Unexpected agony

24 Apr 2019



A RELATIVELY light-hearted column was on the agenda this week, focused mainly on Ukraine, whose voters decided by a landslide on Sunday to elevate an actor best known for playing the president in a TV comedy to the actual post. But then, on the same day, there was breaking news from Sri Lanka.

The initial reports of large-scale coordinated carnage inevitably raised questions about who could possibly be motivated to perpetrate such atrocities. Sure, Sri Lanka has an extended history of violence, mainly of the ethnic variety, and places of worship have not been immune to this tendency.

The nation’s long civil war featured occasional attacks on Buddhist and Muslim congregations. Since that conflict ended 10 years ago, there have been instances of brutal actions by Sinhala Buddhist extremists against the Christian and Muslim minorities, which together make up about 17pc of Sri Lanka’s population. But nothing on this scale.

Why Sri Lanka was targeted is unclear.

There is anyhow a vast difference between localised transgressions by mobs incited by misguided monks and determined mass-casualty suicide bombings. The LTTE were infamous for nurturing suicide bombers, but why would any remnants of their ilk seek to target Catholic churches and Colombo hotels favoured by tourists, choosing one of Christianity’s holiest days?

Then the National Thowheed Jamath began popping up in news reports. The hitherto relatively obscure and, by most accounts, minuscule group had previously appeared on the radar as the perpetrator of occasional attempts to disfigure Buddhist statues, but nuisance value of that variety hardly marked it out as a potential terrorist outfit.

However, it was specifically mentioned in intelligence that Sri Lankan authorities received from India on April 4, which apparently included a list of names. The warning appears not to have been taken seriously, and it evidently did not percolate down to Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe who has been excluded from national security briefings since he foiled an attempt by President Maithripala Sirisena to replace him with ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa last year.

Donald Trump was confused about which of the two he spoke to in the aftermath of the attacks, but that’s hardly surprising. In another tweet, the US president lamented the loss of 138 million lives, which is around six times Sri Lanka’s population. But 300 plus fatalities is horrendous enough, with another 500 people injured. Casualties on this scale were unknown in Sri Lanka even at the height of the LTTE insurgency.

There is at least one thing on which the seemingly parallel administrations of Wickremesinghe and Sirisena agree: that the Thowheed Jamath is unlikely to have perpetrated coordinated terrorist attacks on this scale without overseas assistance. That is undoubtedly a plausible line of inquiry.

The despicable attacks were primarily directed against Christians, with three Easter Sunday congregations bombed, and more generally against Westerners — although targeting hotels favoured by foreign tourists inevitably entailed taking many Sri Lankan lives. It would appear that further attacks were also planned. The Indian intelligence mentioned India’s high commission as a possible target, and there is some evidence that the terrorists also had Colombo’s international airport in their sights. Two of the eight explosions occurred during the police hunt for the terrorists, suggesting there was ammunition available for further atrocities.

There have been suggestions of links between the Sri Lankan Jamath and the militant Islamic State group, Al Qaeda or one of their offshoots, possibly in the subcontinent. The Thowheed Jamath apparently also exists in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with branches among the Tamil diaspora. Such avenues are worth investigating. Two days after the carnage, the IS yesterday claimed respon­sibility.

Why Sri Lanka was selected is also unclear, though it’s possible it was identified as a relatively soft target. Reports suggest that in internet chat rooms associated with IS supporters, there has been talk of avenging the Christchurch massacre and, more generally, the destruction of the so-called caliphate. Sri Lanka had nothing to do with this, but looking for logic in the motivations of fanatics, Islamist or otherwise, can be futile.

Sri Lanka has requested, and been offered, international help in investigating the atrocities. If the Jamath had or has any links in Pakistan, Islamabad should feel obliged to cooperate — the Easter massacre in Lahore, after all, occurred just three years ago. Above all, it must be hoped that the two factions of the dysfunctional Sri Lankan government can rise to the occasion in this national emergency, when their country needs a healing touch and at least a semblance of national unity.


Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2019