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June 11, 2019

Sri Lanka: Terror on Easter Sunday

The Canadian Charger

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Despite detailed warnings the Sri Lankan government did nothing to prevent more than 320 people being killed in Easter Sunday bombings. Many Sri Lankans feel their government essentially allowed more than 320 lives to be needlessly wasted.

On Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, three Christian churches and three luxury hotels in the commercial capital of Colombo were targeted in a series of terrorist suicide bombings that were well coordinated.  Three hundred twenty people were killed, including at least 42 foreign nationals and three police officers, and at least 500 were injured. The church bombings were carried out during Easter services in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, while the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand, Kingsbury and Tropical Inn were bombed.

On 23 April 2019, Amaq News Agency, a news outlet for the ISIL, stated that ″the perpetrators of the attack targeting the citizens of coalition countries and Christians in Sri Lanka were Islamic State fighters.″ ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi praised the attackers during an 18-minute video on a range of topics.

The video was released by al-Furqan, ISIL’s official media unit. Baghdadi has released several audio recordings through al-Furqan in recent years but Monday’s video was the first time he since 2014 he has appeared on video.

The bombings in Sri Lanka were the worst violence the country has witnessed since the 26-year civil war between ethnic Tamil separatist rebels and government forces ended in 2009, when deadly bomb blasts were common in Colombo and other cities.

More than 100,000 people were estimated to have been killed in the decades-long fighting.

While Sri Lankan government officials blame the government's lack of action to stop the bombers on a feud between the president and the prime minister, with the president not sharing the intelligence warnings with the prime minister, these bombings may be another chapter in the ongoing struggle between the Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka, which constitutes over 75 per cent of the population and the minority Muslims and Christians - many of whom are also from the minority Tamil ethnic group. Christians, Muslims and Hindus form nearly one-quarter of the island's 23 million population.

It's probably not a coincidence that most of the Sri Lankans killed in the bombings were Tamils. Bartticaloa, a Tamil-majority town on the east coast, saw some of the worst Tamil-Muslim violence during the war years. The St Anthony church in Colombo is also one that is frequented by a large Tamil congregation. Consequently, there are serious concerns among Tamil and Muslim civil society in Batticaloa of a flare-up of violence.

After the Sunday attacks, the tensions that already existed are likely to deepen. Already hate speech is circulating on Sinhala-language social media. There are also reports of reprisals against Muslims.

Since 2009 security forces have maintained an iron grip on the Tamil population, while both Christian and Muslim communities have suffered repeated attacks by Sinhala Buddhist nationalist mobs.

In 2018, there were anti-Muslim riots in Kandy and dozens of attacks against Christians.

In the days prior to Easter Sunday’s devastating suicide bombings the country’s security agencies had been closely watching a secretive cell of the National Thowheeth Jama'ath a hitherto little-known radical Islamist organization that security officials in Sri Lanka now say carried out the attacks and may have received help from abroad.

And within hours of three churches and three hotels being bombed, Sri Lankan security services swooped down on at least 24 suspects — by Tuesday the number had grown to 40 — suggesting that officials also knew exactly where the group had been operating.

The National Thowheeth Jama’ath group emerged around 2015 in the aftermath of attacks against Muslims. Though Sri Lanka has been mostly spared the violence between religious groups seen in other South Asian nations, such as India and Pakistan, in recent years some Buddhist monks have become militant and incited followers to attack Muslims. The Sri Lankan government’s security services appeared to have turned a blind eye, letting Buddhist mobs act with impunity.

Sri Lankan security services knew The National Thowheeth Jama’ath group was dangerous: They had collected intelligence on the whereabouts of its leaders in an April 11 security memo, which warned of Catholic church bombings.

Moreover, as early as April 4, 2019, Indian officials had provided the Sri Lankans with cellphone numbers and information about the terrorist ringleader Mr. Zaharan and his lieutenants planning suicide attacks on Catholic churches and the Indian Embassy in Sri Lanka, several Sri Lankan and Indian officials said. Subsequently, Sri Lankan security services went to the terrorists' addresses and put several members of the group under close surveillance. This makes one wonder how the terrorists were able to pull off their attacks under the noses of Sri Lankan security.

But with Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister feuding for months, leading to a political breakdown last year, it seems that the president excluded the prime minister from top security briefings and that the prime minister’s office had no inkling of the warnings of imminent suicide attacks.

On the Monday after the Easter Sunday bombings, several ministers lashed out at President Maithripala Sirisena, who controls the security services, for not acting on the detailed warnings before the attacks.

“We are ashamed of what has happened,” said Rauff Hakeem, the minister of city planning. “If the names of the persons involved were already known, why were they not arrested?”

He called the attacks a “colossal failure on the part of the intelligence services.”

Several ministers are now calling for the national police chief to resign. Others questioned how such a homegrown group could have acted alone.

Two leading Muslim groups issued statements condemning the attacks, with the All Ceylon Jamiyaathuul Ulama, a council of Muslim theologians, urging the "maximum punishment for everyone involved in these dastardly acts".

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, said the attacks could have been thwarted.

"We placed our hands on our heads when we came to know that these deaths could have been avoided. Why this was not prevented?" he said.

In searching for an answer to that question, one may ask the question: Cui Bono – who benefited from the attacks; and thus, doesn't that make them potential suspects?

Other questions that beg answers if investigators really want answers: Why aren't the terrorists' websites traced back to their owners? Who knew what and when did they know it? What is the identity of the attackers and when did authorities become aware of these people?

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M. Elmasry

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