To call Sri Lanka at peace in the last ten years would
be an overstatement. There were many hangovers from two decades of civil war
before that, including the basic question of how to bring back the Tamils into
the mainstream. There were other questions, about war crimes allegedly committed
by the military in the internal war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam, and the rehabilitation of large numbers of displaced persons in the
north and east of the island.
At the same time it is true that the fear of random bomb blasts, attacks on military or civilian installations and being caught in the security dragnet had virtually disappeared. Tourism was looking up, investors returned and normal political activity resumed. In other words, the good times seemed to be back again. The Easter carnage of April 21 that took more than 250 lives in a series of suicide bomb blasts by the National Thowheeth Jama’ath at churches and hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa signals an abrupt halt to all that.
The personal scale of the tragedy is worldwide. The dead hail from India, Bangladesh, the US, UK, Japan, Turkey and Australia, to name a few. Entire families were wiped out, including Sri Lankan Danadari Kuruppuachchi, husband and three children, Anita Nicholson of Britain, son Alex and daughter Annabel and three of the children of Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen. But locals, who went to church on one of Christianity’s holiest days, bore the brunt of the attacks.
The fallout is going to be long-lasting and likely to include the economy, foreign investment and political careers. Two things, however, stand out straightaway. The first is that the Islamic State (IS) terror outfit may have been driven out of its territory in Iraq and Syria but retains its capacity to attract fundamentalists across the world and remains a fearsome threat. IS has claimed responsibility for the Easter mass murder, describing it as retribution for the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooting of 50 Muslims in two mosques on March 15. It even has a short video on its “Amaq” propaganda channel of a man wearing a large backpack, possibly the suicide bomber, walking into St Sebastian Church in Negombo shortly before the explosions. The operation’s alleged mastermind and founder of the Jama’ath, Zaharan Hashim, was one of two suicide bombers at Shangri-La hotel. The threat of IS is ideological and logistical and those remain intact.
The second is the complete dog’s dinner the government made of numerous warnings about extremist violence from Indian intelligence. Two weeks before the blasts Sri Lankan security officials received actionable information about impending extremist violence, but informal and formal warnings apparently date to more than four months before the tragedy. They were given details of the network and the identities of the leader and members. Inexplicably, they seem to have done nothing. Worse, both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said they were in the dark, though police chief Sujuth Jayasundara sent an alert 10 days before the attack that suicide bombers planned to hit prominent churches across the country.
The Jama’ath was already on the security radar for allegedly vandalising Buddha icons in retaliation for anti-Muslim violence instigated by the extremist Bodu Bala Sena, which has ties with the family of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. There were at least two incidents preceding April 21, the raid in January on a coconut farm where explosives, detonators and radical literature were discovered and a motorcycle explosion at Kattankudy, Hashim’s hometown. There was also a police complaint dating from 2016 against Hashim for his aggressive behaviour and proeslytisation. He came to their attention over the statue vandalism as well. It is incomprehensible that the two top leaders knew nothing about this or that security officials failed to put together a picture of the possibilities.
With elections due at the end of next year the political temperature is likely to remain high, especially as Mahinda Rajapaksa, the self-proclaimed Sinhala warrior patriot, has support from the Bala Sena. Loathed by Muslims, he is a polarising figure who might spark more jihadi extremism if his rhetoric leads to violence by the Sinhala majority. Given the inaction of the security apparatus Sri Lanka might turn out to be the sanctuary IS supporters are looking for in the subcontinent. For that reason, both the country and its neighbours need to brace for unquiet times.