The ISIS-backed attacks appear to have succeeded in reigniting communal tensions.
Two months on, Sri Lanka is still reeling from the coordinated suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday that killed 258 people. Communal tensions, political turbulence and an economic downturn currently challenge the island nation.
– Confidence in President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has plummeted after the attacks, jeopardising re-election in the upcoming presidential ballot
– The Buddhist backlash against the minority Muslim population has fuelled unrest, with incidents such as mobs attacking mosques widening social fissures
– The tourist industry will likely revive after the attacks prompted revised travel safety warnings and a significant downturn
TERROR, INTELLIGENCE FAILURES AND TENSIONS
Since the end of its decades’ long civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has become known as a tourist haven. Yet the shocking events that occurred on April 21 violently shattered this reputation. Coordinated suicide bombing attacks, perpetrated by the local militant group National Thowheeth Jama’ath, hit three churches and three luxury hotels in the capital Colombo, killing 258 people and injuring at least 500. Unable to comprehend how a small home-grown organisation could pull off such a sophisticated attack, Sri Lankan authorities quickly theorised that foreign connections were involved. Two days later, Islamic State (ISIS) released a video claiming responsibility.
Law enforcement apprehended up to 70 people in the days following the attack. But despite the swift response, media reporting began to paint a picture of major intelligence failures within the national security apparatus. Both the US and India had warned Sri Lankan officials of plans to attack churches and tourist sites several weeks before the attack. The defence ministry had informed the inspector general of police of the possible plots, even providing details of potential suspects. Yet no action was taken. The government later admitted to a ‘major intelligence lapse’ and proceeded to sack the defence secretary, inspector general of police and national intelligence chief, and promised further structural changes to the national security community.
The attack has left the nation reeling. For some, their grief has transformed into anger, feeding broader communal tensions. In early May, mobs attacked mosques and the homes of Muslims across at least five towns in the North Western province, killing at least one person. In June, after influential Buddhist monk and parliamentarian Athuraliye Rathana vowed to fast to death unless the president fired three leading Muslim officials, nine Muslim ministers and two Muslim provincial governors resigned in solidarity. Coupled with laws compelling the removal of public signage in Arabic, stricter regulation of Madrasas and the banning of face veils in public, anti-Islamic sentiment has risen considerably.
ISLAMIC STATE, VISIONS OF THE PAST AND POLITICAL TURMOIL
The attacks appear to be ground zero for the ISIS’s new modus operandi following its territorial decline and loss of personnel in Iraq and Syria. Unable to sustain the caliphate in the face of the sustained international military campaign, ISIS appears to be collaborating with local jihadi groups and directing attacks in soft target countries that are ill-equipped to disrupt potential strikes. Anne Speckhard, a terrorism expert from Georgetown University, believes that this is the ‘wave of the future’. The combination of local and foreign linkages poses a significant threat that intelligence communities will have to deal with extensively into the future. Southeast Asia, with its history of radicalism, porous borders and groups that already have connections to ISIS, should be particularly concerned with the Easter Sunday bombings.
Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has seen periodic violence, yet it was the civil war between 1983 to 2009 that saw devastating sectarian conflict divide the nation, with both sides committing terrible atrocities. More recently, the sectarian rift has been between Buddhists and Muslims, most starkly seen in the religiously motivated violence and riots in the city of Kandy after the death of a Sinhalese Buddhist man, reportedly at the hands of Muslims. A state of emergency was required to control the situation and restore peace. The suicide terrorist attacks have triggered a new round of suspicion and animosity between religious groups, fuelled by ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups like Bodu Bala Sena.
The effects of the Easter Sunday attack have also reverberated on a domestic political level, which was already unstable due to a constitutional crisis in December 2018. That episode saw President Sirisena unsuccessfully try to replace Prime Minister Wickremesinghe with former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. Both the current leaders are facing mounting criticism from both the public and even their own parties over the attacks. No-confidence votes and calls to step aside have echoed throughout the parliament as the upcoming presidential election looms large; it is unlikely that either leader will be re-elected.
The political fallout of the attacks has paved the way for the controversial Rajapaksa brothers, who previously served as president and defence chief during the civil war, to contest the nation’s leadership. The brothers have strongman tendencies and remain popular in the eyes of the public. Consequently, the country may follow the path of Indian voters, who flocked to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the country’s recent elections because of his assertive stance on national security. Given Modi’s strong response to the Pulwama attack and the cultural and geographical proximity of the two countries, it’s logical to assume Rajapaksa will try to adopt a similar persona to pursue power.
TERRORISM COOPERATION AND REBUILDING TOURISM
The bombings have exposed both risks and opportunities for Sri Lanka. With the military and police still operating under emergency powers, combined with mass arrests and greater intelligence coordination domestically and internationally following the attacks, it is unlikely that further coordinated attacks will occur in the near future. But bouts of communal violence will likely persist, supported by groups such as Bodu Bala Sena and hard-line politicians like Rathana.
Great power rivalry has manifested itself subtlety, namely through pledges of terrorism cooperation and assistance from China and India. On a trip to Beijing in May, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised President Sirisena that China would help Sri Lanka enhance its counter-terrorism capacity. Meanwhile, PM Modi made a symbolic visit to St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, one of the churches hit by the suicide bombers, during his first international trip following his re-election. Modi and Sirisena leaders pledged greater counterterrorism cooperation and India guaranteed further logistical support and training for Sri Lankan law enforcement community. Sri Lanka is a key part of India’s renewed ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, and due to close ties, geographic proximity and the transnational nature of terrorism’s impacts, New Delhi has more skin in the game than Beijing. Accordingly, expect greater Indian engagement with Sri Lanka for at least the duration of Modi’s term.
Tourism will likely to start to pick up again after a significant downturn immediately post the attacks. The industry accounts for 11% of Sri Lanka’s GDP and it has been estimated that the attacks cost the economy up to US$1.5 billion. However, downgrading travel advisory warnings from countries such as the UK, Australia and China and bargain deals will likely see the eventual resumption of pre-attack tourist levels. However, unless politicians and community leaders can find a way to unite the country rather than divide it, more attacks and violent activity cannot be ruled out.