Details

On 21 April, there were several coordinated terrorist attacks targeting Easter church services in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa across Sri Lanka. Churches, hotels, and housing complexes were all targeted with an estimated nine suicide bombers involved. The hotels targeted were the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand, Kingsbury and Tropical Inn, all of which are known to be popular high-end hotels in Colombo. The death toll rose to 359, but this was revised to around 257 following an apparent calculation error. More than 500 people were injured around 42 foreign nationals were killed in the attacks and many others were wounded.

In the immediate aftermath, the government announced a country-wide curfew and a nationwide state of emergency. The government also blocked social media apps including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, restricting public communication over the internet.

The government attributed blame for the attack on the hitherto small National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NJT) (roughly translates to monotheism organisation) local militant Islamist group; NJT is yet to take responsibility. NJT was subsequently banned by the government alongside Jamathei Milathu Ibraheem (JMI) (another local extremist group) on 23 April. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attacks via its Amaq news outlet, stating it had been ‘targeting nationals of the crusader alliance and Christians in Sri Lanka’. In a video released by IS, leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi praised IS militants for ‘striking the homes of the crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz’. According to unconfirmed reports, one member of NJT had been updating social media with extremist content after the New Zealand (NZ) mosque shootings on 15 March 2019. In recent years in Sri Lanka, some Buddhist Monks have become militant and have incited followers to attack Muslims. In 2014, many people were injured and three were killed during Buddhist and Muslim clashes in Sri Lanka. Muslims then joined radical Islamist groups in order to defend their faith. NJT is one of these groups. In December 2018, NJT was blamed for vandalizing Buddhist statues in the Mawanella area, and reports suggest that one of the suicide bombers responsible for the 21 April attacks had been arrested in connection to the vandalism. In Sri Lanka, Muslims make up about 10% of the population, Christians 7% and Buddhists 70% (Christians and Buddhists are known collectively as Sinhalese in Sri Lanka).

The leader of NJT and extremist preacher, Mohamed Hashim Zahran was believed to be the mastermind behind the attacks and had recently spent time in India. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Zahran was one of two suicide bombers at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Zahran himself had been under surveillance by authorities for several days prior to the attack. On 26 April authorities conducted several raids on locations linked to NJT. What was believed to be the HQ for NJT was raided in eastern Sri Lanka in Sammanthurai. Authorities found IS uniforms, flags, 150 sticks of explosives, 200,000 ball bearings, batteries, wires, a UAV with a camera and various other items and chemicals that can be used during the production of explosives. Authorities also believe the HQ to be the location Zahran had recorded video footage of the suicide bombers pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In another raid on a house near Kalmunai, resulted in a gun battle during which 15 people including six children were killed. Three suicide bombers detonated their explosives and others exchanged gunfire with police, Zahran’s wife and daughter were reportedly injured during the incident. Elsewhere, controlled explosions have been carried out during police raids, one on a motorbike near the Savoy Cinema in Colombo, another at a bus stand in Morutuwa. On 25 April, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe warned of the potential for more attacks in Sri Lanka. Other raids have taken place on NJT locations in Addailachchenai, Nintavur and Saithamaruthu. The number of people arrested in connection to the attacks has risen to over 150. Another individual, Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed was identified as a suicide bomber at the Tropical Inn Guesthouse. Lathief had previously travelled to Turkey with the hope of entering Syria but had returned to Sri Lanka and had studied in the UK (2006 – 2007) and Australia before returning to Sri Lanka.

In a TOP SECRET document issued on 9 April, the chief of national intelligence warned the Sri Lankan Police Chief that ‘Sri Lanka based Zahran Hashmi of NJT and his associates are planning to carry out a suicide terrorist attack in Sri Lanka shortly.’ The report also included mobile phone numbers and further details about Zahran and his associates. Another security report issued two days later warned of a ‘possible suicide attack’ by NJT but did not say when. An active feud between the Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister led to breakdown in communications between the security agencies with the Prime Minister also being excluded from security briefings. As a result, the Prime Minister did not receive any intelligence updates in regard to the potential threat of attacks in Sri Lanka.

On 29 April, Sri Lanka banned face coverings in public as a measure to ensure security. The measure has received a level of backlash, with Muslim women feeling uncomfortable for being uncovered in public. On 2 May, Cardinal Malcom Ranjith said that churches, as well as Catholic schools across Sri Lanka, would be closed ‘until further notice’. A number of Sri Lankan Islamic groups including Ceylon Thaweed Jama’ath have organised conferences to clear their name in regard to connections to the attacks.

During the weekend of 4 and 5 May sporadic violence was reported in Negombo between ethnic Sinhalese people and Muslims. As a result, a night-time curfew was imposed in the town and extra troops deployed to the area. Unverified videos on social media showed mobs throwing stones at Muslim businesses, destroying furniture inside homes and overturned vehicles. During the weekend a 10-acre training camp was discovered in Kattankudy, it is believed that militants may have used the camp to conduct shooting and bomb-making training. On 7 May, security authorities in Sri Lanka announced that all militants responsible for the attacks had either been killed or arrested.

Analyst Comment

Initial reports suggested that the attacks were in retaliation to the NZ Mosque attacks directed at Muslims on 15 March 2019. This is unlikely to be the case; the nature of the attacks and the way they were conducted suggests a large amount of meticulous pre-planning. It is likely the attacks in Sri Lanka were in the planning stages before the NZ Mosque attacks. The suicide bombers would have received training and the construction of the explosive devices would have taken some time. It is likely that the targets for the attacks would have received substantial surveillance in the weeks/months before the attack. Pre-planned points of entry for the suicide bombers and the most effective location to detonate their device to cause largest damage would have been pre-defined. Easter Sunday was chosen by the attackers as a day to cause the maximum number of casualties. The attackers would have known that there would have been a large number of people attending Easter services across the country, therefore attacks caused maximum collateral casualties. The attacks on the hotels would have coincided with busy breakfast times. The targeting of Easter Sunday services was also chosen to cause global public outrage and maximum publicity. The western world would have woken up to news of the terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday and may have cancelled their plans to attend an Easter Service, in fear that more terrorist attacks were planned across the globe.

NJT, the group blamed for the attack, was only previously involved in hate speech against Buddhists and not violent actions. It is unlikely that NJT worked alone, another small group in Sri Lanka, JMI has been labelled as being part of the attacks. A number of the attackers had travelled or studied overseas before returning to Sri Lanka. Zahran himself had spent some time in India. If NJT was working with IS, it is likely that members of the group may have spent some time being trained by IS either overseas or online. It may be that the suicide bombers were locally trained and had used online means, such as forums, to link up with IS. Another theory is that the attack was developed overseas but during the final stages local radicals were recruited to carry out the attacks. It has also been suggested that the attackers may have been IS fighters that had returned from Iraq or Syria following the demise of IS strongholds. If IS were involved, it is likely they provided the funding for the explosives and materiel. In a video issued by IS, Abu Bakr Baghdadi himself alluded to the attacks being in retaliation to the events in Baghouz (the last IS stronghold in Syria) and therefore directed towards the US and west, rather than the events in NZ. If IS is behind the attack it is likely that the world will experience more similar attacks due to IS being pushed out of Syria and Iraq, now resorting to other ways to highlight their presence and to undermine claims that they have been defeated.

Lone wolf attacks by IS sympathizers are not uncommon, however such a coordinated and devastating attack like the Sri Lankan bombings could be an emerging trend or tactic and highlights the impact that IS can have in any country. IS were quick to claim responsibility for the attacks, which is a common tactic, however the true extent of their involvement is still being investigated. It emerged that prior to the Easter bombings dozens of mosques and churches had been attacked by Sinhalese mobs. One Muslim was killed in 2018 during violence near the city of Randy. On Palm Sunday a week before the Easter bombings Sinhalese individuals threw stones at a centre run by the Methodist church. A spokesperson for the Bodu Bala Sena, openly said that Muslim’s want a Muslim Sri Lanka. With the holy month of Ramadan now beginning, which has historically seen a spike in activity, we may see further reactions and continued unrest not only in Sri Lanka but across the globe.

It is unclear if the attacks would have been prevented or disrupted if the intelligence had been properly disseminated, however the lack of communication between the President and Prime Minister is certainly a critical factor. The government has now fallen into crisis after openly admitting a ‘major intelligence lapse’ after warnings about the possibility of attacks occurring was not shared amongst the agencies. As a result, the President sacked the defence secretary and inspector general of police. This miscommunication and failure to provide warning or act on intelligence will result in the local populace having a lack of confidence in the government adding to ongoing uncertainty around security in the country. The government has warned about the potential of future attacks in the country even after the massive operations and raids that have been carried out by authorities highlights the government’s eagerness to attempt to restore normalcy in Sri Lanka. The announcement on 7 May by the security forces in Sri Lanka that all militants involved in the attacks had either been arrested or killed is a bold statement. Whether this is accurate will likely become apparent in the coming weeks, though there remains the potential for escalating violence amongst the Sri Lankan populous, predominantly in the form of escalating reprisals between the Muslim and Sinhalese communities.

The tourism industry in Sri Lanka will likely take a large hit, with tourism in Colombo expected to fall by 50% in the coming months. Areas outside Colombo expected to see a 30% decrease. Australia, China, the UK and the US updated their travel advice, warning citizens about travelling to Sri Lanka. Tourism is a major industry with the attacks likely to have a devastating effect on the country as a whole with experts predicting that it will take years to recover from.