After the bombings, searching for sense in Sri Lanka

Why We Wrote This

The days following any tragedy are mixed with grief and a yearning for answers. In the wake of the Easter bombings, a reporter who covered the Sri Lankan civil war unpacks some pressing questions.

Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
A person mourns at a grave of a victim two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, at Sellakanda Catholic cemetery in Negombo, Sri Lanka, April 23.

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Two days after the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka – Asia’s deadliest terrorist attack in decades – the country is in mourning, beginning to bury the 321 people killed.

On Sunday, as much of the world woke up to news of the attacks, the tragedy seemed to fit an all too familiar pattern: one more massacre against a religious community that would heighten interfaith tensions. By Tuesday the Islamic State had claimed responsibility, and Sri Lankan officials had framed the attack as possible payback for the Christchurch mosque massacre in New Zealand last month.

But experts are cautioning that much is still unknown about the Sri Lanka actors and their motivations and planning. Then there’s the question of how Sri Lanka fumbled intelligence warnings about an attack on Christian targets and why the country itself became an unlikely target for Islamic State. And is global terrorism really on the rise, as we often assume when another high-profile attack dominates headlines?

Sri Lanka held a day of mourning Tuesday and began to bury the dead from Sunday’s multiple bombings of churches and hotels. Authorities said suicide bombers targeted Easter worshippers and foreign tourists, killing 321 people and wounding hundreds more – making it Asia’s deadliest terrorist attack in decades.

On Easter morning, as much of the world woke up to news of the attack, the tragedy seemed to fit an all too familiar pattern: one more massacre against a religious community that would heighten interfaith tensions. By Tuesday, the Islamic State (ISIS) had claimed responsibility and Sri Lanka was framing the attack as payback for New Zealand’s Christchurch massacres last month, when dozens of Muslim worshippers were shot dead by a white supremacist.

But experts are cautioning that much is still unknown about the Sri Lanka actors and their motivations and planning. Then there’s the question of how Sri Lanka fumbled intelligence warnings about an attack on Christian targets, and why Sri Lanka itself is, in some ways, an unlikely site for an ISIS attack.

Why would Sri Lanka become a target for ISIS?

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country with a Muslim minority estimated at 10%. But its political fault lines have long been ethnic, not religious, primarily between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, which is mostly Hindu and Christian. Of all the countries where Christians and Muslims have been violently at odds, Sri Lanka ranks low on the list.

Sri Lankan Tamil militants fought for an independent state for three decades, until the defeat of the Tamil Tiger group in 2009. Muslims were targeted by both sides during a brutal war that tore the country apart, including terrorist attacks and assassinations of civilian leaders.

Since then, social tensions have continued, including attacks by Sinhalese-Buddhists on Muslims – often fomented by militant Buddhist groups with political patrons. Authorities have warned of creeping radicalization among Muslims, and in 2016, a justice minister said that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims had traveled to Syria to join ISIS. More recently, Islamists were accused of destroying Buddhist statues.

Still, such sectarian tensions are all too common in South Asia. They don’t explain the scale and sophistication of Sunday’s attacks – or the targeting of Christian communities. Local Islamic militants had been focused on Buddhists and secular Muslims, not Christians or vacationers in Sri Lanka’s booming tourism industry.

Experts say ISIS militants returning from Syria could have brought back an anti-Christian agenda, but would have needed a local network to carry out any attacks.

Sri Lanka’s government has accused two hitherto obscure local Islamist groups of involvement, possibly with ISIS support. But that raises more questions: Did the bombers travel overseas to train for the attacks? Who funded them? Why did they not attack Sinhalese Buddhist targets?

Police have so far detained 40 suspects and begun to identify bombers captured on security cameras, which is likely to reveal their network and how they prepared the attacks. It’s possible that they pulled off the coordinated attacks alone. But that’s a big leap from defacing Buddhas.

How could Sri Lanka have ignored the warnings?

Missed intelligence nuggets before major terrorist attacks aren’t unknown. Security forces often struggle to pinpoint specific threats and may be stretched by other ongoing investigations. What is unusual in Sri Lanka is that specific threats were relayed and that local officials have since provided details to news outlets, effectively calling out the government for failing to respond.

A police circular from April 11 translated by The New York Times warns of a plot to bomb Catholic churches and cites a particular Islamist group and the location of its plotters. (A government minister had tweeted the circular on Sunday in an apparent protest.) The Times and other newspapers have reported that the United States and India had warned Sri Lanka in recent weeks about possible suicide bombings on the island.

President Maithripala Sirisena has called for an investigation into the failure to respond to advance warnings of Sunday’s attacks. This may be fruitful, but it’s already clear that political divisions within the ruling coalition are hobbling governance in Sri Lanka.

The president triggered a crisis last October when he sacked his prime minister and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the wartime president whom he succeeded in 2015. The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, refused to go and eventually prevailed after two months of chaos, but Mr. Rajapaksa remains a powerful player.

The feud between the president and prime minister speaks to the dysfunction that left churches unguarded on Easter, despite warnings of their vulnerability. Health Minister Rajith Senaratne has said that Mr. Wickremesinghe didn’t see the police report. Did Mr. Sirisena?

Writing in The Guardian, British-Sri Lankan academic and peace activist Farah Mihlar noted that postwar politics has sidelined justice for victims and national reconciliation. “The cycles of violence experienced in Sri Lanka’s recent history may be distinct, but they are connected by a thread of state failures, impunity, lack of justice and disregard for human rights.”

Minorities voted in 2015 to oust Mr. Rajapaksa, seen as a Sinhalese nationalist, and replace him with the current government, which makes its divisions and incompetence even more painful, Mr. Mihlar wrote.

Is there a connection with the Christchurch attacks?

Sri Lanka’s state defense minister Ruwan Wijewardene told parliament on Tuesday that the government had information possibly linking the bombings to the March 15 mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand. While he didn’t give details, his comment is likely to fuel speculation of an Islamist retaliation, in effect depicting Sri Lanka as payback for Christchurch.

Given the level of planning required for multiple suicide attacks in different cities, that timeline seems suspicious. Similar large-scale attacks have reportedly taken months to prepare.

More likely is that the Easter attacks were already in the works and that Christchurch may have convinced a few waverers to join. But that’s not the same as a retaliatory attack. And Mr. Wijewardene may have reason to muddy the waters – and deflect blame – after a systemic government failure. ISIS, meanwhile, has every reason to claim that it was responsible.

“It seems that of late they’re just claiming anything they can,” says Gary LaFree, a criminologist at the University of Maryland and founder of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START.

Mr. LaFree helped create START’s widely consulted terrorism database, which goes back to 1970. He points to a wave of terrorist incidents since 2002 that peaked in 2014 and has since fallen, despite high-profile attacks like those in Sri Lanka. While Sunday’s bombings were particularly deadly, the global trend in terms of fatalities and number of incidents offers some encouragement. “It’s been falling for three years and pretty substantially,” he says.

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