Several near-simultaneous blasts tore through three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the bloodiest outbreak of violence in the South Asian island state since the end of a civil war a decade ago.
By Amresh Gunasingham*
Over 300 people, including more than 30 foreigners, were killed in suicide bomb attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday 21 April 2019, which will severely test a government reeling from a political crisis last year in a country with a troubled history of inter-ethnic and faith-fueled violence. The attacks have been unprecedented in scale and devastation since 9/11.
Six coordinated explosions took place at 8.45 a.m. local time,
followed by separate blasts later in the day. According to media
reports, there were eight attacks in all, involving churches in Negombo
and Kochchikade in the country’s west, and Batticaloa in the east. The
three affected hotels are located along a stretch of road in the heart
of the capital Colombo. A pipe bomb found near the capital’s main
airport was also detonated by explosives experts. Almost 90 bomb
detonators were also found at a crowded bus station.
Complex, Coordinated Attack, But By Whom?
There were no immediate claims of responsibility, nor any established motive for the series of attacks, although the government has blamed a local extremist organisation called the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and has sought assistance from the international security community to establish if any international terrorist networks were involved. According to security experts, the complex and coordinated nature of the attacks suggests some involvement of international terrorist networks. The Islamic State has since claimed responsibility.
The authorities on Sunday also imposed a nationwide curfew, blocked
social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp, and withheld
information about those detained. The extraordinary step was taken out
of fear that misinformation and hate speech could spread, provoking
Similar steps were taken after several incidents of communal violence
in March last year. At that time, some of the violence had been
instigated by Facebook postings that threatened attacks on Muslims, the
Sri Lanka is home to a Buddhist majority as well as several religious
minorities, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians, who are
predominantly Roman Catholics. They make up 12.6 percent, 9.7 percent
and 7.4 percent of the country’s population respectively.
However, the unprecedented targeting of Christians and foreign
tourists on Easter Sunday represents a shift in Sri Lanka. The
government had previously fought a brutal three-decades-long civil war
against Tamil ethno-separatists.
In the years since, reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamil
communities has remained elusive, while there has been a resurgence in
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, with groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS)
accused of fueling violent attacks against minority communities,
Sunday’s attacks have also come against the backdrop of a sharp
increase in incidents of violence against Christian minorities in Sri
Lanka. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka,
representing more than 200 churches, reported 86 incidents of
discrimination, threats and violence against Christians last year.
Groups belonging to the majority Buddhist Sinhala community were
reported to be behind the attacks.
In a 2018 report on Sri Lanka, the US State Department also noted
that some Christian leaders complained of being put under pressure from
the authorities to end or curtail services, which they were deemed to be
“unlawful gatherings”. It appears that Catholic Sri Lankans, who had
been attending Easter service in the three affected churches, suffered
the biggest casualties in the suicide attacks.
A letter warning of imminent terrorist attacks sent to security
agencies several days prior to the attack has been made public by a
government minister, raising questions of the failure of law enforcement
agencies to take pre-emptive action. According to analysts, the
government’s extensive military and intelligence apparatus built up
during the civil war years was caught off-guard by Sunday’s attacks and
still unable to adequately assess emerging threats.
In the letter dated 11 April, Sri Lankan police had circulated a
document entitled ‘Information of an alleged plan attack’, which
contained a warning by an unnamed foreign intelligence agency of
possible suicide attacks being planned against Catholic churches and the
Indian High Commission in Colombo by NTJ and its leader Mohamed Zahran.
Government officials have since indicated that the alleged suicide
bombers and those since arrested were affiliated with the group.
NTJ is a relatively unknown radical Islamist group said to have been
formed in Kattankudy, a Muslim-dominated town in eastern Sri Lanka, in
2014. The group came to prominence in 2017 when some of its leaders were
prosecuted for allegedly making derogatory remarks in a video against
Last year, a group of young Muslim university students, allegedly
affiliated to NTJ, were also linked to the vandalising of Buddhist
statues, seen as an attempt to instigate tensions between Buddhists and
Muslims. It is not known if NTJ has affiliations with international
Islamist networks or operated independently, although some experts link
its members to Islamic State (IS) as well as Sri Lankan nationals known
to have travelled to Syria and Iraq.
Radical Islamist groups have been quietly growing in influence,
particularly in the eastern regions of Sri Lanka. Religious
organisations known to preach strict interpretations of religious
doctrines and practices have also been gaining traction. Security
officials believe some of the several dozen Sri Lankan nationals
believed to have travelled to Syria in recent years may have returned
and engaged in radical activities back home.
According to reports, in January this year, law enforcement agencies
had seized a large quantity of explosives, detonators and other weaponry
and arrested several individuals in a remote compound in
Wanathawilluwa, on the north-western coast. Investigations revealed a
group of local Islamists, likely connected to NTJ, was planning to
attack several historic Buddhist monuments around the country.
The decade following the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war has been
largely peaceful – with few reports of terrorism-related attacks. Yet,
there are clear signs that the peace is fragile; relations between the
different religious groups in the country have been affected by global
and regional extremism. In recent years, resurgent hardline Buddhist
groups have perpetrated a series of incidents of violence against Muslim
and Christian communities.
Sunday’s attacks targeting Christians represents another turn toward
more religio-political violence. Although no group immediately claimed
credit, supporters of IS were quick to frame the assault as revenge for
attacks on Muslims and mosques. If so, it is still a mystery why the
Christians were attacked when the Islamists’ grievance was possibly more
in retaliation against rising Buddhist extremism.
Given tenuous Buddhist-Muslim relations, a fear of reprisal attacks
by hardline elements within the Sinhalese Buddhist majority against
Muslims in Sri Lanka looms large, which the authorities will have to
guard against, while also conducting a swift and thorough investigation
into Sunday’s terrorist attacks. On this score, the Sri Lankan
communities and government will need to work in concert to ensure that
the country does not slide back into its internecine past.
*Amresh Gunasingham is an Associate Editor with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.