Easter Sunday celebrated by Christians for the rise of Jesus Christ from the dead turned out to be a day of tragedy and sorrow for Sri Lanka. The destruction and carnage caused on April 21 by suicide bombers in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa shocked not only Christians, but all Sri Lankans.
The international ‘Jihadist’ or Islamic militant movement known officially as Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the terror and horror of the ‘bloody’ Easter. The Syria-based IS, together with a local Islamic organization called National Tawheed Jamaat that follows Wahabi-influenced transnational Islamic ideology, spearheaded the explosive attacks on three five-star hotels, three churches and a budget motel killing 290 and injuring more than 500 people, including foreigners.
On April 27 2019, President Maithripala Sirisena, as per the powers vested in him under the emergency regulations no 1 of 2019, banned the National Thawheed Jammath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI) in Sri Lanka.
In a statement, the President's Media Division (PMD) said steps would be taken to freeze the assets of these two organizations and also to ban other extremist outfits in Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe expressed regrets over the government’s failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks.
“As Prime Minister, I share in the collective responsibility for this. I express my sincere regret to the people of our country for the Government’s lapse. But, it is not enough to simply apologise. We have to make sure these mistakes are never repeated in the future. We must take measures to prevent such systemic failures, and commit ourselves to safeguard all human life. I vow to make this my mission,” the Prime Minister said addressing the nation.
Amid the need for someone to take the blame, a political churning has already started. Former defence secretary and younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya, said he would run for President in elections this year and would stop the spread of Islamist extremism by rebuilding the intelligence service and surveilling citizens.
Gotabaya said the attacks could have been prevented if the current government had not dismantled the intelligence network and extensive surveillance capabilities that he built up during the civil war and later on, heralding a return of nationalistic politics in the island nation.
The current dispensation emerging from a failed soft coup attempt six months ago has been accused of going soft on the expanding extremist networks to protect its vote bank after it was found that repeated warnings of the attack were given to authorities a weeks, a day and then an hour before the bombs went off.
On April 11, a top Sri Lankan police official reportedly issued an advisory warning of potential suicide attacks on churches. In that advisory, Deputy Inspector General Priyalal Dassanayake wrote that the radical Islamist group called National Thowheeth Jamaath was planning nationwide terrorist attacks targeting churches and Indian Embassy in Colombo.
However, this particular letter has not yet been verified by relevant Sri Lankan authorities.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe acknowledged that some information about a planned attack had been circulating. “We must also look into why adequate precautions were not taken,” he told the reporters.
It’s still unclear if the country’s history played a role in Sunday’s attacks as Sri Lankans have experienced decades of sectarian violence.
According to the police spokesman, 80 suspects had been arrested so far on suspicion of having links with the recent terror attacks.
Earlier, the Police took spice tycoon Mohamed Ibrahim into custody after his two sons were found to have been among those who carried out the attacks at Cinnamon Grand hotel and Shangri-La hotel.
On the Edge
The arrests and the attempts to restore confidence in the law and order situation have so far failed with inputs of terrorists, either disguised in military uniforms or female bombers, planning more attacks pour in almost daily.
On April 27, a stock of more than 150 gelignite sticks, IS uniform, a large stock of steel pellets, a drone, a suspicious van and a laptop were also recovered during the search operation in Samanthurai. The objects were detected based on information received by the State Intelligence Service.
On April 28 2019, a 57-year old man was arrested with six homemade bombs from a mosque that comes under the purview of the National Thowheed Jamaath at Wahunkowa in Daulagala. Police said the suspect would be detained for further questioning.
Meanwhile, 46 swords, Kris knives and several uniforms similar to those worn by the Army were recovered from a mosque at Palliyaweediya in Slave Island. Three suspects were taken into Sri Lanka Navy custody with one kilogram of C-4 explosives and a three-wheeler near the Wellawatte railway station today (28), Navy Spokesman Isuru Suriyabandar said.
Amid all this, a raid on a militant hideout inside a house in Kalmunai, Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, on April 27 led to the death of 15 persons after an explosion.
Among the bodies recovered inside the house, there were three men, three women and six children. Three more bodies of men suspected to be suicide bombers were also found outside the house. Police said there were no casualties of armed forces personnel. The Police suspect a suicide bomber had triggered the explosion.
A severely injured woman and a child were found inside the house and were hospitalized by the armed forces. The woman and the child who were injured in the Nintavur blasts at Kalmunai on Friday night were identified as the wife and the daughter of Mohamed Zahran, the mastermind of Easter Sunday terror attacks.
In a statement posted Saturday by the IS propaganda unit, the Amaq News Agency, the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for three men who blew themselves up in clashes. The men set off explosives after an hour-long gun battle with police Saturday, inside what was believed to be a jihadist hideout.
Kalmunai is in the same region as the home town of the jihadist Zahran Hashim who founded the group accused of staging the attacks.
IS said the three men were part of the Islamic State group and detonated their bombs after the fight with police. The statement said the men “clashed with them (Sri Lankan police) with automatic weapons, and after exhausting their ammunition, detonated on them their explosive belts.”
Who is the Mastermind of Local ISIS?
The ability to launch several attacks all at once in major places in major cities in Sri Lanka indicates a degree of sophistication, planning, funding, and reach. While investigations are still going on, the spotlight has been on a 34-year-old politico-religious activist-preacher, Mohammed Zahran Mohomed Hashim aka Zahran Hashim, who was the founder of an Islamic organisation called National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ).
Tawheed, also spelled as Thawheed and Tawhid, denotes oneness with God. The Oxford dictionary of Islam states as follows: Tawhid is the defining doctrine of Islam. It declares absolute monotheism—the unity and uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe. Zahran has been propagating the aims and objectives of NTJ in different areas of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu in India.
According to members of the National Tawheed Jamaat, Zahran Hashim broke away from National Tawheed Jamaat with an extremist group of followers and set up a new outfit called Nation of Tawheed Jamaat last year. As per the findings of investigations so far, that breakaway group led by Zahran Hasim is what had collaborated with IS in carrying out the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, killing scores.
While locals have voluntarily joined the local IS organization, it appears that Islamic State have provided the financial support, the input and technical expertise necessary for the explosive attacks. Some of the militants in this group have even returned to Sri Lanka after receiving training in Syria, reports say.
Many believe that the blasts bear at least some resemblance to the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, which simultaneously targeted two luxury hotels, a busy railway terminal, and a Jewish outreach center. One of the 2008 attackers was apprehended, and the others were successfully identified, leading authorities in India to declare the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group responsible.
Among more than 22 million Sri Lankans, about three-fourths are ethnic Sinhalese, most of who are Buddhists, about a sixth are Tamils and about 10 percent of the population is Muslim, while 7 percent are Christians.
Political violence and terrorist attacks are not new to Lanka though this is undoubtedly the most coordinated single attack to take place in the country to date. Sri Lanka has experienced inter-community violence going back to at least the late 19th century. In the immediate aftermath of political independence, Sri Lanka witnessed increasing ethno-religious tensions, initially of a more benign nature, later evolving into more violent forms.
The north east war involving the LTTE and the Sri Lankan security forces lasted for nearly three decades until it was brought to an end in 2009. All ethno-religious communities were involved in the conflict as many violent incidents affected them.
This has also been the case during the last decade as various incidents of inter-community violence have amply demonstrated. So, what Sri Lankans witnessed over the last few days in the country can be seen as an extension of what has preceded before, except that it was the most devastating attack on a single day.
Demoralised Security Forces
There is an argument being made publicly to blame the government for the catastrophe. It is argued that the government’s actions over the past four years have demoralized the security forces due to the government’s over-deference to working within the international human rights framework. For the past four years, Sri Lanka has been committing itself to follow international norms in regard to dealing with human rights issues. It is argued that this has demoralized the security forces to the point that they have lost all initiative for fear of getting into trouble. The government’s task is to motivate the security forces to operate within the law and yet take initiatives that yield results.
Sri Lanka is not the only country to face multiple terrorist bombings. Even more powerful and wealthy countries across the globe have suffered from this fate. The challenge for the government, and the security forces, is to act within the framework of the laws and human rights norms and also prevent acts of terrorism.
It is necessary for the government to take all steps to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice. In the longer term there will also remain the long unfulfilled task of identifying and implementing the necessary political reforms that makes every individual and community have faith that the Sri Lankan state will be equitable and just to them. This is the message that the government needs to take to the people.
Restoring Law and Order
The nature of this attack should open the eyes of everybody as this sort of violence cannot be repeated without totally disrupting the normal functioning of Sri Lankan society.
Continuation of such violence can be disastrous for a country that is beset with too many not so easily resolvable issues such as unprecedented political instability and uncertainty, massive indebtedness and challenges emanating from climate change.
The first order of business must be to restore law and order and establish national security. But, Sri Lankans cannot consider this simply as a national security issue alone.
While the government has to get its act together and effectively mobilize the relevant institutions to deal with the situation and restore law and order so that people can get on with their lives, the leaders should not ignore the fact that this incident is not an isolated one but connected to what has happened over a long period of time.
Therefore, while it is absolutely necessary to create a peaceful and secure environment in all parts of the country through restoration of law and order, leaders of all communities need to sit together and agree on the urgent need to work together to come up with a national policy framework to bring about national unity in a highly divided society.
This may be too much to expect from the kind of leaders Sri Lanka has in the country today but the people have no other choice.
Establishing Inter-religious Harmony
Persisting or even deteriorating inter-community relations have been an unmistakable fact that only the most ignorant and the most opportunistic people could ignore. What did Sri Lankans do to deal with inter-community violence when they erupted from time to time in the recent past?
What did Sri Lankans do to bring about policy reforms in areas like education, media, language, state and religion, human settlement, etc that have a direct bearing identity formation and inter-community relations? Sadly, they all know the answers to these two very important questions.
In addition, apart from caring for the victims and their families, there is a need to preserve the social peace and inter religious coexistence that prevails in the country. It is important that other political and religious leaders should come out on this issue as already done by the President, Prime Minister, Opposition leader and leading prelates of all religions.
They need to do this not once but repeatedly. Some of the social media posts have been provocative and are clear attempts to increase inter-religious tensions. There could also be attempts by political actors to utilize the disaffection of the general population with the government for their own ends.
(Author is a Sri Lanka based journalist. Views expressed are personal)