There had been warnings, but no one saw it coming.
On April 21, a series of coordinated suicide bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, killed 258 people.
Diplomats had warned of rising Islamic extremism in the country since 2007, and in late 2016, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told parliament that 32 Sri Lankan nationals had joined the Islamic State (ISIS). Intelligence and security forces had received multiple warnings of an imminent attack in the lead-up to Easter.
But political paralysis following a recent constitutional crisis kept security forces from taking any preventative action. Exacerbating the situation was the perception that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), which fought a 26-year civil war against the government until 2009, was the only real threat to national security.
“Security services never believed the Muslims were capable of organizing this. It was a well-coordinated, highly sophisticated series of attacks. They thought only the LTTE were capable, despite the warnings,” said Robert O. Blake Jr., a career diplomat and the former American ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives from 2006 to 2009.
The Sri Lankan government later announced that an obscure domestic militant Islamist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath was responsible for the Easter bombings, although evidence indicates that the Islamic State had a hand in the bloodshed.
Islamic State Support
On April 23, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Easter attacks. Its media release included a video showing Sri Lankan extremist preacher Mohammed Zaharan pledging loyalty to the group.
In addition, reports have emerged that the group may have played an active role in both inspiring and helping the suicide bombers. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe implied that the attackers — nine Sri Lankans, many of whom were from wealthy upper-class families — had traveled abroad for training.
The Islamic State also released a recording of its elusive leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi — his first such video in more than five years — in which he claimed the attacks in Sri Lanka were a response to the group’s recent defeat in Baghouz at the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces and their Western allies.
The battle of Baghouz drove the Islamic State from its last stronghold in Syria and marked a turning point in the group’s grand strategy.
“The loss was a major blow to the so-called caliphate and a staple of some leaders’ narratives of the group’s ‘defeat.’ However, immediately upon its defeat, ISIS began to spin it into a recruitment narrative of the world’s war against ISIS and, by extension, against Islam,” said Rita Katz, executive director of Bethesda-based private firm SITE Intelligence.
The group had already begun reinventing itself in response to the steady loss of its territory. It morphed back into a more traditional terrorist organization, launching guerrilla-style attacks while its fighters went underground or blended into the local population to regroup. In addition, the Islamic State has actively cultivated ties with loosely affiliated networks and offshoots in other countries such as Afghanistan and the Philippines to spread its ideology.
According to Katz, this means that countries like Sri Lanka are now facing a rising threat of violent extremist attacks.
“The Sri Lanka attacks mark a significant development in ISIS’s targeting of Christians, which has been legitimized by the group in its official publications. It’s part of an increasingly clear game plan by the group after losing its hold on Iraq and Syria: expand in vulnerable countries — even those not involved in the anti-ISIS coalition — by stoking religious tensions,” she said.
While Sri Lanka’s Easter attacks are the most high-profile recent example of the Islamic State making inroads in South and Southeast Asia, they are only the latest in a string of attacks linked to the group elsewhere in the region.
In June 2016, SITE reported that the Islamic State had claimed responsibility for 21 terrorist attacks reported in Bangladesh over the previous 10 months. The following month, five attackers from the domestic extremist group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen stormed Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery in Bangladesh, taking dozens of hostages. A protracted standoff and military raid killed 29 people, including 20 hostages. Again, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, although Bangladesh’s government has denied that the group has a presence in the country.
In the Philippines, the Marawi siege in the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao saw government security forces wage a five-month battle, beginning in May 2017, against Islamic State-affiliated militants from groups such as Abu Sayyaf.
The U.S., Israel, Australia, China and Russia supported the Philippines in what would become the longest urban battle in its modern history. More than 1,000 people were killed and more than 350,000 displaced, 73,000 of whom still had not returned home as of January 2019.
“ISIS was always interested in South and Southeast Asia,” said Katz. “Calls to set up a branch in the Philippines were seen all the way back in 2015, and in recent years, this enthusiasm has manifested into major attacks and militant activity in the region. ISIS will reach out anywhere there are Muslim populations, and countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh offer existing jihadi extremist movements to pull from.”
As the Islamic State shifts its focus to new markets, some fear that the real threat facing target countries is severe backlash against Muslim minority populations, occurring against a backdrop of rising populism, minority persecution and an erosion of civil liberties that is already affecting countries across South and Southeast Asia.
The after-effects of Sri Lanka’s Easter attacks exemplify this threat.
“It was an opportunity for ISIS as it looks for places to re-organize — do a bombing and sow discord between Christians and Muslims. If there was an overreaction against Muslims, it would give them an opportunity to expand their presence,” said Blake.
The group has been successful in stoking religious and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, where around 70 percent of the population is majority-Buddhist Sinhalese and 10 percent is largely Hindu Tamil. Muslims comprise another 10 percent of the population, and the country is also home to a Christian minority within both the Tamil and Sinhalese groups.
A May 5 article in The New York Times recently highlighted a long history of violence in the country that “popularized the use of the suicide bomber vest, a place far more compact than the Balkans yet cleaved by more divisions: ethnic, religious and class,” wrote Hannah Beech. “If it is renowned for its beauty, Sri Lanka has become equally defined by its hate.”
This has led to decades of intercommunal clashes, including an attack on one of the world’s holiest sites by Tamil separatists. During the 26-year war against the Tamil Tigers, Sinhalese Buddhists destroyed Christian churches and Hindu temples where Tamil rebels were thought to be hiding, following which the Tamils infiltrated two mosques, killing more than 100 Muslims.
After the war with the Tamils ended in 2009, extremist Buddhist monks turned their attention to Christians and Muslims. Dozens of mosques and churches have been attacked by Sinhalese mobs, causing resentment among the two minorities. And in the weeks since the Easter bombings, anti-Muslim sentiment has soared. By mid-May, rights groups were warning the international community about escalating violence, as mobs attacked mosques and Muslim-owned houses and businesses, while more than 1,000 people in Colombo and Negombo had been forced from their homes.
The Sri Lankan government response has been equally strong: Authorities intermittently blocked social media platforms and declared a national state of emergency that allows military and police forces to arbitrarily arrest suspected terrorists. A nationwide curfew was instituted several times in April and May, and authorities have also announced plans to monitor mosque sermons with CCTV cameras, as well as ban wearing the hijab in public.
Experts fear this heavy-handed response will only fuel more resentment and radicalism, but populist strongmen have deftly exploited people’s fears and grievances to re-emerge as major political players. As a result, just 10 years out from its devastating civil war, Sri Lanka is now at risk of returning to a police state, with right-wing populist Gotabaya Rajapaksa expected to make inroads during the next elections, which are scheduled to be held before Dec. 9, 2019. Rajapaksa, a former defense minister, stands accused by human rights groups of war crimes during the long-running conflict with Tamil Tigers.
“This a rather combustible environment right now and tensions are high. I think it is important for religious leaders to take action, because political leaders have lost credibility,” said Blake.
Other Islamic State-targeted countries, particularly those where democracy and religious pluralism are already fragile, are at risk of falling into a similar crisis.
As highlighted by human rights NGO Civicus in its 2019 State of Civil Society report, many countries in South and Southeast Asia are at various stages of democratic transition that leave them vulnerable to populist politics — from Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei, which have a history of military and authoritarian rule, to Bangladesh and Pakistan, where democratic institutions are too weak to ensure elections’ legitimacy.
Others, including India and the Philippines, have seen inclusive democratic values come under pressure from right-wing populist leaders.
“The governing style of these leaders is quite similar to that of others around the world such as Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu in Israel, President Trump in the U.S., President [Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil and Prime Minister [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary. They seek to maintain power by the appealing to the interests of population blocs that most support them, rather than society as a whole. Anyone who calls them out is labeled as undermining national security and economic development,” said Mandeep Tiwana, chief programs officer at Civicus.
Tiwana argued that the increasingly popular narrative of Islamic extremists targeting Christians in the region is dangerous, as the problem spans many religions.
“Right-wing populist politics has created huge challenges for minority populations in South and Southeast Asia, as it has in other parts of the world. Religious fundamentalism is not limited to any one religion or Islam. India’s democracy is being undermined by Hindu extremists, Buddhist extremists are undermining social cohesion in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and Islamic extremists are negatively influencing politics in Indonesia,” he said.
“In each of these countries, divisive political parties and their leaders … have sought to stoke religious sentiments of majority populations by targeting ethnic and religious minorities.”
All Eyes on Indonesia
Indonesia occupies a unique position in this context.
Home to more than 260 million people, 225 million of whom are Muslim, it is the world’s largest Muslim country by population.
Indonesia is often viewed as unique in the region, benefiting from a history of tolerance and moderation, as well as relatively stable democratic institutions that set it apart from many of its neighbors. The country’s foundational political philosophy, Pancasila, emphasizes pluralism and moderation, and in addition to Islam, the country also officially recognizes Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
“Indonesians in general have always been moderate and tolerant. The archipelago is made up of 17,000 islands,” said Blake. “They have always had Chinese and Arab traders coming in, and all of these differences were absorbed with relative ease. And that has a lot to do with the moderation that we’re seeing now.”
Until recently, the country seemed largely immune to headline-grabbing terrorist attacks, with the notable exception of the 2002 al-Qaeda-backed Bali bombings that killed 202 people.
But observers now worry that Indonesia, where pro-Islamic populism has already impacted the political landscape, is at risk of fresh Islamic State-supported extremist violence.
In May 2018, a series of coordinated attacks were carried out on three churches in Surabaya, killing 28 people in the worst attacks since Bali. Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, the Southeast Asian branch of the Islamic State, claimed responsibility.
More recently, Indonesian police arrested over two dozen militants — many of whom had traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State — for allegedly planning terrorist attacks to disrupt Indonesia’s April 2019 presidential election.
That election raised widespread concerns about the role that Islamic extremism and populist politics will play in Indonesia’s future.
Moderate centrist incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo handily beat his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, a former army general, to capture the presidency. Subianto framed himself as a devout Muslim during the campaign and ran on a populist agenda railing against elites in Jakarta. Subianto’s supporters also falsely accused Joko, a technocrat who does not hail from the country’s elite, of secretly being a Christian.
Jokowi’s choice of running mate — influential Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin — raised eyebrows and was widely viewed as a way to burnish his Muslim credentials in response to rising fundamentalist rhetoric on the political stage.
“It was the only way to secure Jokowi’s political position. The way they viewed it was, ‘There is no other option,’” said Asmiati Malik, a political economist who has conducted extensive research on Islamic extremism in Indonesia.
Jokowi’s decision was influenced by the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections, which pitted incumbent Chinese-Christian candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama against Anies Baswedan, a former education minister who benefited from the support of hardline Islamist groups.
The religiously charged election was notable because Basuki, more commonly referred to as Ahok, was accused of insulting Islam after referencing a verse from the Koran while campaigning in 2016.
An edited video of his speech went viral, leading to criminal charges, and in March 2018 Ahok was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison.
International observers were shocked; Amnesty International called it “a sad day for Indonesia.”
Although Ahok was released in January 2019, his conviction has strengthened arguments that a combination of Islamic extremism and populist anger are destabilizing politics in a country known for its secular democracy
The semi-autonomous, religiously conservative Aceh province is another oft-cited example of rising Islamic political extremism and regression in Indonesia. Authorities there have implemented hardline measures including prohibiting single women and men from spending time together alone, corporal punishment for homosexuality and a ban on movies and karaoke.
“It’s now the time for Indonesia to admit that we have extremism in our society,” said Malik. “Many political leaders don’t want to admit the truth, that it happens in our society and that there are some kinds of extremism where they really believe, ‘If you don’t follow our ideology, then you are the enemy.’”
As is the case in Malaysia, a neighboring Muslim-majority country, Indonesia has seen a host of educational institutions, mosques and NGOs funded by Saudi Arabia open their doors within its borders since the 1980s.
Schools such as the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic advocate a brand of puritanical Islam known as Wahhabism or Salafism that is at odds with Indonesia’s more moderate and tolerant practice of Islam Nusantara.
Students and worshippers from institutions like these have increasingly pursued careers in politics and the civil service, which has had a ripple effect on the political landscape.
According to Malik, one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic political parties, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), was the driving force behind Ahok’s downfall because it combined ultra-conservative Islamic ideology and vocal, public, populist rhetoric to attack him in Jakarta, where its membership is concentrated.
Controlling street politics is part of the party’s broader effort to incorporate religious ideology into political and civil spheres, an effort that has increasingly targeted young people in the country.
“PKS is very active in advancing its agenda at the grassroots and political levels. It has launched an education program at universities, and more recently in high schools, called Tarbiyah, and many Muslim students view participation as mandatory,” Malik said. “It has also created a program in ministerial departments for Islamic studies every Friday. It’s very systematic. The party understands that if you want to make a substantial movement, you have to start at the bottom.”
Despite worrying recent domestic developments, Blake said the election results show that hardline Islam’s influence on Indonesian politics remains limited.
“Everyone was expecting this mass Islamic conservative movement and it didn’t materialize,” he said. “I read that as a vote of confidence in Jokowi, in his own moderate style. He chose this cleric to insulate himself from criticism, but he is not deeply religious.”
Blake also pointed to the relatively low number of Indonesians believed to have left the country to join the Islamic State — around 500 people by U.S. government estimates — as evidence that Indonesia’s democratic values, freedoms and strong economic growth are helping to insulate it against the threat of extremism.
“ISIS has had a hard time organizing there. It’s a relatively open democracy, you can use social media, start an NGO and the economy has been doing well for many years. You see polls from Pew and others that show Indonesians are among the most optimistic people in the world. If you’re hopeful and optimistic about your future, you won’t throw it away joining a radical group like ISIS,” Blake said.
Contested election results could destabilize the situation, however, and Subianto’s recent media statements, in which he claimed to possess evidence of widespread voter fraud, run the risk of reviving populist protests fueled by religious extremism.
Pervasive online terrorist recruitment campaigns also leave the country vulnerable. According to Katz, the Islamic State’s recruitment process emphasizes digital outreach and engagement, as well as strong appeals to emotion and outrage, which could further elevate the risk of fresh violence in the country.
“It is not so much about strict ideology, but more so a varying range of shallow promises: heroism, ‘cool’ notions of rebellion, a sense of belonging, fighting the oppressor, etc.,” she said. “ISIS’s media is a powerful agent of these ideas, attracting people from various backgrounds. Thus, when it comes to taking up the group’s call, it’s not about which mosque one attended, but rather which videos they watched.”
About the Author
Paige Aarhus (@paigeaarhus) is a freelance writer working in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.