On April 21, a group of terrorist militants bombed several targets in Sri Lanka including Churches and hotels. At least 253 people were killed in the attacks. Immediately in the aftermath, speculation arose as to whether Sri Lanka was headed back to a dark period of civil instability. In our newsroom, we thought right away that the pattern of attack didn’t fit in with anything that came before in Sri Lanka. Here is our reasoning why:
Right after the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday bombings everybody was looking for a motive and a claim of responsibility; to us the attack didn’t seem like an extension of the civil war from a decade prior.
Ishan Joshi: Perhaps we have become the victims of our own big-picture bias. Nothing wrong in that, especially when it’s a marked improvement over complete ignorance. But still. Sri Lanka? Ergo, rush to the usual suspects. The LTTE has been comprehensively defeated, though, so the gut says it can’t be an extension of the civil war against Tamil separatists.
Ditto, the JVP/Sinhala extremists who have neither the capacity nor the raison d’être to do this. So, were conflict-watchers including the international media missing something? Hmm. Clue: Christian churches and upscale hotels frequented by allegedly debased Westerners and/or deracinated local elites were the targets of the suicide bombers… rings a bell? On balance, however, not jumping to conclusions without adequate credible information is a good thing. We don’t need to beat ourselves up about it.
Cod Satrusayang: I remember texting you as the attacks were unfolding and both of us agreeing that it didn’t feel like the Tamils. The attack were focused on three (at the time) Christian churches and the hotels. That didn’t seem like a group whose main vendetta was against the majority Sinhalese Buddhists.
We both said it felt like a ISIS attack but I am glad we didn’t put anything to paper right then and there, it would have been premature. But it looks like both our guts were proven right in the end.
The newsroom did agree that if this is indeed an ISIS attack as the group claims, it’s a startling escalation.
IJ: ISIS-inspired, possibly mentored as opposed to ISIS-operationalised. That’s the consensus. The attacks were carried out by nine affluent, well-educated and one would think, by any classical definition, empowered Sri Lankan citizens.
The suicide bombers have been described as self-radicalised Salafists who were directed at soft targets by ISIS. We aren’t saying anything new in pointing out that a well-connected world and the internet which gives crazies disproportionate power has played a role in the self-radicalisation process.
A conflict can fairly said to have been escalated when soft targets who may or may not have even a tangential link with the core issues of contestation between two sides are targeted. The Easter Sunday attack is proof beyond doubt of that having come to fruition. The escalation is startling also because it shows that it doesn’t matter if, like in Sri Lanka, there has been no significant history of strife between Muslims and the state and/or other communities.
And even when, numerically, those professing the Islamic faith comprise barely 10% of the population and are in the main a moderate, well-integrated community. That’s truly scary.
CS: Not only is it scary but like you said this sets a precedent for attacks all around the world not just where ISIS has roots but where people can be inspired by their terrible ideology.
Sri Lanka is a soft target, there is no ancient animosity between its various religions. It did not participate in the war on terror, its Christians have been oppressed by imperial forces alongside the Hindus and Buddhists that live on the island. To attack Sri Lanka, shows how depraved, how misguided and how utterly ridiculous this branch of belief is. There is no excuse or justification for this attack.