Sri Lanka was hit by a series of terrorist bombings last Sunday that killed more than 300 people and injured over 500 others. Even for a country with an extensive history of violence, the bombings were a shock. After a decades-long civil war that was fought for ethnic and nationalist reasons, Sunday’s bombings sought to expose and widen religious divisions in the country. No group has taken credit for the attacks, but the government believes that they were launched by a domestic group with foreign assistance. If so, it is another indication that jihad is becoming truly global and Asian governments must prepare for that threat.
Bombs went off around 8:45 a.m. at three Catholic churches in the cities of Colombo (the capital), Negombo and Batticaloa just before Sunday services began. Three luxury hotels were attacked shortly after, and another explosion occurred at a banquet hall in Colombo in the afternoon. An eighth bomb went off at a house raided by police just after that, killing three officers, and police found and defused yet another explosive device at the main international airport.
Later in the afternoon, a van parked near one of the churches exploded; authorities said they had found three more bombs inside it. Security officials claim to have found 87 detonators spread across the city. More than 300 people have been killed and more than 500 injured. More than two dozen foreigners are among the victims, including one Japanese national.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the government says a local Islamic militant group, the National Thowheeth Jamaath (or National Monotheism Organization) was responsible, and, according to a statement from the office of the president of Sri Lanka, “international organizations were behind these acts of local terrorists.” The style of the attack — seven suicide bombers — is consistent with that of Islamic terrorists. Police have arrested more than 20 people, some Indians and Pakistanis among them, in connection with the blasts.
While efforts to secure the country and round up the perpetrators continue, a blame game has commenced following reports that the government had been alerted to a terrorist threat over a week ago. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that “information was there” warning of possible attacks on churches by an Islamic extremist group. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s security bureaucracy is controlled by President Maithripala Sirisena, and he has been feuding with the prime minister since Sirisena tried to replace him last year. That effort failed but the ill will lingers: Reportedly, Wickremesinghe has not been invited to security council meetings since last October.
Security officials also blamed the time of the attacks for the failure to respond to the intelligence. The warnings occurred just as the country was preparing for major holidays — the Sinhala and Tamil New Years — that mark the end of the harvest season.
The purpose of the attacks was clear. Despite being a tiny minority of the population — less than 8 percent of the country’s 20 million people — Christians experience discrimination in Sri Lanka. Open Doors charity, a global Christian support network, ranks Sri Lanka 46th among 50 countries where Christians face “the most extreme persecution.” The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka reported 86 verifiable cases of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians in 2018, and another 26 incidents have been reported this year. Suicide bombings on Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, can only have one purpose.
Security officials worry that an attack of this scale and complexity is beyond the capacity of domestic terror groups and had to have been assisted by foreign organizations. Experts fear that this assault could presage a wave of attacks by jihadis who were trained by the Islamic State extremists and have returned home after the collapse of the caliphate in Syria. This would not be the first such attack by IS-affiliated or trained forces: Militants waged a five-month battle in the Philippine city of Marawi in 2017 before they were defeated by Philippine security forces.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono joined the chorus of condemnation that followed the attacks, calling such acts of terrorism unforgivable, and noted that Japan is determined to unite with other countries in fighting terrorism. Japan can help by stepping up aid and assistance. Japan has been one of Sri Lanka’s key development partners since 1954, and is one of its largest bilateral donors. Tokyo has agreed to a $1.85 billion loan to build a Light Rail Transit system but it has been suspended since last year’s political crisis in Sri Lanka. We hope that this unspeakable tragedy focuses the country’s political leaders on genuine rather than imagined threats and creates a sense of national unity. Then Japan and other concerned nations should help in this time of great need.