Easter mass murder: India sent alert, but why Sri Lanka’s guard was down

Nirupama Subramanian
Sri Lanka bomb blasts: Inside St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Sunday. (Reuters Photo)

With 13 arrests so far, and more likely, for the horrific bombings in Sri Lanka on Sunday that killed more than 200 people, the Sri Lankan government’s investigations are pointing to the involvement of a jihadist organisation in the attacks. One of those arrested from the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, where one of the eight attacks took place, had been reported missing six months ago by his family.

The last two of the eight incidents were suicide bombings which took place when security personnel were about to arrest suspects. Police, however, have not named any jihadist group.

The Indian Express has learnt from two sources, one Indian and another Sri Lankan, that earlier this month, India passed on specific intelligence to Sri Lankan authorities that a terrorist attack was imminent there.

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It appears that it was on the basis of this alert that the police chief sent out his April 11 nationwide alert warning of attacks on the Indian high Commission and churches. The alert named a group called the National Towheeth Jamaath, which preaches a puritanical form of Islam.

However, Sri Lanka’s guard was clearly down, with the country shut down since April 12 for the Sinhala-Tamil new year, Good Friday and Easter. It speaks of how much Sri Lanka has got used to its peace of the last decade that the warnings were not considered actionable by the security apparatus.

Express cartoon by E P Unny.

In a country that is no stranger to terrorist attacks, Sunday’s coordinated bombings were the first since the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. They were also most unlike any terror attack experienced by the country before.

The Tigers were brutal by any standards. Their worst terrorist bombing in Colombo was the 1996 vehicle-borne suicide attack on Sri Lanka’s central bank that killed 91 people, and they caused hundreds of casualties in each of their attacks on police and army camps. In July 2001, just two months before 9/11, their attack on the Bandaranaike International Airport grounded almost the entire Sri Lankan fleet.

Sri Lanka mass murder: Police officials and Catholic priests stand inside the church after a bomb blast in Negombo, Sri Lanka (Reuters)

But Sunday’s bombings do not bear any of the hallmarks of those attacks. After their crushing military defeat in May 2009, the LTTE now exists only in the imagination of sections of Tamil diaspora. In any case, barring the one occasion when the Tigers shelled Madhu church in Mannar, the LTTE was always cautious not to offend the Catholic church, which was sympathetic to its cause. Many Tamils in the north-east are Christian and lived peacefully in LTTE-controlled areas alongside their Hindu brethren. Muslims, on the other hand, were attacked and evicted from the north-east by the Tigers in 1990.

As the full extent of the horror unfolded – there were no claimants to the bombings even by late evening – only a number of comparable incidents from across the world brought out some patterns.

Two of the attacks are said to have been carried out by suicide bombers, which is no longer extraordinary for terrorist attacks. But in terms of the targets – the choice of churches – it recalls the January 2019 twin bombings on a Sunday morning at a Catholic church in Jolo, off Mindanao in southern Philippines, in which 20 people were killed, which has been linked to the ISIS of East Asia. It also recalled the recent gunning down of worshippers at a mosque by a white supremacist in New Zealand.

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Sri Lanka blasts: A Sri Lankan police commando enters a house suspected to be a hideout of militants following a shoot out in Colombo, Sri Lanka (AP Photo)

In terms of the death toll, the choice of upscale hotels filled with foreign tourists, and the coordinated manner of the attacks, it was reminiscent of Mumbai 2008 in which 166 people were killed.

As an Easter attack, it recalled the March 27, 2016 attack at the Gulshan-e-Iqbal park in Lahore in which at least 75 people were killed as they celebrated the holiday claimed by the Pakistani Taliban. In 2017, again on Palm Sunday, 45 people were killed in attacks on two Coptic churches in Egypt.

Previous attacks on churches and other Christian targets across the world have been claimed by ISIS or have been linked to them.
The National Towheeth Jamaath, which was named in the April 11 police warning, has been seen as an influence on the over a hundred Sri Lankans who left to join the ISIS some years ago.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Towheeth Jamaath has condemned the attacks on its Facebook page, and demanded the highest punishment to the perpetrators. The group also organised a blood donation drive in Kandy on Sunday, and posted photographs of the event on FB, saying that it wanted to do as much as it could to help the nation at this extraordinary time.

Sri Lanka has been roiled several times in the last five years by communal clashes instigated by Buddhist fundamentalist elements against Muslims. According to the 2011 census, Muslims are just under 10 per cent of the population, Hindus 12.6 per cent, Christians slightly over 7 per cent. Buddhists are 70 per cent of the 21 million population.

In Pictures | Sri Lanka blasts: Easter Mass Murder

Sri Lanka attack: As the full extent of the horror unfolded – there were no claimants to the bombings even by late evening – only a number of comparable incidents from across the world brought out some patterns.

There are concerns that Sunday’s attacks may bring back LTTE-era restrictions that were being seen as a thing of the past. Sri Lanka had been preparing to replace its draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act with another legislation called Counter Terrorism Act. The attacks could impact that intention.

The attacks are also sure to have an impact on the unsettled politics of the island. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have been in an uneasy truce since December 2018 to run the government.

The presidential elections are set to take place at the year-end. The political group led by the Rajapaksas, who Sirisena and Wickremesinghe defeated in 2015, senses a comeback. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who led the military campaign against the LTTE between 2007-2009 as defence secretary, has made it clear that he will contest the election.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was Sri Lanka’s President during that campaign and up until January 2015, is barred by the Constitution from seeking a third term, and is expected to rally around his brother’s candidacy. The Rajapaksas claim to have "defeated terrorism", and have declared time and again, that thanks to their efforts, Sri Lanka is the only country to have done so. After today’s horrific incident, terrorism as a theme could well return to the Sri Lankan elections.