The Islamic State (ISIS) on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the series of eight bombings that ripped through Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, April 21, killing 321 and injuring 500.
The government, which blamed the blasts on local Islamist group National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ) on Sunday, have now added that Islamist extremists carried out the coordinated attacks in retaliation for the March attack on two mosques in New Zealand.
An 11-year-old Sri Lankan girl due to receive her communion, hundreds of civilians attending Easter services, Sri Lankan celebrity chef Shantha Mayadunne, three of Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen‘s four children, a relative of Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina, a British family on vacation, a Washington DC-based fifth grader and eight Indians were among the casualties of the explosions that shook churches and hotels in the island nation.
Updates and statements
Sri Lanka held its first mass funeral on Tuesday.
After the enforced social media outage on Sunday, Sri Lanka may even be contemplating a burqa ban in light of the bombings. A state of emergency is in effect to prevent further attacks; Colombo was on high alert for a truck and van suspected to be carrying explosives.
Some of the bombed sites are so badly damaged that investigators haven’t been able to examine all of them or identify all victims yet.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told the media that at least six suicide bombers were involved, with 40 suspects already in custody—all are locals so far. Authorities are, however, still looking out for possible suspects. On Monday, President Maithripala Sirisena had indicated that the government had not ruled out international links either.
The debate about political infighting leading to an intelligence failure is also being probed by media organisations; intel reports dated April 11 alerting the government of a probable attack have surfaced.
Addressing parliament Tuesday, Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardana said initial investigations showed “the chain of bombings” was carried out by “radical Islam group” NTJ. The Jerusalem Post reported that the alleged suicide bomber and mastermind behind the attack on the Shangri La hotel had been identified as Islamic extremist Moulvi Zahran Hashim, who was a lecturer for NTJ.
Wijewardana also believed the attacks were an eye-for-an-eye response to last month’s mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, which saw 50 Muslims murdered in a shooting rampage by a white supremacist.
Fr. Jude Fernando, who leads St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, the scene of one of Sunday’s bombings, had narrowly escaped as he was in his office at 8:45 am when the bomb detonated.
Appealing to Sri Lankan Christians not to retaliate, he urged everyone to “please be calm and quiet and pray, because our God is not a god of revenge, he’s a god of love, he’s a god of peace… let’s follow our master and spread the good news,” according to CNN.
What ISIS said
Around the same time, ISIS put out a statement on the group’s news agency Amaq, stating, “The attackers who targeted citizens of the (anti-ISIS) coalition state members and Christians in Sri Lanka the day before yesterday were fighters of the Islamic State.”
The statement offered no evidence to support the claim, and there is no direct evidence yet that the terror group was involved. Some of their claims have been false in the past, although experts have noted that the coordinated explosions fit the “ISIS and Al Qaeda playbook”; both have carried out attacks like Sunday’s in the past.
“They want to make a big press presence, a big statement, here’s what we’re capable of doing, here’s how much we hate you, they even like the backlash, they think it unites Muslims to their cause,” said Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism to CNN.
What about NTJ?
Regional expert Michael Kugelman isn’t ready to give NTJ all the credit either. It is no “jihadist juggernaut” he notes.
According to the Indian Express, the group was formed in Kattankudy, a Muslim-dominated town in eastern Sri Lanka, in 2014. In 2017, members of the National Towheeth Jamaath were prosecuted for making derogatory remarks in a video against Buddha and hurting the sentiments of the Sinhala-Buddhist community in the country.
Until January, the Jama’ath was a relatively unknown element, whose claim to fame arrived when members defaced Buddhist statues; four of them were arrested for this in January.
Meanwhile, the outfit is not to be confused with the Sri Lanka Towheeth Jamaath, which has condemned the attacks and demanded the highest punishment for the perpetrators, or with the newly formed Ceylon Thowheed Jamaath (CTJ).
Reasonable doubt and external help
Strong proponents of the global jihadist and anti-Buddhist movement, the NTJ has, thus far, restricted the profession of its radical Islamist ideologies to Southeast Asia. But it has little history of carrying out terrorist attacks so far. To pull off such a catastrophic attack as Sunday’s, it would have needed help—but from whom?
Kugelman rightly argues that an Islamist radical group, if it wanted to stage an attack in Sri Lanka, would rationally target Buddhists (the demographic majority) and not Christians (a minority group occupying 6% of the population). That would further fit in the scheme of things since anti-Muslim violence recently took hold of central Sri Lanka, fed by rumours spread over social media about attacks on Buddhists.
But with the ‘vengeance for Christchurch’ motive entering the fray, it is difficult to rule out ISIS’s involvement.
So has Islamist extremism arrived in Sri Lanka?
At this juncture, the prospect of ISIS in Sri Lanka also puts a pin on the widely-held belief that the group has been badly degraded ever since its caliphate was wiped out in Iraq and Syria last month.
It is well known that ISIS has existed longer without territory than with it, so eliminating it geographically is not good enough, and claiming it is “100% defeated” is the height of hubris. And reports suggest it is already morphing back into an insurgent group with branches across the world.
Last month, Qrius analysed its gradual spread to South Asia, confirming that ISIS-led insurgencies continue in the far-flung corners of the globe—Nigeria, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, with aspiring branches in Bangladesh, Somalia, and Indonesia, suggesting it has considerable reach beyond the Afghanistan-Pakistan region where it’s largely based.
Why it matters
The degree to which places of worship have become targets for acts that could be classified as domestic terrorism has risen, argues Vox. In the span of a year, synagogues, churches, temples, and mosques have increasingly become targets of extremist violence across the world.
While most of these attacks target ethnic minorities, execution of these supremacist/terrorist visions at places of religious import is also designed to maximise emotional effect and communal fervour; the site automatically becomes a symbol of religious (or racist) intolerance.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.