A Blood Smeared Easter

Photo Source:  Al Jazeera

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

In post-war Sri Lanka, when two hundred fifty civilians, including forty-two foreign nationals, were killed in a single day on 21 April 2019 across hotels and churches, in a string of coordinated attacks, it reminded the world of a predatory civil war, which rattled the country, in the past. 

The hospitals had struggled to cope up with a high number of casualties, as suicide bombers, wearing backpacks, caught on CCTV, blew themselves up. Gory pictures in the press appeared showing debris spread from ceilings, walls and burst water pipes on roads. There were screams of helplessness around, as survivors got paralysed with shock. Sometime later, the army was seen looking for explosives in the earth, as pallbearers, handling wooden coffins, with mourners around them, were making a way for mass burials.

The episode received worldwide condemnations, but the world also had scrambled for answers: Tamil Tigers, the dreaded group, responsible for over one hundred and thirty suicide blasts, in the country, had never targeted the minority Christian communities, before. It was a group that revolutionised the art of suicide bombings in the Buddhist dominated, war torn island. They wore cyanide capsules, under their necks, in an event of being captured. Even if anyone had whims about their role in the multiple bombings, as an initial reaction, they were wrong.

It was only until now, post-Christchurch mosque rampage, that Sri Lankan officials blamed the Islamic State for this major attack on Catholic Christians, in the island, after Amaq, the press portal of ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attack. Perhaps, the ousting of Islamic State from Syria, may have been other reason.

During the war in Syria, ISIS attracted many number of youth, from neighbouring Maldives, and had developed strong transport and commercial links with neighbouring Sri Lanka, from where it had recruited a number of volunteers. During 2016, Sri Lankan government was aware that thirty-two Sri Lankan Muslims had joined ISIS, and about the spread of global jihadist ideologies, in the country.

ISIS, quite lately, have used the centre-periphery model for their activities. The caliphate, that it ran in Syria and Iraq, was the centre, and the rest of the world, was its periphery, where it recruited mujahideens, that could carry out attacks. As the centre came under a sporadic attack lately, it shifted its focus to the periphery – from the Orlando nightclub, to Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. However, the ideological apparatus will remain intact, and it will continue to inspire more recruits, in the future.

One might ask, why Sri Lanka, this time? It is likely that this blood-smeared Easter attack was an embodiment of a soft target approach, where the perpetrators had identified security lapses, in advance. The carnage produced, at the end, vouches upon this fact. 

As per Reuters, Indian intelligence had warned the country about a possible attack, but it seems, a negligent approach was taken. Although, in January 2019, Sri Lankan police seized a haul of high explosives, hidden in the northwest part of the country, in a wildlife sanctuary.

According to experts, international extremist organisations often find lucrative recruitment ground, in places, where there is already significant local sectarian tension. Global ideologies thus become powerful tools, and spread quickly, in such fractured environments, as specific community grievances are then expressed in violent ways. In other words, almost all violent attacks in the world will most likely be carried out by local men, inspired by global ideologies.

Sri Lankan officials believe that all perpetrators were local nationals. Almost nine of them were responsible for this deadly attack. Some of them came from wealthy business backgrounds, and were Western educated, and had degrees from Australia. 

Investigators have said that National Thowheed Jamaat, involved in the vandalism of Buddhist statues, and Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem might have been subcontracted, by the Islamic State, for the whole operation.

In a Guardian Oped, investigative journalist Jason Burke wrote: “no one with any knowledge of how extremist ideologies evolve would have expected that its complex mix of conspiratorial politics, radical theology, sectarianism and apocalyptic prediction would have lost all power to convince overnight. The bombings in Sri Lanka are bloody evidence of this.”

Sri Lankan Muslims, 10 per cent of the total population, have had the highest concentration in its Eastern Province. The province comprises of districts namely Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Ampara. Batticaloa is where Zahran Hashim, the alleged mastermind of Easter attack, hailed from. 

Despite condemning the attack on Christians, the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, find themselves on the side of perpetrators, in post-war Sri Lanka.

Historically, the Muslims and Christians have largely lived in peace, in the region. Multiculturalism had been a way of life. During Ramadhan, Muslim families often shared their treats with Christian children in the neighbourhood, including porridge made of beef stock. The elder Christian generation also has a nostalgia about co-existence.

Sri Lankan Muslims are mostly Tamil speaking, but identify themselves as a separate ethnic group, distinct from Hindu Tamils and Christian Tamils. The three-decade of civil war not only created rising hostilities between Sinhalese and Tamils, but also within different ethnic Tamils. Muslims are keener to prefer a religious identity over cultural identity. Living in cramped homes, they were engaged in agriculture, fisheries and weaving in the past, but now are mostly tradesmen.

Despite being bound by common language, Tamil-Muslim relations in Sri Lanka have not been peaceful. The Hindu Tamils, and LTTE sympathisers have seen Muslims, in Sri Lanka, as collaborators of state agencies. The 1990 mosque massacre in Kattankudy and Eravur, in which LTTE gunned down more than 150 Muslims offering prayers, have left imprints of antipathy.

Post reactions, against this ghastly act, have appeared in the form of posters, in Batticaloa, tied to trunks of trees, walls of churches, or gates of mosques. However, the nearby church in Batticaloa, was cordoned off, where names of victims had been written on a banner. The scene was reminiscent of a horror episode, in this scenic coastal town of lush paddy fields, and enchanting lagoons.

Politicians in the island country have been accused of favouring their own communities.  Many commentators and common people believe that the recent bombings are a reaction to these political prejudices. Muslim politicians hold key ministerial portfolios in the country, and it has annoyed the Tamil party in the opposition. The government in Sri Lanka was quick to ban radical Islamic organisations, but didn’t show a similar ruse towards Buddhist organisations, notorious for inciting violence. Hence, the manoeuvres of vote bank politics have added a new wave of insecurities.

At the moment, Sri Lanka fears $1.5 billion foreign exchange loss, with a drop of 30 per cent arrivals. 

Revealing his short and long term measures, to bring normalcy, President Sirisena, had established a list of permanent residents of every house so that no unknown person could live anywhere. His government had been looking for one hundred forty people, with links to ISIS. Heavy security was witnessed on the streets, as there were warnings of further attacks. 

The president had asked the people, in possession of camouflaged military uniforms, to hand them to the nearest police station.


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