This essay is part of a series that explores the threat posed by the rise of ISIS to Asia and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it. On Easter Sunday (April 21), a series of devastating terror attacks struck popular churches and high-end hotels in Sri Lanka.These tragic events rocked the nation and reverberated across Asia and beyond.
This article discusses the circumstances surrounding the bombings and the authorities’ initial responses to them, and suggests ways to help reduce the risk of extremist violence in Sri Lanka.
The coordinated suicide bombings that struck three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday was probably the worst ISIS attack in South Asia.
Sirisena has taken a string of counter-terrorism measures, including requesting the resignation of Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and Police Chief Pujith Jayasundara and calling for a complete security overhaul. He has also ordered nationwide raids where security forces have arrested about 70 people, including the NTJ’s second-in-command, and are looking for more suspects linked to the bombings.
The raids have uncovered bomb-making equipment, an Islamic State flag, and cache of explosives. The damage control, however, is unlikely to quell public anger that the country’s security sector failed to prevent or, at the least, minimize the scale of the attacks.
Both domestic and international factors may have led to the group’s formation.
The rise in Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and a string of anti-Muslim riots could have driven marginalized members to join the NTJ.For years, the country’s political elite has deliberately ignored the extremist problem to prevent isolating the Muslim community who play a role in deciding the outcome of elections. While the Muslim population is concentrated in coastal areas such as Ampara, the Sinhalese communities are dispersed across different provinces.Most Muslims, who usually vote as a bloc, voted for Sirisena in the 2015 Presidential elections.The revised official estimate put the death toll at 250-260. Soon after the bombings, a video emerged of the suspected ringleader of the attacks and seven followers — members of the National Towheeth Jamath (NTJ) — pledging their allegiance to ISIS.The Islamic State subsequently issued a formal communiqué asserting responsibility for the attacks.Following the lethal attacks there have been revelations of security and intelligence failures.The Sri Lankan authorities could look at some of the successful deradicalization programs in other countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia.In Singapore, the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) helps detained terrorists to counter their ideological misconceptions through rigorous counselling sessions.Some have also argued that the exportation of Wahhabism in Sri Lanka, including many Muslims studying in the Middle East, may have a direct link to the formation of enclaves and perhaps radicalization. Pushed out of their caliphate, ISIS is trying to make its presence felt elsewhere — in this instance, by exploiting a largely amateurish group that nonetheless proved capable of inflicting horrific mass casualty violence.Hashim was one of the two suicide bombers in the Shangri-La hotel attack, a rather unusual move by a terrorist group’s leader.The Liberation of Tamil Tigers (LTTE), which invented the notorious suicide belt, was led by Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who encouraged young militants to become suicide bombers but never did so himself.Over time, other terrorist groups in Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan used the deadly tactic but in none of them their leaders gave up their own lives.