Terrorism on the Teardrop Island: Understanding the Easter 2019 Attacks in Sri Lanka.

AuthorAmarasingam, Amarnath

In the space of 20 minutes from 8:45 AM local time on Easter Sunday April 21, 2019, in Sri Lanka, there were a series of seven coordinated suicide bomb attacks in popular hotels and historical churches across the capital city of Colombo, other coastal cities in the west, and towns in the east of the country, killing hundreds as they gathered for Easter. Hundreds more were injured. (1) The bombers' devices were packed with iron nails, ball bearings, and TATP, an explosive previously used in Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. (2)

Among the attackers, who were all Sri Lankan and who communicated via an encrypted messenger service, (3) was the cell's suspected leader, Zahran Hashim, a 34-year-old radical preacher who, according to Sri Lankan police, was one of two suicide bombers who blew themselves up at the Shangri-La hotel. (See Table 1.) The other bomber at the Shangri-La was identified by Sri Lankan officials as Ilham Ibrahim, (4) the 31-year-old son of one of Sri Lanka's richest spice traders. (5) He is believed to have been a driving force behind the organization of the attacks. (6) Ilham's elder brother Inshaf Ibrahim, whose father had set him up with a copper pipe factory, blew himself up at the Cinnamon Grand hotel. (7) Some investigators believe their wealth possibly financed the entire plot. (8) In Negombo, 20 miles north of the capital, Achchi Muhammadu Mohamed Hasthun, who is suspected of being one of the bomb makers, detonated his suicide device at St. Sebastian's Church. (a)

Around five hours later, another bomb went off at a hotel in the Colombo suburb of Dehiwala, killing two. The bomber was named as Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed, (9) who studied for a time in Australia and the United Kingdom before returning to Sri Lanka. (10) His original target was apparently the five-star Taj Samudra hotel in Colombo, but it appears that after his bomb failed to detonate, he made his way 10 miles south of the center of Colombo to a guesthouse in Dehiwela. (11) He checked in around 9:30 AM, likely visited a nearby mosque, and then returned to the guesthouse several hours later. At 1:20 PM, the bomb went off, perhaps as he was trying to fix whatever had malfunctioned. (12)

At 2:25 PM, the eighth explosion occurred at a housing complex in the Colombo suburb of Dematagoda after the Special Task Force (STF) stormed the premises. According to Sri Lankan police, Fatima Ibrahim, the wife of Inshaf Ibrahim (the Cinnamon Grand bomber), blew herself up, killing three STF officers. The blast also killed her three young sons, as well as herself and her unborn child. (13)

More than 250 were killed in the Easter attacks, making it one of the deadliest terrorist atrocities ever anywhere. (14) There was a sense of shock in Sri Lanka and around the world compounded by the fact that the attacks had seemed to come out of the blue. While Sri Lanka had suffered acutely from terrorist incidents until the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, the country had had no history of deadlyjihadi violence. The day after the attack, though, some Sri Lankan politicians admitted that there were precise warnings given by Indian intelligence several times in early April 2019, which were either ignored or failed to land on the desk of appropriate individuals in government. The warnings were precise enough to not only name Zahran Hashim but also noted that he was planning to attack "popular Catholic Churches and the Indian High Commission." (15) This lapse in security is an ongoing point of debate and controversy as the country moves toward its presidential election in late 2019.

Two days later, the Islamic State claimed the attacks via its Amaq news agency, stating the attackers were "Islamic State fighters" and had "targeted citizens of coalition states and Christians in Sri Lanka." (16) The group quickly followed up with a statement in which it provided the purported kunya (fighting name) of seven attackers and the locations of their attacks. (17) (See Table 1.) Then came a release of a picture of the attackers standing in a row (18) and a 59-second video release (see Figure 1) from the Islamic State purporting to show the attack cell pledging allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (19) Eight individuals rather than seven were shown in the picture and video, (b) with the suspected ringleader Zahran Hashim identified by Sri Lankan investigators as standing at the center of the group because he was the only one not wearing a mask. (20) (See Figure 1.)

In its communiques, the Islamic State named the Dematagoda bomber as "Abu Abdullah" (21)--an unknown male--and failed to mention the presence of Fatima Ibrahim. (22) Reuters reported that according to "a source close to the family," it was Ilham Ibrahim who detonated the bomb that killed his wife and his children. This contradicted the official Sri Lankan version of events but meshed with the Islamic State version, as the group did not provide a kunya for a second bomber at the Shangri-La hotel. (23) (See Table 1.) Given The New York Times reported that "CCTV footage from the Shangri-La shows Ilham stepping into the elevator and later into the Table One restaurant with another man who has now been identified as Zaharan Hashim," (24) it seems likely the Islamic State made a mistake in its official releases. (c)

One thing is clear. The Islamic State, after losing all its territory in Syria and Iraq, viewed the Sri Lanka attacks as a significant breakthrough in its attempts to reset the narrative about its decline. On April 29, 2019, the Islamic State released a video of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in which he presented the Easter attacks as vengeance for the Islamic State's March 2019 defeat in Baghuz (the last territory the group held in Syria) and thanked the attackers for their pledge of allegiance. (d)

With the investigation still in its early stages, much remains unknown about the genesis of the Sri Lanka attacks. According to an internal report on the attacks written by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), dated May 7, 2019, and given to the author by a local journalist, investigators have taken 56 people into custody. As the report states, "they are being currently grilled at the CID." Interestingly, the CID report also states that an individual named Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed Naufer is among those currently in custody and that he is thought "to have been appointed to succeed the leader of the group who perished during the suicide attack at Shangri-La hotel." (25)

This article, based on a thorough mining of open-source and media reports on the attack as well as several interviews with religious leaders and activists in the affected areas, attempts to outline what is known so far about the terrorist network that carried out the attack and its links to the Islamic State, and what it might say about the Islamic State's shifting strategies outside of Syria and Iraq after the fall of the so-called caliphate. Before delving into the terrorist network itself, though, it is important to briefly unpack the history of anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka and the broader context of ethno-religious relations that formed the backdrop to the attack and that will inevitably color what happens next on the island. (26)

Anti-Muslim Violence and the Historical Context of the Easter Attacks

In order to fully grasp the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka and the radicalization of individuals like Zahran Hashim--the purported mastermind of the attacks--it is necessary to briefly unpack the broader context of anti-Muslim violence in the country, going back as far as the riots of 1915. (27) Particularly since independence from the British in 1948, anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka has not been colored by some of the kind of animus seen in the Western world. It is not a discussion, for example, about how Muslims hate democracy or how Islam is antithetical to Western liberalism. Rather, in Sri Lanka, the place of the Muslim community has existed between competing nationalisms--Tamil and Sinhalese--and the purging of Muslim identity has been used to establish the "purity" of either the sought-after independent Tamil state or the majoritarian Sinhala state. (28)

Muslims, even dating back to the 19th century, have been seen by some in the Sinhalese community as having "entered the country as invaders" and lacking indigenous origin. The Tamil community, for its part, has sometimes sought to label the Muslims as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically Tamil, only to have Muslim leaders disagree and point to "their Arab origins as a means to gain separate Muslim representation in the political sphere." (29) In a country where demographic positionality is intricately linked to political opportunity, ethnic and religious identities become deeply contentious. (30) The Muslim community in Sri Lanka itself is profoundly religiously diverse, existing across a wide spectrum of religious interpretation--from Sufi to salafi--and also divided across socio-economic and rural/urban divides. (31)

As the military conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government heated up in the late 1980s, the Muslim community in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka--which constituted the separate state envisioned by the Tigers--came under suspicion. In the Northern Province, the LTTE argued that there were too many spies in the Muslim community and that they posed a security threat. In the Eastern Province, the LTTE and the Tamil community generally faced violence at the hands of Muslim "home guards," a civil defense force mobilized by the Sri Lankan government to protect the "borders" between areas of LTTE and government control. (32) Based on both of these reasons, the LTTE launched a merciless campaign against the Muslim community, the effects of which are still being felt today.

On August 3, 1990, the LTTE massacred 140 Muslims praying at a mosque in Kattankudy and, nine...

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