National Thowheed Jamath has a counterpart in Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath founded in 2004 by Jainulabdeen. Unlike the Sri Lankan outfit, it is involved in social activities like blood donation, flood relief and creating awareness about dengue fever but at the same is converting people into Islam
The National Towheeth Jamaath (NTJ), which owned the Easter Sunday carnage in Sri Lanka, preaches a puritanical form of Islam. It was formed in Kattankudy, a Muslim-dominated town in Eastern Sri Lanka in 2014. The group has been pushing for Sharia law in the region and wants women to dress only in burqas. It is known for racism and Islamic superiority. It was in the limelight last year when it was linked to the vandalism of Buddhist statues. Its activities had led to tension between Buddhists (who dominate Sri Lanka), and Muslims. In 2017, members of NTJ were prosecuted for making derogatory remarks in a video against Buddha and hurting the sentiments of the Sinhala-Buddhist community in the country.
Bomb blast victims are being removed from St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 21
Further, it is believed to be a splinter group of Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamaat (STLJ), another Islamist group based in the country. Abdul Razik, NTJ’s secretary, has been accused of delivering inflammatory speeches. Back in 2014, Razik spewed venom against Buddhism. Razik was arrested in 2016 on the charges of disrupting peace.
The Soufan Center, a New York-based group that monitors global security threats, said the Sri Lanka bombings bore all the ‘hallmarks’ of ‘attacks by other Salafi-jihadist groups, particularly those where local groups receive foreign support’. A report released by the group in January said al-Qaeda and Islamic State wanted to recruit followers in South Asia and their propaganda “highlighted injustices against Muslims in Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka.”
The ISI’s Sri Lankan bureau has collected information on a large number of strategic assets in Tamil Nadu and its neighbouring states. Sri Lankan Muslims were able to easily blend into the local population and do the work for the PakistanisIt is also true that there are many people who are working in the Middle East, trained in Pakistan and at least a couple of people who have travelled to Syria to fight with ISIS. There was never a large Sri Lankan population there, but it only takes one or two to return and inspire a local group to align itself ideologically and tactically with a global violent jihadist organisation. This bridge was done by TMT. Also, an unidentified Islamic State supporter distributed photos of three alleged “commandos” involved in the Sri Lanka attacks. The photos were posted in pro-Islamic State chat rooms, and the men, pictured holding weapons in front of Islamic State banners, were described as “among the commando brothers in Sri Lanka”. The group reported that Islamic State supporters were portraying the attacks as revenge for strikes on mosques and Muslims.
NTJ’s Indian connection
Surprisingly, NTJ has a counterpart in Tamil Nadu, the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ). It is a non-political Islamic organisation based in Tamil Nadu and founded in 2004 by P Jainulabdeen. Unlike its Sri Lankan outfit, TNTJ is actively involved in social services like blood donation, flood relief programmes and creating awareness about dengue fever.
Meanwhile, Rasmin, a former assistant secretary of SLTJ, said a majority of members, including him, had split from the SLTJ to form the Ceylon Thowheed Jamaath (CTJ). “The SLTJ was working with the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamaath. We were not comfortable with that and decided to split. We also had some differences on the practise of Islam.” In 2015, TNTJ leader P Jainulabudeen was invited by SLTJ to release the Sinhala version of the Koran in 2015, amid some opposition from within the community. Rahman added: “It is true that [he] was invited to talk about dargah worship, but the Muslims who practise such forms of worship opposed it and reported it to Sri Lankan authorities saying that such talks would create issues in the society.” What is worrisome is that from most of the terrorist organisations of Pakistan to the recent NGO and charities have been accused or convicted in court in disguise of using their revenues to fund terrorism or revolutionary movements on the blanket of charity. During the ‘war on terror’ the names of several such organisations have been published, although the phenomenon predates 9/11. Some detainees have been captured largely because they volunteered or worked for these charities. In India, an FIR was lodged against TNTJ in 2016, where it was accused of converting and bringing Christian believers into the fold of Islam.
Concerns for India
Wherever there is a terror attack in the world, chances are you will find Pakistani fingerprints all over the place. Not surprisingly, the Easter blasts have revealed a Pakistani connection. Among the suicide bombers was Zahran Hashim, an Islamist extremist Imam, who is believed to have visited Pakistan in 2018. Decades before the Gulf sheikdoms and ISIS had started exporting the doctrine of jehad, Sri Lankan Muslims had become infected with the virus of fanaticism.
The ISI had for years been trying to get a foothold in Sri Lanka. Since it could not obviously get sympathisers among the country’s Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, the spy agency’s hope lay with the Muslim minority. The long interaction between Sri Lankan security forces and the free hand given to Pakistani military and spies no doubt allowed the ISI to develop contacts among the local Muslims once they returned to their eastern strongholds. According to ‘Ceylon Today’, the ISI has used the banned terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba and its charitable wing, the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, as proxies to radicalise Sri Lankan Muslims.
The ISI’s Sri Lankan bureau has collected information on a large number of strategic assets in Tamil Nadu and its neighbouring states. Sri Lankan Muslims were able to easily blend into the local population and do the work for the Pakistanis.
At the last one can say that though India had shared intelligence that there can be attacks on Churches and Indian High Commission for Lankan Government they could not execute or check. This made the terror group go easily ahead. Sri Lanka Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, told that some government officials had prior intelligence about the attacks but did not act on it. “Information was there,” he said at a news conference. “This is a matter we need to look into.”
The security apparatus in Sri Lanka is controlled by Sirisena, the President. Relations between him and the Prime Minister have been at a low point since Sirisena tried to oust Wickremesinghe from office late last year, leading to a political crisis. But for now we do not know who instigated this violence but South Asia is alert and the world is watching Lanka. India does not need instability in the region and wants peace and development where everybody is happy in their multi-ethnic and multi-religious way in a democratic setup.
But the US State Department said in a travel advisory that ‘terrorist groups’ were possibly plotting more attacks in Sri Lanka. The targeting of churches and hotels, where foreign tourists stayed in Sri Lanka, was a ‘new and worrying development’. This happened in World Trade Center when al Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS planned for major acts overseas. It is not easy for a person or a group to act as it has ‘significant operational capability and skilled commanders’. Four of the bombs went off at roughly the same time at 8.45 am, with two others coming within 20 minutes. South Asia has to watch out? Connection of a few international actors also has to be seen otherwise Sri Lanka will follow Yemen, Syria and Afghan, where the objective will be unrest and civil war.
(The writer is a Bengaluru-based columnist)