August 26, 2019
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    Vortex of confusion

    April 25, 2019

    Sri Lanka is reeling with shock and horror from the effects of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks that have left at least 359 people including 36 foreigners dead and shattered the peace and tranquillity the country enjoyed since the conclusion of the Eelam war ten years ago.

    The blasts- eight in all- began on Easter Sunday morning as mass was being celebrated at St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade in Colombo, at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo and the Zion Church in Batticaloa. Almost simultaneously, explosions were triggered in three high-end hotels in the capital- the Kingsbury, the Shangri-La and the Cinnamon Grand, within kilometres of each other.

    Two other blasts occurred hours later- at a lodge in Dehiwela and at a safehouse of the alleged attackers in Dematagoda- as Police swooped in on the attackers, while the entire nation was kept glued to their televisions, watching the gruesome drama unfold.

    It is significant that even during the thirty-year Eelam war when bombings and massacres were the norm, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were unable to inflict so many casualties in a single day. The number of casualties rank extremely high even on the scale of global terrorist atrocities.

    The attacks have earned worldwide condemnation and calls for support for Sri Lanka but the country’s security services and the government’s handling of the attack- both before and after the incident- has also come in for scathing criticism both locally and internationally.

    The attacks have wide ranging implications. They brought to a sudden end the honeymoon period Sri Lanka enjoyed since the end of the Eelam war. It brings to a grinding halt the surge the country was experiencing in tourism, as overseas visitors flocked to Colombo airport in their thousands to flee the country in the aftermath of the attacks. The incidents will also have serious political implications for the government.

    Extremist Islamist group

    At the time of writing, some background in relation to the attacks is emerging. After days of silence, the government has named an extremist Islamist group, identified as the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a hitherto little-known Islamist group preaching radical ideology, as being responsible for the attacks. As late as Tuesday, the global terrorist group, Islamic State (IS), claimed responsibility for the killings, its AMAQ news agency said.

    AMAQ later released a photograph which claims to depict the seven suicide bombers. The faces of six of them are masked while the seventh purports to be that of Zahran Hashim, the alleged mastermind behind the attacks. “The perpetrators of the attack that targeted nationals of the countries of the coalitions and Christians in Sri Lanka before yesterday are fighters from the Islamic State,” AMAQ said in a statement.

    The Government Analyst Ariyananda Welianga had confirmed that all the attacks were carried out by suicide bombers. Welianga said that two people were involved in the attack at the Shangri-La hotel. One bomber each attacked the Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury hotels, the St. Anthony’s Church, the St. Sebastian’s Church and the Zion Church, he said.

    Much of the consternation in the immediate aftermath of the incidents stemmed from the fact that the government -or, at least the Police- had been tipped off about a possible attack in early April. A letter written by Deputy Inspector General of Police Priyalal Dissanayake was circulated widely on social media following the attacks on Sunday.

    The letter was addressed to the directors of four Sri Lankan security agencies. The letter identified the persons who would be launching attacks and described churches as possible targets. In hindsight, the information has been proved to be deadly accurate.

    It was not as if the warning was highly classified information. Minister Harin Fernando publicly said that he was urged not to attend Easter mass following the warning. Questions were being asked what, if anything, the authorities had done in the wake of the threat that had been clearly identified.

    It also emerged that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was not aware of the threat. The Prime Minister acknowledged this publicly and said that why such information was not acted upon needed to be inquired into. Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, head of the Catholic Church in the country was also critical, saying that had he known about the threats, he would have cancelled the Easter mass services, possibly avoiding the carnage on Sunday.

    This lapse on the part of authorities highlighted the poor communication between the different arms of government. Global media agencies poured scorn on Sri Lanka’s handling of the prior warning- thought to have been received from intelligence agencies in neighbouring India- and asked the question as to who would take responsibility for the more than 300 lives lost.

    Special session in Parliament

    Parliament held a special session on Tuesday regarding the attacks. Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa was highly critical of the government’s handling of the issue. “The present government is squarely responsible for the terrorist attacks that took place last Sunday. The police had issued early warnings of an impending attack. However what action did the government take with regard to those warnings? They never informed the Church leaders about those warnings and neither did they provide extra security to the possible targets,” Rajapaksa said.

    Speaking during the debate, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene suggested that the attacks were in retaliation to the recent attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, where an Australian lone gunman had massacred worshippers at a mosque. “The preliminary investigations have revealed that what happened in Sri Lanka was in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch, but we are continuing investigations,” Wijewardene said.

    However, Wijewardene did not substantiate his claim and analysts have pointed out that this attack would have taken several months of planning, whereas the Christchurch attack occurred on March 15 this year, just over five weeks ago. In response, the office of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said it is aware of comments linking the bombings to the mosque attacks in Christchurch, though it hasn’t “seen any intelligence upon which such an assessment might be based”.

    Speaking to foreign correspondents on Tuesday Prime Minister Wickremesinghe shed more light on the ongoing investigations. Wickremesinghe said that there were foreign links behind the attack and added that some of the bombers had travelled abroad and then returned to Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister also said that a number of persons were still evading arrest.

    President’s address

    President Sirisena also addressed the nation on Tuesday. The President was overseas at the time of the attacks and there had been criticism that there was no one appointed as acting Minister of Defence in his absence. It was also reported that convening the National Security Council had been difficult while he was away.

    The President noted that those who carried out the attack had come to the attention of authorities. “Our Security Forces constantly followed them and monitored them. However, the Security Forces did not possess enough evidence and clear information to take legal action against them. The activities of these persons were closely monitored at National Security Council meetings in the past years,” the President said, adding that the attacks were carried out “under the guidance, support, and leadership of an international terrorist organisation”.

    In what was an obvious response to the bungling about the warning regarding the attacks, President Sirisena also said that he would effect changes to the country’s security establishments within twenty-four hours. At the time of writing, these changes have not been announced.

    Three days after the attack, the incidents raise more questions than answers. A major question is why Sri Lanka was a target. While reference has been made to infrequent Sinhala-Muslim clashes in recent years, these have been nowhere near the scale of the violence seen on Sunday. As already revealed, Sunday’s attacks would have definitely had international collaboration. Was Sri Lanka chosen because it was seen as a fertile breeding ground for Islamic radicals or because it was a soft target?

    Sri Lanka’s Muslims amounted to 9.7 per cent of the population at the last census and was largely neutral throughout the Eelam conflict even though most of them were Tamil speaking. Why at least some of them would be radicalised now is a big question.

    The nation is still recovering from the horrors of Sunday. A night time curfew is yet in place. Funerals, some of them en masse, are being held on a daily basis. A fear psychosis, similar to that experienced during the height of the Eelam war, has enveloped the nation as everyone looks over their shoulder wondering when the next explosion will occur. A nation, one of the most peaceful places on earth for ten years, has suddenly woken up to the realisation that this is no longer the case.

    Finding answers to the critical questions in the security puzzle- the who, why and with whose support- are crucial in combating this evil menace. It is equally important that the country’s different communities restrain themselves and act calmly- and not target the Muslim community as a whole- in the coming months, as investigators grapple with the questions they are being asked.

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