Cover Story: Sri Lanka (21.04.2019)

Rising from the Ashes

Currently in Colombo, the author is Professor, Department of Sociology, and Editor, Society and Culture in South Asia, South Asian University, New Delhi
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We overcame once. We can do it again


APRIL 21ST BEGAN AS A DAY OF reflection for Sri Lanka’s Christian minority who had thronged local churches to celebrate Easter, the day on which they believe Jesus Christ was resurrected. It is a moment of faith they have marked with celebration and reflection for countless years. For the majority Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims who also make up the country’s ethno-cultural mosaic, it was a simple weekend holiday. But what transpired within an hour or so after 8.45 that morning was anything but ordinary, reflective or pious. A series of powerful bombs ripped through two Catholic churches, St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo and St Sebastian’s Church in Negambo, and the Zion Church, an evangelical church in the Tamil-dominated eastern town of Batticaloa, as people were praying. It seemed to be a concerted and unprecedented attack on the country’s Christians until the news of other bombs at different sites came along. Three high-end hotels in Colombo—the Cinnamon Grand, the Shangri-La and the Kingsbury—were also attacked while guests were beginning to have their breakfast. Despite the country’s brush with political violence over 30 years in the context of its civil war, the pattern of violence connecting the churches and hotels seemed unfathomable. The sheer scale of its destruction and brutality after a decade of relative stability was also new. By April 23rd the death toll had risen to over 300 and the injured were in excess of 500. Forensic examinations by Sri Lankan experts of the human remains found at the hotels and churches targeted have determined that seven suicide bombers were involved in the attacks.

Sri Lanka had not seen this level of carnage ever since the country’s destructive civil war ended in May 2009 and the military and police presence as well as the once-ubiquitous security architecture in the urban landscape had steadily diminished in visibility. With it, Colombo’s skyline and the country’s road and tourism infrastructure underwent radical transformation, which was popularly seen as ‘development’. More specifically, these signs were seen as the benefits of peace and relative stability that people had taken for granted for nearly a decade since the end of war.

But Sri Lanka’s touristy image as ‘paradise’ and a ‘land like no other’ always had significant contradictions. For instance, despite the readily flouted images of flowing rivers, green mountains, sandy beaches, vastly improved tourist infrastructure and smiling people, since the end of war, there has also been a steady growth of violent Buddhist militant groups, which have targeted Muslims and Christians. The last attack against Christians was near the city of Anuradhapura when a Methodist prayer hall was attacked by a local mob on Good Friday. What has become a pattern is the reluctance of the government and the police to act when Buddhist mobs are involved in such incidents. Even by such standards and the cracks in the image of the Lankan paradise what happened on April 21st was truly shocking. Talking to the Nikkei Asian Review, Phill Hynes, a terrorism expert at the Hong Kong-based ISS Risk, noted, “These attacks were pure terrorism intended to extract maximum carnage… There had to be a significant degree of local support to mount an attack of this scale, probably 80 to 100 handling a range of operational tasks.” The very idea of local involvement is chilling to most Sri Lankans, which evolving information is proving to be correct.

Anne Speckhard of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, speaking to the New York Times, noted, “These attacks appear to be quite different, and look as if they came right out of the ISIS, Al Qaeda, global militant jihadist playbook, as these are attacks fomenting religious hatred by attacking multiple churches on a high religious holiday.” As most of the country and the world shuddered in disbelief at what had happened, the SITE Intelligence Group that monitors extremist activity online, reported by the April 21st evening that global supporters of the Islamic State were already celebrating the attacks and portraying them as revenge for strikes on mosques and Muslims globally.

Learning from local as well as global experiences, the government did the right thing by shutting down social media to arrest the free flow of misinformation and declared a nation-wide curfew on the day of the attack and the next day to ensure no retaliatory mob actions ensue. By the April 22nd evening, the Sri Lankan government claimed the little known National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), a local Islamist extremist group, was responsible for the attack. But the group on its Facebook page condemned the attacks and demanded that culprits be punished. It also claimed to have organised a blood-donation programme in the city of Kandy in Sri Lanka’s hill region on the evening of the attack itself, and posted photos of the event on Facebook. It claimed this was its contribution to the nation at this moment of national crisis. While it has no history of such level of violence in Sri Lanka, the organisation had vandalised a number of Buddha statues in 2018. But the NTJ is considered a significant source of influence on over 100 Sri Lankans who have reportedly joined the ISIS over the years.

Writing to Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror on March 24th, 2014, a group calling itself ‘Peace Loving Moderate Muslims in Sri Lanka’ (PLMMSL) warned about the NTJ, which was then in the process of being organised mostly in eastern Sri Lanka at the time. The PLMMSL identified the NTJ as a movement that had ‘become a cancer within the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, preaching and practicing religious intolerance, exerting pressure on other Islamic movements, making it compulsory to attend mosques, making it compulsory to learn the Arabic Language, making the implementation of Sharia law above the civil laws of Sri Lanka, forcing females to wear the burka....’ At the time, what was being described was a group focused on a radical sense of religio-cultural puritanism and exclusivism. The PLMMSL had appealed to the Sri Lankan government to ban the movement. One of the core markers of the NTJ is that it is almost completely made up of young people, particularly those who have recently graduated from Islamic schools. At the same time, the group does not seem to have a coherent hierarchy or organisational structure, and it certainly does not have older leaders who might have had access to different and more pluralist or cosmopolitan politics and realities than what the group promotes. This is its most potent source of danger.

But as history indicates, nothing much has happened since that appeal and the movement has hardly been a consideration in mainstream national or Sinhala ethnic politics even as popular intolerance of Muslims continued to grow.

SRI LANKAN POLICE and security forces moved swiftly after the attacks, and have since arrested 24 suspects from various parts of the country while also diffusing other explosive devices and raiding safe houses purportedly used by the culprits with surprising results. This seeming efficiency post-disaster stands contrary to the major security lapse that led to these attacks in the first place.

If Christians were selected by the global partners of the Sri Lankan attacks for symbolic and ideological purposes, the hotels seem to have been selected by the local partners as it would dent the country’s economic development

AFP has reported the Sri Lankan Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara issued an intelligence advisory to senior officers 10 days before the attack on April 11th. Among other things, it noted, ‘A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo.’ This report also identified several members of the NTJ by name, including its alleged leader Mohamed Zaharan. A number of possible dates for the attacks were also given. This was as specific an intelligence advisory as one is likely to get. The ‘foreign intelligence agency’ referred to in the document has been identified as Indian.

But obviously, none of his officers, the rest of the security establishment or the country’s political leaders acted on this information. And there is no indication that the IGP himself followed up on his own advisory. The prime minister, addressing the nation on the evening of the attacks, accepted that some officers had prior information about which he or his cabinet were not informed. It was a shameful public admission of the sorry state of the country’s national security. But this is hardly surprising when one takes into account Sri Lanka’s dysfunctional government where the president and the prime minster pull in very different directions, leading to this kind of a result and incoherent policymaking.

In operational terms, Sri Lanka’s security system is under the political control of the president. But given the bad blood between the two, the prime minister has not been invited for the sittings of the National Security Council by the president since October 2018. That is the month in which the president tried to illegally remove the prime minister, creating a major constitutional crisis. Clearly, under such circumstances it is only to be expected that crucial intelligence might be lost, essential co-ordination between security agencies and political actors may not occur, professionalism in the intelligence and security apparatus will be replaced by parochial political allegiance leading to the kind of carnage that unfolded in Sri Lanka on April 21st. In fact, the general assumption is that the warning on April 11th came just a few days before the long holidays people are used to taking for the traditional New Year, which falls on April 14th. As a result, the security apparatus collectively seems to have taken a ‘break’ in the holiday spirit rather than acting on credible intelligence. Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando’s interview on the matter to the BBC is truly absurd. He claimed that the intelligence received “never indicated it was going to be an attack of this magnitude. They were talking about isolated, one or two incidents. Not like this.” It almost seems that in the very least, intelligence was disregarded because the scale of possible chaos was considered minimal insofar as the defence secretary was concerned.

By the April 22nd evening, Harin Fernando, Sri Lanka’s minister of telecommunications, claimed that his father had warned him of an impending attack on the basis of information provided by an intelligence officer. One can only wonder why the minister did not take the steps to inform the public through the political and information networks to which he has ready access.

If there is one thing that is certain in this tragic series of events other than the pain of the people who have been scarred for life, it is the monumental incompetence of Sri Lanka’s government and intelligence system. Only in a country like Sri Lanka would such individuals accept the responsibility and resign.

The pain and grief following the bombings are self-evident in the country. The government has declared April 23rd as a day of mourning. As the country becomes a fraction of itself in city streets and public places, more security operations continue across Colombo, its suburbs and elsewhere in the country. But Sri Lanka as a country has survived worse catastrophes than this. It will survive this too given the fact that in general, there is no taste or willingness to go back to the kind of sustained violence and the resultant deprivations that engulfed the country for 30 years. But Sri Lanka’s worst burden is its inability to learn from history and its unenlightened politics that democratic practices themselves unfortunately sustain. Neither policymakers nor professional researchers in social sciences based in universities and think-tanks have ever seriously looked into the repercussions of living in a country where laws do not apply equally to all citizens. The violence and intimidation directed at Muslim and Christian minorities by local majoritarian thugs in recent years have indicated that ethno- cultural affiliation matters in politics and in the way laws operate. No one has seriously considered what such politics do in the radicalisation of the youth in the groups who are at the receiving end of such violence. In the absence of such sustained knowledge and research, one has to assume that radicalisation of young Muslims in such local conditions must have attracted at least some of them to the kind of visionless, puritanical ethno-religious politics of intolerance that an entity like the NTJ openly preaches. But if local conditions can radicalise the youth, so can prevailing global conditions. No one really knows what the impact of young Sri Lankans who have opted to fight for the ISIS has been on the communities they come from. No one knows the nature of online radicalisation in local communities. These are not even part of any serious public debate.

But beyond this, common sense also suggests such a brutal, highly coordinated and efficient attack could not have been successfully pulled off by a local group with no prior experience. The Sri Lankan government has also made this claim and has already requested help from other governments in tracing the local bombers’ global network. Perhaps the kind of serious gaps in research I referred to earlier might be filled in times to come. The linking of churches and hotels is still quite baffling. But it would make sense if a specific assumption on the basis of available information is made. That is, these were two kinds of targets to satisfy the ideological needs of two stakeholders in the attack. Christians simply cannot be a target of an attack of this magnitude emanating from local contexts. But when taken in the context of global jihad, Christians are seen as infidels. One has to assume they became targets not to satisfy local situations, but to satisfy the virulent ideological needs of ISIS-like global outfits which must have provided ideological and logistical training and support for the attacks. It is in this context that the celebration of these attacks by ISIS supporters online makes sense. It is in this context that the signature of these attacks as something directly ‘out of the ISIS, Al Qaeda, global militant jihadist playbook’ also make sense.

If Sri Lankan Christians were selected by the global partners of the Sri Lankan attacks for symbolic and ideological purposes, the hotels seem to have been selected by the local partners, as it would surely dent the country’s economic development that heavily depends on tourism. It can do considerable damage to the state. But these are questions that need to be probed cautiously and reflectively.

For the moment, as Sri Lankans bury their dead, the country has returned to emergency rule, which people had begun to feel was a matter of the past. The ISIS has now claimed responsibility for the attacks, which has to be taken cautiously. But locally, one can be hopeful that no retaliatory attacks by local mobs have taken place so far despite some rumblings. Maybe there is hope that the country’s long brush with violence and pain has taught people something about how to deal with such situations as long as unenlightened politics do not get in the way. But Sri Lanka’s image as a paradise is clearly lost once again, and with that the country comes closer to the Christian idea of ‘Paradise Lost’.

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