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Easter Day Bombings in Sri Lanka: Attack and aftermath

The shock and anger and, in some cases resignation, was palpable across the country, which has known peace for just about a decade after the Eelam wars.

by R.K. Radhakrishnan
Courtesy: Frontline India

Two weeks after the deadly Easter Day bombings, there are more questions than answers in the island nation. But a determined civil society is rallying round to commence the process of healing.

Close to a fortnight after suicide bombers took Sri Lanka back to the state of siege that had existed for decades until the obliteration of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, a deafening bomb blast and the images of destruction it left behind are fresh in the memory of Jaffna-born Father Joy Mariarathnam, who gave the 8 a.m. Easter Sunday sermon at the Kochchikade St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.

Fr Mariarathnam, who lived in Sri Lanka through the four Eelam wars, said that he was not able to sleep properly any longer. “Yes, yes, that is true. I sit up at the slightest sound,” he said in response to a question. On Easter Sunday, Fr Mariarathnam, who normally gives sermons at the nearby St. Sebastian’s Church, was given the opportunity to conduct the service in Kochchikade. He had just stepped up to the pulpit when a blast tore down parts of the church.

Like him, everyone there on that day recalls every single detail. “Before 2009, if a member of the family went out, we were not sure if he or she would return. We are back there,” said a Colombo resident who has lived through multiple bombings and disruptions of normal life. The April 21 suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, across three churches and three hotels, killed 253 people, including over 40 foreign tourists. The targeted places of worship were St. Anthony’s Shrine; St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, a town about 40 kilometres north of Colombo; and the Protestant Zion Church in Batticaloa, a town in the eastern coast, about 320 km from Colombo.

The shock and anger and, in some cases resignation, was palpable across the country, which has known peace for just about a decade after the Eelam wars.

Two days later, the Islamic State (I.S.) claimed responsibility for the blasts, which were carried out by nine suicide bombers. All the nine were identified a couple of days after the blasts and were named on May 1.

The first bomb went off at St. Anthony’s Shrine. Fr Mariarathnam, who has conducted services in Sri Lanka for 24 years, was perhaps the first in Sri Lanka to realise that the loud noise was the result of a suicide attack.

“By 8 a.m. there was a huge crowd in the church. As the service began, I heard a loud explosion which came from the left side of the church. Then I saw fire engulfing the place. When I saw a severed head flying in the air, I knew this should be the work of a suicide bomber. Words cannot describe what I felt at that point in time. Yes, I was in shock. I did not know what to do. I froze at the altar for two minutes. After that I realised that it was not right to stand there and do nothing because people were crying, wailing all around me. There were dead bodies in a pile at one place. There were body parts all around. I couldn’t do anything, but I kept repeating: brothers, carry the injured out somehow. I was in shock that was laced with fear,” he said.

Fr Mariarathnam is now worried about those who lost their near and dear ones. There is anxiety, tension and a sense of fear among those that he has had conversations with. “If this is the state I am in, imagine the state of those who have lost their loved ones,” he said.

“I talked to many children in my parish about how they were feeling. Many told me that they were too scared to sleep. I can tell you that this has created a massive impact of fear and insecurity in the minds of these children. Even when you walk on the road, you look around more than you did earlier,” he added.

In a country with limited psychiatric care services, there is a dearth of coping mechanisms. Asked what advice the Church was giving to the affected, Fr Mariarathnam said that they were laying out the facts in front of the people.

“What we are telling them is that those who carried out these attacks belong to a small group. The whole community is not responsible. The whole community, which is being criticised for this, has nothing to do with this attack. They had no knowledge about this small group of people. So it is not correct to see the whole community as enemies or even to oppose the whole community. That is why we have told the government that they should take action only against those responsible for this heinous act. We have been saying this everywhere. The whole community cannot be blamed,” he said. A series of interfaith meetings were held soon after the incident, preventing a Christian-Muslim divide in the country, which is already divided on ethnic lines. For instance, soon after the blasts, about 60 moulvis from across the country met leaders of the Christian community.

The Muslim leaders expressed sorrow over the incident and condemned the attack in no uncertain terms. They also wanted to involve themselves in the rehabilitation measures that were being planned. “I see this as an honest attempt on their part to heal the wounds,” Fr Mariarathnam said.

Life-altering event

In many ways, the blasts have been a life-altering event for many in Sri Lanka, especially those who were in the vicinity of the attack.

Fr Mariarathnam said: “This is a congregation built to forgive. We have got an opportunity to overtly forgive someone. Doing acts like this in God’s name is not only condemnable but also unacceptable.”

Asked how members of the congregation were dealing with the loss, he said that people did not want revenge. “They are very much disturbed with what has happened. This was totally unexpected. They are all heeding to the advice of our Cardinal [Malcolm Ranjith]. Neither the people nor the Church is seeking revenge. We will be very happy if the government takes all legal steps needed at this hour. We are very much hurt because they [those who were killed] were part of our community who were snatched away from us.”

Through the crisis, the leadership of both communities stood out, even as bickering factions within the government traded charges and countercharges over a variety of issues. The Colombo Archbishop, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, firmly condemned the attacks as an “insult to humanity” and implored everyone to refrain from acts detrimental to the country. By and large, this has had a calming effect on the community.

Aluth Avurudu, the Sinhalese New Year, is a time when Colombo literally empties out. This year, the day fell on April 14. The long holidays culminated in Easter Sunday on April 21. Most shops and business establishments remain shut for most of the week and the hot weather in Colombo drives away most of the elite to cooler climes in fancy western destinations or, at least, to the hills of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. No government work gets done. Few Ministers or other VIPs are in town in this period.

It has been established that the Sri Lankan intelligence establishment was given multiple warnings (three, according to one source) in April about the attack, but these did not elicit any security-related response from the state. Soon after the attack, both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed that they were not in the loop over the intelligence inputs before the attack.

Sri Lankan armed forces and intelligence establishments were made subservient to the political establishment after the conclusion of the war against the Tamil Tigers. Some wartime generals were sent on foreign postings or for training, and everyone with leanings to former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka was either dismissed or victimised, while pliable senior Army officers were made commanders. (Some of them attended a meeting organised by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa soon after the bomb blasts.)

Fonseka was jailed on flimsy charges and the Army fell in line with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s new vision for Sri Lanka, unquestioningly, aided by Lt Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya.

The intelligence community fared worse because of the lack of respect from the top. An Indian intelligence officer recalled a meeting with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary, in the post-war era, where the Sri Lankan head of intelligence was humiliated in front of the Indian officer.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who now aspires to become a politician, claimed that it was the Sirisena government that neglected the armed forces and promised that security would no longer be a concern once he was elected President (see “A Rajapaksa eyes the Presidency”, May 10).

Worsening this muddle was the bickering between the President and the Prime Minister. Disagreements between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena came to the fore a year into the term of the new government, and since 2016 there has been no resolving of serious policy issues. Even the “national question”—a phrase that refers to the issue of Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces—is nowhere near resolution. This was one of the major planks during the campaign that led to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in the January 2015 presidential election.

Sirisena unsuccessfully tried to dismiss Wickremesinghe, and at one point in December 2018, Sri Lanka ended up having two Prime Ministers. After this issue was settled by an upright judiciary and an unyielding Parliament, the second claimant to the Prime Minister’s chair, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was announced as the new Leader of the Opposition, unseating the Tamil National Alliance leader, R. Sampanthan.

Given this political context, it was hardly surprising that the political shadow-boxing continued in the post-blast period even as Sri Lanka was grieving. On April 26, Wickremesinghe took responsibility for the blasts. He tweeted: “We take collective responsibility and apologise to our fellow citizens for our failure to protect victims of these tragic events. We pledge to rebuild our churches, revive our economy, and take all measures to prevent terrorism, with the support of the international community.”

He later made it clear that he was being kept away from security-related briefings and as such he did not have any clue about the impending attacks.

In short, a long holiday, a dysfunctional state and a security apparatus that had been slowly decimated from 2009 contributed to a lack of action on intelligence inputs that came in from various sources.

For example, Mufti Rizwe, president of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, claimed at an all religious committees’ meeting with Sirisena on April 29 that his organisation had submitted information on I.S. terrorists to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but he did not take any action.

“It was 2014, June 2. I myself spoke on SLBC [Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation]. The record is there. I.S. has nothing to do with Islam. At that time the Defence Secretary was Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I gave all the documents to him. You have to take serious action on this. And two defence persons were appointed and they had all the information on I.S. persons in Sri Lanka. Every detail was there. We said we are ready to support you, arrest them,” he said.

On April 22, a day after the attack, Minister of Health Rajitha Senaratne, told mediapersons that on April 4 international intelligence agencies had warned of these attacks and that churches and tourist destinations were the targets. He said that the Inspector General of Police (IGP), who was later sacked but who refused to leave his post, was informed on April 9.

However, at the ground level, the question remains whether the intelligence given was immediate, relevant and actionable. The Indian intelligence agencies had picked up some chatter, and this was passed on to their Sri Lankan counterparts. It is also learnt that some chatter was picked up in a West Asian country and was passed on to Sri Lanka. There is no independent verification of the second claim, though.

Once such intelligence is handed over, the goal is usually to apprehend the suspects. If the information on hand is not substantive enough to effect an arrest or to reach the suspects, then the next strategy of increasing security at possible target locations comes into play. An intelligence official said that the most difficult part of the exercise was dealing with the question: should this information be shared with the public?

Owing to a variety of factors, such as paucity of time, expertise or the right personnel, verifying information handed over by a foreign government might not be possible. So, intelligence agencies and governments have to consider whether the government should pass on the information to the people, which has the potential to create panic, or try to work behind the scenes to verify whether the claim is authentic.

Colonel R. Hariharan (retd), who headed the intelligence wing of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, asserted that his information was that the intelligence provided was actionable. “One thing we need to understand. It [intelligence] will never be 100 per cent accurate. I will give you a typical example [from my IPKF days]. We were given inputs that an ambush will be laid between Mile 4 and Mile 5. Our fellow had told us. We had passed on that information. But ambush was laid further down that same road,” he said.

This cannot be construed as wrong information. Here too, information was passed on that an attack was imminent. “In this case, information could have come from more than one source. One was from the NIA [National Investigation Agency] questioning of suspects in south India. This was incidental. But the more specific information could have come from RAW [Research and Analysis Wing] only,” he added.

Among deadliest attacks

The attack in Sri Lanka was one of the deadliest in the world. Sri Lankan officials revised the death toll to 253 after initially citing a casualty figure of over 350. Looking at lives lost, this is not the largest I.S.-inspired/linked attack outside Iraq and Syria. The Karrada (Iraq) attack in July 2016 was the largest—it left 340 dead. The al-Rawda Sufi mosque (Egypt) attack in Sinai in 2017 killed 305. The biggest casualty in Europe in the recent past was in Paris, where a 2015 attack killed 130 apart from the suicide bombers themselves.

“It’s become increasingly difficult for I.S. to have access to Europe,” Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times told the BBC’s Newsnight on April 23. She suspects that “we will see plots that are further afield from North America and Europe in places like Sri Lanka”.

The attack worries intelligence and security agencies across the world as it has shown that the I.S. can carry out attacks remotely with the help of local thugs and vandals. Conversations are difficult to pick up because of the horizontal nature of the organisation tasked to carry out a “duty”. The attack punched holes in United States President Donald Trump’s claim that the I.S. was on its last legs and demonstrated the organisation’s reach. The fairly large number of suicide bombers demonstrated the terrorist outfit’s capacity to organise an attack of such magnitude in a location not known to be an I.S. base.

What has left the security agencies baffled is how a multilayered, multi-location external operation with multiple suicide bombers did not attract any major suspicion despite the fact that some chatter was picked up by Indian intelligence.

Some experts on terrorism have concluded that this was not a local action by the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), but one that was directed and supervised by someone well-versed in bomb-making and coordination across locations.

Speaking to Fareed Zakaria on CNN, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, John Miller, described this action as NTJ punching way above its weight. He said: “This was also too sophisticated for the locals to do. The NTJ was involved in hate speech, vandalism, etc. But this kind of a simultaneous multi-location attack is impossible for them to carry out. So then, how did this happen? That’s an intelligence gap. What we have to learn over the coming days is, did I.S. find this group, connect with them online and realise they had an opportunity? Did they send out a facilitator who brought up their level of professionalism with bomb-making, planning, and so on, or is this a combination of returning fighters?”

Two days after the incident, Sri Lankan Minister of State for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene claimed in Parliament that it was believed that the attack was in retaliation for the gunning down of Muslims in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. However, intelligence agencies in India and elsewhere are not so sure because available evidence—four official I.S. communications and a video featuring I.S. leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi—did not mention Christchurch.

This could be an independent action, as targeting churches has been part of I.S.’ strategy, as seen in Egypt and elsewhere. The authorities in New Zealand have dismissed this claim. Also, Indian intelligence officials said there was not enough time after the Christchurch attacks in March to organise such a massive attack. However, everyone agrees that the attack was directed by or inspired by the I.S. because the I.S.’ news agency, Amaq, first claimed responsibility, then released a video, and later named all the suicide bombers, who pledged allegiance to the caliphate before the attack. The only odd element is that the I.S. waited for two days to claim responsibility, which, according to experts, is unusual. This means that there was a problem, and intelligence agencies are searching for the true reason.

Nearly two weeks later, there are more questions than answers. Nearly 100 persons were apprehended by the Sri Lankan authorities after the blasts. This indicated that there was a massive logistics effort on the ground to identify safe houses, move the weapons and material around and drive the suicide bombers to the sites.

Indian intelligence officials who have studied the pattern of attacks in India believe that this is how the attacks will be henceforth: a bunch of local motivated or anti-social elements will form the core, and there will be, at best, one expert-cum-motivator (say, a bomb-maker) who will train them. The porous nature of the borders across developing nations makes this possibility a nightmarish one to counter.

For instance, a one-way illegal journey from the southern tip of India to northern Sri Lanka for a person costs Rs.36,000 (as of April 21). Regular boats take people from India to Sri Lanka and back. An illegal journey from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to the northern tip of Malaysia—a preferred destination for Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar—costs about $100.

“Most developing nations have no mechanism to monitor vessels on high seas. Any boat can take a person from the coast on to a boat on the high seas, and he or she can travel anywhere,” a specialist who studies irregular immigration said. “All that is required are a few pliable persons in a ship. This is not rare,” he added.

With Europe tightening security, organisations such as the I.S. will seek to carry out attacks in developing nations, where they can achieve maximum impact and also kill foreign tourists. The odds are, hence, stacked against the security agencies.

Tough talk

Such attacks usually lead to tough talk and/or laws. In Sri Lanka, for instance, in the aftermath of the blasts, Sirisena declared a ban on burqas. There is talk of “tougher” laws to deal with terrorism, and it appears that the Prevention of Terrorism Act will be back in a worse form. Sri Lanka has declared a state of emergency, and the President has vowed to search each household to free the country from terrorists.

Political calculations are not far behind, either. Realising that some people in authority have to be sacrificed, the President announced the sacking of the Defence Secretary and the police chief. He appointed as Defence Secretary General Shantha Kottegoda, who was earlier removed as Army chief by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa so that Fonseka could be made Army chief. But the police chief has not budged, and a new person has been appointed acting IGP.

Immediate impact

For Sri Lanka, it appears that there is no good news in the near future. With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year, the rhetoric is bound to be around security. Owing to the elections, warring political parties will find it difficult to agree on a path forward. Rajapaksa’s hardline Sinhala party and its allies will try to stage a comeback using the security issue, while not promising to solve the more serious livelihood concerns of the people.

Many countries, including India, have issued travel warnings to its citizens against visiting Sri Lanka. While foreign remittances from Sri Lankan workers account for the largest chunk of that country’s foreign exchange earnings, tourism revenues constitute the third largest portion and are extremely important to the island nation. Sri Lanka Tourism had targeted 2.5 million tourists this year, but this is likely to fall by at least half because of the travel warnings. Sri Lanka’s tourism earnings in 2018 totalled $4.4 billion.

“There have been some cancellations,” said a Colombo-based travel agent. “If the travel advisories are not withdrawn, then there will be many more cancellations,” he added.

A Reuters report of April 29 said that Sri Lankan Airlines witnessed a 10 per cent increase in cancellations after the blasts. According to one estimate, in a country of about 22 million, nearly a million are employed either directly or indirectly by the tourism industry. If there is negative growth, job losses in Sri Lanka will skyrocket. This will have a spiralling effect on related industries.

Maintaining harmony in a deeply divided country and making sure that the existing communal fissures do not widen is a massive task. Already, there are isolated instances of Muslims being targeted in Sri Lanka.

On April 30, former cricket captain Kumar Sangakkara appealed to people to set aside their differences and work to help in the healing and rehabilitation. He said: “Let us stand together and unite as one Sri Lanka to help the victims of the tragedy… by providing aid that will help them rebuild their lives.”

Despite its politicians, Sri Lankan civil society, which came together to preserve the rule of law in December 2018, is rallying round again. The common message is: “We are all Sri Lanka and we will stand together.”

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