Remembering Justice for the Victims of the Easter Attacks in Sri Lanka: One Year Later

Sri Lanka remembers, one year after attacks killed nearly 300
Relatives pay their respects at a graveyard for St Sebastian’s Church bomb blast victims, just outside Colombo, to mark the first anniversary of the Easter attacks which killed 279 in Sri Lanka Credit:

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera* 25 April 2020

“We offered love to the enemies who tried to destroy us…We forgave them,” Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith

There are two catalytic events triggered by Islamic radicalism that took place in two locations at almost the same time. It carried the same footprint, one stemming from another. It was 8:46 am, two decades ago, when the first flight crashed to the Northern Tower of the World Trade Center the largest coordinated terror attack ever in the US soil which took place on 9/11. Retaliating to the terror attack was Operation Enduring Freedom and expanded U.S. counterterrorism operations across the Muslim world. The War on terror was declared by US government starting from Afghanistan entering Iraq, Libya and Syria defeating and dismantling the so-called evil axis of terror indirectly inflicting pain to thousands and loss to many lives in the Islamic quarters of the world. Al-Qaida which later morphed into ISIS was losing its ground in the last stronghold battleground in Iraq and Syria a few months before the 2019 4/21 Easter Sunday terror attack in Sri Lanka. The attacks were initiated at around  the same time at 8:45 am to a crowded church. In less than half an hour, 7 suicide attacks were carried out killing 279 and wounding 573 in Sri Lanka. This war scarred Indian ocean island faced its largest terror attack in a single day. 

The Sri Lankan  military was never part of the ‘global war on terror’ as they had their internal protracted conflict to fight for almost three decades ending April 2009.The military was getting ready to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the bloody operation they carried out to defeat the Tamil separatist,but, another form of terrorism was breeding in the post war context, Islamic terror. Many Islamic leaders saw this happening and from 2015 complained to the authorities of the growing threat. However, authorities did not take much action against the ring leader Zaharan Hashim of the National Towheed Jamaat(NTJ). NTJ was a group with no prior history of terror nor did they demonstrated capability to mount such an intricately planned, ruthlessly well-executed act of mass-murder. But it happened. Sri Lanka was chosen for the ISIS influenced terror attack. Some experts claimed it was “staged”. 

Jonah Blank an adjunct senior political scientist from the US Security think tank RAND says “There aren’t a lot of groups with the expertise to carry out an operation like this. ISIS has a history of taking credit for attacks which it has merely inspired—but in this case, there was almost certainly a highly professional external sponsor. ISIS may have selected Sri Lanka this time, but it can be counted on to choose any target of opportunity”[i]. While geopolitical high table and power politics breed terrorism and extremism due to multiple axes of power alignment, terrorism requires funding and some needs to benefit from coordinated attacks. The 3000 innocent lives lost in the US on 9/11 and in Sri Lanka were lives lost due to revenge and grievances of the terrorist.

When the Tamil Tiger female suicide bomber detonated her strapped suicide vest in 1994 October 23rd which killed my father and many others it was an act seen as brutal for some. It is also an act of courage to some others. I was born to a country engulfed by ethnic and religious tension and disharmony due to hard-line ultra-nationalist and failed policies taken by the state. Terrorism or extremism stems from social agitation and frustration from multiple systemic failures in our society. The many ills that afflict nations generate extremism which contributes to economic and political failure.

The key element in terrorism is that although its beginnings point to social and systemic failures, once it reaches a certain proportion there is hardly any turning back. Radical Islamic ideology didn’t emerge from a vacuum. Terrorist groups grow from feelings of political, cultural and social humiliation. Even Osama Bin Laden whose name is synonymous with terrorism, murder and Islamic fundamentalism at the age of 34 was engaged in farming work, he bred horses and had a peaceful life. There was a transition in all of them to take arms. It was Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual father of the Islamist movement and Ayman al-Zawahiri who preached that violence and vengeance could transform the society. Such were the thoughts that influenced Bin Laden. At one time he was fighting to push the soviets from Afghanistan a counter encirclement strategy put forward by US and China against Soviets. Freedom fighters were used as proxies for covert military operations in many different parts of the world, some existed and mushroomed due to continuous supply of arms by certain nations. Professor Bruce Hoffman a terrorist expert who has studied terrorism for four decades explain ‘ISIS was able to deliver what Bin Laden only promised… alarmingly, ISIS has been able to have it both ways: On the one hand, they’re very effective at inspiring, motivating, animating ‘lone wolves’ or lone actors… But at the same time, they’ve also been very good at creating an infrastructure – a network to support terrorist attacks’. It was clear from a video that Zaharan Hashim the Sri Lankan Easter Sunday attack ringleader pledge his allegiance and support to ISIS. What were the thoughts that influenced Zaharan Hashim to give leadership and carry out the brutal 4/21 attacks? What were the external factors? Were their internal facilitators? 

On an almost empty Cathedral during Easter mass this year, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith the Archbishop of Sri Lanka expressed that instead of retaliating, the nation’s Catholic minority had contemplated Jesus’s message of hope and reduced tensions[ii]. In the well-documented documentary[iii] published a few days ago by the  BBC, a mother who lost her entire family including her child says I will not forgive the perpetrators. A year has gone but the pain has not vanished.  The most lethal terrorist incident that took place in the country’s history is not forgotten. 

Having narrowly escaped from the bomb blast one year ago at the Shangri La hotel in Colombo, I vividly recall the brutal killings by two bombers including the ringleader Zahran Hashim. The image of the blood-soaked exit stairway lined with  dead bodies which my wife and two young children had to witness has not gone away. For months, my younger child was drawing pictures of dead bodies and bombs.

One year has passed and justice for victims is not clear. The authorities who are responsible are not brought to justice despite their negligence to heed multiple warnings by the Indian authorities.  There was a phone call to a Sri Lankan intelligence officer by the Indian officer saying “today is the day” at 6.30 am on the day of the bombing. Such precise information went unheard. How did such vital information go unheard? What prevented them to take action despite multiple warnings? Why did no one share prior warnings received by India with the national security think tank which I was heading? Was it because it was seen as some unimportant entity under Ministry of defence. The authorities did not act on available intelligence. Had we acted timely, we would have prevented the attack and neutralized the threat.

On 17th February 2020, I submitted a 13-page statement to the Presidential Commission appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for Easter Sunday terror attack. The statement included several attachments including the Presidential Monthly Threat Forecast(MTF) written in January 2019 and  compiled by me to the President through Secretary Defence. The document indicated  the significant threat from the extremist group, after 100 detonators were found. The reports went unheard to the previous Government. Former President Sirisena blamed the Secretary Defence for not sharing the important reports sometime after the attack. “No one shared these reports to me,” said President Sirisena when I presented the reports to him. The documents were sent on official channel through Secretary Defence office. There are two clear assumptions here. Either, someone didn’t want to chase behind the available information and the prior warnings or it was a willful suppression of information by the bureaucratic inertia at the Ministry of Defence.

After meeting His Eminence Cardinal Malcom Cardinal Ranjith last month I learned the pain and sorrow he is going through “who will speak in behalf of my people? Asanga, why were you not called by the previous Government PSC on Easter Sunday ?..I want the truth and justice”. Cardinal was absolutely on the correct path demanding for justice for the innocent lives lost. Present Secretary Defence General Kamal Gunaratna has assured that he will punish the perpetrators and the facilitators who were involved and justice will be done. Since last year, the police have arrested more than 190 people in connection with the bombings connected to National Thowheeth Jamaath(NTJ) extremist group. The police chief and former secretary to the ministry of defence have been charged with murder for allegedly not acting on intelligence about the attacks. The recent arrest a few days ago was a brother of a former powerful cabinet Minister suspected in connection with the bombing. The second wave of a possible coordinated attack was revealed from these arrests and investigations held by the police.

The public voted the previous Sirisena-Wickramasinghe Government out due to serious incompetence, acknowledgement of negligence from their own PSC report[iv], responsible for soft-pedalling a national security threat. With the new Government in power with one of the former military officers at the helm as the President, there is no doubt of bringing justice and closure to the inflicted wound. President Rajapaksa addressing Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) said “The lackadaisical attitude towards national security prevailed during the previous administration led to the gradual collapse of the intelligence mechanism. As a result, the spread of Islamic extremism could not be contained[v],”. So far,  authorities have proven displayed an  inclusive approach with the commission and effective process in place than the previous which scratched the surface. 

There is hope from the victims that justice will be done to those who are directly and indirectly connected. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the spate of terrorism that occurred a year ago with the present crisis such as the Pandemic taking precedence. The conversation could shift from terrorism to pandemics to financial crisis. Still, Sri Lanka remains as a dormant volcano erupting at various intervals threatening national security. If the internal processes are weak, national security will be threatened and terrorists will take advantage. The BBC rightly documents, “Islamic State group will exploit weak states, flowed systems that fail to act on intelligence where ever they maybe”.

End Notes

  [i] RAND


[iii] BBC Easter sunday attack 21/04/2019 documentary



* Author Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the author of ‘Sri Lanka at Crossroads’ (WorldScientific, Singapore). Article was initially published by Hudson Institute.He was the former Director General at the national security think tank INSSSL under the Ministry of Defence and former Executive Director at the foreign policy think tank LKIIRSS under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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Director General, Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), Sri Lanka. Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is a columnist and author. He is a visiting lecturer in International Political Economy for University of London in Sri Lanka Royal Institute of Colombo and University of Colombo. The Institute of National Security Studies of Sri Lanka (INSSSL), the premiere national think tank of the Ministry of Defence has been established to understand the security environment and to work with the government to craft evidence based policy options and strategies for debate and discussions to ensure national security. It will conduct a broad array of national security research for the Ministry.