of Islamic State. These statements are just plain wrong. In the 18 years since 9/11, global Islamist jihadism has grown immensely. The authoritative Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies at the end of last year published a study suggesting there were now four times as many Sunni extremist jihadist fighters as there were in 2001. The Watson Institute at Brown University suggests the global war on terrorism has cost the US something like $US6 trillion. The wise old man of strategic analysis, Anthony Cordesman, argues US-led actions against terror have been mostly tactical and reactionary, without any coherent strategic plan.
Certainly this seems to be the case in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In Iraq there is a big Sunni minority that feels perennially isolated and hard done by at the hands of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. In Syria there is a Sunni majority, many of whom resent the Alawite dominance in Damascus, the Alawites being a first cousin of the Shia. In Afghanistan the government in Kabul has never won majority support or acceptance from the southern Pashtuns, who form the ethnic base for the Taliban.
In all three cases Islamist jihadists have been able to infuse an ethnic or territorial conflict with theological and sectarian interpretations. Al-Qa’ida and Islamic State are Sunni groups that despise the Shia, though they have a deep disagreement in that Islamic State regards killing Shia in principle as a good thing. Al-Qa’ida thinks this kind of thing hurts its reputation (I know, reputational concerns among murderous terrorists seem odd, but there it is).
Even when these groups suffer terrible defeat they never really go away because their ethnic base remains. There seem to be only three possible ways of managing terrorism in such circumstances: integrate the ethnic minority effectively into the state; come to an arrangement with the ethnic minority based on regional autonomy; or run an authoritarian regime so severe that the disaffected population keeps its head down.
That’s what Saddam Hussein did in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Islamic State is at a low point in Syria now but the Syrian affiliate of al-Qa’ida, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, controls a slab of Syrian territory. Islamic State is much stronger in Iraq. It has thousands of fighters who, in classic guerilla style, often control the night, especially around Mosul, Nineveh and in Anbar. Estimates vary, but there is a continuing insurgency in Iraq and according to some sources Islamic State has as many as 20,000 fighters there.
Deakin University professor Greg Barton, in a powerfully argued piece, cites a long list of international terror attacks Islamic State has inspired, among them the carnage in Paris in 2015 and the months-long bloody occupation of Marawi in the southern Philippines.
It is not producing the glossy, sophisticated propaganda it did when it had a stable headquarters in Raqqa. It is now much more decentralised. But it is still co-ordinating attacks, providing leadership, making effective calls for action, still involved in online radicalisation and still able to issue statements in multiple regional languages.
Islamic State and al-Qa’ida are now in competition, but not really in conflict. They compete for the loyalty of Islamist groups such as al-Shabab and Boko Haram in Africa. In Southeast Asia both have their followers, but Islamic State has been stronger. Some Muslim insurgencies, such as in southern Thailand, have resisted attempts by the global jihadist franchises to sign them up to the broader struggle against Christians, Jews and the West. But even there some of the local groups use identical rhetoric to Islamic State and al-Qa’ida. The next generation could join the global movement.
Sri Lanka reveals the state of play. Western intelligence and security agencies have been brilliant at limiting the threat and preventing further mass atrocity attacks such as 9/11 in Western nations. Most attacks in the West in recent years have been by lone actors. But the global Islamist jihadist movement goes on, brilliantly adapting its tactics, choosing its battlefields, exploiting local grievances, recruiting both the marginalised and the affluent but easily led.
This terror battle will be with us for many years to come.