The wave of terrorist attacks in Sri Lankan churches and hotels frequented by foreigners, which killed at least 290 people and injured around 500, is astounding both in scale and sophistication in planning. This is undoubtedly one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in South Asia in the past decade. Sri Lanka, which experienced a quarter-century of civil war until 2009, hasn’t seen such horrifying attacks with such large civilian causalities in its history. As of now, although a number of individuals have been arrested, it remains unknown as to who were the perpetrators and how such attacks could have been executed. This is a colossal failure of Sri Lankan intelligence apparatuses.
At the time of writing this commentary, no one has claimed responsibility. But considering that these attacks, reportedly suicide attacks, were well-coordinated and executed in a similar manner, there is little doubt that it was the work of one single group. Sri Lanka’s defense minister Ruwan Wijewardene’s claim—that the culprits have been “identified” and that they were “religious extremists”—provides some clues, but also adds to the confusion. With the news that the authorities were aware of information about possible attacks, as acknowledged by the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, it is bound to confound anyone.
To understand these attacks and the mayhem, one must recollect what we know from other large-scale attacks in various parts of the world over the past decades. Spectacular terrorist attacks, which are often indiscriminate and cause heavy casualties, are usually meant to achieve four objectives: first, to kill and maim as many civilians as possible; secondly, to draw attention to their goals and/or objectives, or in other words, highlight the “cause” of some kind. Even when the terrorist act is perpetrated by a single individual, it tends to be connected to a “cause”/ideology, if not a specific organisation. This is equally true to religion-inspired terrorist acts and attacks perpetrated by white supremacists. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist, and Omar Mateen, the Orlando Night club shooter, are cases in point.
The third most common objective is to enhance the profile of an organisation: to earn name recognition and consequently increase their recruitment; and the final goal is to instil fear among people.
These attacks have achieved a few of these objectives. The number of casualties is high as the targets were churches on Easter Sunday, a day when the number of churchgoers is meant to be very large. As for drawing attention on an international scale, the attacks on churches as well as hotels with large numbers of tourists, and killing foreigners, have achieved the objective to some extent. This is worth noting that during the 25 years of civil war in Sri Lanka, hotels frequented by foreigners had never been attacked. However, killing foreign nationals are oft-used tactics of terrorist organisations all around the world. Bangladeshi readers should be able to relate to this aspect recalling the Holey Artisan Café attack on July 1, 2016 in Dhaka. But what cause or ideology the attackers in Sri Lanka were trying to draw attention to is yet to be clear. If we are to take the defence minister’s word at face value, it is a religious extremist ideology. But as of now, neither the attackers nor their planners have put forward any explanation. This is not to suggest that there isn’t any ideology behind it; we just don’t know yet. The warning note issued by the Chief of Police on April 11 said that a group called Sri Lanka Thowheeth Jama’ath (SLTJ) posed a threat to prominent churches. The police referred to a foreign intelligence agency, presumably the Indian intelligence agency, as the source of the information. The group is reportedly having a presence in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. But the group has denied its involvement and demanded that perpetrators are brought to justice. While the Sri Lankan government and media have avoided naming, the Indian media have been identifying the SLTJ as the alleged perpetrator.
Sri Lanka always had a precarious balance between various ethnic groups and adherents of different religions. The long civil war, although fought based on ethnic identities between the Sinhalese and Tamils, had a religious undertone to it. The end of the civil war in 2009 hasn’t brought an end to the tensions and anxiety between these two ethnic groups, neither has it delivered a just system of economy or governance. In the post-civil war era, the majoritarian arguments have turned against the Muslim community. Neil DeVotta, in a perceptive chapter in the edited volume “Political Violence in South Asia” (Routledge, 2019, editors: Ali Riaz, Zobaida Nasreen and Fahmida Zaman), pointed to the growing hostility towards Muslims. In 2018, the weeks-long anti-Muslim riots in Kandy revealed the tensions. There is also a growing number of incidents of intimidation against Christians and disruption of church services. The Washington Post quoted human rights activist Ruki Fernando, that church services across the country have faced some sort of disruption in each of the past 11 Sundays. “Before Sunday’s attacks, 26 such incidents had occurred this year, including the disruption of a Sunday service by Buddhist monks,” reports the Washington Post. These show that the situation has become more fragile in the past year. Add to this the political instability that the dismissal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his reinstatement through the Supreme Court’s intervention created.
Altogether, this is a recipe for creating trust deficit among communities. Is that what engendered these terrorist attacks? Are we witnessing a new wave of radicalisation of communities including the Muslim community? Or has this fragile balance and precarious situation provided the opportunity to unscrupulous forces to destabilise the situation, further the trust deficit and widen the schisms between religious communities for their own agenda? Is this the objective of those who have perpetrated these heinous attacks? The tentacles of this force may be spread within the country and beyond.
These attacks have succeeded in instilling fear across the nation. Mark Juergensmeyer, in his seminal work on the religion-inspired violence titled “Terror in the Mind of God”, claims: “The definition of a terrorist act is provided by us, the witness—the ones terrified—and not by the party committing the act.” Terrorist acts, especially the spectacular ones, are committed in a manner that it will generate more witnesses. The livestreaming of the horrific attacks on the mosques in Christchurch is an extreme case of creating as many witnesses as possible. Any terrorist act is designed in a manner that reveals the vulnerability of common people. But the fear comes from how these witnesses react to it. Ziad Muson argues that the fear resulting from the terrorist acts often comes from “hysterical rhetoric from political leaders, alarmist, and the breathless coverage from journalists.” The initial reactions of the Sri Lankan government and the Sri Lankan media are quite encouraging. But the same cannot be said about many other media outlets. The media have a responsibility to unearth the truth, we cannot deny that; but in this era of “alternative facts”, we should also guard against becoming the victims of frenzied reactions.
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at the Illinois State University, USA.
The article appeared in the Daily Star on 23 April 2019