A spate of eight powerful explosions ripped through Sri Lankan hotels and churches on Easter Sunday, April 21, killing nearly 300 people and wounding 500 others in one of the most violent coordinated attacks the island nation has seen since its civil war ended in 2009.
Casualties included civilians who were attending Easter services in three churches across the country, and foreign tourists from across the globe who were lodged at three luxury hotels.
At least six of the locations were been hit by suicide bombers, while a ninth attack was preempted in capital Colombo by the bomb defusing unit on Monday. Parts of the country are under curfew as concerned authorities also reined in social media, blocking access to social media and messaging sites including Facebook and WhatsApp.
Although no one has come out claiming responsibility for the attacks yet, Sri Lankan authorities on Monday narrowed down to brand a little-known radical Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, as the group behind the bombings. Reports say that the government had been warned of Jama’ath’s threats ten days ago, although it is unclear if any precautions were taken.
A fresh explosion went off on Monday in a van near one of the churches targeted on Sunday when the bomb squad officials were trying to defuse it, The Guardian reported Monday evening. US intelligence agencies have warned of additional possible attacks in the near future, raising the level of danger in its travel advisory for visitors.
1. How have Sri Lankan authorities responded?
So far, 24 suspects have been detained, all local, although Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that the possibility of “overseas links” has not been ruled out.
In a Twitter post earlier on Sunday, Wickremesinghe said, “I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong.”
President Maithripala Sirisena has asked for foreign assistance to help track international links to attacks, Reuters reported Monday, besides ordering the Sri Lankan police special task force and the military to investigate who was behind the attacks and their agenda.
Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene had been the first to describe the blasts as a “terrorist attack” by religious groups. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera called the explosions “a well-coordinated attempt to create murder, mayhem and anarchy.”
2. How did the attacks un nofold?
The bombings began around 8:45 AM, and targeted Roman Catholic houses of worship—St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo; St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo (a majority Catholic town north of Colombo); as well as the Protestant Zion Church in Batticaloa.
Scenes were described by on-ground reporters as “havoc of splintered and blood-spattered pews” with footage showing people dragging the wounded out of glass and splintered wood littering the floor along with pools of blood.
Besides the churches, three luxury hotels: the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand, and the Kingsbury, all in Colombo. Hours later, a seventh blast was reported at a guesthouse near the national zoo in Colombo’s Dehiwala district. The last explosion took place at a house in the capital, killing three police officers in the process.
3. Who are the victims?
With the death toll steadily rising, the string of deadly blasts has claimed nearly 300 lives, of which a majority are Sri Lankan Christians, an ethnic minority—just six percent of the 21 million-strong population.
At least 35 of the dead were foreigners, the authorities said.
Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry informed earlier on Monday that five Indians, one Portuguese national, two Turkish nationals, one Chinese national, three British nationals, and two others, holding US and British passports, were among the casualties.
The numbers are likely to rise as dozens of other foreigners, including those from Japan, Denmark and the Netherlands, were also reported to be among those dead later in the day.
4. What does the post-mortem say?
A forensic analysis of body parts found at six sites determined that seven suicide bombers conducted attacks at three churches and three hotels, according to The Associated Press. Investigation of the scale and coordination has shown that a significant logistic operation and months of planning has gone into the operation.
Most attacks were carried out by a single bomber, but two men targeted the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Two other bombings at a guesthouse and the suspects’ safe house remain under investigation.
According to FirstPost, Sri Lankan police found 87 low-explosive detonators abandoned at the Bastian Mawatha private bus stand in Colombo’s Pettah on Monday.
5. What is the National Thowheeth Jama’ath?
The newly formed group while restricted to spreading Islamic terrorist ideology in Southeast Asia, are strong proponents of the global jihadist and anti-Buddhist movement. Members of NTJ have made a reputation for themselves in the last few years by virulently vandalizing Buddhist statues; four of them were arrested for this in January. But it has little history of carrying out terrorist attacks so far.
6. An intelligence failure?
According to the New York Times, a top police official had alerted security officials 10 days ago about a threat to churches from the Jama’ath.
It is not clear if any safeguards were taken, or if the group played any role in the violence. Furthermore, Wickremesinghe told the press he had not been informed, symptomatic of Sri Lanka’s political gridlock among its parliamentarians.”While this goes on we must also look into why adequate precautions were not taken,” he is reported as saying by Al Jazeera.
In October 2018, Sirisena fired and replaced PM Ranil Wickremesinghe with Rajapaksa who had, since then, been sacked by the parliament twice. Despite that, he refused to resign, fuelling a constitutional crisis at the centre in December. On December 16, the ousted PM was reinstated and sworn in again.
7. Social media outage and stepped up security
The government immediately, but temporarily, blocked major social media and messaging services from dusk to dawn, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, to curb the spread of misinformation. Given Sri Lanka’s troubled history with violence incited on the platforms, this ban is being hailed as timely and extraordinary, as it “reflects growing global concerns about social media” claims experts.
In addition to the curfew, the military was deployed and security was stepped up at Colombo’s international airport. CNN-News18 reported Monday that the government has declared an Emergency starting Monday midnight.
The last time a state of emergency was briefly declared was in 2018 when anti-Muslim violence took hold of central Sri Lanka, fed by rumours spread over social media about attacks on Buddhists.
8. How has the world responded?
The news of the largest attack on South Asian Christians in recent memory interrupted Easter celebrations across the world. Pope Francis, after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square, said the attacks had “brought mourning and sorrow” on the most important of Christian holidays.
The United Nations and world leaders also condemned Sunday’s attacks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe and called the suicide bombings in the country “cold-blooded and pre-planned barbaric acts”.
US President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences on the “horrible terrorist attacks”, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow remains a “reliable partner of Sri Lanka in the fight against international terrorism”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the bombings “an assault on all of humanity”.
New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern, who recently came under the spotlight for the way she responded to the Christchurch mosque massacre in her own nation, also expressed her solidarity with Sri Lanka which has been grappling with internal political friction for about a year, and entho-cultural conflict since independence.
9. A history of conflict rooted in ethnic differences
The Sinhalese account for three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s 23 million+ population, while the Tamils form the second-largest ethnic group and are restricted mainly to the north and northeast of the country. Muslims account for 10% of the population, and Christians 6% six percent.
The mistreatment of Tamils following independence from colonial rule birthed the separatist movement, leading to a 26-year civil war between Tamil rebels agitating for an independent homeland and the Sri Lankan military. The government defeated the LTTE in 2009.
It has been ten years but the wounds of carnage during the period are fresh in Sri Lanka’s urban memory; during the conflict, bombings of airports, bus stations, banks, cafes, and hotels were not uncommon and had claimed up thousands of lives.
10. Why do terrorists keep attacking places of worship?
The degree to which places of worship have become targets for acts that could be classified as domestic terrorism, argues Vox. In the span of a year, synagogues, churches, temples and mosques have increasingly become targets for extremist violence across the world. While most of these attacks target ethnic minorities, execution of these supremacist/terrorist visions at place of religious import is also designed to maximise emotional effect and communal fervour; the site automatically becomes a symbol of religious (or racist) intolerance.
India’s role in Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis
India’s vested interests in the region are driven by two priorities, namely to rehabilitate Sri Lankan Tamils and to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region.
Despite linguistic and cultural similarities, India’s strategic relations with Colombo were not amicable after New Delhi’s military intervention to disarm the LTTE ended with the truce in 2009, after which China increased military and developmental assistance to Colombo during Rajapaksa’s presidency.
With growing inflation due to this debt-diplomacy, Wickremesinghe recently began to improve ties with India and the West which has threatened China. The tip-off about the Jama’ath’s probable attack is believed to have come from the US or Indian intelligence agencies; notably, both nations are currently driven by hardline right-wing Islamophobic populists.
Indian High Commission in Colombo @IndiainSL will provide you all help and assistance. Our helpline numbers are :
+94777903082, +94112422788, +94112422789.— Chowkidar Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) April 21, 2019
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.