An Islamic extremist group has been linked to Sri Lanka's Easter attack, and it's a symptom of rising extremism across the country

LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty ImagesA Sri Lankan relative of a bomb blast victim weeps at a morgue in Colombo on April 22, 2019, as people gather hoping to identify loved ones missing or killed in the Easter Sunday bomb attacks on churches and hotels
  • A local Islamist extremist group, the National Thowheed Jamaath, is believed to have orchestrated the deadly attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that killed almost 300 people.
  • A senior academic from the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka told INSIDER that extremism has been on the rise in Sri Lanka since the end of the country’s brutal civil war in 2009.
  • There have been instances of violence over the years between Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities.
  • Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said that international networks likely helped National Thowheed Jamaath successfully coordinate their attacks.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.

A local Islamist extremist group, National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), is believed to have orchestrated the deadly Easter attacks on churches and popular hotels in Sri Lanka that killed amost 300 people and wounded another 500, according to local officials.

A little-known group in the country, NTJ espouses hard-line, radical views and Islamic ideology.

The attacks, the deadliest instances of violence since the country’s civil war ended in 2009, has sparked questions over the obscure group behind the bloodshed – and renewed focus on whether extremism is on the rise in the island nation.

A senior academic from the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, who asked to remain anonymous, told INSIDER that since the end of the country’s brutal civil war in 2009, extremist groups have flourished in Sri Lanka – with Islamic and Buddhist extremism on the rise in the post-war years.

Sri Lanka’s in the aftermath of war

Sri Lanka has a history of tension between its ethnic Sinhalese majority, who are mostly Buddhist, and Sri Lankan Muslims, who speak Tamil and make up around ten per cent of the country.

Since the end of the civil war, which killed more than 100,000 people over a span of 26 years, there have been instances in which Buddhist extremist groups have waged violence against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community.

In 2014, for example, three people were killed and 78 injured after riots broke out between Buddhists and Muslims, as mobs shouted anti-Muslim slogans, vandalised stores, and threw gas bombs. At the time, a Muslim resident, M. Farina, told the New York Times that the police were unresponsive as the mobs attacked Muslim shops and homes. “They finished the Muslims in the area,” he said.

While the current Sri Lankan government won the 2015 elections on a platform that vowed to establish peace and harmony in the country, according to the Sri Lankan academic, he said that since then, government officials and law enforcement have often turned a blind eye to violence against Muslims.

In March 2018, a slate of attacks broke out between Muslim and Buddhist communities in the district of Kandy, a popular tourist destination, that resulted in the destruction of scores of Muslim mosques, homes, shops, and vehicles, according to the BBC. The violence prompted the government to temporarily ban Facebook, which was viewed by many as helping fuel anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric, and to declare its first nationwide state of emergency since the civil war.

“The government failed to enforce rule and law when carnage occurred in some parts of the country, and didn’t treat every community equally,” the academic told INSIDER. “That may be one of the reason why these kind of [Islamic] extremists are arising in the country.”

Following Sunday’s attack, the Sri Lankan government also temporarily blocked access to social media sites including Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, to curb misinformation and potential violence.

The academic told INSIDER that he believes social media has played a pivotal role in spreading misinformation across Sri Lanka, with fringe groups in the country using those platforms to spread their messages.

In response to the temporary ban, a Facebook spokesperson told INSIDER that “teams from across Facebook have been working to support first responders and law enforcement as well as to identify and remove content which violates our standards.”

“We are aware of the government’s statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms. People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and helping the community and the country during this tragic time,” the spokesperson added.

Outside influence

In the wake of Sunday’s Easter attacks, Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said that an international network likely helped NTJ successfully coordinate their attacks, telling reporters that “we do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” according to The Guardian.

Neither NTJ nor any transnational groups have claimed responsibility, but local officials say they had received information from a foreign government that NTJ was planning an attack in Sri Lanka.

Sri lanka bombGemunu Amarasinghe?APRelatives light candles after burial of three victims of the same family, who died at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019.

On Monday, several Sri Lankan ministers reprimanded President Maithripala Sirisena, who controls the security services, for failing to do anything, despite receiving thorough warnings that the group was planning to bomb churches, according to The New York Times.

Sri Lanka’s justice minister, Rauff Hakeem, said that the attacks were “a colossal failure on the part of the intelligence services.”

The Sri Lankan academic told INSIDER that NTJ, which has been known to practice the conservative Salafist form of Islam that exists in Saudi Arabia, is widely considered a fringe group by the mainstream Muslim population.

“They have nothing to do with Islam or the Muslim community,” he said. “They are misguided youth who may have been influenced by the transnational or international groups operating in the Middle East or somewhere else.”

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.