Even after the passage of two years of the Sri Lanka Easter bombings, communities stand divided; government must retrospect to avoid such happenings
April 21 this year marks two years of Sri Lanka bombings that targeted Christians and tourists mainly in churches on a Sunday during the Easter festivities. Sri Lanka saw the cessation of LTTE-led hostilities in 2009 after a long gruelling fight between the country and the LTTE, triggered off in the wake of the massacre of the Tamilians in 1983. The Easter detonations of 2019 shook off the island nation and with as many as 300 fatalities. Sinhala-speaking community, which constitutes above 70 per cent of the total population, also felt the severe heat of these terror attacks as the devastation was believed to have been executed by the radical Sri Lankan Muslims linked to the IS. The terror assaults were very audacious as churches in Colombo were picked up as soft targets.
Sri Lankan Police subsequently recovered huge quantities of arms, ammunition and explosives through vigorous raids at the radicals' hideouts particularly in the north and northeastern parts of the country where there are predominantly Tamil-speaking people, both Hindus and Muslims. Recovered explosives were shown to carry ball bearings, iron nails and triacetone triperoxide, popularly known as TATP which is considered to be the preferred option of the IS cadres. Similar contents were also used by the IS-inspired terrorists at the November 2015 bombings in Paris.
During the sustained investigation, a radical Islamic outfit known as National Thawheed Jamaat ( NTJ) came to notice along with its affiliate, Jamaitul Milathu Ibrahim (JMI), both said to be having very close linkages with the IS and its cadres which were suspected to have been doctored through online radicalisation programme. Earlier, Sri Lankan Muslims had lived with Buddhists and Christians rather peacefully. An analytical study comprehensively carried out by scholar Amresh Gunasingham states that the oil boom and inflow of money to Sri Lanka from the Middle East led to a spurt in the construction of mosques and madrasas in the coastal Muslim majority towns. And, many who had lived in Saudi Arabia and other adjacent countries developed practising tenets of Wahabism.
Dwelling upon the forces leading to the church bombings, the name of one Zahran Hashim surfaced. He is believed to have recruited a large number of Tamil Muslims towards the IS ideology which nurtured hatred and preached violence against the non-Muslims. This gives an idea about a gigantic network operating within and outside Sri Lanka involving massive planning, funding, training in bomb-making and execution of terror plans.
Most significantly, there was a complete intelligence failure on part of the authorities as all the agencies failed miserably to garner preventive intelligence inputs and allowed such a ghastly series of bombings. Political leadership, then in the hands of President Mathripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, could not escape the responsibility of the deadly attacks. Their differences came to the fore more importantly, as there were most credible and preventive intelligence inputs from the Indian agencies which went unheeded. Both the President and the Prime Minister engaged in a blame game. Authoritative sources stand by their assertion that if the vital intelligence that was shared with the Sri Lankan government was acted upon, hundreds of innocent lives could have been easily saved, the radicals' syndicate smashed and it could have prevented the avoidable communal discord set in between Muslims and the rest of the communities.
Another serious fallout of the 2019 Easter bombings was the reactivation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism which led to the hardcore Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) becoming more vocal airing views of Buddhists' aggression against the Muslims. They felt in the aftermath of the church bombings that IS-inspired radical Islamic outfits were flexing their muscles and they needed to be put under check lest they exceeded their limits. With the new government in place with Rajapaksa at the helm, BBS expectations ran very high continuously demanding ways and measures to rein in the Islamist radicals. This apart, in the wake of the church bombings, anti-Muslim sentiments and violence have noticed a surge with real possibilities of attacks on Muslims, mosques and their other religious institutions. Muslims are constantly under fear of retaliation by the Sinhalas even two years after the Easter terror incidents.
In the recent past, the Muslims dying of Covid were ordered by the government to be cremated and not buried as required as per the Muslim customs. This was vehemently opposed by the Muslim institutions and leaders. The frustration was so much that they requested Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to intervene. In sum, even after two years of unfortunate terror happenings, Muslim and the rest remain divided. Judging by the past and track record, Islamic ultras cannot be underestimated. One is not sure if undercurrent radicalisation, especially amongst a section of the Sri Lankan Muslim youth, is still going on. There is no scope for any complacency. Most crucially, the intelligence machinery of the Sri Lankan establishment has to be on its toes, 24/7. Security experts are of the view that Indian agencies continue to provide timely and relevant intelligence to their Sri Lankan counterparts.
The SL government should be extra vigilant to foil any repeat of the 2019 bombings. The slightest warning must up their antenna to ascertain any linkages with radical elements in India. It need not be underscored that another neighbour in South Asia, Bangladesh is already struck by Hefazat Islam which is causing deaths and destruction. Myanmar is also under threat of disturbances not necessarily terror-linked, but from the view of instability making it fraught with vulnerability. The Pakistan chapter is well-known and the Pakistan-Sri Lanka nexus between a segment of the vested quarters is also not very favourable from the spurt in fundamentalists' angle. Sri Lanka has to, while freshly evaluating two years of Easter bombings, take each of these factors into account to ensure that trends of terror are noticed on time and neutralised before it assumes damaging proportions.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are personal