On Friday, 7th June, Synergia Foundation hosted a roundtable conference titled “The Future of Security: A Deeper Look at the Lanka Blasts”. Keynote speaker Mr. Pratap Heblikar, former Special Secretary to the Government of India, addressed the who, what, where, when, why and how of the April 22nd Sri Lanka Blasts. Several influential political insiders were also in attendance. Here are the insights.
On Easter Sunday (21 April, 2019), between 8:25 am and 9:05am, three churches in Sri Lanka (in Negombo, Batticaloa, and Colombo) were attacked by suicide bombers. The bombers entered the churches during mass, mingled with the congregation and set off their deadly explosives. Almost simultaneously, between 9:15 am and 9:20 am , three more suicide bombers attacked restaurants in three high-end waterfront hotels (the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury). Reports suggest that the bombers carried IEDs in their backpacks and used steel-ball bearings to increase lethality. So far, the death toll is 258, including 46 foreigners, with more than 500 injured.
Sri Lankan authorities claim the attacks were carried out by two little known fundamentalist organizations; National Tawheed Jamaath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI). All nine suicide bombers have been identified as Sri Lankan nationals. The suicide bombers led by Zahran Hashim were well educated Muslims belonging to well-off families. The Islamic State (IS) has claimed association and released a video with the eight suspected suicide bombers.
More than a month after the devastating bombings, there is still little clarity about the exact nature of the attack. The biggest question that presented itself at the roundtable was “why?”. Why was Sri Lanka the intended target, and what were the attackers trying to achieve?
Experts have explored the possibility of the bombings being a response to the Christchurch mosque shooting. But a time-line analysis reveals that there wasn’t enough time between the two incidents for a coordinated attack of such magnitude to be planned and executed.
The fact that suicide bombers were employed also reveals a lot. It takes a few months to radicalize an individual and even longer to convince individuals to take on suicide missions. Only a few from a large pool of recruits are willing to give up their lives for a stated cause. This suggests that the radicalization movement in Sri Lanka is extensive, and not entirely home-grown. The alleged involvement of ISIS might imply some Saudi and Salafi influences. The Salafi movement which has its origins in the Middle-East has found its way to the south Asian peninsula, which is becoming a turf for spreading radical ideas.
So what led to such an escalation, ultimately culminating in a deadly attack? Since the formation of the Sri Lankan state in 1948, minorities have been marginalised. The constitution does not provide for minorities to occupy high offices in the country. Communal discord between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka has been escalating over the past couple of years. Since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, successive Lankan governments have been unable to bridge this ethnic divide. A larger distribution of wealth among the Muslim community, who have been successful merchants, might have led to feelings of resentment among the majority community. It is quite obvious that despite seventy one years of independence, Sri Lanka is still searching for solutions to maintain communal harmony and inter-faith trust.
A more glaring lacunae is the manner in which the Sri Lankan government responded to the attacks and handled its aftermath. Many concur that the political climate of the island nation was not conducive for the deployment of a sophisticated security apparatus. The last 4 years of President Sirisena’s term, has been the weakest in Sri Lankan history despite the party having a majority. This is primarily because of his inability to take action against his own cabinet ministers who are believed to be corrupt. There also exists an asymmetry in the status quo of power sharing between the Sri Lankan President Sirisena and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who was kept out of the loop and not invited to attend cabinet meetings concerning the island’s security. There was a serious failure to act on real-time intelligence provided to Sri Lankan authorities from India, Australia, America, and Canada. It is now apparent that there was a total lack of cohesion between the various security bodies, which prevented them from proactively addressing the security concerns.
It is probable to assume that the Easter day attacks might not have been religiously motivated at all. Christians and Muslims are both minority communities in Sri Lanka, and it doesn’t make much sense for one minority to attack another. The involvement of ISIS might suggest that the attack on Christians in Sri Lanka could be a symbolic attack on the West. So why were these targets chosen by the perpetrators? The answer is simple – to maximize impact. Churches, and hotels on Easter morning were vulnerable targets due to the large crowds of foreigners that gathered together in a single enclosed space.
It is also possible that ISIS merely used this attack to spread the message that that it was still active and had the capacity to strike wherever and whenever it wanted to. A local event was simply hijacked by an international terrorist organization wanting to make a statement for their cause.
Our assessment is that the Sri Lanka blasts is a certain red flag for the larger international community. The concern is far deeper than combatting terror as the narrative now is a combination of home grown radicals willing to commit suicide with explosive devices that are extremely devastating and likely to be made by experts either empathetic to the cause or hired for a fee. We feel that Sri Lanka needs both expertise and intelligence from the best of the world including India and other littoral states of the Indian Ocean.
We believe that there is an imminent need for increased levels of effective communication between the security agencies and political leadership in Sri Lanka. We feel that that the political bickering and upmanship between the President and Prime Minister is the single biggest contributor and the paralysis.
We feel that the Lanka blasts can also have implications for India. Porous physical and cultural borders could lead to the spread of radicalization among the educated Muslims in peninsular India. We can use the Easter attacks as a pointer to try and understand the pattern of radicalisation better so that governments can be better equipped to respond, in case a need arises. We advocate security agencies to be familiar with the techniques of Offensive Tactical Response, a methodology that Synergia had earlier demonstrated in India.