Understanding the Sri Lanka Easter attacks

Md Sharif Hasan
Published : 15:19, Apr 26, 2019 | Updated : 16:29, Apr 26, 2019

Md Sharif HasanSri Lanka's Easter Sunday turned into a scene of death and destruction. Churches and luxury hotels were targeted in at least eight coordinated blasts. More than 350 were reported to have died, however, the Sri Lanka authorities later revised down the death toll by 100. The explosions occurred in the heart of the capital Colombo and cities of Negombo and Batticaloa. The attacks are the worst since the South Asian country's civil war ended in 2009. It’s come as a massive shock to both people in Sri Lanka and beyond.
There’re multiple ways through which one can assess this. One is that a decade after the demise of the LTTE we’re looking at an attack of this scale and scope in Sri Lanka. Even when the LTTE was at its peak, we didn’t have this kind of coordinated high-value targeting attack that has been conducted in this case. So, clearly what we’re looking at is how after a decade Sri Lanka has been almost brought to its knees by this attack. This is a big message coming out from a group that it supposed to be very 'marginal.' Sri Lankan authority is pointing fingers at Islamist National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ).
If that’s the case, it’s a failure at two levels. Tactically, it’s a failure because prior intelligence was there and the institutional fabric of the Sri Lanka clearly broke down that, so that it could not use that intelligence to operationalize its response. But, there’s also strategic failure if that group was at all involved, because that group is said to be only a fringe group. Till last year, we were talking about this group having been involved in damaging some Buddhist statues; now suddenly from there it has been able to conduct this kind of a strike. Clearly something was amiss in the way Sri Lankan authorities have been handling their internal security or in the monitoring of the activities of the group. Suddenly you can’t have a group normally involved in some small time communal violence becoming strong enough to conduct this kind of attack at a national level.

Some time last September as there was a confrontation between President and the Prime Minister in Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister was sacked. And, then the President had to take him back. Now, in the Sri Lankan set-up, the intelligence agency reports directly to the President. No doubt, this is a weakness of the system as the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has claimed that he didn’t know anything. If the Prime Minister went to press and saying that he was not aware of any prior warning, that shows obviously that there’s something amiss. So, the governmental structure is weak and that is something they should immediately attend to.

Apart from the sheer magnitude of the strike, the coordination, the sort of targeting is what we need to keep our eyes on: also, the cleavage that we’ve been witnessing for the last few years between the Buddhist and the Muslims. That cleavage has been growing radically. If, Islamist National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) was the organization that was an actor here; then, clearly its actions should have been directed against the Buddhists. That’s the adversarial relationship.

A statue of Virgin Mary broken in two parts is seen in front of the St. Anthony`s Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERSHere, the target is Christians and tourists. So, the Christian minority has not been so far the target of such attacks in recent years. Clearly, the narrative here is something bigger; it’s not local. The narrative is mainly about the larger global Jihad, whatever else might be behind this kind of exercise.

The main question is whether there’s growing footprint of Dae’sh or ISIS is in all this? Or, whether ISIS-inspired attacks are taking place. Perhaps, inspiration is a major reason why a few individuals may be determining that it is the best way to make a point.

We know of certain reports suggesting that 100 people have been nabbed by the Sri Lankan authorities. They were reportedly about to join the fighting in the Middle East. There’s that angle to be examined. But, at this moment we don’t have enough evidence. There’s also a problem in terms of societal impact of what has happened in the last few years between Buddhists and the Muslims. But, in this case, the target was clearly the Christians and the occasion was Easter; it’s a symbolic thing (attacks on Easter Sunday). This goes against all our understanding of what was and what is happening in Sri Lanka. This seems to be something entirely different and entirely new. So, there’s a global message being sent out here which perhaps can point out to the imprint of ISIS.

Md Sharif Hasan teaches International Relations at the University of Rajshahi.

***The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions and views of Bangla Tribune.