The serial blasts in Colombo and two other towns on Easter Sunday targeting Christian churches and hotels frequented by White foreigners are pointers to the possible involvement of Islamic radicals with international connections, according to government sources.
More than 207 people were killed and at least 450 were injured in the eight blasts in Colombo, Negombo, Dehiwela and Batticaloa. Nine foreigners were among the dead but AFP put the figure at 38.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Sri Lankan government, as such, has made no statement on the possible perpetrators on the grounds that investigations have barely begun.
But the targeting pattern appears to indicate the hand of the “Islamic State” or its affiliates, a government source, which did not want to be named, said. The involvement of a local helping hand is also not ruled out.
Attacks by Islamic radicals on churches or White foreigners are not uncommon in the world these days. Sources here also point that it could be retaliation for the White extremist attack on a mosque in New Zealand, when Muslims were gathered there for prayers.
In 2015 it was reported that a Sri Lanka Muslim man was killed while fighting for the ISIS in Syria, which caused a stir in Sri Lanka. Wijedasa Rajapakshe, a cabinet minister, had then alleged that 35 Lankan Muslim youth had gone to Syria to fight for ISIS.
Realizing what this could do to the already troubled Sinhalese-Muslim relations in Sri Lanka, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka wrote to president Maithripala Sirisena asking him to conduct a thorough investigation. If any Muslim was found guilty he should be punished severely, the council said.
“The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, on behalf of the Muslim Community expresses its deep dismay at media reports of the first Sri Lankan killed in battle in Syria with IS. This group of extremists who call themselves the caliphate or Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) is a threat to Islam and the group violates both Sharia law and humanitarian law.”
“Islam is a religion of mercy and tolerance that totally prohibits the taking of innocent lives. There is no theological basis for any crimes to be committed through terrorism or violence. The Muslims of Sri Lanka join Islamic scholars and Muslim leaders around the world to condemn without any reservation the ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for failing to respect key tenants of Islam. Their actions are un-Islamic and inhumane.”
Earlier in mid-2014, a Buddhist radical organisation sent goons to attack Muslims at random in the trading town of Aluthgma, south of Colombo and destroyshops and houses. Police and governmental inaction in this case led to Muslims turning against president Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January 2015 presidential elections and throwing him out of office.
In Sunday’s blasts three churches in Negombo, Batticaloa and Colombo's Kochchikade district were targeted during Easter services. The Shangri-La, Kingsbury, Cinnamon Grand and a fourth hotel near the Colombo zoo were also hit.
Shangri-La is the newest and the most popular hotel in Colombo among foreigners. Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels are also in the top league.
A curfew was imposed throughout the island and seven arrests have been made. There was a temporary block on the use of major social media networks to stop rumors from spreading and preventing attacks on Muslims.
Warning a week ago
The minister for national languages and dialogue, Mano Ganeshan tweeted that a week ago, his security officers told him that they had been warned about the possibility of a terrorist attack.
“A week before, my Ministerial Security Division (MSD) officers had been warned by their division on two suspected suicide bombers in Colombo targeting politicians,” Ganeshan had said in his tweet.
According to Daily Mirror, investigations thus far have revealed that two people had checked into room number 616 of the Shangri-La Hotel on 20 April 2019.The close circuit television camera (CCTV) footage revealed that the suspects detonated the bombs in the cafeteria and on the corridor at the hotel.
Investigators suspect that C-4 explosives weighing 25 kilograms were used for the bombings at the Shangri- La Hotel.
The investigators who broke into the room had recovered material used by radical Islamic extremists, the paper said quoting sources.
It is unclear if the bombers were locals or international tourists who arrived on tourist visas to the island.
Three police personnel were killed during a search operation at Dematagoda, a railway colony in Colombo. The police had been fired upon by a group hiding in a block of residential flats at the Mahawila Gardens Housing Scheme. Two persons have been arrested in this connection.
Prime minister Wickremesinghe convened Sri Lanka’s top military officials for an emergency meeting.
In a tweet he said: “I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong. Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.
“I have given instructions to take very stern action against the persons who are responsible for this conspiracy,”
The Easter Sunday blasts could exacerbate relations between the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community and the minority Muslims if investigations indicate that the perpetrators were Islamic fundamentalists, even if they were not Sri Lankans.
The carnage could also strengthen the hands of hardline Sinhalese-Buddhist leaders like former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The latter is tipped to be the main opposition candidate in the forthcoming presidential election.
In the context of the general complaint among Sinhalese-Buddhist majority that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is weak and indecisive, there is likely to be a call for a strong leadership as given by the Rajapaksa brothers from 2005 to 2014 when the terror group Tamil Tigers were eliminated.
BJP may be boosted too
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the neighborhood could help Modi sell his Hindutva ideology more vigorously in the on-going election campaign. He could put forward a strong case for increased vigilance and stern action against the Muslims even on imaginary grounds, thereby pleasing the Hindu nationalist section of the Indian electorate.
World leaders’ condemn
Pope Francis has condemned the terror attacks in Sri Lanka during his Easter Sunday address in Rome, offering condolences to the victims, CNN reported.
“I learned with great sadness the news of the serious attacks that, today, on Easter they brought mourning and pain to some churches and other Sri Lankan hangouts,” he said.
“I wish to show my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, hit while gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence. I entrust to the Lord those who have tragically been lost and I pray for the wounded and all those who suffer because of this dramatic event.” moment of silence for prayer,” he said.
President of the United States, Donald Trump, condemned the terror attacks in Sri Lanka in a tweet a short while ago and offered assistance to Sri Lanka in its time of need.
"A total of 138 people have been killed in Sri Lanka, with more than 600 badly injured, in a terrorist attack on churches and hotels. The United States offers heartfelt condolences to the great people of Sri Lanka. We stand ready to help!" he said.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has condemned the explosions. In a tweet in English and Sinhalese, Modi said: “Strongly condemn the horrific blasts in Sri Lanka. There is no place for such barbarism in our region. India stands in solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka. My thoughts are with the bereaved families and prayers with the injured.”
*PK Balachandran, an Indian journalist based in Colombo