WASHINGTON, D.C — Sri Lankans have been left numb and overwhelmed by grief, after the dastardly terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday that targeted Christian worshipers in three churches across the country and foreigners in three luxury hotels in the island nation’s capital of Colombo that killed 321 and injured twice as many. They are searching for answers, particularly since Christian-Muslim amity was manifest, especially in recent years as both these minority communities were in the cross-hairs of Buddhist chauvinism and extremism buoyed by a rising populism and nationalistic fervor.
According to Sri Lanka’s 2012 census, fewer than 8 percent of the roughly 22 million population of the country is Christian — the majority of whom, nearly 82 percent, are Roman Catholic. Seventy percent are Sinhalese, while 12.6 percent are Tamil, and 9.7 percent are Muslim. The majority of Sinhalese are Buddhists, though there’s a fraction that are Christian, and the majority of Tamils are Hindu, but also includes a fraction who are Christian.
The Sri Lankan government has blamed an obscure local radical Islamist group called the National Thowheeth Jama’ath for the deadly suicide attacks even as the Islamic State claimed responsibility on April 23.
Sri Lanka for decades had been wracked by an ethnic conflict between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese, with the militant group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) making suicide bombings into an art form. But after the elimination of the LTTE by the Mahinda Rajapakse regime in 2009, the country had been enjoying relative peace, notwithstanding all of the political shenanigans and an economy going south, anchored only by veritable debt bondage to China.
While extremist Buddhist groups’ attacks on mosques and Muslim villages in recent years had led to the creation of pockets of Muslim militancy, they had never engaged in the suicide terrorism that the LTTE was notorious for, and hence the Easter Sunday attack on Christians was a shocker that both Christian and Muslim Sri Lankans this correspondent spoke in Sri Lanka and in the U.S. could hardly come to grips with and described it as “a day of infamy.”
Some Sri Lankan American academics and experts in U.S. and Sri Lankan universities and think tanks, who follow Sri Lankan politics, told India Abroad that there was indeed a rising religious extremism that has been growing among some Muslims as a counter to the Buddhist extremism, which they believed was a manifestation of the Saudi-funded Wahabi-Salafi influence that some of the Muslim expatriates brought back after working in the Gulf.
But these observers — none of whom wanted to be quoted — could not comprehend the kind of attack that took place on Easter Sunday, and that too against another minority — the Christians — that has also been targeted by Buddhist extremists, and had pledged common cause with the Muslims to counter the discrimination and hate that was being perpetrated against them.
A longtime intelligence source, who has over the years tracked South Asian terrorism, told India Abroad that he was convinced that the Easter Sunday attacks, which U.S. and other international intelligence services also strongly believe, had a foreign — most likely ISIS component, with the indoctrination of some local militant Sri Lankan Muslims, some of whom may have gone and fought with the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, like the few from other countries of South and East Asia.
The sources said this clearly showed up in the sophistication and coordination of the attacks on the three churches and high-end hotels in Colombo, all of which were soft targets and were hit within the space of half-an-hour with at least seven suicide bombers.
Lax security that had been the norm a few years after the LTTE were vanquished, compounded by catastrophic intelligence failures that the Sri Lankan president and prime minister acknowledged and apologized for, obviously made these targets so much more vulnerable, the sources pointed out.
When pressed as to how Muslim militancy could have such capability and how ISIS could have penetrated Sri Lankan Muslims when it could not find a foothold in the more fertile Kashmir unrest, the source pointed out that a few Sri Lankans had been caught in Iraq and Syria over the last couple of years, “which means that if two or three were caught, there may have been others who were not caught. And, all it takes is for one or two persons to go back and start indoctrinating these people — to the extent to even carry out suicide bombings.”
But as to why Christians — a passive minority community —and luxury hotels were targeted, and not the groups like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist organization led by militant monks that has targeted Muslims and Christians, the intelligence source said, to these ISIS inspired group and individuals, it was not a local issue, but the whole concept of the Caliphate.
“ISIS hates Christians and ISIS hates the West. And, so, Christians equals churches and the West equals the luxury hotels,” the source argued.
And pointing out that ISIS, after the recent massacre of scores of Muslim worshippers at a Christchurch, New Zealand mosque, had promised revenge, using these indoctrinated and motivated individuals or radical groups, could exact this revenge on soft targets like in Sri Lanka, even though a European target would have been more logical.
The New York Times reported on April 23 that 10 days before the bombings, a top Sri Lankan police official had warned the security services that a radical Islamist group was planning suicide attacks against churches, but no action was taken against the group. It was also unclear what other precautions, if any, the security agencies had taken in response to the threat warnings.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on April 21 that neither he nor his cabinet ministers had been informed of the warning, highlighting the power struggle between him and President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the defense minister. Late last year, the feud led to Sirisena firing Wickremesinghe, but the latter refusing to resign, and for a time, to there being two prime ministers —Sirisena’s appointee, former President Rajapakse — Wickremesinghe, claiming to be the rightful prime minister, till the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wickremesinghe.
The apparent intelligence failure and the breakdown of communication within the government is likely to prompt political recriminations and attract attention in investigations into the attacks, the media has reported citing some senior government officials.
At a news conference on April 22, the health minister, Rajitha Senaratne, said there had been a warning as early as April 4, reiterating that the prime minister and his allies had been “completely blind on the situation.” He noted the lack of cooperation within the government, saying that when the prime minister attempted recently to call a security council meeting, members of the panel refused to attend.
An April 11 letter from the police official had not only named the group believed to be planning an attack — the National Thowheeth Jama’ath —but also named individual members, and even gave addresses where they could be found.
The letter had said the information came from “foreign intelligence,” including Indian intelligence, and Wickremesinghe, obviously taking a swipe at Sirisena — under whose purview included security, said, “We must look into why adequate precautions were not taken.”
However, Mangala Samaraweera, the finance minister, who earlier was the foreign minister, and visited Washington several times, called for the people of Sri Lanka to come together.
He tweeted, “In the midst of this tragedy, it’s reassuring to see the outpouring of solidarity as people donate blood. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim & others are donating because we are humans with the same blood & same spirit of compassion. Nobody can deny our common humanity.”
The Washington Post reported from Sri Lanka that before Easter Sunday, “most of the tensions faced by the Christian community came from Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority rather than from Muslims. Sunday services across the country have been occasionally disrupted, and some Christian groups have said they face intimidation from extremist Buddhist monks.
It said, “The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka reported 86 verifiable cases of violence, threats and discrimination last year.”