TERRORISM IN SRI LANKA
THE CLOCK on the bell tower at St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, is stuck at 8:45. It was at that moment on the morning of April 21st, Easter Sunday, that a bearded youth sauntered into the crowded holiday service and detonated a heavy, nail-studded bomb stuffed inside his backpack. Around the same time similar blasts struck two other churches and three luxury hotels across the country. Together the suicide bombs left 359 people dead and hundreds more injured, mostly Sri Lankan Christians but also some 39 foreign tourists. The toll would have been higher except that a seventh bomb, at another posh hotel, failed to explode.
THE PERPETRATORS were jihadists from the Tamil-speaking Muslim minority that accounts for about 10% of Sri Lanka’s 23m people. Tamil Muslims have no history of animosity with the even smaller Christian minority. Instead, the animus seems to have been imported: on April 23rd Islamic State claimed to have instigated the atrocities, apparently in conjunction with a local extremist group. That would make them the deadliest incident of international terrorism since the attacks on America on September 11th, 2001. They are also by far the bloodiest event to shake Sri Lanka since the end of a long civil war ten years ago. That conflict, which pitted Tamil-speaking Hindu separatists against the government, which is dominated by Sinhala-speaking Buddhists, left perhaps 70,000 dead.
NO ONE expects the bombings to reignite such strife, though fears of revenge attacks against Muslims have prompted heavy security deployments, curfews and the declaration of a state of emergency. The local group the authorities hold responsible for the bombings, National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), is a violent splinter of a fundamentalist group that itself represents only a slim fraction of Sri Lanka’s 2m Muslims. Like extremist groups elsewhere in South Asia,NTJ seems to have attracted well-educated and well-heeled adherents. Its leader, Mohamed Zahran, is among at least nine members killed by the blasts or in subsequent police raids. Police have arrested a further 60 or so suspects, which may, in effect, have extinguishedNTJ.
THE POLICE, unfortunately, were not as resolute before the attacks. For several years, mainstream Muslims have raised the alarm about the spread of extremist views and jihadist cells. Mr Zahran and his hate-filled group in particular were believed to be in contact with the few dozen Sri Lankan Muslims known to have joined Islamic State. In December last year the arrest of suspected Islamist radicals led police to a coconut plantation where a large cache of detonators and explosives was found. This lead was apparently not pursued, and some of the suspects were released. In early April Indian intelligence agents passed on urgent information gleaned from a Tamil-speakingIS prisoner. This detailed “on a platter”the names of suspects, their leader’s location and possible modes of attack, including suicide- or truck-bombs. The note even named the targets as “some important churches”and, possibly, the Indian High Commission.
YET AFTER the attacks the prime minister,Ranil Wickremesinghe, said that he had never been informed of such a warning. Moreover, a government spokesman added, the prime minister had for months not even been invited to meetings of the National Security Council (NSC), which is chaired by the president, Maithripala Sirisena. When the prime minister tried to summon theNSC after the attacks, its members refused to convene because Mr Sirisena was abroad. Mr Sirisena, for his part, swears that he was not informed of any imminent threat, either, although he is in charge of the armed forces, police and intelligence services. Privately, officials blame distracting Buddhist and Hindu holidays in mid-April. Even more privately, some whisper that the attacks may have been allowed to go ahead, so as to embarrass political rivals, though their scale may not have been anticipated.
MOST INSIDERS, however, see a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. According to one official, the intelligence apparatus was indeed on the trail of jihadist groups, includingNTJ, until around 2016. This met with a lack of interest “at the top”.NSC meetings, once weekly, took place only every two or three weeks. And there was a marked focus on now-defunct groups from the civil war, rendering the meetings “pointless”in the official’s view. “Our problem was that we never went into post-conflict surveillance mode,”he says. Mr Sirisena may also mistrust Indian advice: he has accused Indian agents of plotting to kill him.
THE DYSFUNCTION in government, and outright hostility between the prime minister and president, come as no surprise to Sri Lankans. The two men formed a wobbly team in 2015 with the sole purpose of defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa, the war-winning but authoritarian president, at a snap election. But relations between the blunt-mannered nationalist and the blue-blooded Mr Wickremesinghe soured quickly. Mr Sirisena’s main grouse, ironically, is that he had no idea what his government was doing until he read it in the news. Things came to a head in October when the president abruptly sacked Mr Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Mr Rajapaksa, before dissolving parliament. Mr Wickremesinghe was reinstalled in December after the Supreme Court ruled the dissolution unconstitutional.
THERE ARE now growing calls for a “strong leader”and Mr Rajapaksa is proffering one—his brother, Gotabaya, who was the minister of defence at the end of the war. In an impassioned speech before parliament on April 23rd, the former president said “the people have no use for a government that cannot assure them of the safety of their lives.”With elections looming, Sri Lankans may prefer a leader who is in charge, whatever his faults, over one who merely pretends to be.
(The Economist, April 27th, 2019)