Sri Lanka SITUATION UPDATE: Muslim groups rally against violence in Puttalam, Kalutara districts, arrests of NTJ members continue on May 17; maintain vigilance
Please be advised:
- On May 17, security forces arrested two suspected members of the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) Islamist group in Horowpothana, North Central province. They allegedly had close links to Zahran Hashim, who is considered to be the mastermind of the April 21 Easter Sunday bombings.
- On the same day, in Puttalam District of North Western Province, Islamic groups reportedly held a large protest denouncing religious extremism and the Islamic State (IS). A similar rally was held in Beruwala of Kalutara District in Western Province.
- Meanwhile, unconfirmed sources indicate that a mosque was vandalized in Mawanella, Sabaragamuwa Province by unidentified motorcycle-borne individuals on May 17. The Sri Lankan government has reportedly lifted its temporary ban on social media on May 17, after it reimposed curbs on May 13 following inter-religious clashes across the country.
- Coming amid an increase in inter-religious violence in the aftermath of the IS-claimed Easter Sunday attacks, the rallies were likely intended to emphasize the Muslim community’s condemnation of the events in an attempt to quell tensions and project solidarity. It is likely that the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamaath (SLTJ), from which the NTJ broke away, will conduct similar rallies over the coming days, given that it will likely seek to distance itself from the Islamists involved in the attack. Such rallies may materialize in Muslim-majority areas or in areas that previously witnessed inter-religious violence in the North Western Province.
- While the May 17 rallies transpired peacefully, there remains a latent threat that hardline Buddhists activists may organize counter-protests during such events, especially given the elevated levels of polarization at this point in time. Additionally, there remains a risk that such counter-protests may spark isolated bouts of inter-group violence over the coming days. That said, the government’s lifting of the social media ban is indicative of the relatively diminished threat of large-scale violence as of publication.
- The May 17 arrests underscore the continued presence of individuals part of the broader NTJ support network in the country, despite security operations that resulted in the elimination or arrest of the suspected prime conspirators. Security forces are likely to continue carrying out further raids and detentions as they gather more intelligence inputs regarding new NTJ-linked suspects and Islamist sympathizers over the coming days.
- Those operating or residing in Sri Lanka on May 18 and over the coming days are advised to maintain general vigilance due to the continuing security risks associated with the recent attacks and anti-militancy operations.
- Individuals are advised to remain cognizant of the latent inter-religious tensions and avoid the vicinity of political demonstrations and large religious gatherings, given the potential for unrest.
- We further advise those operating in Sri Lanka to avoid engaging in discussions with locals about the reported inter-religious violence, given the sensitivities surrounding the issue.
- Avoid overt or critical statements that may hurt religious sentiments, both in public spaces and online, including social media.