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Sri Lanka's Easter Sunday Terror

May 6, 2019 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd) Photo(s): By
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


Security personnel following a blast at the St. Anthony's Church in Colombo. The multiple bombings that shook the island nation resulted in 359 killed and some 600 injured till the last count.

April 21 saw the bloodiest Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. The multiple bombings that shook the island nation resulted in 359 killed and some 600 injured till the last count. St Anthony's Church in Colombo, St Sebastian's Church in the western coastal town of Negombo, the church in the eastern town of Batticaloa were targeted, as also five star hotels, The Shangri La, The Cinnamon Grand and The Kingsbury. The sites hit in the attacks were all heavily frequented by tourists, and at least 42 foreign nationals were killed in the explosions. The official ISIS claim went up after the Sri Lankan Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene announced that these terrorist acts were in response to the Christchurch massacre on March 15, 2019.

This is logical because Sri Lanka was a softer target than New Zealand or Australia. Sri Lanka had earlier announced National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) which was responsible for the attack. However, NTJ is too small an outfit to have executed the simultaneous bombings at multiple locations in such coordinated manner. In fact, the NTJ as a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka came to notice only last year when it was linked to the vandalizing of Buddhist statues. There is speculation that since there was no immediate claim by ISIS, the bombings were not their handiwork; but this is misnomer. While Sri Lanka was blaming NTJ, ISIS was already releasing photographs of the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka blasts were similar to the Surabaya Bombings of three churches in Indonesia on May 13, 2018, that were undertaken by the ISIS.

Ilham Ibrahim and Inshaf, sons of a wealthy spice trader, Mohammed Yusuf Ibrahim of Sri Lanka, were part of the Easter Sundays bombings. When police went to search their home, one brother's wife set off a bomb, which killed her, her two children and three policemen. According to Sri Lankan intelligence, they were at the heart of radical Islamist circles in Sri Lanka and had sent at least 36 recruits to the ISIS in Syria. ISIS has released a video of the suicide attacks. Ten days before the attacks, Sri Lanka's police chief, Pujuth Jayasundara, had issued a nationwide alert, warning top officers that suicide bombers planned to target "prominent churches. "A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama'ath) is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo," said the alert, which was sent to senior police officials. India's external intelligence agency, R&AW, too warned Sri Lanka perhaps after monitoring the larger network of Tawhid Jamaat headquartered in Tamil Nadu, India. Not acting on these inputs was gross failure on behalf of Sri Lankan authorities. But then Indian authorities had hard intelligence since two months before the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai but failed to act similarly.

Sri Lankan authorities at least have apologized to the nation, which India authorities failed to do. Just about six per cent population of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups. ISIS homed on to Sri Lanka a soft target because of the relative peace post the conflict with LTTE, using the NTJ which had not yet earned notoriety for major violence and marked for possible terror acts of this nature. Surprisingly, there is no mention of the role of Pakistan as coordinator between the NTJ and ISIS, which is perhaps by design or default. Pakistan's ISI-ISIS links are well established. When the IPKF returned from Sri Lanka in 1990, Pakistan posted a Colonel from ISI as deputy high commissioner in its mission at Colombo. He organised the 'Osama Brigade' comprising Muslim Tamils of northern Sri Lanka to provide a base for terrorist acts in southern India. But Pakistani mischief did not end there. Amir Zubair Siddiqi, posted at Pakistan's High Commission in Colombo was booked by Tamil Nadu police in 2012 after they picked up a suspected ISI man to whom Siddiqi had sent money from Colombo. Embarrassed Pakistan recalled Siddiqi in October 2012, but quietly posted him back to Colombo after one year. Siddiqi's name again came up after a tip off from Malaysian intelligence enabled the Intelligence Bureau to foil an ISI attempt to attack two foreign consulates in south India. It was Siddiqi who trained Tamil Muslim Zakir Hussain and sent him to India to recruit individuals for terror activities in south India. Zakir Hussain was arrested in 2014 by Tamil Nadu police but later released, and has since fled to Malaysia.

Pakistan gained the confidence of Sri Lanka by advising and arming latter in subjugating the LTTE. In February 2012, a Sri Lankan delegation visited Islamabad on invitation of Pakistan to hold secret talks; Pakistan having requested expertise to combat Baluch freedom fighters the same way Colombo combated LTTE. With the Sri Lanka-China-Pakistan camaraderie, India should expect ISI activities against India continuing from Pakistan's high commission in Colombo. How Sri Lanka will handle Pakistan-ISIS links detrimental to Sri Lanka will be a complex issue given Pakistan's propensity in 'running with the hares and hunting with the hounds'. So far it was Al Qaeda that has been more active in this region. Post the Christchurch terror attacks, Al Qaeda issued a statement they would not attack religious places. But ISIS and Pakistan-based terror organisations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and other have no such inhibitions. The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka are the first major ISIS strike in the island nation. It may not be the last terror attack. The tourism industry of Sri Lanka will be affected, which in turn will hit Sri Lankan economy coping with balance of payments to China. As for India, the need to keep its guard up was never more with south India in cross hairs of our adversaries.