Al-Qaeda will reignite sectarian conflict in Sri Lanka

Al-Qaeda will reignite sectarian conflict in Sri Lanka

al-Qaeda’s spread into South Asia will encourage both significant ramp-up of security and possibly further marginalization of Muslim populations, leaving an already fragile society susceptible to sectarian divide and conflict.

In early September, al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri made a declaration to “raise the flag of jihad” across South Asia, primarily India. However, this did not shift world gaze off the Islamic State (IS) and their reign of terror in Iraq and Syria. Indeed many have claimed al-Qaeda’s activities are little more than attempts to re-exert themselves as a threat to global order.

Most downplay the announcement, claiming that within the world’s largest democracy, threat of Islamic extremism appears relatively low. This is based on several observations. Only a handful of Indian recruits have reportedly joined up with IS in the Middle East in a 180 million strong muslim population. Indian Muslims are also widely dispersed around the country making pockets of extremism arguably less likely to arise.

Moreover, threats, and indeed attacks, by Islamic militants are not new: most recently the 2008 Mumbai bombings by Pakistani fighters left 166 people dead. India is experienced in managing a terrorist threat, albeit not cast under the banner of al-Qaeda.

Furthermore, the formation of a South Asian al-Qaeda branch is perhaps the regrouping of the Indian mujahideen (linked to the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba), whose leadership was apparently captured by the Indian government earlier this year. These are logical explanations as to why focus has remained heavily on IS.

However, this does not mean there are no political implications to al-Qaeda’s latest announcement. Zawahiri’s message announced that al-Qaeda could target Burma and Bangladesh, as well as India, and there are direct regional implications beyond just the states expressly mentioned in Zawahiri’s announcement. States with smaller Islamic populations may also be affected – not only by a direct threat from al-Qaeda but by their governments’ response.

In Sri Lanka growing unrest and targeting of the Islamic population – which constitutes only 7.6 percent of the total population – combined with the increased terrorism threat may result in shifts in  investment protection in the near term, but do not encourage economic stability in the long run.

Sri Lanka’s ramp-up of security

During the civil war, the north and the east of the state became heavily militarized, and since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam a more systematic militarization has been taking place throughout the country. Moreover, the fear of civil unrest has enabled the ruling party to gain political support by using the threat of the ‘other’ and has promoted political rhetoric that encourages a hefty public investment into state security.

With this in mind, the announcement of al-Qaeda in South Asia will likely have two effects.

First, Sri Lanka is likely use the ‘growing Islamic threat’ as a reason to maintain extensive military control over some areas of the island, and continue to invest in defence spending. Aside from suppressing any perceived threat, this will arguably contribute to rhetoric that ensures President Mahinda Rajapaksa stays in power as a ’protector’. Where there are significant Islamic populations, there may even be a disproportionate increase in military control and police presence, which will not facilitate the development of local enterprise and businesses.

Secondly, the government of Sri Lanka will be further encouraged to maintain a militarized stance to help allay foreign investor fears. Sri Lanka is currently hoping to receive more Chinese investment, driven by the creation of the Maritime Silk Road. The Sri Lankan government will want to do avoid any risk to the relationship or the economic benefits reaped from being situated along the maritime trade route.

Marginalization of Sri Lanka’s muslims

For the last year there has been increasing violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka, mirroring events in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The radical Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy organisation Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) have claimed that Muslim organisations should clarify their stand on the Islamic State. Moreover, there are allegations that BBS are increasingly targeting the island’s Muslim population. Following an alleged assault against a Buddhist monk by Muslims on 12 June 2014, the BBS have been accused of inciting riots that killed four people and injured 80.

An estimated 10,000 people (8,000 Muslims and 2,000 Sinhalese) have been displaced by the riots. Several days later the BBS also staged rallies in several Sri Lankan districts. The long term impacts of a securitized state will depend upon the approach the current government takes to managing tensions already present on the island.

An increase or even maintenance of the current militarization of the island may do more harm than good. If the government does not respond to the threatening behaviour of Buddhist radicals, there may be growing political unrest and further fractioning of a country whose national identity is far from unified. At present the government is doing little to actively denounce the marginalization.

Some reports suggest that Director of the Media Centre of Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, announced that the launch of a new al-Qaeda branch was not surprising, indirectly implying that a latent, unknown Islamic threat is present and poses a risk which the island’s security forces have under control.

About Author

Rebecca Cockayne

Rebecca is an international development professional working on projects across Africa and Asia. She holds a Masters in Global Politics from LSE and previously worked in global banking. All views are her own.