Samir Kumar & Hari Prasad
On April 21, 2019, a series of suicide bombings devastated churches and hotels in SriLanka. Multiple sites within three different cities (Batticaloa in the east and Negombo and Colombo in the west) were targeted and hit in the morning,appearing to target Christians who had turned up for Easter service that Sunday morning as well as foreigners in luxury hotels. Over 250 were killed and over 500 injured.
The Sri Lankan government quickly attributed the attacks to a local group,National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), previously only known for vandalizing Buddhist monuments. However, several days later, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, releasing a video of the purported NTJ leader pledging allegiance to ISIS’s Caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Sri Lankan security forces have strongly suggested that the attacks were ISIS directed. Shortly after the attack, the Sri Lankan government banned the NTJ as well as another group, the Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI), who were also accused in the attacks.
In response, the Sri Lankan government imposed a state of emergency, blocked major social media channels (to questionable effect), and deployed thousands of troops. Muslim leaders throughout Sri Lanka quickly condemned the attack, and a major clerical association advised against holding Friday prayers out of respect for the Christian community. The Sunday mass was cancelled. Police and security forces have made numerous arrests, and officials suggest that several suspects are at large and caches of explosives remain undiscovered. On April 27, Sri Lankan security forces raided an ISIS safe house in Kalmunai after an intense firefight that left 15 dead.
A recent video by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi himself announced that the Sri Lanka attacks were in retaliation for Baghouz, the last ISIS stronghold in Eastern Syria that was retaken in March of this year. Sri Lankan officials acknowledgedreceiving advance intelligence on the attacks from multiple sources, and the prime minister claimed that the government knew of returned ISIS volunteers but had no legal authority to act against them.
Where does this fit into Sri Lanka’s historical context?
While Sri Lanka’s history of colonization, postcolonial Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, and Tamil insurgency leaves a frictional mesh of ethnolinguistic tension, it has enjoyed a relative absence of large-scale violence for the past decade after the end of the 26-year-long civil war.
Buddhists make up the majority of Sri Lanka’s population, but Muslims (about 10 percent) and Christians (about 7 percent) represent sizeable minorities. Chapter 2 of the Sri Lankan constitution codifies a privileged place for Buddhism. Sinhala Buddhist linguistic nationalism in the period following independence in 1948 fed into dynamics that led to the establishment of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1972, an extreme expression of the desire for self-determination and rights by the ethnic Tamil minority. Some suggest that the Sri Lankan government’s heavy-handed prosecution of the civil war and its inattention to questions of justice and human rights in the aftermath have actively fostered a culture of minority repression, driving the emergence of ethnic and religious divisions.
There has not previously been a major act of political violence in Sri Lanka perpetrated by a Muslim individual or group. Christians had previously been occasionally targeted by extremist Buddhist forces. Although the Muslim community, which is regarded as a separate ethnic group, has a centuries-old history on the island, demonstrable tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have been evident since at least the early twentieth century. In recent years, a pattern of aggression emerged from Sinhala Buddhist mobs and vigilantes, operating openly, toward Muslims.
A rare attack by Muslims on Buddhists in 2018 led the president to declare a state of emergency. Tamil-Muslim tensions stem in part from LTTE persecution of Muslims during the civil war. However, political conditions exist to inhibit the alienation of the Muslim community: the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress is a longstanding political party representing Muslim interests, and there is a ministry for Muslim religious affairs.
What do we know about the perpetrators of the attacks?
Though terrorism related to the global jihadist movement was relatively unheard of in Sri Lanka, the Easter attacks have turned that perception on its head. Reports of Sri Lankan connections to ISIS date back to 2015 and 2016.
Sri Lanka had begun to emerge as a local hub for those who wished to study Salafism, particularly South Indians. Alumni of the Dar-al-Hadith Institute in Dammaj, Yemen had established their own nodes and centers throughout the region. In fact, three Malayali ISIS members had previously studied at an unnamed Salafi center in Sri Lanka. While they were kicked out, these existing networks will only grow in importance as the war in Yemen has cut off access to the Dar-al-Hadith institute.
Early reports suggest that one of the suicide attackers had spent several months in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where he attracted the attention of India’s security agencies. There are alleged links between the NTJ and Islamist groups in South India who desired to create a separate Islamic Confederation in the region. The Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ) and Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath have denied any linkages to the group and condemned the attacks. The fact remains that many questions are unanswered related to the group and its linkages.
Notwithstanding recent reports, ISIS and other jihadist groups have been recruiting non-Arabs and putting out local reports for some time now. ISIS affiliated Telegram channels had been translating their Arabic and English works into regional languages for years. Indeed, some have reported ISIS translations in Tamil and other Southern languages as far back as 2014.
What role has Sri Lanka’s domestic political situation played?
A communication failure between the president and prime minister, leading to inaction on an abundance of advance intelligence, is the proximate cause for the attacks. This was brought on by existing dysfunction and exacerbated by a late 2018 political crisis, in which the president fired the prime minister but was forced by parliament to reinstate him.
In 2015, strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the government’s civil war victory and enjoyed high popularity, was defeated in a surprise challenge from erstwhile ally Maithripala Sirisena, who formed a coalition government with the leader of his rival party, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as prime minister. The governing partnership was always uneasy, marked by muddled execution of half-measures at “good governance.”
While democracy in Sri Lanka is not in perfect health, elements of the political system like parliament can serve as a bulwark to the authoritarian instincts of political leaders that go hand-in-hand with the virulence of ethnic and religious nationalism and state repression of minorities. On April 26, the speaker of parliament released a detailed action plan that suggests that there is a strong constituency for unity and peace between ethnic and religious communities.
What should observers watch for?
Although an attack was not inevitable, there were many warning signs that trouble was brewing on the island. The pure scale and organization of the attack has raised several important questions: how deep are transnational networks in the country, why were so many intelligence inputs from foreign governments as well as Sri Lanka’s Muslim community ignored, and does the government have the capacity to respond to this without substantial foreign intervention? It remains to be seen whether these attacks will prove to open up a new front of political violence in Sri Lanka, or activate fissures between ethnic and religious communities.
But the tradition of religious harmony and even syncretism in Sri Lanka is alive. Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Ranjith clearly distinguished the perpetrators of terror attacks from Sri Lanka’s Muslim community. Institutions like the parliamentary select committee on communal and religious harmony suggest some capacity for political and social leaders to enshrine and amplify this natural aspect of Sri Lankan society. Interfaith vigils and memorials were held throughout the country.
Predictably, there has been some anti-Islamic backlash from Sri Lankans, visible in the expulsion of Pakistani refugees, who themselves fled jihadist violence, and the harassment of a London-based Tamil journalist by online mobs. That this attack was heavily connected with ISIS may encourage the current government in Colombo to adopt broad language that could foment Islamophobia and broad anti-Islamic violence by state actors as much as vigilantes. Politicians, including the president, argued that inquiries into the army’s human rights violations “demoralized” the troops, and police have started to register Muslims in the country’s northeast.
Senior political leadership will likely not be a force for communal harmony. Even prior to these attacks, the current government’s weakness led many to speculate that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s brother and the defense minister during the brutal end of the civil war, would be favored in elections to be held later in 2019. With his declaration of candidacy, in which he explicitly suggested a response to these attacks reminiscent of the end of the civil war, unbridled Sinhala Buddhist nationalism may begin to be seen at the highest levels of government in Sri Lanka.
Samir Kumar is a Research Associate for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Hari Prasad is an independent researcher of Middle East/South Asian Politics and Security.This article was originally published in South Asian Voices, an online forum on strategic and security issues of South Asia, and is being republished with permission.