On April 21, Easter Sunday, at least 250 people were killed, 39 of them foreigners, and hundreds were injured in eight suicide bombings in Sri Lanka.
The first four bombings occurred simultaneously at 8:45 am, three of them in the capital, Colombo, where suicide attackers struck St. Anthony’s Shrine, a large Catholic church, during mass; and the Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels. North of Colombo along the coast, in Negombo, a young bearded man was recorded by CCTV cameras walking calmly toward the center of St Sebastian’s Church before detonating an explosion powerful enough to bring in the roof, killing himself and at least 104 other people.
Just five minutes later, also in Colombo, another bomb hit the Cinnamon Grand hotel. At both the Shangri-La and Cinnamon hotels, terrorists booked rooms, stayed a night, then blew themselves up as they queued for the breakfast buffet in the morning.
Fifteen minutes after this, at 9:05, on the other side of the country, in the eastern coastal city of Batticaloa, a suicide-killer detonated outside the Zion Church. Had it not been for a member of the congregation preventing the attacker getting inside the church, the death toll in Batticaloa — where 450 worshippers were gathered — would have been many times higher. Another explosive device was discovered and defused before it exploded at the nearby Bandaranaike International Airport.
About four hours later, during police raids, there were two further bombings, one at the Tropical Inn, a smaller hotel on the city’s outskirts, and shortly after in a housing complex in Dematagoda, where the pregnant wife of one of the attackers detonated a suicide jacket, killing herself, her unborn child and two of her other children, plus three police officers.
Police in Colombo also blew up a suspicious motorcycle in a controlled explosion and found 12 detonators scattered on the ground at the Bastian Mawatha private bus station, plus other 75 in a garbage dump nearby.
The Easter attacks are a surge of terrorist violence in Sri Lanka without precedent since the end of the civil war in 2009, when the government finally put down the terror-insurgency of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers.
The Sri Lankan government enforced a state of emergency after the suicide attacks, giving the police and military special powers to search and detain suspects without judicial authority, as well as impose a curfew. The authorities also shut down Facebook and other social media networks to avoid “false news reports”.
This was not only one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in South Asia’s recent history, comparable to the Mumbai siege and atrocities in Peshawar and Baluchistan over the past few years. It was one of the deadliest recent attacks globally.
According to some members of the Sri Lankan government, this attack was carried out in response to the far-right terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. This was false. The simultaneous bombings were far too sophisticated to be planned and organized in just one month. These coordinated explosions required a long planning and preparation, including foreign logistical and technical support.
Some initial speculation suggested Al Qaeda was responsible for the Easter attacks. But Al-Qaeda does not behave this way any longer. After the Christchurch attack, Al Qaeda’s leadership instructed its followers to target “the crusaders” in their gathering centers but ordered them specifically not to attack Christians “in their churches or places of worship”.
Sri Lanka has not been considered a primary target of jihadist terrorism, certainly not when compared to other countries in South Asia. The Muslim population in the country is less than 10% of the total. A research published by the Soufan Center in 2019, “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent”, does not even mention Sri Lanka once, while India is mentioned 203 times, Pakistan 94, Bangladesh 84, and Burma 20.
Another reason why these attacks were so surprising is that the main local Islamist groups, National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ, a splinter group of Sri Lanka Thowheed Jama’ath) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI) never achieved significant results, except for damaging some Buddhist statues in Mawanella last December. In January, a secret storage of weapons and military explosives was discovered in an isolated coconut plantation in Wanathawilluwa.
Due to a political crisis between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the President Maithripala Sirisena, Wickremesinghe was not invited to the meetings of the national security and intelligence apparatus, overseen by the president. On April 11, the country’s deputy inspector general had issued a letter to government officials saying that NTJ was planning a terrorist attack, but the Prime Minister has said that he did not receive the warning. This internal political crisis might have prevented the authorities detecting the terrorist plot.
Islamic State Claims the Attacks
On April 23, the news agency of the Islamic State, Amaq, released a statement (also translated in Tamil language) claiming responsibility for the attacks in Sri Lanka.
Shortly after, the agency also released a photo portraying eight individuals with an ISIS flag in the background. The statement named seven attackers. The only one showing his face is Abu Ubaida, identified as Zahran Hashim, a radical preacher known for posting radical videos on Facebook until 2017.
A 59-second video released online shows the group pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Zahran was affiliated with NTJ. India’s CNN reported that he wanted to attack the Indian High Commission in Colombo on April 4, but the attack was thwarted thanks to intelligence sharing. The Indian warning obviously didn’t prevent the cell carrying out the April 21 attacks. Zahran is considered the mastermind and leader of the cell that struck Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday and he was among the suicide bombers, defence minister Wijewardena said.
The Sri Lankan terrorists have similarities to the ISIS cell that attacked the Holey Artisan Bakery in Bangladesh in July 2016. In both cases, the killers came from more local jihadi groups that were struggling for visibility and found “success” by latching on to ISIS’s expanding global network. Another similarity is the socio-economic status of the attackers: well-educated and wealthy in both instances.
The Sri Lankan link with ISIS is not wholly unknown. In January 2015, Mohamed Muhsin Sharfaz Nilam (Abu Shurayh al-Silani), a resident of Warallagama, was killed in Raqqa in January 2015. His death was announced by another jihadist from the island, Thauqeer Ahmed Thajudeen (Abu Dhujaana al-Silani), and celebrated in ISIS’s Dabiq online magazine. In the wake of the Easter atrocities, dozens of suspects have been arrested in Sri Lanka, among them a Syrian national and several returnees who fought in ISIS’s ranks in the Middle East. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena announced he will replace the leadership of the security and defense forces following their failure to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings.
This devastating attack shows that despite the military defeat of ISIS’s statelet in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist group is still able to plan sophisticated and deadly plots around the globe. South Asia will likely experience a surge of Islamist extremism and terrorism in the near future, due not only to the return of foreign fighters but also to local conditions.