Sri Lanka's Bloody Easter Puts Spotlight on a New Terror Threat
By Ishaan Tharoor
The Washington Post
A shocking, coordinated series of bombings on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka marked one of the world’s bloodiest terrorist attacks over the past half-decade. At least 290 people were killed and more than 450 others injured after suicide bombers exploded devices in three churches in the cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, as well as in three hotels and a banquet hall in the Sri Lankan capital. Authorities apprehended 13 people in connection to the attacks.
At the time of writing, officials offered little clear indication on the motives behind the assault. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the suspects were “local” and that some agencies within his government had prior intelligence on the risk of these attacks. No person or organization had claimed responsibility.
For Sri Lanka’s Christian community and devotees around the world, the blasts on the holiest day of the year seemed an epochal disaster. In his Easter address, delivered from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis condemned the “horrendous” and “cruel act of violence.” An outpouring of condolences followed from other world leaders, too.
“Attacks on innocent people gathering in a place of worship or enjoying a holiday meal are affronts to the universal values and freedoms that we hold dear, and demonstrate yet again the brutal nature of radical terrorists whose sole aim is to threaten peace and security,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
“The bombings were the worst violence to hit Colombo since 1996, when a blast at the country’s Central Bank killed nearly 100 people,” my colleagues reported. “That attack was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, which waged a war for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka’s north for more than 30 years.”
Years of conflict between state forces and the Tamil Tigers ended with the latter’s decisive defeat in 2009, but the decade that followed has seen bouts of communal violence and simmering ethnic and religious tensions, often stirred by elements within Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
The bombings on Sunday, however, came with little precedent. Sri Lanka may have endured a ghastly civil war and suicide bombings in the past — some credit the Tamil Tigers with pioneering the tactic — but nothing of this scale. Analysts were stunned by the apparent level of coordination behind the strikes, which occurred around the same time on both sides of the country, and suggested the attacks carried the hallmarks of a more international plot. There was speculation, but no confirmed evidence, of an Islamist militant connection.
“Sri Lanka has never seen this sort of attack — coordinated, multiple, high-casualty — ever before, even with the Tamil Tigers during the course of a brutal civil war,” Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka expert at the International Crisis Group, told the Financial Times. “I’m not really convinced this is a Sri Lankan thing. I think the dynamics are global, not driven by some indigenous debate. It seems to me to be a different kind of ballgame.”
Amarnath Amarasingam, a Toronto-based expert on extremism and terrorism and a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, agreed that the nature of the targets suggested the attacks were not an exclusively “local” affair.
“There were always communal tensions, of course, but this is an utter shock,” he told Today’s WorldView. “If it was strictly locally planned and operated, you would assume Buddhists as the target. The attacks on Christians point to something different.”
Amarasingam added, “Christians have rarely been targets of violence thus far.”
That is, at least not as much as ethnic Tamils (many of whom are Hindu) — caught for years in the crosshairs of the state’s brutal counterinsurgency — and Muslims, whose businesses and homes were targeted last year by Buddhist nationalist mobs.
“The fact that they were the target here points, at least for me, to probably international involvement,” Amarasingam said. Either al-Qaeda or Islamic State-linked groups, “but neither has claimed responsibility.”
The details remain murky, but Sri Lankan authorities have moved quickly to stem the spread of conspiracy theories and incendiary content. The government imposed a nighttime curfew and blocked access to social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp, which have been used in the past to circulate messaging that incited attacks against minority groups in the country. At the time, such a move might have sparked outcry from defenders of free speech, but these platforms, particularly in Asia, are now widely seen as vehicles for the unfettered spread of misinformation and enablers of extremism.
“The move suggested not just officials’ worries about social media’s risk to public safety at moments of national tension, but also their distrust in the companies’ ability to manage the platforms responsible,” Max Fisher wrote in the New York Times. “That reflects a global, and growing, wariness toward social platforms and the giant American corporations that run them.”
There were still concerns over the implications of the online shutdown. “While a ban on social media helps to contain the spread of rumors, it also hampers efforts by journalists to push back on them,” Sanjana Hattotuwa, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, told my colleagues.
For Sri Lanka, the attacks may open a worrying chapter in the country’s already long history of violence. The traumas of the civil war, which saw atrocities on both sides and state-backed violence that may never be adequately investigated, have yet to be fully reconciled.
Even before the bombings, rights advocates warned that Sri Lanka’s religious minorities faced rising threats that weren’t being properly tackled. “These communities have simply not been given enough protection,” wrote Tasnim Nazeer, a British journalist of Sri Lankan origin. “Why do we have to wait for a tragedy of this magnitude to occur for those in power to wake up and listen to the people of Sri Lanka? The signs have been there.”
On a dark day, there were still reasons for hope. The country’s finance minister, Mangala Samaraweera, tweeted his thanks for the throngs of Sri Lankans who donated blood after the carnage. “In the midst of this tragedy, it’s reassuring to see the outpouring of solidarity as people donate blood,” he said. “Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim & others are donating because we are humans with the same blood & same spirit of compassion. Nobody can deny our common humanity.”
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