Sri Lanka Bombings: What We Know

More than three hundred people were killed in coordinated suicide bombings at Sri Lankan churches and hotels on Easter Sunday. Bruce Hoffman, CFR’s Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security, gives his assessment.

Officials are blaming two local groups—National Thowheeth Jama’ath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim—for the bombings. What do we know about them?

Very little. National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NJT) is a previously little-known extremist Islamist group that appears to have surfaced over the past year or so in Sri Lanka, mainly in response to anti-Muslim rioting and other violence against Muslims inflicted by the island-state’s majority Sinhalese Buddhist population. The group had reportedly vandalized Buddhist statues. Sunday’s half-dozen coordinated suicide attacks would be a leap of an order of magnitude in organizational and logistical capabilities for any extremist group.

Even less at this moment is known about Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim. The state minister of defense, Ruwan Wijewardene, cited the involvement of this hitherto unknown group in a statement to the parliament, without elaborating further.

A map showing the locations of Sri Lanka bombings in April 2019.

Some officials and experts suspect that an international terrorist network is linked to the attacks. What do you think?

The self-proclaimed Islamic State has claimed credit for the attacks via its news service, Amaq. If true, this would confirm the assessment of many experts that it would have been highly unusual for two local groups with a hitherto limited capacity for violence, even acting together, to graduate to the coordinated, systematic series of attacks that convulsed Sri Lanka.

Historically, even a single successful suicide bombing requires a logistical “tail” involving many people, including recruiters to radicalize and maintain the resolve of the bomber-martyrs, skilled bomb makers, and operatives to surveil targets. This is a formidable undertaking generally only accomplished by people with considerable expertise and an organizational network.

How has the Sri Lankan government responded, and what tools can it use to combat the threat of future terrorist attacks?

Given Sri Lanka’s nearly thirty-year-long civil war, which ended only a decade ago with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eleam, or LTTE), government intelligence, security, and law enforcement officers were likely focused on monitoring the country’s Tamil population and preventing a resurgence or resurrection of the Tigers. Far less attention would have been focused on Sri Lanka’s small Muslim community. This inattention could have created the opportunity for a local group—perhaps with external encouragement or support—to emerge from obscurity and perpetrate such horrifically lethal attacks.

In the attacks’ aftermath, the Sri Lankan authorities will likely scramble to gain a better understanding of influences on the country’s Muslim minority coming from within and, perhaps, also from abroad. But the greatest and most immediate danger will likely come from the street, as some people will seek to incite riots to exact vengeance on the Muslim community. Sri Lanka has a long history of intercommunal violence in which the innocent have often suffered after extremists within their communities committed attacks. Sri Lankan authorities are rightly concerned about such mob violence, and that likely accounts for the countrywide ban on social media, where inflammatory content has fueled violence in the past.

Sri Lanka suffered from decades of violence during its civil war. How are these bombings different?

Both Christians and Muslims were mostly bystanders to the intense fighting and sustained campaign of terrorism that plagued Sri Lanka until a decade ago. The civil war was a bitter separatist struggle waged by the island’s minority Tamil population against its Sinhalese majority. The Easter Sunday attacks have now thrust both of the country’s even smaller religious minorities—Christians and Muslims—into the vortex of horrific violence that was once a daily occurrence.

Are we seeing a rise of religious intolerance and sectarian tensions in South Asia?

We are seeing a rise of religious intolerance and sectarian tensions everywhere, whether it be rising Islamophobia, as in the March 2019 attacks on two mosques in New Zealand; increased anti-Semitism, which has resulted in both the murders of individuals, as in France, and mass shootings, as at the Tree of Life Synagoguein Pittsburgh last year; the unrestrained targeting of Christians by the Islamic State in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq; or attacks on Shia communities by Sunni extremists in Pakistan. Terrorism motivated by a religious imperative has indisputably become one of the salient national and international threats to peace and stability of our time.

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